Hitting the high note

Veteran singer Vusi Mahlasela is no stranger to the South African Music Awards (Samas). In 1998, he received three. Songstress Simphiwe Dana also knows what it is like to take home a couple of Samas. Two years ago, she garnered two awards for her debut album Zandisile. So, at first glance, Siphokazi Maraqana may seem the odd one out in the trio of top artists with the most to win at the 13th annual Samas.

While Mahlasela and Dana were attending past award ceremonies, Siphokazi was watching them on her TV at home in the Eastern Cape. ”I enjoyed watching the awards because I knew, somehow, I was going to be a soloist. It was always at the back of my mind that one day it might be me standing up there.”

The soft-spoken young vocalist could indeed take the stand more than once at this year’s awards. Maraqana, Mahlasela and Dana top the nominees list with five each.

All three will compete for the most coveted prize: album of the year. They’re also competing for best producer: Lloyd Ross (who is also up for best engineer) for Mahlasela’s Naledi Ya Tsela, Bheki Khoza (who has three other nominations of his own and is also competing for album of the year) for Dana’s The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street, and Lawrence Majiza for Maraqana’s Ubuntu Bam. Dana and Maraqana are both up for best female, and Maraqana and Mahlasela are competing for best adult contemporary album: African.

For Maraqana, as someone who has spent a number of years backing other singers, winning one or a number of awards could have a significant impact on her solo career.

”It affirms what you are doing,” says Dana. ”Everywhere I go, it’s mentioned that I’ve won two Samas. It’s actually very important for an artist — wherever you go people know that you are respected and loved back home.” Dana should know. She has travelled extensively, touring and releasing her music in Europe. ”Recognition at home helps give you a name out there,” she says.

Mahlasela also testifies to the strength of a Sama. He has carved a name for himself overseas, specifically in the United States. ”It says something when you achieve a Sama,” he says. ”That people are aware of your work and they appreciate and honour it.”

For the artist known as The Voice, winning brings with it more responsibilities. ”As a winner, people look to you to endorse certain things. You come recommended and you need to put that to good use,” he says. Mahlasela’s good use includes his work for 46664 and the Vusi Mahlasela Development Foundation.

That doesn’t mean Mahlasela’s done with winning awards. If he wins this time around, he’ll use it to further the work of the foundation and the 46664 campaign.

For Dana, her nominations this year mean she’s not a one-album wonder. ”It’s a great feeling,” she says. ”You want, as an artist, to know that you’ve got staying power — and if each of your albums can get nominated, it means each album gets that recognition.”

This time round, though, Dana says she’s savvier. ”I’ve picked up a lot since the first time; it was a major learning curve for me. The first time I was nervous, now I’ve learnt something extra that makes it a little easier. If it’s meant to be, it will be. So now I’m relaxed. Either way, I’m relaxed.”

Maraqana also has a calmness about her that evades many first-timers. ”God has blessed me,” she says. ”To be nominated alongside musicians I respect, like Vusi [Mahlasela] and Simphiwe Dana. It shows I didn’t go the wrong way, that I followed the right path.”

Her career as a backing vocalist to some of South Africa’s finest talent, such as Tshepo Tsola, Zamajobe and even Dana, she says, helped forge that path. ”I’ve backed artists from different genres and I’ve picked up my own influences along the way. That’s groomed me well.”

Far from mud-slinging it through the weeks in the run-up to the awards, there seems to be a mutual admiration among the three artists. Dana says Maraqana is ”on the right track” and Mahlasela says Dana ”touches something in me”.

That two women feature among the most popular nominees this year is also a promising sign of the times. ”The women singers are the ones with the sharpest voices, so they should be easier to notice,” says Dana. She attributes the ratio to the number of women who are finding their feet in the industry. Mahlasela says: ”It’s the right time for women to be at the forefront, not because they are women, but because of their work.”

This maturity in the attitudes of the artists speaks to a certain maturity in the awards themselves. Though they may only be reaching puberty now, they seem to be hinting towards an age that’s a little more grown-up.

”This year’s top nominees show that the country is starting to reflect more deeply our musical heritage,” says Dana. The awards seem to be intent on acknowledging music styles that are uniquely African, vibrant and have a fierce independent spirit. At second glance, then, it appears Maraqana’s numerous nominations fit right in.

Frippery and seduction

Anything that is good enough for the Grammys is good enough for the Samas. So say the organisers. They have introduced a goody bag for presenters, winners and artists to encourage attendance. Organisers say the bag’s contents are worth R18 000 and it contains items such as extreme sports eyewear, a media player, gaming consoles, custom-made glassware, a gym contract, make-up, a cellphone and even accounting software. This year, for the first time, a fellow musician will be hosting the awards. Two-time best kwaito album winner Kabelo adds this to his list of achievements. Some of the performers on the night include multiple-nominees retro-rockers Cassette, hip-hoppers Tumi, Zubz and Proverb, and Vusi Mahlasela.

In keeping with the trend towards bringing the awards more in line with the standard of international award shows, organisers have reworked the categories. Artist of the year has been scrapped and the only category the public had the chance to vote for was song of the year. Twenty of the biggest ditties played across South African screens and stereos have been vying for this title. Also new is the addition of the contentious best urban label for some categories. Sama CEO Sean Watson says they opted for industry experts in subcommittees to vote for the winners. He says there are five main or ”premier” categories. These top five categories are best female, best male, best duo or group, best newcomer and album of the year. Record companies couldn’t enter their artists directly into these categories, the judges simply had their say. — Nadia Neophytou

The Samas take place at 8pm on April 13 and 14 at Sun City. Tickets cost R200 a night and are available from Computicket or at the venue. The awards ceremony will be televised live on SABC1 at 8pm. Call 011 234 8650 or log on to www.samusicawards.co.za for more info

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