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Interview - Simphiwe Dana - Meet Simphiwe Dana, SA's new Diva

2006-03-29 11:03

Her debut album, Zandisile, earned her no less than four South African Music Award nominations: Best Newcomer, Best Female Artist, Best Jazz Vocal and Best Female Composer for the song "Zandisile". Produced by Thapelo Khomo, himself a SAMA winner and a one-time Stimela member who has produced and remixed a range of artists from Jeff Maluleke to Wendy Oldfield. Zandisile also features vibrant collaborations with MXO, Carlo Mombelli and Modjadji.

Simphiwe Dana is accurately described as "a powerful emerging South African vocalist" and "the best thing to happen to Afro-soul music since Miriam Makeba.

Evan Milton, MWEB: Your first album has been so widely acclaimed and appreciated, but you haven't always been involved in music?

Simphiwe Dana: From the beginning, music was a dream for me. It was what I wanted to do, but what I dreamed wasn't anything I really thought was possible to achieve. I guess at some point in life, I starting believing in the dream.

MWEB: What is that dream?

SD: I'm also doing it in terms of how I view music as an art form. Music is art, for starters. As art, it must come from the inside. For me it is basically a journey - me trying to find myself is how I found music. I don't think I was trying to be a superstar when I was writing; if I was, I would not have found the things I did.

MWEB: What did you find?

SD: I think the first thing really was trying to find God. What I found was that he wasn't out there, somewhere in the sky, but inside of us. We are all individual sparks of God. I ended up accepting myself as a human being, and as an African,

MWEB: Where there any influences on this journey, musically?
SD: I usually say that music wasn't the biggest influence on my musical career - melody was. The human experience inspired my music, the people I met, the stuff I experienced, I remember growing up, and I didn't really have much music other than the music on the radio, which was pop songs. Real music, our music, wasn't sanctioned on the radio, so it was mostly R'nB from America.

MWEB: Your music is very definitely African, yet you say you didn't hear much of that when you were growing up?

SD: It is a bit difficult for us to evolve as African when we are not exposed to our own music. Growing up in the rural areas, you are around people a bit more who are in tune with the cultural roots. It helped my self, musically, the act of reaching g out, trying to be as one to a whole lot of different things.

MWEB: That's the African part; has your music been influenced specifically b the fact that you are an African woman?

SD: Every woman in South African, in fact all over the world, wants emancipation. In other words, they want to do what they want to do in whatever way they want to do it, I address that in my music in a couple of songs. I feel as a woman in general, and even more as a black woman, that I am a little bit devalued. We are looked down on, in how people will approach you, or the things they will say to you. Or it's in the family, you are taught to behave differently than how boys are told to behave.

[In the traditional African family] you are taught there is a reason for everything, for why things must be as they are, and I am still trying to find that reason for everything. I could definitely say that women are in oppression in the country, and that needs to be revisited and understood. It is quite... what's the word... complicated? It's a complicated situation because... first of all there's the issue... [pauses, gathers herself]

There is a writer, Frantz Fanon [Black Skin, White Masks, 1952; The Wretched of the Earth, 1961; Toward the African Revolution, 1967 - Ed]? He says that when people have been oppressed, but they can't take out their anger on the people that have oppressed them, they take it inward and take out their anger on themselves. It destroys themselves and their families. I think we might be dealing with a situation like that. We've got a whole lot of issues as Africans, and we need to look at them and we need to talk.

MWEB: Let's talk about the songs, please select two that you would like to tell us about.

"Zandisile" is a song for a person like me, for a person who has a dream and is working her ass of to make that dream happen, who just believes they would not have that dream if it was not one that could be fulfilled. They are encountering all sorts of obstacles in order to make that dream a reality, and getting to the point where they feel like they can't do anything anymore. You've done all you can, but you get more power, given from a higher entity, whatever that entity might be. We all have a different view on that, but the song is about calling to that higher entity to fulfil a dream.

The last song on the album, "Chula ukunyathela" is acapella. It's really about congratulating women for all they have done. African women have held their families together. Through everything they went through, they have been having to educate their children, and they made sure they grew up to be sensible individuals while being oppressed by society as a whole and also by the opposite sex. They pushed through all of that. We tried not to see those real achievements, but they are the miracles that have made our country.

MWEB: Zandisile is your debut album - what was it like taking your songs into the studio?

SD: I wrote most of the songs acapella, except for one, and most of them were written by the time the record label [Gallo - Ed] approached me. They were lyrically and vocally arranged by me, and the record company assigned a producer who added the instrumentation.

MWEB: How did you feel about surrendering some control to a producer?

I was actually quite unsure of adding instrumentation to the music. My intention had been for me to do it acapella, but Thapelo Khomo is a wonderful producer. He listened to me, and he was humble enough to consult me on the music. He wanted to find out why I did things, and to find out my idea of the instrumentation.

MWEB: There has been widespread acclaim for the album, with the press quick to draw comparisons with Miriam Makeba and others. How do you feel about such comparisons?

SD: I feel that, at this point in my life, I feel I should not really be compared to anybody - that might stunt my growth if I am not clever. I feel that I respect the artists that have gone before me, and they are part of what has made me the individual that I am. I cannot be compared to them yet, being a diva takes time; you have to go through a whole lot first, and that takes time.

- Evan Milton

Simphiwe Dana is the talk of the South African jazz, soul and African music worlds. She was so popular at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival that organisers were compelled to schedule an additional appearance after the 600-seater Moses Mololekwa venue was filled to capacity within minutes with at least twice that number unable to gain admission.
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