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Thandiswa Mazwai Opens Up

Mazwai had just released her first DVD in 2010 when she took time out to speak to MusikMag (for the print version of the magazine) about her music and its making, politics, tabloid journalism and the general state of affairs in Mzansi.

Words by Madala Thepa

Tabloid journalism cannot be trusted with the formative years.

It was partly responsible for extending its editorial limbs far into the private lives of its subjects. Reckless freshmen, steeled in the dark arts of digging dirt for dirt’s sake, eager to damage egos, where set loose on the new path of post apartheid’s frivolous acquisition “celebrity”.

When the gains of freedom were counted, celebration was the key word. That is pretty much how we came to know the nuts and bolts of tabloid journalism as they were – to celebrate and demonise. Thandiswa Mazwai was the villain the tabloid loved to crucify. She had the right formula. She was talented, erratic and contentious – part of what the news hounds craved in a star. They wanted to open a Pandora’s box and milk the creepy factor.

So a gasp-in-horror piece was more likely to make it in print than say, a positive write up. No wonder she is not fond of tabloid journalism or a strand of journalists working in that format of news – the type that belittles and deliberately misquotes, indulging in personal taboos – dysfunctional relationships and mocking the intellectual deficit of their subject.

For many months Mazwai has not featured in gossip columns anywhere. In fact it seems likely that in two years she has not made the headlines on a Sunday. She buried her soul into a solo career. She was given the palette to paint her narrative and in no time she found the right colours. The release of her solo project Zabalaza (2005), an album full of rhythm, movement and the delicate dynamics of afro-pop made her into a super star. Although the framework set up was not different from that of her group Bongo Muffin, it became apparent that she was acquiring the skills of a solo artist. From then on she avoided the run of the mill newspaper journalists.

 “You must understand that I grew up in a family of journalists (her father is former journalist and media owner Thami Mazwai). So I should know what’s real,” she says. “The manner in which it was practiced is different from what we have now. The overriding concern for me is that there is a lot of misconception of who you are as a person.

One day you will be sitting down for an interview with a journalist and the next thing you know what is printed is totally different from the original script. It’s a total misrepresentation of the person. I would want to believe that you share the intimate details of your life with a journalist and the least you expect from that person is misrepresentation of facts.”

 She stops and thinks about it. “Basically I had issues with the type of journalists who I think epitomise tabloid journalism. And I did call them out in the past,” she says.

 Why don’t you write a song about bad journalism?

“Nah,” she says.

“I never think… look, I have people in the media who I call when I have a certain confusion, people like Hugh Masekela. He would ask me if they had spelled my name right and when I answer yes, then he would say it really doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they have spelled your name right.”

 Fresh from a guitar lesson she finds time to talk about her music, politics and life in general. Mazwai is learning to play guitar – strumming patterns, hammer-ons and delving into sharps and flats. Everything that a beginner is expected to learn. We are not familiar yet with her prowess or the progress she is making learning the instrument but her tutor, she told us, says she is a fast learner, has obvious inclination to strings – has a natural talent.

 Mazwai had a love affair with strings before that dates back ten years ago. She bought a bass and never got around playing it. The purchase was solely inspired by Brenda Fassie’s song Weekend Special – the bass in the song. Her second love was the piano, drawn to it by Thelonius Monk first and then Moses Molelekwa.  She can only play a few rudimentary notes on the piano – nothing serious just playful learner interpretation. The strings came back to haunt her.

 “Now it’s the guitar. I love it,” she says.

 A story of her life cannot be written without exploring her relationships with the older generation of musicians. She was close to Busi Mhlongo and when she died she was devastated. We achieve nothing from the conversation. There is this awkward silence that prolongs.

“I think we went through a lot of emotions together,” she finally says. But we realise that you just don’t broach the subject this early after Mhlongo’s death. “That wasn’t easy – the total annihilation of her soul. Her death left me very scared of life and death.”

The silence is sustained. We decide to launch a new subject. Stylistically Ibokwe (2009), her second album is much more intense than Zabalaza. The narrative reference in this album is otherworldly, a spiritual journey past the self-gratification and socio-political strand of the first. Where Zabalaza questions the meaning of the struggle, its progress and failures, Ibokwe reconstructs the identity of self.

“I think the inspiration, was ultimately my mother’s death. I wanted to remember her memory. It became important to remember what my mother taught me. It revealed a need for me to understand my history a lot and cultural identity – to bring that journey in the public space,” she says.

“Zabalaza was different in the sense that it was much more conscious. It was saying these are the issues and that memory is important. Ndin’khonzile is one of the songs I wrote in which I included the Freedom Charter back into the public space. I was basically saying it is well and good that we have the constitution but are we able to translate those values and make them a reality.”

“Ibokwe is about ancestral memory. For me it was a moment of surrendering to the voice and experience what it can do. The song Iyeza was the most surprising of them all. The voice was unfamiliar to me. It felt like I was speaking in tongues while Ingoma has a gentle appeal to it,” she says.

“Ibokwe was a spiritual journey. It was this spiritual thing that I wanted to engage. Madosini taught me the importance of music connecting to the ethereal energy, connecting the living and the dead. So this album is tapping in methods that were cultural to me.”

Madosini is another older voice that she connected to like she did with Mhlongo.

 “I received the songs…they came in dreams. I received these songs with eyes closed. Zabalaza was received or conceived with eyes open, with the conscious mind. I was awake when the album was done. I knew the format and where I wanted the music to go. Ibokwe was done with eyes closed. So it was important for me to go back home to explore spirituality,” she says.

“I felt somehow displaced moving from Transkei to Soweto. Ibokwe relates the displacement, mirrors that experience of going back to the life that apartheid eroded. I was basically going back to the stories, to the language, to the source. I was going to a space of spirituality away from the physical where you can feel and touch everything. I felt expanded by the experience.”

Not everyone gets to be given the space to dream up a new path in the recording industry – especially in South African where reiteration of music is standard. The release of Zabalaza and then Ibokwe somehow changed the landscape.

“At that time there was nothing in popular culture that was like Zabalaza. Everywhere I turned there was something that wanted assimilation. The aesthetic value of Zabalaza was leaning more on political issues. Like I said I wanted to redefine myself. So it was discussing the politics of being me. So it was different in that sense when it came out. No one was doing that in popular culture,” she says.

“With Ibokwe I was lucky in the sense that the record company left me to do what I wanted to do. They did not know what I was doing. It was very late into the game that I gave them my first four songs. From then on I felt the pressure to complete it,” she says.

Ibokwe was different also in the way it was packaged.

“The artwork on the cover of Ibokwe was done by an artist from California and his name is Gan. Initially I wanted to work with a graffiti artist from here but somehow I could not get hold of him. My idea of the cover was an African cyborg – a machine type of expression and this second idea was Gan’s,” she says.

“It took long to finish. It was two years straight working the album Ibokwe. I mean day and night everyday. And the main reason was the process. I waited for the songs to come to me. I was sitting home waiting. I wanted the album to reflect my vision. I was obsessed with the rhythm, the horns, everything. Even though I did not play a single instrument on the album I wanted it to come out the way I envisioned.”

But we press her more to reveal reasons of constructing an album with political overtones.

“The major thing is that freedom is a restless place,” she says. “I say that because there is peace in freedom. Even in the public strikes that took place here some months back, these are people seeking freedom. These are people who are dissatisfied with what is happening. These are people with expectations.”

“I was trying to find the calm in this freedom and the expectation is that freedom is linked to peace, justice and comfort in the spirit. It was no longer enough for me to philosophise about it, to talk about it or think about it. It came to a point where I needed a resolution. ”

“The majority of South Africans are confused and angry. I’m just in a state of discontent myself because I expected more. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations because when freedom came I was 16 years old. I was raised on the ideas of BC, Kwame Nkrumah, Biko, Franz Fanon, reading Chinua Achebe these are the words I have been raised on,” she says.

“I have traveled the whole world. I have absorbed so much in my traveling – history, culture and music. The last trip I took was to China, Beijing. I was in the communist China where I bought the Red Book, the original copy that was first published in 1969 and got to understand the situation there. China has a history of obliterating history just like us. In fact to be honest I don’t know what the hell is happening here. We are just innocent bystanders, pitifully waiting to give the politicians the votes.”

“I would like this government to be bold. Look what Cuba has done with their arts, culture and heritage. If you value certain things enough this is what you do. Many things are displaced in this country. How does Kippie’s sit there like a white elephant? This is supposed to be a heritage site. See how people are easily forgotten, people like Phuzekhemisi and others. His music requires us to be conscious. Instead what we have today is this ayobaness crowd. That is the crowd that is getting attention.”

Do you feel you need to apologise for what you say?

“I feel that I can say what I want to say in this country. For example in the song Ndimkhonzile, the song kind of looks at the mob blind following and it ultimately came home with the administration of Jacob Zuma. You look at the footage on the screen and ask yourself what is it that drives this mob? The mob has a certain kind of psychology,” she says.

So are you not concerned of the reprisals or for not being billed to perform on government gigs?

“The concept of censoring people and shutting them down on opportunities like gigs, I have long discarded it in my mind. I don’t play this game.”

How can music be saved?

“What needs to happen is that music needs to go back to the people. Music needs to be accessible to the people. There should be a culture of playing in communities. Musicians should be available to the people. We need to support the community,” she says.

“There are some songs that have sacred my life. Simphiwe Dana’s Ndiredi, there is Busi Mhlongo, Fela Kuti. It is music that cleanses and blesses you. If it were not because of access I would have not heard it.”

*Mazwai’s first DVD which features music from her two solo albums and a few songs from Bongo Muffin is now for sale at all good stores.

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