It starts with the chirping of crickets and the sound of a flute. Frogs join in the chorus, then
in comes some isicathamiya harmonising.
Suddenly a voice so fragile, so haunting, starts to sing in isiXhosa. It sweeps you up, catapulting you through a sonic world.
For indie-folk fans, Bon Iver is a good reference point. For African folk fans, think a psychedelic Vusi Mahlasela.
The song is Hamba Nami Part 1 from Bongeziwe Mabandla’s debut album, Umlilo, and it has to be one of 2012’s finest openings to a South African album.
So who exactly is the 27-year-old Mabandla?
To find out, I headed across Jo’burg one Friday morning to his flat in Yeoville, which has panoramic views of the city.
Mabandla has just moved in and the flat is still bare, except for a small rug on the wooden floor and the really important stuff: his black guitar, a music stand with notes for a half-written song that is “coming out in little bits” and a bookshelf stuffed with African authors such as Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri, as well as a copy of The Bang Bang Club.
“I come from KuTsolo, a small Eastern Cape town,” says Mabandla as he sips a cup of rooibos tea.
I later find out that KuTsolo means “pointed” and that the town is named after the shape of the hills in the area.
I ask him how big it is. Mabandla stares at me. “I’m not so good with that kind of thing. It’s a small town; no white people and maybe two coloured families. There was one paved road that ran through the town where the shops were.
“As rural as it was, it was a very intellectual place; it was aspirational. My mother was a lecturer … It’s weird I notice now that a lot of my friends from KuTsolo are now doctors and accountants.”
Mabandla’s first musical love was Brenda Fassie’s My Friend Is Dangerous. Before that, it was all school and church music.
Then friends started to listen to Boyz II Men and he started to pay attention to the structure of songs and how words were used.Another early influence was the video for Thath’isigubhu by Bongo Maffin.
“I was this young kid and I checked out this video. I was so impressed by what they were doing. There was something very artistic about it.”
The video features a sound-system party in a corrugated iron shack.Thandiswa Mazwai looks seductive, covered in henna tattoos. Later in the video she loses her locks in a communal band-shearing endeavour.
“That was the first CD I bought, the first T-shirt I bought, the first show I went to, the first poster on my wall …” Mabandla was quite simply star-struck.
“Thandiswa means a lot to me and what I do. Until her, all the videos were very Eurocentric. She was the first person I saw who was bringing this dope black, beautiful artistic vibe.”
It is a common thread that pops up in our conversation — the importance of positive black role models who change people’s perceptions about what it means to be young and black in South Africa.
After school, Mabandla left for Jo’burg to study drama at the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, better known as Afda. At the time, acting was the big love of his life.
At Afda, Mabandla started getting into writing and performing songs. He tells a story about a teacher who pulled him aside and told him that he could see something special in him. The affirmation was important for the 20-year old.
“I really took that seriously. I just started writing.”
After graduating, Mabandla found himself with too much time on his hands and no real musical direction. He became depressed.
A chance encounter at a Melville convenience store would change all that — he ran into Paulo Chibanga and convinced the 340ml drummer to help him to start recording. “I just hoped he would take me seriously. I was working on the soapie Generations as an actor at the time just to make money.”
Then Sony snapped him up from Chibanga’s 340ml Music stable and Umlilo was born.
There is no bad blood between him and Chibanga, Mabandla says. “Paulo is my brother; he even negotiated this deal for me.”
So what to expect from Umlilo?
“My work is a lot about self-esteem and it’s rooted in growing up in a poor background in the South African context. If I don’t have things and I don’t belong in certain circles, am I less? Am I not supposed to feel important? Am I always supposed to feel unimportant — the have-nots and the have-it-alls? It comes from my own lived experience.
“But I consider myself a privileged person. I came out of a good school, while others had it much worse and have more serious problems.”
“At the time of the elections, I realised that we are a society that is very quick to praise people for the surface — what they drive, what they wear. We place people on pedestals without interrogating who they are.
“We are quick to make statements like ‘we will die for this person’, or ‘we will kill for this person’.”
His current single, Gunuza, is a powerful example of these feelings turning up in one of his songs.
“It’s not written about one person; it’s about people who are rich or in power and how their flaws are erased and they get automatic respect. It’s a message to say look for the real heroes.”
Still, Mabandla does not see himself as particularly political.
“I see myself as a person who writes about society. I am interested in the upliftment of people and the valuing of people, and I feel those values are degrading in South Africa and it’s a very sad thing. Dignity is being stripped away from a lot people in our society.”
By addressing the ills of our nation in song, Mabandla seeks catharsis. His songs are also a prayer for better times and more accountable leaders, wrapped in mesmerisingly beautiful African folk songs that are sprinkled with reggae infusions and flights of jazz.
“It’s a different time; people’s minds are changing. What people thought five years ago is not the same now, especially a band like The Brother Moves On. It is stuff that has not been done before.”
Does he see this “brown band scene”, as The Brother Moves On’s Siya Mthembu coined it, and which would include the BLK JKS, Kwani Experience, Fruits & Veggies, The Brother Moves On, The Fridge, Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness and Dirty Paraffin, as his comrades in art?
“Yeah, man, I do feel a connection. It’s how this music thing works. I’m not here with an album out because I sing nicely. I am here because of all the people who have given me a hand along the way.
“It’s been people like Tumi & The Volume, Simphiwe Dana, Zuluboy, MXO, The Brother Moves On and the BLK JKS that have encouraged me and helped me out. So I like to include myself into the collective, if that’s fine.”
It’s clear Mabandla draws inspiration from this great trajectory of post-democracy black South African music, but he is less sure of placing himself among his heroes’ ranks.
But, although he may allow modesty to take over, it’s clear to me that Mabandla is on his way towards establishing his name as another rung on the ladder.