Thandiswa Mazwai
Thandiswa Mazwai
Image: Nick Boulton

To have been born in 1976 SA means Thandiswa Mazwai can be immortalised as a frozen picture of the youthful rebellion and revolution that the year represents. It’s fitting that through Kwaito — as a member of Jacknife and Bongo Maffin — she became an iconic rockstar among creatively pioneering youth who found their voices in a transitioning country.

To have grown up in a house of two pan African journalists, where the meaning of integrity was instilled from a young age, it’s imaginable that her whole childhood was a political awakening.

And so even when she ages, she remains youthful and revolutionary. Important.

At 48 Mazwai is releasing what could be her most personal offering while celebrating 20 years of her seminal debut album, Zabalaza (meaning rebellion or protest).

The title of her new album, Sankofa, is a word in the Twi language of Ghana meaning to retrieve things of value from the past. The importance of reclamation to build the future. Cueing from that this conversation is very reflective.

“My birth is tainted with that big crack that made it impossible for apartheid to continue,” Mazwai begins.

“In terms of imagery, when I see myself in a Converse All-Star, I think of running feet. In the dust. Jumping over fences. Running away from dogs or police vans. It all lives in the mythology that I build around my origin story.

“Having these political parents, I grew up greeting people with my right hand up and saying “Izwe lethu”. Those words and that kind of ideology are so loaded even for a young kid. Even though we were privileged in Soweto, it was pretty much a black life. In the sense that we are human first. It’s our encounter with whiteness that makes us black. Our lives are and continue to be political.”

The personal, political and spiritual are fluid in Mazwai’s artistic output. Having lost her mother at 16, it is apparent how she calls out to her in different ways, just as she calls to a broader ancestral, artistic or political lineage in songs such as Nizalwa Ngobani, Abenguni or the deeply melancholic album, Belede (named after her mother). She pays forward her political awareness — having her daughter recite the Freedom Charter in the song, Ngimkhonzile. And as if a ritual or prayer she calls on to past and present energies at the beginning of a performance.

“The political, spiritual and personal live comfortably with one another in all my work. But sometimes there’s a tension. Where the personal really wants to fight for its place. In the communities of women, black and queer people that I belong to, there’s something unique about me and my experience that I want to call out and speak loudly about,” she says.

Image: Nick Boulton

At 28, she recorded her ground-breaking solo album Zabalaza 10 years into SA’s democracy. Through it she put the state of the country into perspective: From the unrelenting poverty to the ravaging HIV/Aids epidemic that gobbled up the nation. Sonically ambient, Zabalaza is shaded with Xhosa nuances of vivid imageries. During the recording of the album, which took two years to make, Mazwai was invited to be the subject of a documentary about legendary Xhosa musician and custodian of indigenous musical instruments, Madosini (who died in 2022). She spent two weeks in a knowledge sharing experience with Madosini in picturesque Transkei hills under low hanging moons. The results of those moments enrich the album. Produced by Dr Sipho Sithole, Zabalaza boasts the best of South African musicians. Bheki Khoza, Fana Zulu, Sipho Gumede and Khanyo Maphumulo had a hand in its making. It’s a perfect debut.

What precedent did the album set?

“Because I already had this fame from Bongo Maffin — we were these iconic kwaito kids who had travelled the world and done some iconic stuff — making Zabalaza felt comfortable in a strange way. Its weight came 10 to 15 years into it when I realised how it had become an important part of South African post-apartheid sonic identity,” says Mazwai.

Zabalaza album cover
Zabalaza album cover
Image: Supplied

If Zabalaza was her coming of age album, then Ibokwe marked her settling into an African style of singing as a result of being a scholar of Busi Mhlongo’s sound. The two became very close, resembling the bond of a master and a student. How Mazwai befriended an older generation of musicians — from Miriam Makeba to Hugh Masekela — is noteworthy in an industry that lacks meaningful cross-generational connections.

“It probably had to do with my melancholy as a young kid, I was thinking about my mother a lot. My first radio hit was when I was 19 and my mother passed away when I was 16. I still carried a lot of that into my fame. Whenever I went to interviews, I’d be speaking about Fanon and Chinua Achebe because these were the things my mother would be talking about. And so, a lot of the old school gravitated to me because they said, I was nostalgic,” says Mazwai.  

Belede was the result of her attempt at purging the heavy depression she fell into after losing Mhlongo and Masekela. A collection of SA jazz classics, its emotional waves are searing and subdued, working with rawness of the Fees Must Fall politics to recall the past and contemplate the future.

The awaited new Sankofa is a culmination of ideas of a pan African identity. It was recorded in SA, Senegal, and the US with collaborations from musicians including Meshell Ndegeocello — a long-time friend and collaborator.

“I wanted to bring together a lot of traditional Xhosa instruments. When I took that to pre-production — the Senegalese responded to an archive. As did Meshell who gave her sonic response to hearing umhrubhe or uhadi. Sankofa brings together ideas of African unity, and a pride in our identity. There’s an interconnected language being shared in Southern Africa, West Africa and the diaspora,” Mazwai says.

“I’m working with a lot of old friends in this album and it is about healing old wounds in order for us to progress and go forward. To confront them. For me Kulungile was the centre of that confrontation.”

Kulungile is the first single from Sankofa. The emotive scratch of the umhrubhe (traditional stringed mouth-bow instrument) solo at the start lays the stage for Mazwai’s vulnerability as she relays the story and trauma of her sexual abuse with a few loaded lines. The refrain, Kulungile (it’s OK, it has passed) is how she comforts her younger self.

Mazwai’s relationship with music has not changed over the years. It’s where she submits to the mysteries of her musical calling, sometimes requiring bravery.

“It’s still a space where I confront myself,” she says. “A space where I do my healing. A space that is self-affirming. Being an artist is very much a self-absorbed way of being. You have to remember that in all your self-indulgence, you have to find ways for your voice to be authentic enough to resonate with others.”

Catch the Sankofa album launch at Carnival City, Joburg on May 11; at the Durban Playhouse on May 31 and at Artscape, Cape Town on July 20. Tickets at Computicket and Webtickets

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.