We chat to Thandiswa Mazwai about her new album

2016-11-20 06:00

Johannesburg - In the past few years, whenever Thandiswa Mazwai’s name came up, she was spoken about in reverent tones. Her massive talent, her music – both as a solo artist and lead singer of Bongo Maffin – remained timeless, political, jazzy, with Xhosa rhythms, funk, soul and kwaito flowing effortlessly.

I ask her why she "went away" from music and she answers, with a smile: "I haven’t been away from music ... I think I have been away from publicity."

It’s a cool Thursday afternoon, and, after choosing our delicious loose leaf tea at the cutesy Yswara Tea Room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Maboneng in downtown Jozi, we settle down and chat.

"After being in the industry for 20 years, I didn’t want people asking me, ‘Where were you born?’, ‘Why do you...’, and I also realised that, as much as I believe that music is divine, fame actually alienates ... I felt alienated, so I kinda felt like an object, something to be looked at and it just became uncomfortable being in the public eye,” she says.

"I am someone who loves Joburg. I grew up here and I live here. Joburg is home and I’ve always hung out in Soweto and downtown and uptown Joburg. I really felt uncomfortable with the inability to just be, so I stopped doing press, I stopped going to functions, stopped doing interviews, just so people could forget about the famous version of me and take me as I am."

Asking to be forgotten when you are widely considered one of your country’s greatest contemporary artists is a tall ask, especially when your last work was so well received, as is the case with all Thandiswa’s solo releases.

So, did the public take her as she was?

"In fact, they did...” she says, nodding, then she pauses and says excitedly: “No, no, actually. I don’t think people took me as I was, they started to mistake me for someone else because they didn’t know who I was any more..."

It seemed to lead to the creation of a mythology about her, and I ask if she agrees that it exists. 

"There is definitely a myth about Thandiswa Mazwai, and a lot of people know me, but they don’t know where they know me from. Sometimes I am Zolani from Freshlyground, especially for white people, and they go: ‘I can see you are trying to hide, but you are Zolani from Freshlyground’, and I go: ‘Yes, I am trying to hide, but not because I am Zolani...’"

We cry with laughter. She continues, between laughs: "There was one time, backstage at a show, and I was literally dressed to go on stage. So there’s no confusing me with someone else, I am literally in my Thandiswa Mazwai attire, and a man comes up to me with his phone and says: ‘Uxolo sisi, ndicela i-interview?’ [Excuse me, sisi, can I please have an interview?], and usually when someone says that, I go: ‘Oo hhayi bhuti, eish, eish, perhaps...’, but he begged and begged. So I went to the side to chat to him. And he checks his mic and says excitedly: ‘So, Zahara, tell me about your recent success...’" We scream with laughter again.

"I’ve actually enjoyed the anonymity I’ve had, and I guess now that I’m doing interviews again I’m going to get back into the public eye. I don’t want to do it, although...” She pauses, then adds mischievously: “Fame does sometimes get you booty.." We cackle with laughter some more.


Mazwai’s return to the public eye is ahead of the release of her nine-track jazz album Belede – named after her late mother, who always was an immense source of inspiration. It came out of years of playing with her band: “I have been working with this band and we were reinterpreting my music, and I really wanted to do an album with this band, and I couldn’t think of an idea. But, Bra Hugh [Masekela] had dropped a seed a few years ago and said: ‘Why don’t you do an album of covers?’ and I thought, well, jazz lends itself to covering the work of other people. If you listen to any jazz vocal album, there will be revisitations of songs, so I decided to revisit some of my favourite songs.”

(Photo: Frennie Shivambu)

The result is music by Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Busi Mhlongo, Dorothy Masuka and other heavyweights. In addition to being songs Mazwai liked, they were also songs she wanted to sing in light of the ongoing #FeesMustFall student protests, such as the first single, Jikijela.

"I also wanted to pay tribute to these musicians because many of them were friends of mine. I am so lucky that, in my twenties, I had Miriam Makeba and I could ask her what she thought I should do or sing. Being friends with Busi Mhlongo is one of the best relationships I have had in my life. It was unrestricted – she was older than me and she was supposed to act like a parent, but instead acted like a best friend and that was really great. And Hugh Masekela remains one of my dearest friends, so it was about paying tribute to these people and also reimagining their work for a contemporary time, even though I am using quite a mature medium. It’s also about creating a space where younger artists can sample the music and know that they are sampling the work of Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu ... songs that they might not have been sure how to access before. Also, in South Africa, we don’t have a culture of tribute and iconifying, where someone is iconified to the point where they can’t be touched ... just creating a space where the greats can be elevated..."

(Photo: Tebogo Letsie)

I ask whether, in iconifying the greats, she intended to be iconified herself. "On some level, I was thinking how good it would be to be mentioned [with them]? You know, Nina Simone, Letta Mbulu, Thandiswa Mazwai... So it was, on some subconscious level, I think, a way to attach myself to the greats, not so that you can consider me as great as them, but because that’s the music lineage that I follow... Because when you talk about who they influenced, you can talk about me... For instance, which African artist wasn’t inspired by Mam’ Miriam Makeba? Even Busi Mhlongo was inspired by her; she used to tell me that she used Miriam to practise her singing ... Kaja Nin, Angélique Kidjo..."

Return to her throne

“I am glad I waited ... I am so glad I waited. There was something Lauryn Hill said when she was younger and it was basically about how you need the time to be a student. You are a student, then you are a teacher, and the artist cannot share anything if you haven’t learnt anything. Otherwise, I’m just going to come back and talk about who I was with last week. It’s also about wanting the voices [in public] to keep quiet. I meet people every day who say: ‘Sisi, we need you. We can’t live without you... Akhonto ’yenzekayo apha sisi, sifuna wena ngoku’ [There’s nothing happening, we need you now], and I’m like, ‘Oh snap!’ The one time I said to this chick: ‘You sound like you are looking for an album from Winnie Mandela, it’s not me, honey.’ It’s difficult to have to deal with the mythology and iconifying of yourself while you are still trying to find yourself.

(Photo: Dudu Zitha)

“And it would be scary if I internalised it, because I make what feels right to me ... and that means that what I do won’t resonate with everyone. I did have an experience that resonated with everyone and that was Zabalaza, but that’s not why I made it, and that’s not why I made this album, because I can’t make music around an idea people have for me and can’t please everyone.

“I am making an erotic album; people will not understand the idea of Thandiswa and eroticism, because apparently Thandiswa is ‘asexual’, which is the complete antithesis of who I am. It’s something I want to work on and look at: African eroticism, what is black eroticism, what is black female eroticism and what is black female eroticism directed at other women? Also, just to break down this idea of Africans not being sexual. There are things we don’t speak about and spaces we don’t inhabit, as if the sexual act is just for procreation, and I think that some people who are my fans won’t want to hear that because it erodes the African thing... And, well, I am a 21st-century Xhosa woman living in Joburg; the expression is quite different. So, I don’t worry about what people want me to make. I make what I want to make and hope it resonates with someone, and that doesn’t even need to be more than one person."

Belede will be released on November 25. For news, follow Mazwai on Twitter here.

*We are giving five lucky readers double tickets to the launch of Belede on 24 November at The Soweto Theatre, as well as a copy of the album. To win, SMS your name, surname, email address, province and the keyword THANDISWA to 34217. To buy tickets, available from R200, visit webtickets.co.za or sowetotheatre.com.

(Photos: Supplied)

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