Zoe Modiga and Bongeziwe Mabandla, both awe-inspiring musicians whose sounds transcend genre and whose lyrics are imbued with sincerity and depth, are part of the incredible line-up of the 4th annual Hugh Masekela Heritage Festival, which includes artists such as Oliver Mtukudzi, Riky Rick and more.
Born Palesa Nomthandazo Phumelele Modiga in Overport, Durban and raised in Pietermaritzburg, Modiga's love for music at a very young age incited her to attend the National School of the Arts where she studied classical piano, clarinet and vocals. She completed her degree in Jazz vocals at the South African College of Music, UCT.
Modiga released her debut album Yellow: The Novel in March this year. The 23-track album is a body of work inspired by self-realization and the human experience.
Bongeziwe Mabandla emerged with his debut album in 2012. The release positioned him as the new face of Afro-Folk, effortlessly able to entwine Xhosa lyrics with traditional music and folk sounds to create something distinctly captivating.
He released his second album titled Mangaliso (miracle in isiXhosa) in May this year, through a new deal with Universal Music. The 10-track record spotlights Mabandla’s artistic growth into one of the most purposeful and gifted artists in South Africa today.
The central theme of your album Yellow: The Novel is self-realization. What is self-realization to you and how has your personal journey of self-realization been like? To me self-realization is being more aware of who you are or seeing yourself a lot more clearly than you have before.
A space I think we lend ourselves to through continual introspection. Yellow: The Novel does this by unpacking themes such as spirituality, heartbreak and believing you can reach your full potential, the common themes we all seem to run into as human beings. My personal soul-searching has been a lot like waking up to myself and to what being human is. I have realized really that we live in circles of simple experiences that are informed by circumstance and the blueprint of those experiences are that there is only one of us, but really, nothing separates us from being human. That is both the challenge and the beauty of life right? Jazz as a genre that is often associated with an older audience, how have you managed to bridge the gap between a younger audience and a more mature audience? I am not a jazz musician, I am a jazz trained and jazz influenced musician. The knowledge that jazz has given me over the years allows me to see it as The Godfather of all contemporary genres. All I am doing is celebrating the jazz influence but acknowledging the soul, folk and African heart in my music. In the roaring 20’s, Jazz was what mainstream music is now, all I’m doing is playing with that time machine, there’s no reason it should only appeal to a certain people. Music is music. It’s job is to evoke emotion, not create division in appreciation.
I would imagine that the music industry like any other performing arts industry has specific beauty standards that women tend to be boxed into. How do you as a woman with short natural hair navigate that part of the industry? I think the modern beauty standards have become fairly open-minded over the years, and it seems people are actually quite okay with you, just being you, what ever that means. As a young, black woman with short hair, I’m just doing me. I love the convenience of short hair and I feel most beautiful with this aesthetic. I am not really concerned with trying to play to anything, just being comfortable in my skin and hoping that some girl that looks like me feels beautiful too. In the past few years, people have become more aware of the whitewashing of black history and culture. Why do think celebrating one's heritage is important and how do keep aspects of your culture alive? I think whitewashing is in the little details, and being aware of it always seems to give that goosebump kind of disturbed. Which, in my opinion is important, you can’t have an effective opinion or cause of action from something that does not deeply affect you. I was born in a time where the word “freedom” was flung around and yet meant nothing, and integration was at the expense of identity. Heritage and culture are at the epicenter of the things I am curiously rebuilding in my life through asking questions about my family line and digging into the history of those before. I believe the point is to live out their dreams and much of the past informs the future.
Many artists have been speaking out about mental illness and anxiety; you seem to have a positive outlook on life and your artistry, what would you say to artists who are going through the struggles either making a name for themselves or struggling to keep up a certain standard they may have set or the industry has set? All artists face very similar challenges, but you will not see a selfie with that caption, it is in conversations where you truly relate peoples victories and challenges. When you realize that nothing you experience is far removed from anyone and spend more time actualizing and materializing your goals, you’ll find, it does a lot more good for you than worrying too much. What I do with doubt, is work through it. It denounces the doubt quite quickly because action has results. It really is an ebb and flow, one month God will show off with the gift he placed in you, the next, he’ll teach you how to bare more weight to hold more blessing. It’s a good pain.
Your lyrics are mainly in isiXhosa, was that a strategic decision motivated by standing out, or was it more about authentic self-expression?
When I was in High School I took art as a matrix subject, I think this is the time that I started to see the value of making art that was specifically African. We have a lot to contribute to the world and the beauty in that is in the way we approach things, music, fashion, art and a way of life.
How have you managed to remain so connected or close to your culture, whilst so many artists often forget their roots once they reside in the big cities?
I think I was mainly influenced by artist like Thandiswa Mazwai and Simphiwe Dana in this regard. There is something very special when they sing and I think because I understand it on another level, it feels like sounds I have heard before, not sure when but they resonate with my being and where I come from in a way I can't explain in words. Busi Mhlongo and Jabu Khanyile did the same for me.
You had a five-year hiatus from the release of your debut album to your current album, what were the most profound lessons you learnt in that five years; about yourself and about music?
Good question. I think it's that I really want to do music. There was a lot of uncertainty after my first album, I thought I need to find something else to do. I have learnt to that this is what I want to do with my life.
Your latest album Mangaliso (miracle in isiXhosa) showcases your spiritual side. Do you feel like African spirituality and certain African traditions are misunderstood and have been given a bad rep?
I think anything that is not Christianity is misunderstood. My album came from a painful place that I felt needed something higher than me. It had to become spiritual.
Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
I'm planning to record with Zoe Modiga actually. I'm so in love. I just discovered her not too long ago and I'm totally excited about writing new music and doing collaborations.
Hopefully, the collaborative project between the two artists is something we can look forward to, in the mean time catch Zoe Modiga and Bongeziwe Mabandla at this year's Hugh Masikela Heritage Festival happening at the Soweto Cricket Oval (Rockville) this Saturday.
Photography: Kgomotso Neto
Interview: Phendu Kuta