A star in South Africa is ready for the world to listen

Boston Globe, March 12, 2006

“If a little tree grows under a baobab, it will die a sapling,” an African proverb says. Applied to the music world, it means that sometimes the greats are so great that their shadow leaves little room for new artists to emerge.

That would seem to be the case for South African music, at least as American audiences get to experience it. Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo visit the United States every year; they are undisputedly seminal artists, but also growing long in the tooth.

But in South Africa, the 12 years since the end of white rule have produced a bubbling cosmopolitan and multicultural arts scene, with waves of new musical styles and stars who by rights should have broken into the international market years ago.

With “Zabalaza,” released here last month after earning top honors last year at the South African and Africa-wide equivalents of the Grammys, soul singer Thandiswa Mazwai, a superstar back home, is ready to be known to the world.

At 30, Thandiswa—she records and performs under her first name—enjoys a gorgeous, supple, and gentle voice, and a decade of experience in Bongo Maffin, an ultra-popular group that plays kwaito, the South African pop answer to house or UK garage that mixes several styles of music including hip-hop and R&B.

“The South African music scene is very exciting right now,” Thandiswa says by phone during a recent stopover in New York.

With Bongo Maffin, Thandiswa was part of a household-name act that performed, for instance, at Nelson Mandela’s birthday concert.

“Bongo Maffin was very much the voice of their generation,” says Gail Smith, a South African culture writer and the editor of Johannesburg’s City Press Pulse magazine. “They came out in the post- apartheid period with anthems for a free youth.” The group had a playful, irreverent bent: It mixed African children’s songs into its lyrics and attempted a kwaito overhaul of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

With “Zabalaza,” Thandiswa has headed in a new direction. The album is a luminous blend of soul, house, and traditional South African rhythms.

There is a gospel song, “Revelation” a favorite, Thandiswa says, of her late mother. And several tracks have the slick yet low-key feel of the early 1990s London acid-jazz scene, reflecting the contribution of producer Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, the mastermind behind the UK group Incognito.

This is no world-music hodgepodge of genres, however. “Zabalaza” is a smooth and coherent record with a quiet but forceful message. The title refers to a chant from the anti-apartheid movement. “It’s a loaded term from the struggle,” Smith says. “It means the resistance will continue.”

The first song, “Nizalwa Ngobani,” means “Do you know where you come from?” It begins with these English lyrics: “The world changes / Revolutionaries die / And the children forget.”

“I’m living in a time when generations before me were revolutionaries, like Steve Biko, like the class of 1976 who took the risk for people like me to be free,” says Thandiswa. “In my generation we have this feeling that we’re free. We forget the point of the struggle. We have to preserve that freedom, remind ourselves that we came from greatness.”

The cause runs in Thandiswa’s family: Her mother was a leading women’s rights activist, and her father is a publisher and politician. But she doesn’t see herself as a political artist: Her songs are more about cultural pride and self-respect than about causes. “I think what I do is communicate with my generation. I’m part of my generation. I’m one of those people who has amnesia about the past.”

To ground her work as a solo artist, Thandiswa looked further than the revolutionary heroes, and back to her family roots, in Transkei. Under apartheid, Transkei the native region of Nelson Mandela was one of a string of so-called “homelands” where the government sought to confine blacks who were not working in the mines or the cities. In this rural, remote place, Thandiswa a self- confessed city girl from Johannesburg searched for what she calls her “African voice.”

“I wanted to go back home, reconnect with my ancestors,” she says. “Being on that soil, in that space, watching people go about village business. Finding out about the simplicity of my culture. It’s definitely made me more spiritual. I connect with my ancestors a lot more.”

Thandiswa’s explorations have caused their own share of controversy, Smith says. “The younger generation love it. But some people have accused her of being an anthropologist studying her own people. I say good for her.”

The way Thandiswa sees it, roots are a precious resource for modern living.

“A lot of Africans are losing such an important part of what it is to be an African,” she says.

“I see Jewish people being Jewish and Muslims being Muslim. But every time I try to be black, someone has to say something. I need to know I can be myself. Free to be an African.”