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.
He should have been a Sophiatown heavy. With his two-tone brogues, tweed jackets, and occasional bowtie, he looks like something straight out of Sophiatown. Or from the Harlem of the Renaissance in the 20’s. All of which would make sense because Bongani Madondo’s literary soul mates include James Baldwin, E’skia Mphahlele and Miriam Makeba. He is a fast talking dandy armed with an encyclopedic grasp of all things Pop drawn to noire movies. He devours long reads in Esquire, Vanity Fair or the Paris Review Of Books.
At a time when so many writers peddle words mostly to pay the rent, Madondo is that rare cat who still answers to a higher cause; the art of it all. It would be incorrect to call Madondo a reporter even though he has a nose for the news. Little wonder he calls himself a storyteller. But the stories he goes in search of stay with him for a long time. As he says in his Note to the Reader in I’m Not Your Weekend Special, “Way before I’d even seen her, let alone met her in person, the story of Brenda Fassie fascinated and perplexed me on many levels”
But then again Madondo should perhaps have been a rock ‘n’ roller. A quick glance at the musicians he loves brings up the baddest rock artists of all time. Busi Mhlongo. Philip Tabane, Joni Mitchel. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Brenda Fassie, Ali Farka Toure. If this list seems confusing, it’s because Madondo has an expansive sense of what qualifies as rock. Not for him the narrow definition of rock that bizarrely disqualifies its founders and acknowledges those who borrowed the music.
For Madondo, the ultimate rock’n roll star of them all was Busi Mhlongo. What with her ability to bring to Maskandi a devil-may-care attitude, matched by a hoarse voice that announced Maskandi as the ultimate rebel party music. And if you ever saw Busi Mhlongo in performance, dressed in a punk-meets-goddess style, then you know Madondo says she is or rock ‘n’ roll royalty. What she did to Maskandi, recognising its urban roots that harked backed to rural stories and minibus taxi gossip is the stuff of genius. If universities are teaching courses on modern day Divas, it is Busi Mhlongo who should be enjoying the bulk of the attention.
And when Busi Mhlongo sings Ebathenjini, she brings to Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song a certain wistfulness to it, but one that rests on the pillars of life’s hardest lessons. Where Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song has a boundless joy, there’s a dark blues tinged edge to Busi Mhlongo’s. And one can imagine Madondo bobbing to its hypnotic rhythm even as he clutches a dog-eared copy of Rolling Stone. When he dances, he moves to the music with the joy of a practiced hedonist. It is as if when the music gets him, it gets all of him or not at all. Then it is easy to make sense of Madondo’s close reading of these wizened artists. For like them the music reaches into the deepest parts of his being.
Madondo is good at slicing through the of minutiae of celebrity. In Hot Type we find him philosophizing on Bob Mabena in Hi I’m the new bob Mabena
“here the name Bob Mabena is not used as a third person display on an ego , tripping off the runway again, but playful metaphor, for a blind but adventurous thrill seeker and urban hedonist of days gone by ”
Where others worship at the altar of religion, it is safe to say that if Madondo has any faith that moves him at all, it is the connection with the ancient souls that walk this earth disguised as musicians. As he writes in Hot Type on hearing Magwaza by Johnny Dyani;
“Yep , it was a religious experience . Hallucinatory even. The sort of ‘ high’ thousands of rock ‘n roll and jazz fanatics are prone to evoke in their countless ‘I saw Elvis’ or ‘ It rained horizontally the day Miles Davis died.” Here is Madondo implicating himself in the observations that he delights in pinpointing in fellow converts to the faith of music.
If it comes as a shock to the reader that Madondo knows his way around rock’n ‘roll as much as around Kwaito or Maskandi, it will probably shock jazz purists that this cat knows his Charles Mingus from his Winston Mankunku Ngozi. When he drops in for a visit, he will pick that rare vinyl that no one else even recognizes, and he will proceed to school me on its importance in the discography of that artist. Such passion is a joy to behold, and it explains why when Madondo writes on art, it is a deadly serious matter.
For Madondo this isn’t just music. It is something else altogether, something tinged with the numinous. It will come as little surprise to learn that Madondo has been known to go on a pilgrimage to Dr Malombo, Philip Tabane’s home in Mamelodi. When Busi Mhlongo was still amongst us, Madondo also went on regular, extended pilgrimages to her home north of Durban in KwaZulu Natal. Where others just want to get the story and file it, it is obvious that for Madondo the story goes way, way beyond what the artist wants to be written about them. And perhaps that’s why he connected so deeply with artists of the highest order, such as Busi Mhlongo.
Like Busi Mhlongo, Madondo makes it his business to turn convention on its head. He speaks a language that is wholly his own. One that borrows from his hometown of Hammanskraal but embellishes with bits from his adopted Joburg and that also picks up from his spiritual homes of New York. Even in his writing, you sense that he has a fine ear and listens very closely not just to what is said, but how it is said. Interviewing Rita Marley, his essay is filled with what Madondo picks up of her diction, her Jamaican voice booming unmistakably across the page. It is a remarkable skill at a time when reading through interviews you would think linguistic nuance was a thing of the past. In Hot Type in his essay on Rita Marley he writes “Boojah! So ’tis you? Mah dear , Afreeka feels good to me. The sun, the energy, the love, shoo , I feel blessed mon. Blessed! Discussion? Oh , go get the rest in the book my brethren.”
Perhaps Madondo’s fine ear for language explains the confidence with which he delivers his musical judgements. They may sometimes be written languidly, developed with the patience of an artist painting on a delicate surface, but when he delivers them, they are sharp, direct and unforgettable. As Njabulo Ndebele remarks of Madondo’s Hot Type “Bongani Madondo’s portraits made me gasp and sigh and shake in my seat. Long after I have experienced them, I’ll be saying: ‘life is beautiful after all.’
When you catch him in a sit down with Hugh Masekela, you can tell that the connection goes way deeper than the ask-question-answer-question that is today’s sound-byte journalism. Where others might be quite content to meet their deadline, to turn in the story they promised at conference, Madondo seems to be interested only in the backstory. Not for him the glib quick shallow answers that satisfies the curiosity of a generation ever on the move. It is when the stage lights have long been switched off, the fans gone home, the stage dismantled, that Madondo moves in for the kill. He has the instincts of a hunter, patient when necessary, but well aware when it is time to ask the burning question.
He is a critic who does not fear offending the biggest names in music or the arts. If his book, Hot Type, introduced him to a wider audience, those who follow him across the various magazines, newspapers and websites for which he writes know he is bold with his opinions. But he is also insanely funny, and has trained himself to resist the performance that many artists use to shield their real selves from those who chase them for stories. He is wise enough to know that patience and persistence can wear out even the most difficult superstar.
Throughout Hot Type you see Madondo chasing after an interview. It is as if he doesn’t know when to give up. In his new book, I’m Not Your Weekend Special, Madondo tells of how long it took him to get Brenda Fassie to agree and sit down to an interview. He is a cat who is not only curious, but knows when to bide his time till the rock stars yield to his combination of charm and stubborn persuasion.
When Madondo has a new book to read, or a new record to listen to, or even an art exhibition to attend and review, he retreats into a kind of sanctuary. It is fascinating to watch him go through his rituals of coming to terms with a new piece of work. Then he will disappear, he wrestles with the demon of writing late into the night and into the wee hours of the morning. Not unlike an animal responding to nature’s call to hibernate. One senses that it is not the deadline that makes him switch off his phone and not even respond to emails, but a need to withdraw into some primeval space in which he is alone with the literary gods.
Even though politics is not his subject of choice, every now and again Madondo will tell us how the politics impedes or subverts the artists whose lives he dissects with such thoroughness. But then again perhaps it is by looking through the lens of pop culture that we may see politics for what it is, modern day theatre, complete with props. As Madondo writes in Hot Type: “Why is it that we despise self-promotion by leaders who are all sheen and no substance, yet we are inherently opposed to those hard-working types we tag as ‘lacking charisma’? But he also makes the larger point that maybe we already live in the post politics era. How else do you explain, he wants to know, why “in New York City, Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls’ funeral was attended by close to a million people, blocking the streets of Brooklyn”
In the essay Pop Among The Believers, Madondo lays bare some of the contradictions of modern day life. He is at his sharpest when asking questions. “Why is the majority of populations in democracies voice out their disdain about the cult of personality, especially as it pertains to a popular leader – say Bill Clinton – and yet go ahead to venerate another leader, Nelson Mandela?”
When he brings his sharp eye to what may seem like banal pop videos or lyrics, Madondo often draws startling conclusions. On Makhendlas he writes, again in Hot Type;
“The notion that black men are buffalo soldiers blessed with a natural gift for toughing it out on the rough edges of life has sent young black males into a cyclone of confusion , fear and unending challenges to legitimise their status in this depoliticised, insensitive, indifferent era , where the fruits of the revolution feed on their offspring.”
It is why Nathan McCall says that Madondo has “a wicked wit and a keen sense of the complex ways that pop culture intersects with politics”
There’s a special place in Madondo’s universe for Miriam Makeba. His pursuit of an interview with Miriam Makeba reads like a courtship of sorts. Here was the scribe as convert, seeking an audience with one of the deities of the music. Where others may have wanted confirmation of what they has read elsewhere, Madondo wanted to get to the core of what set Miriam Makeba apart. Not what was familiar and rehashed over and over till it became bland. But something that would explain the Songbird who had sung Soweto Blues, Sophiatown Is Gone, Ask The Rising Sun and of course the hypnotic Pata Pata. He got his story all right, but he was after something else. He wanted to reach into the inner secrets that had compelled Miriam Makeba to take on the might of Apartheid and even Uncle Sam so she could sing the songs of freedom.
Which makes you understand why Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground says of Madondo “I found Madondo slightly unsettling, not least of all least because this was not a journalist asking the usual superficial questions”
If Madondo writes with an urgency about artists, there’s perhaps another side to him that comes through Social Media. On Twitter he is not only deeply informal, but he displays a comfort with the short prose format that a 140-character limit imposes. His posts are often pithy, irreverent, but still deeply conversational Below are a few posts that show a vintage Madondo
‘Some kinda time out. Road tripping with filmmakers Deon Maas&Keith Jones to Giyani in search of the soul of Shangaan Futurism. What holiday?’
‘Great day hanging out with Mr. Rose Phaahle talking about Nat Nakasa.Later with homegal Trudi Makhaya talking new ways of Business Journalism’
And when he uses his allocation of 140 characters by Twitter Inc. to ask;
‘Sorry, but what is the National Democratic Revolution? Also can a “revolution” truly be democratic?’
You know that Madondo would make a rebel reporter in politics, one who questions even as he chastises.
He can also be wickedly funny even as he is dead serious. Here is a post to Twitter Headquarters, written in a moment of exasperation; ‘Letter to Twitter HQs: How many times should I change my password? How come I get hacked everyweek, does my machine have an incurable virus?”
At times he is just plain out to have fun. And what’s wrong with that. Pop was founded on the principle of hedonism.
‘I’m Nelson Mandela’s long lost grandson. Mother is Orphelia Madiba Madondo frm Qunu.I got meself some accent. Some1 gimme a TV talkshow now!’
‘Surely thanking any1 on Tweeter’s like peeing into the Atlantic but hey.Mad Love to YALL supporting ‘Im Not Yr Wknd Special book.’ Touching.’
Here is a man having the time of his life, chasing his dreams and stopping every now and again to peer into the abyss that separates the normal from those who suffer from artistic greatness. Bongani Madondo will read their books, listen to their music, and even get lost in their shows. But he is the cat who always gets to the bottom of their story. Little wonder that he follows so closely the work of those other mercurial readers of their culture, like Greg Tate, Deborah Willis and Binyavanga Wainana. Like them he doesn’t just want to report on his society, he wants to explode some of the myths that have turned culture into mere commodity.
Madondo has no doubt that if we look closely at pop culture, we will get to the kernel of what drives our societies. As he says in Hot Type
“If pop culture as well as political personalities bizarrely evoke God and Christ for their own crass ends, how come then, society and the media accord those ‘stars’ reverence befitting early prophets, sages, shamans, the true social conduits to higher forces, huh?”
But he is aware that many of those revered in pop culture as ‘icons’ are often reckless self promoters. As he writes in Hot Type, “Like the wickedest pop image-makers, self publicists, artists, con-artists and manipulators of the age – Don King, Muhammad Ali, Mobuto Sese Seko, Prince, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti and others (Kanye) West has a cunning internal compass wired to the root of his brain”
Naturally the last word should go to Madondo via his musings on his beloved Miriam Makeba. “Whether performing for European lefties in Paris or singing Black Power songs for guinea’s peasants, Makeba – eternally stylish and perennially edgy – knew how to carve a niche between counterculture and couture culture. For her, it was, I imagine, a matter of saying: ‘I am an artist, but if I have to speak for my people, honey, let me do it in style.’