Though the name may be new to Western ears, Thandiswa is no stranger to the South African cultural scene. Early in her career her unique voice caught the ear of the right folks and, for eight years, she has been singing and songwriting with the kwaito band Bongo Maffin, South Africa’s award-winning pop music icon of the post-apartheid youth generation.
Thandiswa’s new solo album, Zabalaza, on Escondida Records, combines social commentary and undeniably catchy music. The CD elegantly fuses various musical genres, from traditional Xhosa rhythms, upbeat Mbaqanga (a Zulu music style made popular by groups like the Soul Brothers), and the thumping beats of kwaito, to gospel, R&B, hip-hop, ragga, and soul. The sound is clearly resonating in wider and wider circles, as she has already picked up numerous awards, including a South African Music Award and a Kora Award (the African equivalent of a GRAMMY) for “Best Female Artist.”
This project marks Thandiswa’s musical emancipation, representing not only her personal freedom, but an opportunity for her fellow hopefuls. As a veritable veteran in the South African music industry, Thandiswa could have had her pick of the most sought-after collaborators for Zabalaza. Instead, she held open auditions for over 400 aspiring stars over the course of 3 days, both as a way to revisit her own tough start and to create a fresh sound, representative of South Africa’s dynamic cultural landscape.
“I decided to create a band from a completely fresh crop of musicians” Thandiswa explains. “There’s so much talent out there, just waiting to be discovered. I’m living my dreams through my work, and I’m able to do that partly because certain people gave me a chance. So I want to be able to give other young talents the same opportunity, and allow them to live their dreams. We can travel the world together, making music.”
The journey Thandiswa took in creating this sound was as much inward as it was global. Reconnecting with her roots, she embarked on a pilgrimage to the Transkei, a rural area treated by the apartheid regime as a black ‘homeland’ (similar to Native American ‘reservations’). Visiting both her mother’s village and that of traditional vocalist Madosini, she was exposed to the original sounds of Xhosa traditional melodies, and was introduced to the Uhadi, a traditional Xhosa one-string harp. Madosini imparted cultural wisdoms, explaining the philosophies inherent in the creation of Xhosa music—respect for others and self, recognizing the spiritual realm as the true source of the music, and the key role of nature in the creation of music. These influences are clearly present throughout Zabalaza, and communicate a powerful message from one of South Africa’s primary cultural constituents.
Music has played a vital role in South Africa’s social history. From the 1960’s through the ’90’s, anti-apartheid activists, rallying for the due political representation and integration of the country’s 85% non-white population into government and social institutions, rallied against oppression through freedom songs; South Africans in exile raised awareness and support for the plight of the people of their homeland. Under the firm grip of the apartheid regime, music was the site for popular voice, for social participation, for inclusion, and expressing the dream of freedom which was realized with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994
In many ways, Bongo Maffin—the band in which Thandiswa first made her mark, and of which she is still a member—was the sound of the “new South Africa,” a country charged with remaking its image to reflect its racial, cultural and ethnic diversity, history of struggle and political victory over oppression, and vision for a democratic society. At its best, kwaito marries elements of hip-hop and house-dance beats with thought-provoking and socially conscious lyrics about life in the townships, being a young African, and living in a country finding its identity. Thandiswa is often cited as a driving force behind Bongo Maffin’s slant toward engaging social and spiritual issues through popular music. Perhaps because of this, Bongo Maffin bridged the racial divide, by drawing people in from across the spectrum through the feel-good sound, spiritual lyrics and crossover appeal.
Thandiswa has big things in mind, and takes her job as a performer seriously. “To me,” she says, “recording this album also represents my being able to give young Africans in the 21st century an authentic voice.” In so doing, she takes on some of the central tensions of contemporary African identity: straddling the urban and rural, the local and global, and melding the traditional with the modern. Raised in urban townships, Thandiswa’s birthplace is rural Transkei, and in Zabalaza, she remains unfailingly loyal to both, paving the way for new images of African identity across and beyond the continent. While Thandiswa is a huge pop star in her native South Africa, she is ready to take on the world, with a consciousness, attitude, and talent reminiscent of some of the great female vocalists of our time.