Road to the Samas

The M&G speaks to three top nominees in the15th MTN South African Music Awards taking place at Sun City tonight : Thembisile Ntaka (best African contemporary album), Theo Kgosinkwe (best male artist, best African pop album) and Lira (best female artist) about the sweet smell of success

One step closer ...

Roll out the yellow carpet; Thembisile Ntaka has arrived and is ‘tired” of being nominated for awards and not winning anything.

Many musicians would be overjoyed at being nominated. Not so for Ntaka who feels that failure to win is like an injustice on her promising music career.

Her desire to win a South African Music Award (Sama) is overwhelming: ‘I want to win and that’s it; just being recognised is not good enough. My album [My Journey] is doing well on the shelves at the moment.
If I were to win something I would get more gigs and take my career to greater heights,” Ntaka said.

The 27-year-old from Hammersdale in KwaZulu-Natal has been nominated for the best African adult contemporary album in MTN’s 15th annual Samas. Ntaka is up against Andile Mseleku, Siphokazi, Malatji and Ringo Madlingozi. The awards ceremony will take place in Sun City on May 2.

This nomination is not her first. In 2006 she was nominated for the best African pop album for her first solo self-titled album, Thembisile. Last year she was also nominated for the Metro FM awards.

‘I think people who nominate don’t do their research properly because there are good albums out there that don’t get nominated,” she said. This is especially bad for gospel and maskandi music, she says. ‘Let’s hope, with time, this will change and we’ll have more winners who deserve it.”

Ntaka, who started singing at the age of seven in church, was inspired by Brenda Fassie, Rebecca Malope and maskandi musician Mfaz’-Omnyama.

When she was 13 she entered the Shell Road to Fame competition but didn’t make it. While on her way to the 2002 Coca-Cola pop stars competition she got lost and didn’t make it on time. ‘I got lost on my way to Durban and I was very hurt because I really wanted to win the competition,” said Ntaka.

She was elated when she heard that the Coca-Cola talent search competition would be held again in 2003. Her joy was punctured when she realised she only had R4 for transport. She had to trudge for about 45 minutes to a nearby station to hop on to a train to Durban’s SABC studios.

‘When I finally got to town I had to walk again to the SABC. When I got there I was tired and hungry and didn’t have money to buy food,” she said. ‘But I sang my lungs out and went back to the station where I asked people for R7 to go home.”

She said that although she might have looked ‘ugly, fat and didn’t have the best clothes, people could see that I didn’t live on the streets”.

Two days after the auditions she received a life-changing call. She was told to come back. She believes there is a lesson to be learned in her travails, which she now considers ‘a blessing in disguise”.

She was chosen as one of the top five winners and the five of them formed the Afropop ensemble Adilah, which won a Sama in 2003. The group fell apart and today she is the only member still making music.

‘Some of us were committed and some were not; some wanted fame and fortune,” she said. ‘Things were never going to work out for us because we had different intentions. Those are the reasons why I decided to go solo and it is working for me.” It’s a fact that is buoyed by her Sama nomination.

About her album, My Journey, which in a sense is about her life, Ntaka said: ‘This feels like my very first album. I have grown and I’m asking people to join me in my journey.”

Some say it is an honour to be nominated but Ntaka had a higher ­destination in mind when she was begging for taxi fare.—Lucky Sindane

Now for something different

Securing an interview with singer Theo Kgosinkwe of Mafikizolo fame wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined considering his schedule. We agreed to meet at Nino’s in Rosebank at 10am but Kgosinkwe arrived 20 minutes late.

The snazzy dresser pitched wearing blue jeans, a yellow jersey and colourful sneakers. He connected his laptop and ordered a cup of tea. He didn’t apologise for his lateness, but instead sampled me his beautiful smile.

The only bling Kgosinkwe is interested in is the MTN South African Music Awards, to be handed out this weekend. The singer, who was born in Kagiso, west of Johannesburg, released his solo album late last year. Titled I AM, it has earned him two Sama nominations: best male artist and best African pop album.

‘If I win I’ll break down and cry,” says Kgosinkwe. ‘I didn’t have money to put the album together and had to borrow from my parents and wife, who were really supportive.”

His album is one of the hottest on the shelves, a mix of Afro pop, adult contemporary and dance music. Best tracks include Sohlala s’thandana, Usi’sthandwa sami, Ndifuna loya, Sengimtholile and Umphathe kahle.

Pressure to release an album came in 2007 after fellow band member and Mafikizolo lead singer Nhlanhla Nciza released her solo album.

‘People know Nhlanhla is the face of Mafikizolo and were not sure if I could sing. I have been in the music industry for 10 years and wanted to show people that my potential doesn’t end with Mafikizolo.

‘I have done away with the old 1950s look and I now dress like a businessman.”

Though his first solo album is critically acclaimed, sales haven’t gone the way he would have liked. Figures are hovering in the 20 000s.

Kgosinkwe thinks the reason for the slowness of sales is the global economic meltdown and lack of creativity in the local music industry. ‘We cannot rely on retailers to sell our albums as things change with time,” he says. ‘People now download and buy songs on the internet. We need to come up with better ideas to sell our music—something that the industry lacks.

‘There are many copycats out there and I don’t see a reason why we should have 20 Mandozas. People want something new and many of our producers lack creativity, which is why we have so many artists sounding the same.”

Kgosinkwe is talented and his work has earned him respect in the music industry. He is a songwriter, producer and has collaborated on compositions for artists such as Kelly Khumalo, Busi Mhlongo, Pumeza and of course Mafikizolo.

‘I did this album to show that I can do many things,” Kgosinkwe says. ‘But South Africa has thousands of musicians, yet when you go to festivals you will find the same line-up of about 10 musicians. Promoters want real stuff and if we cannot produce it the situation will never change.”

Kgosinkwe, who co-owns a record company called Black Diamonds, has also involved himself in the property business. And his biggest goal, now, is to establish a foundation for the disabled: ‘My elder brother, who passed on about six years back, was disabled,” he says. ‘So, working with disabled people is something close to my heart.

‘Right now, though, I’m preparing for the Samas. I can’t wait for my name to be called so I can get on stage.”—Lucky Sindane

Lira’s balancing act

I walk through doors into the studio in Randburg and there’s Lira leaning out of the little bathroom, ‘Hi, I’ll be with you in a second.” I recognise her from her pictures and she looks exactly the same, well, except she’s moving and three-dimensional. It takes me a moment to reconcile the two. She strides up reaching her hand out. ‘Lira,” she smiles. She shakes hands just as you think she would—friendly, confident, elegant.

I was surprised to learn that Lira worked as an accountant for two years and it was her mother who told her to pursue her dream of being a singer, which certainly paid off. Her award-winning first album All My Love was released in May 2003, featuring the most played song in the history of the SA Hot 100 Billboard Chart.

I congratulate Lira on her Sama nominations for her new album Soul in Mind, released at the end of 2008. Lira has been nominated for four and her group, a further two. I ask how it feels to be nominated. ‘Awards are your peers acknowledging you,” Lira hesitates, ‘which is great, but as musicians our responsibility is to our fans, because they consume our product.”

She takes her public role seriously: ‘I wear South African designers,” indicating her ensemble—she looks impeccable in a floaty blouse gathered on one shoulder, skinny jeans and gold, strappy sandals with kitten heels—‘this is South African.” And of course there are parallels between Lira and another stylish South African icon—Miriam Makeba. Lira has performed alongside Makeba and was posed on a cover of Joburg Style Magazine in a recreation of a Drum cover featuring Makeba. I comment on the parallels between the two and Lira says: ‘I saw in her what I wanted to become—an African woman with global appeal, feminine, powerful — it’s only possible to get where I want through people like her who laid the foundations.” Lira says the musicians who work with her are not musicians in the old sense of late nights, drinking and dying young. This is their job, they have mortgages, security.

I smile, ‘I didn’t see the accountant in you before but I see her now.” She nods and tells me that she advises fellow artists to do a course in law or business; and friends who are accountants and lawyers to do something ­creative.

‘It’s all about balance,” I say and she nods enthusiastically, ‘Exactly!” Balance is one of the things Lira seems to have perfected.—Eamon Allan

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