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by Dave Durbach / 07.10.2011

Weekends at the Fox Den, a downtown tavern boasting Jozi’s loudest soundsystem and cheapest beer, usually mean droning ultra-bass until well after midnight, much to the irritation of the hundreds of people living within spitting distance of the place. Yet this Saturday, the DJ chose to play a melancholy, near-drumless groove, twice in succession.

There’s something happening here – but what it is ain’t exactly obvious. Two and a half months ago, Bulelwa Mkutukana was another struggling musician from the Eastern Cape. Now she is being hailed as the saviour of the local music industry. Zahara’s debut album Lolilwe, released less than two months ago, struck gold (20 000) in just two weeks, and has gone on to rack up sales in excess of 200 000 (and counting) at an unprecedented 4 000 CDs a day.


Unable to fathom her whirlwind success, skeptics remain convinced that it’s all a sham, a marketing ploy to boost an ailing record industry where even the so-called “major labels” are now running on skeleton staff. Perhaps those doubters are reluctant to believe that Zahara’s music could have such massive appeal at a time when house producers rule the roost and are only matched by a handful of gospel heavyweights. Now here comes a young 24-year-old songbird, whose music – catchy acoustic pop with varying degrees of local influence – defies the soulless status quo, and blows her contemporaries out of the water.

Of course the key to her newfound popularity is the accessibility of her sound – far catchier and less dark or cerebral than Thandiswa Mazwai and Simphiwe Dana, yet infinitely more soulful and down-to-earth than the likes of Lira, Asanda Bam or Siphokazi. Clearly, Zahara has found that happy medium that appeals to as wide an audience as possible. Her voice may not be quite so polished, but the sheer power and passion she puts out has sent her straight to the top of the list of Mzansi’s leading ladies. Also setting her above many of her peers are her songwriting and her acoustic guitar skills, enabling her to draw comparisons to both the late Busi Mhlongo and US folk icon Tracy Chapman.

As with any great pop album, every song on Loliwe sounds like a hit, from the mellow soul of the title track, “Umthwalo” and “Ndize” to the reggae-tinged “Away” and uptempo “Brand New Day”. Each carries distinctive melodies and messages that clearly resonate instantly with Zahara’s ever-expanding listenership.

So profound has her effect been that many have quickly developed a close emotional attachment not only to her music, but to the singer herself. Last week, the Daily Sun ran a page 3 story about Thandisile Sidina, a fan who nearly died after he took on hawkers selling pirated Zahara CDs for five bucks a pop on Smal Street in the Joburg CBD.

“I felt for Zahara because she has worked so hard to be where she is and they just want to pirate her music,” he told the paper. “I’m also an artist and because I love Zahara’s music, I decided to destroy the pirated CDs. That’s when these two men started to beat me with a steel bar and a brick.

“I thought I was going to die but that was not a problem for me because I am willing to die for Zahara! She has revolutionised our music industry and her music deserves to be protected.”


Interestingly, while most artists and critics tend to draw a huge distinction between western and African influences, Zahara effortlessly bridges the two. Although most lyrics are in isiXhosa and her voice undoubtedly draws comparisons to her local predecessors, the guitar and piano melodies are as sugary sweet as any international teen queen. “Xa Bendingena Mama” and “Thekwana” are the only tracks that carry a distinctly South African sound, the former rooted in the hills of the Eastern Cape, the latter a kwela/marabi bassline that echoes the song’s tribute to our nation’s heroes.

While hard-nosed critics may struggle to find anything unique or remarkable in her work, big sales have seldom been a sign of singular innovation. With Loliwe, Zahara doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel – she simply keeps it real, and checks all the right boxes in the process.

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  1. Mpumelelo says:

    Even though Zahara has established her place in the music industry and gained favourable appeal throughout the country, one can never compare her to the likes of Dana, Mazwai or even Asanda Bam. The comparisons are just impractical.

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  2. Jobe says:

    Thanks for a beautiful analysis on Zahara Dave.I have to agree with Mphumelelo on this one.I feel that comparing Zahara to the like of Asanda Bam and Dana is way off the mark.Their sounds are not the same.I have all the music you are talking about and have just purchased a copy of Zahara’s album.I do agree that she has shaken the local music scene.

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  3. SihleMthembu says:

    It will be intresting to see how she follows up–we are all just glad someone is giving Steve Hofmeyer and Kurt Darren a run for theor money

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  4. Thato says:

    I’m simply going to quote Khaya Dlanga here
    “Authenticity cannot be bought”

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  5. Lindiwe says:

    I have immense respect for Simphiwe, Thandiswa, Lira, Judith, Zonke, Asanda, Camagwini, Siphokazi…in that order. Six of the eight are & sing in Xhosa and spot the traditional look & all have ethnic hair (statement of being grounded & knowing/loving oneself for me). I think Zahara’a appeal, in addition to what’s on Dave’s article, is her more POWERFUL (compared to all 8) and mesmerising voice (as powerful as Angelique Kidjo’s, Joan Armatrading, Letta Mbulu, Tracy’s etc), her simple background story, her simple & catchy tunes & let’s not undermine the gospel influence on uLoliwe, where she talks about “if you wanna go to heaven, pray” – that strikes a chord with the buyers of gospel, I believe, and gospel sells in SA! But most importantly it’s the marketing machine that is TS Records, her appearance on SABC 1 “Live” program (which also did wonders for Lira’s DVD), her simultaneous availabiltity of the (not so good quality) music video on YouTube, instant uploads on Facebook, Twitter chats about her, DJ Sbu’s remix of her “Lengoma” etc. Other artists should learn from this, especially the social media & Youtube phenomenon. Now TS needs to update their website and she needs a professional image consultant with all the money!!! I love her to bits.

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  6. Sinazo says:

    mna i love Zahara and umculo wakhe uyanditsho shame,the way she sings is different from other artist….

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  7. pedri says:

    zahara is Africa’s Adele

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  8. Thembi says:

    Zahara’s musik is pure African, she makes me proud of being an African, especially track 2- umthwalo, eish eish eish……………….. danki dear!!!!!!!

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  9. Thato says:

    @ Pedri…that statement is a bit much though…

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  10. Anonymous says:

    Zahara is awesome…when I listened to her CD for the first time I cried…nobody’s music has even touched me like that…You are awesome love..let no body tell you otherwise…shame on the haters! why even compare Zahara to people who have had more exposure than her in the industry??…Let Zahara prove her worth… so far she has shown the continent that she is the IT!!! YOU GO GIRL!!

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  11. bawelile mbatha says:

    Zahara u are the best true south african

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  12. pinky says:


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  13. Portia Mntuyedwa says:

    When I listen to Zahara its almost like I’m listening to all artists who’s voices and lyrics I enjoy listening all in one. The likes of India,Tracey,Laren,Thandiswa, Brenda Ringo and Nomfusi the list is endless. I hear them in her voice. My deepest apologies to those I didn’t mention. Its the most beautiful feeling!!Originality and, warm and inviting. Keep it coming gel. Lomthandazo wokuba ndiyive lengoma uwugqwesile. Inene iwuvuselele kakhle umphefumlo wam.Dudula lol dudula!!!

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  14. Teez says:

    I love zahara so much am tswana n i would like to get the lyrics on her songs

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  15. Molatane Lone says:

    Zahara z da best nd i luv hr so mch, w so cnt wait 4 da metrofm awards babe……lolilwe is da best.

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  16. emmanuel zitha says:

    zahara is da hottest singer dam gal u the best thumbs up 4u…..all da best 2u and ur family i luv url

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  17. siaybulela mashwanyela says:

    lol i also lyk her so mch and the best song i like is Xabendino mama nge ndiphe namhlanje lol

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  18. zahara rocks ol de way. she made me love dis kind of muziq. damn u gal says:

    i luv dis woman,she made me love african musiq. umthwalo wam dats de track nomatter wh.

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  19. Boipelo jeniffer Mogapi says:

    to de loveliest lady zahara u rock dear big tym. i luv ur musuq n u

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    Zahara u r da best in africa,i real like love ur music..

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  21. mthiba says:

    Into entle iyanconywa, yintoni lento thina sizwe esimnyama endaweni yokuba simkhuthaze aqhubekele phambili sisuke ngoku simbone nanjengomntu ongenakumodlula ubani?

    Please guys lets all promote South African music and dont try to pull down one onether

    Be the change you want to see the world be” stop this whole discrimination

    KEEP UP THE GUD WORK ZAHARA (Umthwalo wam uyandisinda, ndiyacela ndithwalise)

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  22. Zinedine MF Mokhabela says:

    Keep it up, your job is very good,well done Babes.Our Enforcement agencies they must help us locking up the ilegal cd street selling……

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  23. COLLINS says:

    I’m not South African but i live in Joburg. I love Music,i thought i have heard the best of songs but the moment i heard Zahara sing,I found love deep inside ,tears ran down my chick,i felt something i can’t explain in her music. Zahara keep it up.

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  24. Anonymous says:

    Hy u Zhra plz cn u cme here at Ngwelezane at Empangeni in the grnd of Phshya P.S bye n i lv all of ur sngz bt my bst sng i dat 1 u sng by Tata Mandel@

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  25. Whitney says:

    I love de song of umtwalo love u zahara

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  26. Anonymous says:

    zahara is the best in the world,sorry lira,siphokazi……but zahara is what we need.love you zahara so much

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  27. Anonymous says:

    zahara you rock big tym plz come edundee plz and do your thing.love u 4rm ayanda

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  28. Mellissa says:

    Fell in love with her on 15 October 2011 – and still can’t stop listening to her songs! she is in a league of her own.

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  29. bleh says:

    Zahara has a long way to go before she can be compared to simphiwe dana and thandiswa mazwai. that loliwe song is the most unnecessary thing that happened to sa pop culture this summer and everytime i hear it, i want to hurl.

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  30. Emeka says:

    Zahara, just heard her song this January and since then can’t stop , she is spiritual inclined and this is just the beginning. big up gal. your fan for life. maybe you would consider coming to Nigeria for a big show. luv u.

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  31. T Kamama says:

    Yes Zahara is great,no doubt about it…everyone is great at their own way,these people are different and so it’s stupid to try to compare them. I’m listening to Simphiwe Dana’s latest album now(Kulture Noir),she’s just so great and u can’t compare her to anyone else,she’s original and that’s what matters most. I appreciate and am very proud of all our musicians !!!

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  32. Mtshepana says:

    She is still very raw talent but you can hear from her songs that she definitely has the talent…. before the record company milk her off her royalties, they need to think big and “polish” her to compete Internationally. I think most SA artists dont “dream big” like to perform on front of a parked Hyde Park in the UK!!!!!

    She is definitely going places….as long as TS Record can “protect” her from going under like the rest of the promising artists of my beloved mzanzi!!!

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  33. sarafinah shongwe says:

    lv ya / great music

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  34. binkilicious says:

    Zahara`s sooooooooooo talented I fell in love with her music the first day I heard Loliwe, and imagine my pleasant surprise on listening to the whole album! Pure platinum!! Umthwalo, Loliwe, My Guitar, Xa Bendingena Mama, Brand New Day… all of them! Gems thru and thru. Oh keep shining Zahara let this not be just a one-hit-wonder please please TS Records!!!!!!

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  35. selby@port elizabeth says:

    U did us proud. Sisi keep up.
    Remember. When u need volunteers 4 any thing I’m available weekends. 4free

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  36. Malawian says:

    I watched her show in Lilongwe and I believe she is the best occurrence to this decade! Her combined show with our own Wambali Mkandawire is the best African show I have ever watched (mind you I have watched quite a few).
    Come back to Malawi and perform more shows ZAHARA! These are the two most gifted but yet original to the root singers in Southern Africa! We need the shows in more cities other than just Lilongwe! Can someone translate the lyrics to English for wider understanding!!!

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  37. FlorianopolisBrasil says:

    Awesome page, I am going to spend more time a little bit of research but this has helped me out. Thank you. Time to head back to the beach!

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  38. Matawa says:

    Wow loliwe is the best so far,,,,,,,…. That cd made the love grow btwin me and my partner…… It has a deep meaning….

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  39. Augustus says:

    This is a topic which is close to my heart..
    . Take care! Where are your contact details though?

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  40. Bongie Mbuku says:

    Uyayenza intoyakho sisi icala lakho linye, ungatyhafi kuba izilingo soze zipheze, so ungashukunyiswa usuke ethemben

    I real lv ur music bby gal

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  41. Anonymous says:

    I love her. full stop. she weds beauty to art, talent, and femininity. Loliwe is my favorite!

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  42. Anonymous says:

    I love her music, loliwe the best.

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  43. Anonymous says:

    loliwe no.1.

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  44. Anonymous says:

    I can understand her song without translation, although my native language is Chinese.

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  45. Anonymous says:

    Loliwe is the best

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  46. linus wandera says:

    how i wish i could understand the language zahara sings in becouse i love her music despite language barrier her voice is very nice .she is agueably the best

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  47. sinoza shinto says:

    uyacula mazaza sisi i love yo new album phendula and my favorite songz der iz ubomi endibaziyo and mandela ft mzwakhe , ndithi ntinga ntakandini

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  49. tintswalo says:

    Love your songs sisi, my 30 months daughter also love your songs, even if she hear your song over the radio she knows it’s u, she call herself Xizaharani,

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  50. Anonymous says:

    Ww.zahara allmusic

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  51. […] Zahara | Loliwe | Mahala – Mahala | Music, Culture, Reality … – Perhaps those doubters are reluctant to believe that Zahara’s music could have such massive appeal at a time … I’m simply going to quote … (which also did wonders for Lira’s DVD), her simultaneous availabiltity of the (not so good quality) music video on YouTube, instant uploads … […]

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  52. […] Zahara | Loliwe | Mahala – Mahala | Music, Culture, Reality … – … (which also did wonders for Lira’s DVD), her simultaneous availabiltity of the (not so good quality) music video on YouTube, instant … Umthwalo, Loliwe, My Guitar, Xa Bendingena Mama, Brand New Day… all of them! Gems thru and thru. Oh keep shining Zahara let this not be just a one … […]

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  53. […] Zahara | Loliwe | Mahala – Mahala | Music, Culture, Reality … – … (not so good quality) music video on YouTube, instant uploads on Facebook, Twitter chats about her, DJ Sbu’s remix of her “Lengoma” etc … It has a deep meaning…. 0 0. Augustus says: February 20, 2013 at 4:38 pm. This is a topic which is close … Youtube Music Videos Zahara Gems … […]

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  54. Anonymous says:

    nam ndiymthand ubulelwa shrm

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  55. Adilson pedro Rodrigues says:

    Eu te amo !
    I love you!

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  56. Anonymous says:

    Luv u zahara even though i dnt hear ur lng u ar the best mi fvrt song is mi guiter

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  57. memory says:

    Luv you Zahara and luv your songs.

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  58. minikazi mdlamza says:

    Hay xeim zahara yayenza into yakho, ❤ you sisi

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