As a child growing up in Decatur, Tebe Zalango had his hands on a violin before he left kindergarten.
One day he heard Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" on the radio and told his mother, "I want to do that!"
Zalango's mother took her son's proclamation at face value - he immediately began learning violin - even though he would rather have been playing with the neighborhood kids instead of the many hours of practice. Zalango may have grated at the practice then, but now he relishes his musical gifts. He is getting steadily closer to a year-end release of a debut double album that has been the work of a lifetime.
It may be his commercial debut, but Zalango been selling CDs for years. He personally burns thousands of them during his travels to play across the country, and even in places like Mexico and the Bahamas. It is the mode of his travels that is unusual.
Zalango has no agent. Like a troubadour, he simply travels to distant cities - Atlanta, Chicago, New York - and hits the streets, bringing about "5,000 flyers and 500 burned CDs" wherever he goes. During the day he talks to people, whips up interest, hangs fliers and sells CDs. At night he performs at the nearest open mike, wherever it may be.
"I make connections," Zalango said. "They let me know where and when the shows are. Sometimes I'll be asked to open up for a well-known performer. I let God lead me. The decision to travel comes out of the blue, and I don't fight it."
‘Music is my life'
In order to go wherever he feels his music is leading him, it has to be the number one priority for Zalango, who demands total commitment from himself.
"Music is my life, period, and it's not about comfort," said Zalango, who is now 26 and works at a family barbecue business in Springfield in addition to jobs at a health food store and as a disc jockey. "Michael Jordan wasn't comfortable getting up at 5 in the morning to work and practice harder than anybody to be the best. Sometimes you have to do what you don't want to do, when you don't want to do it.
"All of that practice helped prepare me for today, because I'm still practicing and studying when other people are playing."
Zalango is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who refuses to be pigeonholed or be satisfied with the praise he receives. He may rap in some of his music, but don't call him a rapper. He may play the violin, or he might play the guitar. The only constant is his intense aversion to stasis. To Zalango, being comfortable is being stagnant.
"When you want to stay in your comfort zone, it makes it impossible to grow, which takes you into new territory," Zalango said. "A lot of people give me compliments, which I appreciate, but if I get too content with what I'm doing, then I'll never reach my full potential and I'll never reach my goals. I want to sell a billion records worldwide."
The bar of expectations is set very high. As Zalango says, "I set'em high so I'm always striving."
He received the name "Tebe Zalango" through a combination of teachings from spiritual leaders in Springfield and Decatur. In Springfield he studies with the blind spiritualist and Human Rights Radio founder Mbanna Kantako. In Decatur he studies with Faheem Judah-El of the Abyssinian Tabernacle.
"Zalango means ‘let us come together to co-create something beautiful out of love and truth,' " he said. "That's something that everyone recognizes me by. I am committed to growth. A quote I always use from Mbanna is, ‘In life, you're either growing or you're dying. So what are you going to be?' "
Zalango's music is focused intently on a variety of messages of peace, love, respect and social reform. He finds it difficult to describe succinctly, but these beliefs permeate every area and facet of his life, including a commitment to vegetarianism. He often sounds more like a philosopher than a musician.
"The music we listen to is very disrespectful, so one of the basic messages that I'm trying to bring to the youth is to respect one another and love one another," he said. "I've gone to elementary schools to talk to kids and tell them that when you say positive things to people, it leads to positive outcomes. We are trained to speak negatively about people, and it's a conditioning that we must learn to grow out of."
His motto is "reciprocity" - one will receive more in return than is given up. Zalango tells children that life is like the planting of seeds in the ground; the fruit will contain more seeds than were lost. Generosity creates a net gain.
"They say positive messages don't move as well as songs about materialism, but I want to make music where people at church can listen to it, the streets can listen to it, and executives and teachers can listen to it, too," Zalango said. "I want to make music for the world. I want to be signed to a record label that can finance all the ideas that I have, because I have songs for days and ideas for days, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to make an impact in the record industry for years if I have the right opportunities."
His debut double album is being slowly recorded in studios throughout the country, in Springfield and Chicago, and "wherever there's quality sound." Zalango is aiming for a release before the end of the year, and hopefully the beginning of a national recognition.
"I want to put out songs of integrity and reciprocity that will make a difference here in Decatur and around the world," he said. "If one person can't change the world, I still want to play my part. Who is to say that God won't use me to sell those billion records?"
Zalango's positive attitude is positively indefatigable. He is a constant source of encouragement to other musicians and truly believes that his music and the music of others have the power to affect a positive change.
"If you're a musician, you have a lot of power to communicate and help somebody," he said. "Don't just feel like you're an entertainer, because music affects how we view life and how we think. When humanity is uplifted with a positive message we can work wonders with each other and the world, but it starts with each and every one of us."
For more information on Tebe Zalango, visit his Web site at www.myspace.com/zalango.