New Traditionalist

Afro-soul artist Bongeziwe Mabandla on learning about the whole package

Bongeziwe Mabandla

Words: Serisha Letchmiah-Venter | Photography: Chisanga Mubanga

So how exactly would you picture a Xhosa artist going down in Australia? I mean, Down Under doesn’t exactly bring up the rosy image of diverse lineups, well not to me anyhow. But that’s where I’m wrong, Bongeziwe Mabandla explains. 

“The response has been great. At Woodford [Folk] Festival, especially. Being a folk festival people are always ready to listen to this kind of music.”

The 31-year-old artist is currently on his second Australian tour, performing at a number of venues across the continent. I speak to Bongeziwe over Facebook Call (a service I’ve never used before), and while the 9-hour time difference has made coordinating our interview tricky, here we are chatting between Johannesburg and Sydney while incurring absolutely no roaming costs.

“It’s true that music is definitely a universal language. When you paint with not just words but with melody and emotion, you know, the message just seems to come across. I’ve travelled to Japan, Canada, Australia, and I don’t think language was ever a big barrier.”

The Eastern Cape singer-songwriter is deeply rooted in his Xhosa culture, and despite being categorised as Afro-Pop on iTunes, describes his sound as urban traditional folk, but can’t resist insisting that at the end of the day – it’s soul music. 

There’s an ease and welcoming comfort in his falsetto, which becomes more and more a signature as I listen to Umlilo. The 2012 debut album, produced by Paulo Chibanga (of 340ml), earned the then-newcomer two SAMA nominations in 2013 – by no means a small feat. 

With all this playing to international audiences, I ask how his aesthetic feeds into his music and performances?

“That’s something I didn’t realise: that style completes a package. I used to be the guy who’d just come play in his jeans and go home. But I’ve come to understand that there’s a more artistic element to how one’s dressed. When I started playing in different countries and seeing bands from Japan or India it was also about introducing each other to each other's cultures. So I started thinking more about bringing in more of South Africa.”

That makes sense. Now, could his own music provide a soundtrack for each of the looks he prepared for us?

Bongeziwe Mabandla

Look 1 - “Bawo Wam"

“I’ve been trying to find my own look. Wearing bright colours, and not just patterns in a different way. I’m inspired by a lot of other artists who have been mixing up African fashion, like Spoek Mathambo and Solange. So this is me playing around with what I think is hip right now. I think 'Bawo Wam', a new track that I’m working on, will suit this.”

Bongeziwe Mabandla

Look 2 - "Wena"

“For me this felt like an urban-traditional uniform. It’s a statement look that fits with my music. Also, I don’t think people really understand local prints when they wear them. This is actually a Sotho print, which is normally worn by women, but I wanted to take it somewhere more masculine. There’s this new track called 'Wena'. I think it will work with this.”

Bongeziwe Mabandla

Look 3 - “Ndofelapha"

“When I started playing in different countries I realised I wanted to represent where I come from – something that represents visually the kind of sound I’m putting out. Something distinctly African. I’ve got this new track called “Ndofelapha”. It’s very Maskandi, which I feel goes well overall.”

Bongeziwe Mabandla

Look 4 - “Khaya" 

“That’s a Makhosa jersey. I really love Laduma Ngxokolo ’s stuff. It’s distinctively Xhosa, which is my tribe. I guess this kind of gets closer to the musical message, you know. I would choose 'Khaya', which means home. Just for the reason that it’s where I come from.”

“I couldn’t be an artist in the rural areas,” Bongeziwe told CNN in a recent interview. He went on to reveal in the insert that his "big dream was to come to Joburg and seek fame and fortune.” Always an artistic child, he dabbled in painting and performance, followed by a brief, yet successful acting stint, until finally he settled into music as his preferred form of expression. 

“I chose music because it felt more free. There was no one else directing the work.”

Having performed with genre heavyweights and Grammy winners Joss Stone and Malian Vieux Farka Touré, and collaborated with Zuluboy (amongst others), Bongeziwe explains that "collaborations open up new sounds and a culture of familiarity between artists.”

Looking forward, Bongeziwe would love to collaborate with trailblazers Spoek Mathambo, Simphiwe Dana and Okmalumkoolkat.

Some may remember the SABC 2 series Jam Sandwich, in which artists from different genres were coupled together in the studio to produce an original track. The urban-traditional soul artist was paired with Okmalum’s then DJ Dr SpiZee, the man responsible for the “digital maskandi/kwaito/primustofu” sounds of Dirty Paraffin. Their track 'Sifun’iMali' was well received, and Bongeziwe began getting noticed by people who wouldn’t normally listen to his sound.

Next time I speak to Bongeziwe I’ll definitely have to ask him about his tour to North Korea – something I only picked up on after our interview. While it will still be a few months before his follow up to Umlilo is ready, in the meantime I’m happy to keep a lookout for the first single 'Mangaliso' which is set to drop around February.