Tackling Inferiorityby Andy Davis / 20.02.2013
Bongeziwe Mabandla has one of those voices that can put a lump in your throat and make you rub your face pretending there’s something stuck in your eye. And it’s the blend of his beautiful voice, on point guitar melodies and meaningful lyrics that have differentiated this original, acoustic singer/songwriter from his many contemporaries on the South African folk circuit. On the back of his debut album, Umlilo and the set he played opening for Vieux Farka Touré, we felt it was high time for everyone in the Mahala-verse to know the name Bongeziwe Mabandla.
Mahala: You’re from Tsolo originally, in the Eastern Cape. When did you move to Joburg?
Bongeziwe Mabandla: Eight years ago I came to study.
Not to pursue music?
No, I actually came to study acting. I’d been at an art school in the Eastern Cape called the Lady Grey Arts Academy and I’d been doing mostly drama. I was majoring in that. I wasn’t even doing music, I was doing visual art. So after that it was the decision to study painting or to come study drama and I decided to come study drama.
And you still do that? You still paint? You still act?
No. No. I don’t do any of them. I find that anything I do I need to focus on. When I paint, then I’ll paint for a few years… so music has been the big thing right now at the moment.
You came to Jozi, you were studying and then how did you get into the music scene? What was the catalyst for that?
I studied at AFDA, and they have these sub-majors where you can take other subjects, and music was one of the subjects. So I was taking music and after a while my music teacher called me up and he said, “you know Bongi I wasn’t sure the last time I saw you, but after this time I’m sure. I think there’s really something special about you.” And at that time I was looking for an identity, to be seen, you know, to be told I am talented. So when he said that it really resonated with me and I thought maybe I should take this more seriously. So I changed my majors around from acting to music.
I was staying here in Melville, waiting to graduate in March. I was just sitting around and I really understood, that was the first year of not going to school, and I was suppose to find a job. It was quiet, and I went to the shop to buy bread and I saw Paulo Chibanga there and I was like, hey man, I’ve got these songs man.
How did you know him?
I knew him from 340ml. And I knew that he was involved in recording music, so I said, you know, I’ve got these songs. Not really letting him know about my song writing and that I had never recorded, and he called me and we sat down and he said let’s not make this a charity thing. So I had to pay him R500 bucks for each song and R500 to master. I was working on Generations at that time, on and off, as an actor, so I would use that money to make these songs. After a while, after we had recorded and we had sent the songs around they decided to offically sign me to their label.
And then he was like, no these are way too good to be charging you R500 bucks a pop.
Yeah he had to pay me back. I was like that money there… who do these songs belong to? So he paid me back.
That’s cool man. Where did you learn to play the guitar?
I learnt in Lady Grey, at the art school. Starting out, I really just liked the way the guitar sounds. It really wasn’t a serious thing for me, I remember thinking if I could play a song like ‘I feel it in my fingers’, and that’s the song the teacher first taught me. It kind of grew and grew and I started learning songs that I really wanted to know. I had only two years with him but I really learnt a lot.
Tell me about growing up in Tsolo and the Eastern Cape. It’s a beautiful area. What do your parents do that you found your way into this, didn’t they want you to get a real job. When you moved to Joburg to become an actor, they must have freaked out. What were their aspirations for you?
There’s a song about my mother on the album, I grew up with my mother. My father wasn’t really very involved in my life. That’s what I say in the song, is that my mother taught me about dreams and purpose and how to pursue them. I remember telling her from a very young age that I want to sing, and her saying: ‘Well if you want to do those things you better work hard and achieve them.’ She never really put any limitations on me and she allowed me to always do what I wanted. I’ve made some wrong decisions, because I was doing music in high school, music theory and I quit that thinking music is not my thing. And I remember her saying you shouldn’t quit music, you should pursue it. So she has always been very encouraging. I think she’s always wanted me to be an artist.
What does she do?
My Mom is a lecturer, she lectured in some colleges in the Eastern Cape, working for the Department of Eductaion in the Eastern Cape.
And in terms of the album, how do you feel about Umlilo as a product? Are you starting to see it in the shops, is it getting played on radio? There are some powerful songs on there, it makes me feel like crying sometimes when I listen to it.
That’s why it is called Umlilo, you know sililo is to cry. It was just a play on the word.
I wish I spoke better Xhosa so I could get it, you know?
I should actually make some translations of my songs, I was planinng to do that.
It would be nice to even have some subtitles for us kak, lazy, non-vernac-speaking whiteys.
Yeah I better. It’s been wonderful, I feel blessed just to have my album in stores. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice. A lot of painful situations too, it’s not an album that was recorded quickly.
It took a while.
I put four years of my life into that work and it means so much to me that it’s finally out. It hasn’t been recieving a lot of radio play and I’m hoping that is going to change soon. But we’ve been selling a few copies.
What I was wondering about channels like Umhlobo Wenene? Cause a lot of the songs are in Xhosa, and the subject matter is quite colloquial, from what I can tell from the music videos.
Umhlobo Wenene have been playing it quite a bit, and I think there’s more demand from the fans from the Eastern Cape.
But you can write them you know, Zahara really blew open this genre of singer/songwriter in the mainstream.
She really opened up doors for people like me. That’s the great thing about Zahara, I think she has really introduced this country to a different kind of music style. One which many people weren’t familiar with and it’s going to be great because there are a lot of amazing people producing music in this style who I think are going to get a chance to come up to the surface.
Tell me about the guys from 340ml. Paulo is very progressive and Tiago listens to offbeat, crazy music sometimes. They’re very cutting edge, always pushing different styles and Tiago especially is getting more interested in electronic music… What kind of infulence are you pulling from them?
A lot of the time while Paulo was working on my EP he got a lot of criticism about over personalising the album. But I really respect Paulo and I really respect what he has created with me. I was there and I know how it was. I think he really had to put himself aside for this work. And I could see him do that. Then, of course, just being in the presence of established and innovative musicians like Tumi and the Volume and 340ml… that was incredible.
It’s taken you four years to get this album out, in that four years have you been writing new material? Have you been working on more stuff?
I have. I am working on new stuff and I thought, when I write, it’s going to be such a different album to Umlilo, but it so weird how I’m dealing with the same emotional problems and stuff. This album was very much about self esteem and self love, and again when I write it’s so weird that I’m again writing about the same things. I thought this would be a more optimistic album but already the stuff I write is so much sadder, this new stuff.
Someone famous once said sorrow is the currency of the unviverse. As an artist you don’t really have a choice, you go to where the art is.
Or where the feeling is, or where the emotion is or where you’re at yourself. It’s very interesting. I’ve just started writing. I love writing, I think it’s where the art is for me.
In writing the music?
Yeah, lyrics and meaning, what am I saying, you know? It is also quite difficult to write you know, it recquires a lot. But I’m very inspired right now. My plan was to write as soon as the album was out but I couldn’t. It wasn’t so easy. But I’ve got two or three songs.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to painting and other creative pursuits?
No not really, but that is what I love about music because it involves everything. There isn’t one art medium that I haven’t been able to use, like creating my CD cover. That’s so exciting for me, with my background in art history and creating poster, I love it and I take it very seriously.
You can see you take life seriously. You’re quite intense. As a singer songwriter you tell stories that can give people a glimpse into how life is here in rural South Africa. I’m thinking specifically of the song ‘Gunuza’ right now. Internationally, people are seeing for the first time a story they’ve never seen before. Africa is kind of standing up for the and saying hey we’ve got our own shit.
I’d answer that by saying I’m very infamous. I’ll never forget when I heard an interview with Tracy Chapman and she said one must always use their artform to speak about things that they’ve always felt strongly about. So my focus with music was always about that, to kind of talk and make it not just songs but to have something to say about what’s going on.
Yeah meaning, and purpose.
Meaning and purpose is important but sometimes if you’re forcing it it’s not going to happen? It actually has to come from somewhere, it can’t just be OK let’s write a story about Marikana today cause that’s a big story. You can do that but it probably won’t be good. It would be more like a news story than an art piece.
What I try and do is mostly write about things that affect me, that have a personal take. I’m very influenced by the fact that I grew up poor, it’s a personal thing, not just something I can write about and not feel it. It’s something that I’m dealing with.
There’s a strength in that though, to write about growing up poor, a lot of people grew up poor in this country. And even once you’ve made it, there’s still a crisis of self confidence to overcome. A lot of people are dealing with that in this country.
Yes, feeling ignored is such a big problem, how many peoples dreams are shattered, how many young kids don’t respect themselves, unable to build good self-esteem because of things like that, because they just feel ‘less than’. I wanted to write about that, and through that process believe that I must be something. I’ve got to believe that what I feel and what I think and who I am is important.
So listen, a lot of people who read Mahala won’t understand isiXhosa. Is there something in the music that you want people to get because a lot of the music touches emotionally, but I’m sitting there going man I wish I knew what he was talking about. So in short, what would you like to communicate to this crowd?
The beauty is in the words actually. A lot of the album, like I said, is really about self-love, self-acceptance and self-esteem issues and that’s what I really wrote about. I would say if I had to centralise a theme for the album I really wrote a lot about equality. I wrote an album that talks about trying to find equality in a society that is very unequal and understanding the concept of equality in a society that tells you that we are not all equal. So even in the song ‘Gunuza’ it’s a song about this rich man who ownsa shop, and everybody idolises him but they are not looking at who he really is. In the video I wanted to reveal that there is more to people than what’s on the surface. I also wrote that song around election time.
When I saw that video, I felt sorry for his kid, I felt like shame man, that poor fat kid. Poor fat rich kid. It’s funny that you talk about poor issues and you’re dealing with growing up poor and stuff but then in the song you still manange to generate all this pity towards a kid who is rich and a little bit arrogant and different. There’s nice empathy there.
I didn’t intend that empathy actually. I felt like we live in a society that is quick to applaud people, people at that time were like I will kill for this person and if we’re not going to kill for him we will kill for somebody else. And it’s all about money, it’s all about status, it’s all about people feeling inferior and thinking that is the way and not questioning. I wanted to say: ‘Who are we? What do we really admire? Lets sit down and figure that out.’
So it’s attacking our own inferiority complexes?
*All images shamelessly pilfered from Bongeziwe Mabandla’s Facebook page.