The music that Thandiswa Mazwai is making right now, invoking the spirits of Miriam Makeba & Busi Mhlongo & Abbey Lincoln is some of the most important new music anywhere. She chooses to sing songs that say something of the world we live in, songs whose lyrics are charged with urgency, be they about love, about social justice or simply about the fragile humans. When she sings her love songs, there’s a range of emotion that is sorely missing in so many of the sentimental songs about love we hear these days.
Mazwai is unafraid to speak her mind, and whether through the lyrics of her songs, or on stage, or on social networks, she speaks openly and strongly about the things she cares for. Social justice is code to her heart, and she speaks frequently against gender violence. When she sings Nina Simone, you get the same sense of a real and not ‘performed rage’ that Nina Simone used to capture in songs such as Mississippi Goddam.
On songs like Nizalwa Ngobani she is the griot of her generation, invoking the names of the political and personal forebears of the young generation and letting them know that they’re heirs of a powerful struggle. On Ingoma, she is the love poet, singing with such a erotic force the stage almost sizzle with the heat of sexuality. Zabalaza is her anthem of rebellion, those who talk of a lost generation as Mazwai connected through this song her generation of youth with the most urgent issues of the day. On these songs she’s never an ideologue, but a consummate artist, wielding her magic on spellbound music lovers.
She was a young star and even in her Bongo Maffin days, her lyrics were already haunting, older than her years in their depth of wisdom. On songs like Kura Uone, she captures the longing for home that so many who migrate know only too well.
In a recent performance at the Market Theatre, Mazwai played one of Busi Mhlongo’s most moving songs, Wahazulwa, conveying its delicate beauty and capturing the spirit of Busi Mhlongo’s powerful stage presence. It was a rare moment in South African music when an artist covers a song and makes it theirs but the spirit of the original seems ever present in the new interpretation. In between the notes and her singing, you could catch moments when Mazwai’s pain was real, palpable, though too brief to ruin the song.
At a theatre where so much music has been made and where so many plays have been performed, there are those nights when the emotions seem new again, not hackneyed. Mazwai was able to channel something deeply spiritual as she took on the songs of her heroes and made them her own. There was a hush over the Market Theatre stage as she sang Busi Mhlongo’s songs and you could tell even without Mazwai saying it that Busi Mhlongo is the musician who most affected her.
This explains why after Busi Mhlongo, Mazwai took time off from music and could not find the heart to perform her own music. The hiatus from the music business may have seemed overdone at the time, but Mazwai used her time in the UK to mourn Busi Mhlongo and find her voice again. Today she is clearly able to sing new music and sing the musicians that she loves, like Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, the melancholic Abbey Lincoln and of course her beloved Busi Mhlongo.
It would be a lie to suggest that Mazwai is only influenced by the women whose musical spirit she channels with such artistic integrity. In the past two years she has performed with Hugh Masekela both in South Africa and abroad. She was also invited by Paul Simon to join him on the Graceland Anniversary Tour, and she is clearly picking some fine lessons from these giants of music. Her collaborations with Hugh Masekela are deeply beautiful and they suggest that the elder statesman of SA music admires the huge talent that Mazwai possesses. He is not alone in recognizing Mazwai as a musician who is set to make a significant mark in music.
Those who mourn the passing of a golden age in SA music with the departure of the likes of Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Busi Mhlongo need to listen to Thandiswa Mazwai. Perhaps then they will know that our music is in safe hands still and we need not mourn.
When she performed at Bassline, on the occasion of her 40th birthday, it was as if she wanted to underline just how much music she has given us in the 20 years that she’s been in the industry. There she was on stage, her friends dropping by to join her as she sang for us. There was Ringo with whom she sang from the Donny Hathaway songbook. And there was Moonchild. And Mazwai’s own sister, Nomsa Mazwai who knows how to command the stage.