Zoë Modiga
Zoë Modiga
Image: Supplied

Zoë Modiga had no album to her name when she first performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2015. Though she had local acclaim due to winning a regional singing competition and maintaining a relentless performance schedule with other bands, she was yet to appear on the SA version of The Voice, hadn’t launched her debut album, Yellow: The Novel (2017), and was definitely not the national treasure she has since become. 

Nowadays, she is the moment. When we do meet on the occasion of the listening session for her third album, Nomthandazo, which follows hot on the heels of the Sama Award-winning Inganekwane (2020), and is the second one with bassist Banda Banda on co-production duties, it’s clear that things have changed. She counts the likes of Sthandiwe Kgoroge, Sjava and Thebe Magugu as associates. In fact, she appears on the latter’s latest campaign for his Heritage capsule, Lobola Negotiations. 

Modiga is a ball of nerves on feet three hours before the listening session starts. This isn’t like her, she says, before chalking it up to this being the first time she’s hosted one.

“It feels like the stakes are higher, for some odd reason or another,” is the response to a question regarding her attitude going into Nomthandazo.

“There’s been a lot of digging deep here that is a step further than what has been before, and it’s the most vulnerable that I’ve been. The stakes are higher because I feel like I’m sharing myself in riddles.”

The songs were composed during the 2020 lockdown, a time Modiga, like many of us, found profoundly challenging. She has been working on the album for the past two years. Yet it’s hard to tell because of the context under which they appear. Named after her grandmother, Nomthandazo is her gratitude suite. 

“When I think about the first songs that came to me, “Imithandazo Yethu”, I was just playing around with [the music-making software] Logic, and I did not expect to be creating anything, and it was just such a difficult time. There was an album called Inganekwane that needed to be released that same year, we were in lockdown […] and then there’s this song that pops up. When I think about the moments that I feel I’ve been carried through in the last four years, I cannot help but be grateful.”

Zoë Modiga's Nomthandazo cover art
Zoë Modiga's Nomthandazo cover art
Image: Supplied

Album launch

Later on, she is shifting from one table to the next, welcoming her guests and having brief chats with some. This is Zoë the pro at work, live and direct. She attributes the calm nerves to the cup of tea she’s been having.

By the time this article goes live, she would have made her second appearance at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, will be readying for her album launch in June, and preparing a showcase for the National Arts Festival in Makhanda due to her obligations as the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award.

Coincidentally, she got the call as she was walking into Joburg Theatre to conduct a master class for students before the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in late 2023.

“I was excited to share and facilitate the conversation around being a young, creative spirit, sharing my journey and finding out about where in their music world the students were. I was fixated on building the confidence and morale of the students that I was allocated to because I remember being one of them and so this was a really special, full circle, purposeful task,” she shares in a WhatsApp conversation a week after her listening session, and after a weekend on which social media was awash with people gushing about the gift that Nomthandazo is.

Image: Supplied

She is grateful for the platform; it’s “a timely mouthpiece of this music that has been a heartache and a joy to document and share”, being that she’s been part of the festival for many years — she was selected as part of the Joy of Jazz Youth Band in 2013. “It's humbling to look back and I am filled with gratitude.” 

However, she is generally conflicted about awards. She enjoys the opportunity, but feels that they can leave one feeling “deeply unseen and invisible”. 

“I have had to develop a different perspective about my sense of self-worth when it comes to perceived accomplishment and being seen in this generously cut-throat business. I am saved purely by the deep meaning, respect and love I have for music and storytelling. It has generously blessed me through all the peaks and valleys, all that people see and what they aren't privy to.”

Still, she maintains a positive outlook. 

“It’s a beautiful challenge that I accept. What really warms me up is the many people I have had the honour to collaborate and associate with, those that have wished me well and actively contributed to, watered and pruned what I do. What we are building is being seen, it belongs to us. That is the real prize in all of this. Everyone wins!”

We are experiencing the makings of a great artist, and it’s our duty to acknowledge and admire the magnificence unfolding in our lifetime.

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