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Here is why this fine sister rocks


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


THANDISWA / “Nizalwa Ngobani (Do You Know Where You Come From)”


In the spring of 2006, I was at Sarah Lawrence just outside of New York City. As we were setting up for my presentation, I talked with some of the students. One of them was from South Africa. I asked her about Kwaito. “Oh, you know kwaito?”


“Yes,” I assured her, and then went on to inquire about the other South African music she liked. The name at the top of her list was Thandiswa Mazwai — not just as a singer but as a role model, someone who was making the young women of South Africa proud.


I knew of Thandiswa through Bongo Maffin, the popular group. I had viewed a short documentary on them on the internet and had been impressed with how Thandiswa spoke: straight-forward, forward thinking, conscious of who she was and the overall South African situation, respectful but also critical of Black music from America. I was anxious to hear her album.


When I finally got hold of Zabalaza I liked it but really was not bowled over. Then I ordered a DVD of a concert. And I read more.


A closer listen and then a comparison to other contemporary popular music out of South Africa opened both my ears and my understanding. I am convinced Thandiswa deserves all the accolades that have been showered on her, particularly the catch phrase that she is the Mama Africa (Miriam Makeba) of her generation.


This young lady is one of the bright futures of South Africa, but she may never blow up pop-wise on the international and American stage because she has chosen the road less traveled.


In a period when getting paid is the number one, two and three item on the agenda of most young artists, Thandiswa is working on a radically different set of priorities.


In preparation for her solo debut, Thandiswa made two decisions that are courageous.


First, she literally went back to the rural roots of her Xhosa culture, visiting the villages of her family and spending weeks with her folk.


Second, Thandiswa held open auditions and selected emerging musicians to work with her on her album. Either proposition was a big risk, mix them together and you’ve got an imposing set of problems to solve. To her credit, she pulled it off. Zabalaza (Rebellion) is a unique recording of South African popular music.


I’ve chosen four tracks from Zabalaza that impressed me. The title track, certainly. One listen and you will know why I like it. Another selection is “Nizalwa Ngobani (Do You Know Where You Come From)” with its multi-layers of music and meaning: “Are the beautiful ones really dead?”


It’s a rough and relevant question for all of us trying to make it the modern world. Then there is “Kwanele” featuring the production work of Mandla Spikiri, who played all the instruments on the track and is also the producer for Bongo Maffin.


 And finally “Transkei Moon,” which is a love song literally for her native land. “Transkei Moon” was co-produced by Bluey of Incognito fame and D-Rex, a South African producer.


It is no secret that South Africa is suffering, that in the midst of fabulous resources, there is immense poverty and seemingly intractable political problems.


Just like in the USA where Black folk face a plethora of problems while our popular music is awash in sex, braggadocio and blinging, most of South Africa’s popular music steers clear of overt political statements.


On Zabalaza the concerns are brought down front and even though some of the references may be unique to South Africa, the overall orientation speaks to the issues confronting Black folk worldwide.


It’s an old question: how to make relevant music that people feel impelled to dance to? How to build a culturally relevant career in one of the most corrupt and corrupting industries in the world: the entertainment industry?


This album was a big, big hit in South Africa. In this case, I believe the message was stronger than the music and that the response was based in part on the yearnings of the people of South Africa for peace and prosperity rather than the crime and poverty plaguing so many in that beautiful country.


Zabalaza is analogous to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? Whether American ears will hear and embrace Zabalaza as our South African cousins did is another story.


Thandiswa’s Zabalaza is an exceptionally strong offering and, hopefully, this is also the beginning of a long and fruitful career from a conscious artist.


Thandiswa on  Thandiswa:


"A lot of my life as a Black South African has to be quite rebellious. I’m lucky to be part of a generation that was able to see freedom in its own time. But it’s always a struggle to define myself as a Black person in South Africa, as a Black person on the continent, and as a Black person in the world. It’s not a very simple thing to do. I think it requires a bit of rebellion.

People don’t think that there is a need for rebellion any more. They think that because they have a Black government that things are OK, or that things will be OK. This song (Zabalaza) is to say to people look at your lives, look at your struggles, and remember that the struggle continues.

The main reason why I do what I do is to have a conversation with my community and to have a conversation with my generation. For the people who have bought my album and who have listened to my album, what I find is that every time we meet, we have a conversation about our lives as South Africans, about our lives as Black people.


For me it’s had a very positive impact because it has caused people my age to question their lives and to question what kind of future they want to build for themselves and for the coming generations."

With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


For more information, please visit Thandiswa's official website at www.thandiswa.co.za/


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