Bongeziwe Mabandla: Going Back To His Roots

Written by: Tiisetso Tlelima

If SABC 1’s Live and Music Lounge shows are anything to go by, it’s pretty clear that the majority of South African youth are repulsed by traditional African sounds like mbaqanga and isicathamiya. They’d rather listen to hip musos such as Rihanna, Keri Hilson, Teargas or Winnie Khumalo. While I personally have nothing against these artists, I find myself constantly yearning for some diversity: something fresh, innovative and truly African. Occasionally, young musicians fuse old sounds like kwela and that of the pennywhistle as Mafikizolo and Kwela Tebza have done. Even though we welcome this effort, none of these bands with the exception of Bongo Maffin, makes music that has longevity. Sure they are leaving a mark in pop culture, but their songs are mostly flavour-of-the-month type of music. Having said that, there are plenty young and gifted musicians playing traditional African music in South Africa, they’re just not given a platform to showcase their talent in mainstream media.

24-year-old afro-folk muso, Bongeziwe Mabandla is one of them and his unique blend of mbaqanga, hip-hop, dub and soul seem to be making waves in Joburg’s live music scene. His songs are soothing, emotive and deeply-rooted in traditional Xhosa music. “I don’t know what draws me to African music, it just blows me away,” he says beaming. He admits that even though he was exposed to traditional music while growing up, he showed no interest in it at first. Growing up in rural Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, traditional Xhosa music was sung almost everyday particularly during ceremonies and rituals. But like most young people he thought traditional music had an aura of primitiveness about it that was just not cool. “We come from a society that said who we are, isn’t good enough,” he explains. “I come from that generation of people who just wanted to be white and anything that was black was backward, unimportant and maybe a bit scary.” Thanks to Bongo Maffin, Bongeziwe’s perception of African music changed tremendously: not only does he appreciate it more now, but he’s also contributing to its preservation. “When I first saw Bongo Maffin’s “Thathi’sgubu” video, it was the first time I saw Africa being glamourized and I just remember falling in love with it,” recalls Bongeziwe.

Bongeziwe & The Fridge performing at House of Nsako. Photo by: Tiisetso Tlelima

As a result of his growing interest in Africa and its music he took up guitar lessons when he was 17 years old. But music didn’t seem like a viable career path at the time, so when he matriculated from Grey Arts Academy he moved to Jozi and enrolled at AFDA to study drama. “I wanted to be an actor, but after a year and a half, I switched to music,” Bongeziwe says. This young muso, who has appeared on Generations as a call-actor occasionally, says acting is boring. “With music I can make things more personal unlike acting where you take someone’s script and hope you interpret it right.” Nevertheless, he admits that studying drama has taught him a great deal and makes the process of song writing a little easier. “Learning drama helped me in terms of storytelling because a lot of writing songs is about narrative and playing with words.”

While studying at AFDA, he started playing solo gigs for free around campus which earned him recognition as a budding musician amongst students. Of course, in the beginning he tried to imitate his idols, Bongo Maffin, until he found his own voice. He now draws inspiration from a variety of musicians ranging from Busi Mhlongo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Jabu Khanyile and Simphiwe Dana to Tracy Chapman and Lauryn Hill. “I can’t say I’m influenced by one type of music – its things that come naturally,” he says. “I love mbaqanga and folk, but I also like beats, hip-hop and soul – that younger type of sound. So, we experiment in studio and try to fuse the genres.

In 2007, he met 340ml drummer Paulo Chibanga who helped him hone his skill and has been his mentor since. Soon after, he started playing gigs in Joburg’s popular venues like House of Nsako accompanied by his band, The Fridge. 2008 saw him record his EP Umlilo, meaning “The Cry”, through 340ml record label. Although the album is a personal journey of self-discovery, Bongeziwe is adamant that other people will also relate to it. He explains that he sees young people dealing with the same struggles as he is and constantly searching for who they are. His maturity, his love for everything that is African and his unmatched sound, certainly makes me feel all warm inside. And I can’t wait to see what more he has to offer!

Bongeziwe is currently working on a new album due for release in Feb 2010. Watch this space!

Read our review of his EP Umlilo, listen to his songs on his myspace page or watch his first music video “Isizathu” below.