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Interview: Thandiswa Mazwai talks

2009-01-29 05:53
 
The Afro-pop songbird chats about sidestepping celebrity to channel a collective soul consciousness on her new CD, Ibokwe.
Interview: Thandiswa
 

It's been five years since your last album, Zabalaza. Was writing new songs such a painful creative process?
(Laughs) It was! You know, I started making my album in 2007 and I only managed to finish it at the end of 2008. No, it was about patience because I believe in making music instinctively; not being - what's the word - not being formulaic or pedantic about how you make music. Just kind of relax and do what comes naturally, you know, going back to how children create. A child just makes a drawing they don’t think what it’s going to look like. So I had to kind of go back to that inner child, that creator within me and trust it. It took me quite a while. Sometimes I’d have one piece of a song and that’s all I’d have for three months and I'm sitting there trying to figure out what the next piece of this puzzle is. In this album I've tried very hard to bring out the sound - the things that I'm hearing in my head, and not someone else’s interpretation of me. I think this is a true reflection of what my music is.

Watch videos
Ibokwe: Interview
Ibokwe: Live

Was there any pressure from your record label, Gallo to write a hit single for radio?
I was lucky because the record company kind of left me alone. I wasn't really under pressure to create anything in particular. They just left me alone to do whatever I wanted to do. Lucky enough they found a radio single.

Indeed, "Ingoma" is currently on high rotation on urban stations like MetroFM. It features a special colab doesn't it?
(Grins) Bra Hugh Masekela is on one song. What happened was that he came into the studio and fell in love with the song - the whole album - and he was like "so, don’t you need any trumpet solos?" And I was like, "yes, yes, yes!"

It's a beautiful ballad, but why does it end so abruptly?
(Nodding) I know I know. I like that. For me, when we made the mix of that one song and I had it on tape every time it cut I just had to go back to the beginning because I was like 'no! There must be more to this'. The reality for me in making the song was that as great as love is, sometimes it does come to an abrupt, unexplainable, painful ending. And that's the truth about love. And I didn't want to lie what love is.

Speaking of honesty, you’re pretty outspoken about the fact that you haven’t got much time for the current culture of celebrity?
I know that it's hard for people to understand, but I am not interested in the awards, or the accolades or anything for that matter to do with the fame side of things. I make the work and the work is sort of like a diary of my life at that time. And because that's what it is I don't believe I need approval, you know for what my life is. I don't need a stamp saying this is "good" or this is "bad" or whatever, you know? I really don't engage with that so much. But it seems to be part of what I do unfortunately, so every now and then you know, I'm in some newspaper or something. But that’s not what my work is about. My work is about getting my emotions out, about dealing with my life, and making sure I survive every day.

Do you see yourself as part of a new generation of young African songbirds picking up the torch of Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka and Dolly Rathebe?
I don't necessarily see myself in that way, but I do have…a personal need. It's not something that I think is my responsibility to my community. But I do have a personal need to not lose my tradition, to not lose my language, to not lose my memory about the things, my history. And so my work always reflects that. There was a time when I felt alone, you know? I felt like I was the only one who seems to thinking this way. But now there are so many more musicians that seem to be carrying the same message that I do. There is, of course…what's the word? People are experiencing some kind of cultural identity crisis. But I don't think it’s as bad as it used to be. I do see a lot more people being more accepting of…even little things like an African perspective to beauty. There are a lot more people who are more accepting of their natural hair, their voluptuous beauty than they used to be….

What are some of your other influences on Ibokwe?
I am a huge fan of Miles Davis. A lot of this work was influenced by his….you know, the way Miles worked. You know, Miles never wanted to repeat the same thing twice. Nothing was out for Miles. He wasn’t just a jazz musician. It was about music. And so, I loved that spirit, you know? But yeah, it’s also influenced by Fela, and Busi Mhlongo, and the sound of the Transkei, the sound of the women in the Transkei, the traditional doctors, so the sound of the drums is what influenced this work. I’m not very words-y, and I’m not very good with using many words…But what I want to, what I want to….

Communicate?

Communicate, thank you. What I want to communicate is the feeling. And I think that the feeling is in the melody. It's not so much in the words. So what I paid attention to was whether the melody said what it needed to say. The simple answer is that the music – in my view - comes from the universe. It comes from, you know that collective consciousness, that collective memory that we all have with the past, and the future and the present. And in my mind those voices speak Xhosa. (Chuckles) As an instrument to the music, I have to keep the music's integrity. And the music is in Xhosa, you know? I don't write the music, I receive the music and sing it how it wants to be sung. And this is how these songs want to be sung.

Are you happy with being marketed as an Afro-pop or Afro-soul singer?
I don't know what the music is. It is soulful music because it is music that comes from the soul. Not even from the heart, it comes from beyond the heart in the soul. So I guess it is soul-full in some sense. But it’s hard to categorise the music, I wish people wouldn't but I guess they have to sometimes.

Whoever encoded Ibokwe's digital ID tags was creative - if you slip the CD into iTunes it's categorised as 'alternative'!
Am I 'alternative'? I used to be 'world music'. And sometimes it's 'reggae'....'Alternative' makes me think of a white band! (Laughs) A crazy rock band with long hair!

In iTunes you also receive an intriguing sub-billing: "Thandiswa, African Fly Machine".
Oh really, that’s so cool. That's [what it says] on iTunes?

It does, where does the 'African Fly Machine' concept come from?
It's like 'the fly machine', yo? (laughs) It's hard to explain. A fly machine is something that, that flies – that takes off. But you know, it's also in the way we'd say it: 'fly matshien'; which makes it…..like it's rough, it's strong, you know, you can't penetrate it? It's a fly matshien. It's a soldier, you know? I don't know where that idea came from. But that's what I am…(chuckles)

What's next for Thandiswa, what's the master plan?
I really don’t know…the plan is to not be broke! (Laughs) No I'm not broke. No! What is the plan? I mean I don't know. The plan was to make the work and now that the work is done I really don’t know what the next step is. I just make the work. And then I wait….. I don't know what's supposed to happen next. What I know for sure is that I'm going to be travelling the world with my band or without 'cos that’s the one thing I love to do. I love getting on a plane and going to different places and experiencing different things and meeting musicians.

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