From his gentle yet moving voice to his masterful songwriting, the master of contemporary South African folk music is Bongeziwe Mabandla.
It’s not uncommon for today’s audiences to bemoan the flashy and superficial sounds that dominate radio airplay and while this gripe is at times overstated, there is some merit in it. Enter Bongeziwe Mabandla, an artist completely unfazed with living up to manufactured personas and only invested in creating and delivering work that is “vulnerable and honest” and that allows him to share his gifts with his fans.
Taking his time between albums – his skill honed and harnessed over the period to its greatest potential – showed with the release of his follow-up, Mangaliso, late last year. Speaking at that time Bongeziwe remarks, “A lot of things happened in that period but I think most of all it was just about finding the right people to work and create with”. The result: an acclaimed work that generated new fans and garnered the praise of critics and a well-deserved SAMA win. Even with the recognition, Bongeziwe still feels like a rare commodity – a talent whose true value is yet to be unearthed. With a new album in the works and a tour to follow, we spoke to the artist whose name should be on everyone’s lips.
Words: Tshiamo Seape
Hi Bongeziwe. How are you and what’s keeping you busy these days?
Recording my next album – that’s what’s been keeping me busy.
Do we have a title yet
(Laughs) untitled for the moment.
Reading about you and your sound one things keeps coming up and that’s “Afro-folk”. Do think that is an accurate description of the sound and message you are trying to convey in the music?
I think it was, but I’m obviously evolving and growing as a musician. I mean, I do think my music is African and it is Folk but there’s definitely an evolution.
Do you have an idea of what that evolution will become?
Definitely. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of electro sounds and, I guess, what you would call the sounds of today. I think my music is becoming a great mix of what is current and ancient.
“Working with [Spoek Mathambo, Tiago Correia Paulo and members of Beatenberg ] just created the feeling of the project becoming a labour of love”.
How and when did you start performing music? I’m curious about how closely related the guitar and your vocals were in the early days.
I’ve always loved singing and it’s something I’ve been doing almost my whole life, but I first picked up a guitar when I was in grade eleven. When I started playing it inspired me to take singing seriously.
Most people start playing instruments much sooner. Why grade eleven?
Why later? I guess I just didn’t have the desire. I think for whatever reason I was just waiting for the right opportunity.
Speaking of the right people. On producing the album you worked with so many high profile and talented artists including Spoek Mathambo and members of Beateneberg: How was the recording process and which parts of the album can you most see their influence?
Collectively, working with all those people just created the feeling of the project becoming a labour of love. Everyone brings so much. It’s hard to say exactly what they bring – other than their innate talent – to the table.
Which artists influenced you growing up? Who gave you the inspiration to start pursuing music?
Simphiwe Dana, Thandisawa Mazwai. A lot of Lauryn Hill, Jabu Kkanyile, Oliver Mtukudzi. A lot of influences, but playing in very similar fields.
Any plans to work with them?
Hopefully one day. With your idols, it’s hard to put yourself out there but fingers crossed.
You won your first SAMA this year – how was that feeling, that recognition?
It was great. It was a dream that I’ve always had and getting that kind of recognition is a great feeling.
As your profile begins to grow, do you ever feel pressure from yourself or others to put yourself further into the spotlight through social media, for example?
No, I don’t really feel the pressure. I just enjoy getting to do what I love. To be honest, the only pressure I feel is to create great work and to be more vulnerable and more honest.
Do you think putting yourself out there would take away that honesty and vulnerability?
I don’t really see it like that. I just want to focus on sharing my message and what I do with people. I just hope that people connect to the music first and foremost.
“I’m always trying to grow my audience internationally and for the next album that will be a lot of the focus.”
What part of being a working musician do you enjoy the most? Is it the sharing?
I really like being in a band and travelling and performing live. I enjoy getting to experience thins with my friends on stage. It’s almost like you become one person when you’re on stage – every bad thing happens to all of you and every good thing happens to everyone. It’s a shared experience.
Where are you looking forward to performing your album most and how have international audiences taken to your sound in the past?
I’m always trying to grow my audience internationally and for the next album that will be a lot of the focus.
Outside South Africa, where have you had some of your most memorable performances?
Definitely Canada, France and Japan. I really like how people love listening to and respect music in different places – it’s something that really made an impression on me.
To someone unfamiliar with you or your music, how would you sell Bongeziwe Mabandla?
Honest and poetic Xhosa lyrics. Beautiful South African music.