Channelling Tsolo’s magic through music
Bongeziwe Mabandla’s second album draws on the spirit of home
Bongeziwe Mabandla’s music is an adventurous presentation of alternative African music. The haunting way he plucks the guitar strings allows for his emotions and sincerity to bleed through, making for profound and perceptive story telling.
This is part of the magic that makes him a unique voice in the urban folk space. He has carved this niche for himself with a blend of African traditional sounds, folk stylings, a contemporary sensibility and captivating isiXhosa vocals.
Umlilo, his debut album of 2012, was a meditation on self and politics. It struck a chord due to its emotional quality and the freedom with which Mabandla lays bare his vulnerabilities. Open and honest, the messages in his music are shaped by how he allows himself to look inward in order to make sense of the world.
He carries this signature trait into his second album, Mangaliso, which is notably groovy and includes some electronic instruments, but maintains the ambient feel of Umlilo.
Mabandla is on a tour that has already taken him to Australia, Mozambique, Reunion Island, Joburg and Cape Town. He will be in Stellenbosch and the UK in March.
Reflecting on his evolution, he reveals how navigating through his insecurities and inner struggles provides the inspiration for his music. He creates beautiful compositions out of dire situations.
"I was in a very bad place when I wrote Mangaliso. But I was realising that things don’t have to remain the same. So it became a hopeful time in my life where, despite everything, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel," he says.
"I was maturing, transitioning and becoming stronger. And that’s the message. The album is called Mangaliso (miracle or marvel) because once you become stronger and find yourself, life can be meaningful and beautiful," says Mabandla.
He is in a good space now. Ironically, this new sense of wellbeing is a result of criticism from a reputable culture writer who believed he was not playing the guitar to his full potential.
"I don’t take criticism very well, especially with things that are close to my heart," Mabandla says. "But that has opened up a lot of doors because this year I’m taking time to work on my guitar skills.
"It’s been very interesting to experience the development for new music that’s coming out of this expansion of my guitar knowledge," he says.
Hailing from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, Mabandla picked up the guitar "by accident" in Grade 11 at the Lady Grey Arts Academy. He was inspired by the likes of Lauryn Hill and Tracy Chapman, who use the guitar as the emotional base for their lyrical content. That has become his approach – playing guitar as a story telling vessel to discharge simple music that is emotionally charged with truthful lyrics.
But his music is expanding as he grows.
"It was hard to admit to myself that there are things I still lack. And I had always been held back by that. Taking hours to practise has changed my life because I find that I’m playing better in my live shows and I feel confident and comfortable.
"It’s an emotional thing for me because this is what I have been struggling with for the past couple of years and not really knowing what it is. It now feels good to get lost in the music without being insecure or worried," he says.
He entered the live music scene at a pivotal moment in the industry: Thandiswa Mazwai had just released her potent and politically charged debut album, Zabalaza; Simphiwe Dana was emerging from the underground as a hypnotic force with her debut, Zandisile; while Kwani Experience and Ntjapedi represented a movement of bands who took on genre-bending sounds with a conscious and rooted Afrocentricity.
Having taken art as a subject at school, Mabandla was curious about SA’s contribution to art. His encounters with Gerard Sekoto, William Kentridge and Gibson Kente in his curriculum and the work of Bongo Maffin in popular culture gave him the conviction to be distinctly South African. This is why he carries Tsolo in his pocket and draws from the spirituality of its poin-ted hills.
Armed with this cultural zeitgeist and his artistic convictions and talent, Mabandla explored his sound with a band like The Fridge, which experimented with nu jazz, before going solo.
He joined forces with dub band 340ml’s Paulo Chibanga to create Umlilo. In the aftermath of Umlilo’s release, Mabandla yearned to connect with a wider local audience. He took this struggle and an interrogation of the meaning of success into the process of making his second album. Mangaliso is produced by 340ml’s Tiago Correia Paulo
"I realised that my ultimate view of success is to be good, to make work of a certain calibre," he says.
"I realised also how important it is for an artist to evolve and make work that’s varied.
"I’m changing as I grow older and I see the world differently. It was important to reflect that in the new album. I want to keep experimenting and documenting where my head is at certain time periods.
"Right now I’m very inspired by the things that are happening to the album and by my musical development. I feel ready and supported and I want people to come and experience that at my shows," he says.
Mabandla has performances lined up for the Woordfees festival in Stellenbosch on March 2 and 3; and two shows at the Lake of Stars festival in the UK on March 10 and 11.