Take note—Feminist indie artist, Tribemama Marykali is smashing stereotypes, one powerful single after another

Infusing her homegrown roots with the funk and beat of Africa, she embraces a sovereign mentality that is refreshing and upbeat.

Harper's Bazaar India

Indie artist Tribemama Marykali—also known as Anna Katharina Valayil—originally from Kerala, grew up in Nigeria, and now lives in Kochi. With a fresh voice, infused with afro-funk beats, she’s piquing interest among fans with her new single Bless Ya Heels (2021) where she is seen gyrating in a traditional white and gold Kasavu sari. Although trained in both Western and Carnatic styles, none of which lasted more than three months, Marykali credits MTV for being her biggest teacher. “The afro-funk influence is very much existent because of the way Fela Kuti (a Nigerian singer and activist) affected my upbringing,” she says. “My household raised me on Peter Tosh, Sister Nancy, and Bob Marley. My own nanny, Patience, and her African influence and style is something my home is strongly connected to.” She also grew up listening to Madonna, Prince, and George Michael.

Marykali believes in smashing stereotypes, one song at a time. Her song Appangal Embadum featured in the 2012 film Ustad Hotel, and she has sung in Malayalam and Tamil (her latest singles are in English). The fiercely feminist singer says she created a bold, danceable, and funky video like Bless Ya Heels to consciously project her individuality. The women in the video are her “sisterhood” (in fact, her own sister styles her looks), and they represent the emancipated and “woke” side of femininity that one rarely sees in mainstream media. “I’ve been married for 10 years, and my husband and I are raising two daughters together,” says Marykali. “I refuse to pass down generational curses, which are toxic patterns forced into the system to serve institutions, and not humankind. My duty as an artist is to comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.”

Marykali is also paying homage to the matrilineal tradition of Kerala. In the video, she calls herself “Gangster Thamburatti”—Thamburatti means Queen, who stands sovereign to her universal purpose, and is against oppression. “I like to call myself a genre-blending artist,” she says. “I have a strong black music influence, and I am very decolonised in my viewpoints. I connect to different sounds and rhythms when I know it’s coming from a mood or thought. I was trained in Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam at a young age, and I love to dance. My personality dictates the whole audio palette that I choose to follow.”

As an indie artist who’s making waves internationally, Marykali values digital and social media platforms for opening the world for her. “It’s the next big thing for human evolution,” she says. “The sheeple mentality is discouraged and a sovereign mentality is encouraged. So much of our cerebral artistry could not be displayed before due to the heavy takeover by mainstream media and commercialism/capitalism. If I have come out as an artist, I do give a lot of credit to platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Instagram.”

Taking off from her look in the video itself, complete with gold necklace, nose ring, and flowers in her hair, Marykali says she loves to represent her culture, and so, tends to prefer a mix of ethnic and Western wear. “I love to accessorise my outfits with Kerala’s ethnic jewellery,” she says. “We are curvy women here with textured hair, and I love to flaunt my melanin and curvy body. I realised the importance of my physical representation because it is important to get out of our head and get into the body, as our bodies carry a lot of trauma. Loving it and integrating my ancestry into my individuality releases me from a slave mentality.” Her day-time go-to outfit would be a cotton silhouette dress with jimki [earrings] and some matching bangles, heels, kajal, matte lipstick—“They all help me channel the ‘Gangster Thamburatti’ that Tribe Mama MaryKali is all about,” she says.

Image credits: Styling by Nandini Bhalla and James Lalthanzuala, photographs by Dolly Devi