Underneath the layers that make up the urban traditional Xhosa folk musician
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Glen Montgomery | Styling: Mandy Nash
Growing up, Bongeziwe Mabandla was like any other Xhosa child living in the rural Eastern Cape. Tsolo, just outside Mthata, shaped Bongeziwe’s worldview, and without the distraction of TV or mass-produced plastic toys he flexed his imagination regularly.
“We were very creative when we played. Lots of making things out of clay, or visualization where we’d get up on a branch and then imagine we were in a plane. That really stimulated our creativity, and taught us how to see something even before it came into existence. It showed us how to believe in ideas.”
Long before the idea of becoming a professional singer there was singing for the pure, unadulterated joy of it. And even after he moved with his UCT-enrolled mother to Cape Town, Bongeziwe maintained his love of song and his “rural way of thinking”, while attending his first multiracial school. Later Bongeziwe attended an arts school on the border of the Eastern Cape and the Free State, Lady Grey Arts Academy, which formalised his passion and exposed him to new artistic mediums.
“Studying art as a subject really exposed me to the importance of South African art. I’d heard about Greek, Egyptian and European art, and had always wondered about our contribution to the art world as South Africans. So when I started to learn about Gerald Sekoto, Gibson Kente and William Kentridge, it became really important to me that whatever I did looked, felt or sounded distinctly South African.”
Moving to Johannesburg in 2004, Bongeziwe enrolled at AFDA with a focus on drama, but things didn’t quite work out quite as planned when music took a complete hold of his life.
“Thandiswa Mazwai had just released her first album, Zabalaza, and Simphiwe Dana had released her album – there was the Kwani Experience, and a big musical movement that was very black conscious where for the first time young South African musicians were reclaiming their culture through music.”
His Afrocentricity is still extremely important to Bongeziwe, and something The Way of Us first made mention of in our profile of the man two years ago. New Traditionalist discussed how Bongeziwe used clothing to promote his culture to audiences in Australia, South Korea and the rest of the world, approaching his sound from a similar angle and creating a persona that’s deeply rooted in tradition and Xhosa spirituality.
“I didn’t deliberately go out and try to do anything, I was just making music, really, and very much in a South African context. Creating for people like myself. Young, black children from a rural setting like the villages that I grew up in, and then also young black children living in urban areas.”
However it wasn’t just the intended audience who resonated with Bongeziwe’s music, and because his music is so much bigger than the context that he’s created it in, it’s able to transcend language barriers and appeal to international markets.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint a genre these days, what Bongeziwe does know is that he will always be a storyteller, still creating worlds through his music in the same way he did while growing up in the Transkei. Clothing is just another way of building his stage persona and whisking the audience away to the worlds that he creates.
“I’m in my early 30s and growing into a more sophisticated, formal way of dressing. My interest now is in these very masculine cuts. Suits, shirts and ties give you a different type of feeling when you wear them.”
Even though he’s moved away from the more obvious African prints that he was known for, as a staunch traditionalist there’s no denying that clothes maketh the man and Bongeziwe is able to convey his culture in the outfits of his choosing. Thinking back, he tells us about the outfit that awaited him after initiation.
“When you come back from the bush you must get rid of all your old clothes and then wear the presents that your family take big pride in buying for you. They start saving the year before so that you have the right things. Really slick stuff. My cousin was in London at the time and she brought me some very sophisticated shoes and I had this Kangol hat and Dickies pants and top that I still remember.”
Recalling back to when he was 19-years-old and crafting out a new image, Bongeziwe says it’s amazing how clothes make you feel. How they’re able to bring out a different side to you.
So what about Superbalist’s new drop of jackets and coats that he modeled for The Way of Us?
“Well we shot at 4:30 in the morning, so I was lucky to be modeling jackets and coats. Being warm is obviously important, and then I loved the patterns on the souvenir jacket, which had a very Asian feel to it. I think there are a lot of similarities between Africa and Asia. Like I said earlier I’m really into a more masculine, classic style at the moment, and so I loved the formal coat. The light grey jacket isn’t something I would normally wear, but I could appreciate the attitude. Very hip hop. Very gangster. I see it at shows how sometimes when you put on an outfit and suddenly you’re a different character.”
Again with that imagination, arguably his greatest asset, and it's Bongeziwe’s unique way of looking at the world that elevates everything from the clothes he chooses to wear to the music he publishes that determines his success.