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Interview: Kwela Tebza

2010-03-15 13:24
Kwela Tebza

Why call your new album 'Made in South Africa'?
Tebogo: "It's the best of what SA has to offer, in terms of the musicians and genres featured. The album has so much flavour. There's also Theo's Afro pop ballad, "Nkhamolele", and "Better Day" featuring Tuks and Mxo. And we also do a song with Zolani from Freshylground that our father composed back in the 1950s, "Tom Hark", which sold so many records internationally, there's such a history with that song. It's a colorful CD, and we live in a Rainbow Nation country, so why not Made in South Africa?

You also collaborate with everyone from mbaqanga legends the Mahotella Queens and kwaito bad boy Mzekezeke to rock poster boys The Parlotones and more. How did these all star duets come about?
"We met The Parlotones at the Stars of Mzantsi concert and we had some synergy, we gelled with them. We liked their vibe; they liked ours; they’re also quite stylish in terms of their outfits."
Tshepo: "We've known the mamas, met them as kids...we once shared the same stage with them in France when we were starting off, and we blew away the crowds. They were impressed with the fact that we play a sound that belongs to South Africa, that's part of our heritage. So the most beautiful thing we can do is bring them back. So we called the ladies and said, 'mamas, we'd like to do your song, 'Rasta Man' with you guys, we'd like to bring our young vibrant sound and yours together. So we thought of Mzekezeke, and got Botswana rapper Zeus. This is the Mahotella Queens, you know? So we twitched it and called it 'Kwela Man'". "

Respect for tradition is a rarity in these days of fast musical fashions. Do you find the cultural amnesia of the Rainbow Nation at all problematic?
Tshepo: "As musicians we mustn't forget where we come from. We must celebrate the people who started this whole thing. And we do this by revamping their music.
Tebogo: "The youth is diverting from this path. The only musicians putting an SA stamp on things are the kwaito guys. Kalawa has truly maintained a sound. That's what we need to do. We can't really blame the young ones because they haven’t established themselves and find where they belong. Give them time. But [groups like] Jozi are sampling local musicians...I'm not saying artists shouldn't do hip-hop, pop or rap, but what's important is we embrace what our culture is all about."
Tshepo: "I blame the lack of local content on radio and TV. They've been feeding us international content. So you can't actually blame the youth because that is what they're exposed to."
Mpho: "Music is in our roots. Everything that we create needs to have a sound that comes from our country. If we don't make music, no one else will. Our music is about preserving that heritage, letting people know in 50 years where this music came from."

Speaking of roots, it must've been tough for three teenagers to nurture a love of kwela with the kwaito revolution going on?
Mpho: "Kwaito was the happening thing. So yes, we felt the pressure because the guys were doing beats, they had the clothes, the fancy cars, the women. But because of the love of kwela and the guidance we got from our parents we kept strong and knew that one day we would make it."
Tebogo: "we had the passion and determination".
Tshepo: "Our first two records never got any airplay at all. And in terms of generating royalties I'll be honest with you, it's still not big. Julius and Jacob have promised musicians it will be 80% local and 20% international, but we're still feeling the pinch. It's still not there."

Feeling the pinch? But you've toured the world, drive BMWs sounds like you're actually living la vida loca?
Mpho (chuckles): "Yes, we're feeling the pinch. But I live in Athol, Tebogo lives in Houghton, Tshepo lives in Sandton…so that shows that despite airplay, CD sales or gigs, we know how to make a living".
Tshepo (nods): "For someone who stays in Polokwane who aspires to be Kwela Tebza we can't say we're struggling. We are businessmen. We are hard workers. We need to make sure there’s an income because we have bills to pay. The whole idea now is for us to get to the next level, achieve as many goals as possible. We come from the township, but we left the township long time ago. I've been staying in the Northern suburbs for about ten years. I started hustling from a tender age, so to get where we are we've learned how to run our lives and our business."

For any band in SA success means understanding you need to become a b®and, doesn't it? How did you come up with your snappy Sophiatown style?
"When we started there was no money, we were busking outside a restaurant."
Mpho: "We played by the door as people were coming in."
Tebogo: "If you look back to the 50s most pennywhistlers were paupers who had no money. They had funny looking pants tied up with wiring and cables. So as from today, you’re going to dress up, make sure this brand and the music is well respected. When we released King Kwela we came up with this new fresh look. As Tshepo always says, 'we don’t want to look like Mafikizolo or Malaika, we don't want to look like any other band'. We want to be Kwela Tebza. If we attend any function we'd rather be late and not even walk down the red carpet because we're trying to perfect this look."
Mpho: "Whether we were struggling or happening, we've always liked beautiful things, we've always tried to be trendsetters, look sharp. Ten years ago we discovered that for us to make it, we had to have a nice pad in the Northern suburbs, drive a beautiful car. But how do you get those things? Either you work or you get into the hustle. We work for ourselves."

You've toured the world, played for Hollywood stars and enterained presidents, so what's next for Kwela Tebza?
Mpho: "What we started doesn't end here. We had a dream that one day we’d be superstars and it is growing day by day."
Tebogo: "Traveling you learn about a lot of different cultures and feed off other people’s energies. That builds your humanity. Without that we wouldn't be who we are."
Tshepo: "We are religiously driven as well. We are all here for a purpose. We have a goal to reach. We know where we come from and respect the person next to us."

Pennywhistle playing kwela kingpins Mpho, Tebogo and Tshepo Lerole chat about keeping homegrown musical traditions alive, their new Sama-nominated urban pop all stars album, Made in South Africa and more.
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