THANDISWA / “Nizalwa Ngobani (Do You Know Where You Come From)”

A lot of my life as a Black South African has to be quite rebellious. I’m lucky to be part of a generation that was able to see freedom in its own time. But it’s always a struggle to define myself as a Black person in South Africa, as a Black person on the continent, and as a Black person in the world. It’s not a very simple thing to do. I think it requires a bit of rebellion. People don’t think that there is a need for rebellion any more. They think that because they have a Black government that things are OK, or that things will be OK. This song (Zabalaza) is to say to people look at your lives, look at your struggles, and remember that the struggle continues. The main reason why I do what I do is to have a conversation with my community and to have a conversation with my generation. For the people who have bought my album and who have listened to my album, what I find is that every time we meet, we have a conversation about our lives as South Africans, about our lives as Black people. For me it’s had a very positive impact because it has caused people my age to question their lives and to question what kind of future they want to build for themselves and for the coming generations. —Thandiswa
In the spring of 2006, I was at Sarah Lawrence just outside of New York City. As we were setting up for my presentation, I talked with some of the students. One of them was from South Africa. I asked her about Kwaito. “Oh, you know kwaito?” “Yes,” I assured her, and then went on to inquire about the other South African music she liked. The name at the top of her list was Thandiswa Mazwai—not just as a singer but as a role model, someone who was making the young women of South Africa proud. I knew of Thandiswa through Bongo Maffin, the popular group. I had viewed a short documentary on them on the internet and had been impressed with how Thandiswa spoke: straight-forward, forward thinking, conscious of who she was and the overall South African situation, respectful but also critical of Black music from America. I was anxious to hear her album. When I finally got hold of Zabalaza I liked it but really was not bowled over. Then I ordered a DVD of a concert. And I read more. A closer listen and then a comparison to other contemporary popular music out of South Africa opened both my ears and my understanding. I am convinced Thandiswa deserves all the accolades that have been showered on her, particularly the catch phrase that she is the Mama Africa (Miriam Makeba) of her generation. thandiswa 05.jpg This young lady is one of the bright futures of South Africa, but she may never blow up pop-wise on the international and American stage because she has chosen the road less traveled. In a period when getting paid is the number one, two and three item on the agenda of most young artists, Thandiswa is working on a radically different set of priorities. In preparation for her solo debut, Thandiswa made two decisions that are courageous. First, she literally went back to the rural roots of her Xhosa culture, visiting the villages of her family and spending weeks with her folk. Second, Thandiswa held open auditions and selected emerging musicians to work with her on her album. Either proposition was a big risk, mix them together and you’ve got an imposing set of problems to solve. To her credit, she pulled it off. Zabalaza (Rebellion) is a unique recording of South African popular music. I’ve chosen four tracks from Zabalaza that impressed me. The title track, certainly. One listen and you will know why I like it. Another selection is “Nizalwa Ngobani (Do You Know Where You Come From)” with its multi-layers of music and meaning: “Are the beautiful ones really dead?” It’s a rough and relevant question for all of us trying to make it the modern world. Then there is “Kwanele” featuring the production work of Mandla Spikiri, who played all the instruments on the track and is also the producer for Bongo Maffin. And finally “Transkei Moon,” which is a love song literally for her native land. “Transkei Moon” was co-produced by Bluey of Incognito fame and D-Rex, a South African producer. thandiswa 04.jpg It is no secret that South Africa is suffering, that in the midst of fabulous resources, there is immense poverty and seemingly intractable political problems. Just like in the USA where Black folk face a plethora of problems while our popular music is awash in sex, braggadocio and blinging, most of South Africa’s popular music steers clear of overt political statements. On Zabalaza the concerns are brought down front and even though some of the references may be unique to South Africa, the overall orientation speaks to the issues confronting Black folk worldwide. It’s an old question: how to make relevant music that people feel impelled to dance to? How to build a culturally relevant career in one of the most corrupt and corrupting industries in the world: the entertainment industry? This album was a big, big hit in South Africa. In this case, I believe the message was stronger than the music and that the response was based in part on the yearnings of the people of South Africa for peace and prosperity rather than the crime and poverty plaguing so many in that beautiful country. Zabalaza is analogous to Marvin’s What’s Going On? Whether American ears will hear and embrace Zabalaza as our South African cousins did is another story. Thandiswa’s Zabalaza is an exceptionally strong offering and, hopefully, this is also the beginning of a long and fruitful career from a conscious artist. —Kalamu ya Salaam         Now I hear it....         Now here's some music from a young South African that I can get into. If you're not feeling it right away, give it a minute. Like Kalamu, the first time I heard Thandiswa's music, I wasn't exactly bowled over. It wasn't like TKZee, I didn't actually dislike it, it just didn't do much for me. It sounded ordinary. But earlier this week, I was working on something or the other and I put these four tracks on. I got into what I was doing and forgot to take them off of repeat. The strange thing is, the longer they played, the better they started to sound. Now I hear it. "Nizalwa Ngobani" is both anthemic and joyous. It has that tinge of sadness to it too—that indefinable "something" that Africa-descended folk all over the world seem to feel, whether they call it sodade, saudade, or just 'the blues.' I also like the nice, mellow groove of the title cut, but my favorite tune is "Transkei Moon." Makes me think of something like The Jones Girls' "Nights Over Egypt" mixed with a little of that prototypical Sade groove. I wasn't surprised to hear that Bluey had a hand in it. Good stuff. —Mtume ya Salaam  

This entry was posted on Saturday, May 27th, 2006 at 11:55 pm and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “THANDISWA / “Nizalwa Ngobani (Do You Know Where You Come From)””

tayari kwa salaam Says:
May 29th, 2006 at 7:38 pm

Good to hear that this sistuh is raising issues n standin in her culture/politics. She’s lettin me know that bein bout culture is political n being political necessitates culture. Thanks for lettin me know about her.

Qawi Robinson Says:
May 30th, 2006 at 1:10 pm

Excellent. I wonder if she was an American R&B Artist or if India.Arie recorded this song, would it receive more acclaim? This song reminds me of a mash up of many artists/groups…Family Stand comes to mind. Some have called her the Mariam Makeba of her generation. We’ll find that out in due time, but from the samples of her album, I am impressed.

ekere Says:
June 9th, 2006 at 4:38 pm

Ok, I’m late. It’s true. But for some reason, i couldn’t hear all of the music. Still haven’t heard it. But I wanted to add my two cents anyway and say that I am really, really loving Simphiwe Dana’s debut "Manuscript." When I was living in Namibia, she was hitting it big with her single Ndiredi, but I wasn’t really with it. Then a friend bought me the album, I listened on a good system…wow!!!! Beautiful. Really. I haven’t heard anything so fresh in a long while. Ok, that’s it. one love, Ekere

         kalamu sez          

i have simphiwe’s album. i am more impressed with thandiswa, both with the singing and the music. some of simphiwe’s work is really, really good but i think she would have benefited from better production work. get to the thandiswa. i think you really dig it.


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