Bongo Maffin. Picture: Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
Bongo Maffin. Picture: Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi

“Bongo Harare”, belts out Thandiswa Mazwai’s soprano voice — overlayed, filtered and manipulated, but still ringing true. These are the first notes on Harare, a single ushering in four-part ensemble Bongo Maffin’s attempt at resurrection from a 12-year recording hiatus.

The single, from their forthcoming album to be released in 2019, features a slicker Mari Ye Phepha, a high-octane Kuro Uone, a tight-guitar-chord-driven Upenyu Wakanaka with Jah Seed, Stoan and Speedy alongside Mazwai and in matching form. Jah Seed’s raspy falsetto laments “Ndoda kuenda ku Harare/Ndoda kugara ku Harare” (Shona for “I want to go to Harare/I want to stay in Harare”) — catching Mazwai’s pace but cutting through the manicured sound.

For Jah Seed, real name Adrian Anesu Mupemhi, Harare is a representation of the modern African city. “Harare for us, is a song that we feel like opens up the whole regional integration,” says the Zimbabwe native. “We are paying homage — metaphorically, physically — to the arrival of this city of lights, these cities that don’t sleep. Because when they named it Harare, they were saying that that place doesn’t sleep.”

What feels like three sleeps ago, Stoan was spitting “I had a vision of an Africa without borders” on the opening track of IV, the group’s 1999 release. A handful of winks before that, Boom Shaka sang out against xenophobia during the influx of African foreign nationals to SA's cities on Kwere Kwere, their seminal 1993 release. In that the same year, Arthur sang “Baas/Sê nee/Baas don’t call me K***ir ” against the racism that was institutionally and socially entrenched in SA and in the process of being dismantled.

But for all of Kwaito’s overtly political acts, there were Trompies, M’du, Thebe, Lebo Mathosa and other artists churning out anthems that fuelled epicurean street bashes, concerts and festivals. For all of its oscillation between political stances — from overtly political, defiantly apolitical and acres of grey areas in between — Kwaito, SA's greatest cultural creation of the 1990s, obsessively reflects the black, young South African experience.

The Concerto, Bongo Maffin’s debut album, was released three years after the genre’s trailblazing artist-run record label Kalawa had struck gold with Boom Shaka. Jazz musican composer and performer Don Laka, DJ Oskido and DJ Christos had gotten a taste of Kwaito’s potential and established the record label in 1992. Until then, Kwaito musicians had recorded mostly in DIY studios and distributed their product informally.

What followed was a mushrooming of a cultural economy borne from the music and a golden era in the genre whose sound was definitive of the South African black young experience of that decade.

By 2001, when Bongolution was released, the group was down to three members after Speedy fell away to pursue a solo career. The Way Kungakhona, a hit from that release, echoed across townships and suburbs two years into the country’s second democratically elected government.

The group’s mercurial rise to fame, with local and international awards dotting its trajectory, was tumultuous at times. In 2002, four months and 14 days after winning a Kora Award for best African group, Jah Seed was arrested at Gezina police station under four sections of the Aliens Control Act. He had moved to SA after his mother’s death in 1996 when DJ Oskido had seen him perform at a club in Harare, only to be ordered to leave the country in the same year on the grounds of his residence permit having expired.

In 2002, he was deported after being held at the Gezina, Atteridgeville and Pretoria Central police stations.

It was around that period in 2002 that his moniker evolved from Apple Seed, as he was previously known, to Jah Seed.

“That time I was having a problem with immigration,” he says, “and then I went to stay in England. That’s where I met a Rasta man who, when I introduced my name, I said ‘Yo, my name is Apple Seed’. And he said ‘No, don’t worry about Apple Seed, I’ll call you Jah Seed.’ So it just stuck from there on.”

Mazwai’s evolution to King Tha, her current moniker, began when she left the the group to pursue a solo career that began with her album Zabalaza in 2004. The current iteration of persona is a continuation of what Mazwai introduced to the public at the beginning of her career.

“Music has always been a way for me to have a conversation with my generation,” she says.  "From the very beginning I sang of Azania, pride and self love. I also made the revolutionary choice to dress in traditional clothes to represent our mothers and grandmothers. I grew up in a time when none of the mainstream media showed black beauty and I had almost no one that I felt represented my natural aesthetic. So through my work I decided to subvert that so that others after me would feel represented.”

Now that the youth of the 1990s  have grown up and many of them are contributing to the economy, the conversation that Bongo Maffin will have with them needs shifting too. This album’s litmus test will be the deftness with which they are able to balance reflecting their growth as musicians, while tapping into a more racially and socially integrated South African youth.