There is something special about autumn. The ashen, dying leaves, creased and morose, hang doggedly on to the trees as winter gradually saunters in. Most of us have learnt to be indifferent to the changing seasons — we regard it as a natural phenomenon; an expectation, perhaps, of merely the way things are.
“It’s the way things are” was a common retort from my grandmother when she could not explain to me why we were living in a yard that was as big as the palm of my hand.
I was thinking about this retort while reading about the so-called musical phenomenon that is Zahara.
For many, as Facebook sites and broadsheets attest, she is a musical genius who is ahead of her time. In one weekend newspaper recently, Joseph Shabalala, the lead singer of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, publicly invited her to stand in for the late Miriam Makeba for the a capella group’s upcoming Graceland tour.
Of course there is nothing wrong with supporting and affirming young talent, but is it really possible that this young singer, who has a single CD under her belt, is armed with a pedestrian voice and plays the guitar with butterfingers, can be deemed equal to the calibre of a singer like the legendary Makeba?
In desperation, I listened to Zahara’s album once again. I wondered whether, perhaps, there is a subtext to her music that had eluded me. I nodded to her easy sound and tapped to the familiar melody of Loliwe, perhaps the most popular of all her tracks. Yet, even as I did, I was still baffled about why she would be regarded as a legend or a superstar, as many have claimed.
I thought about her contemporaries, musicians such as Zamajobe, Tutu Puoane, Camagwini, Lindiwe Suttle, Mthwakazi, Asanda Bam, Malehloka, Nothende and Zolani. These are young singers who shed blood for their music, whose sound is hewn from hard work and whose albums reflect a desire not to be trapped in time but to transcend it — as if they are singing for unborn generations.
There is something deeply worrying about our generation that, in its quest for heroes, is willing to play musical chairs with expectations just so that we can feel good as a nation: to be able to proclaim, in the absence of leadership from a head of state whose state of head is a mess, that we are ready to idealise what is merely average and convince ourselves that the mundane is great.
On the world stage of music, you cannot listen to Simphiwe Dana and not be moved, or hear the voice of Nina Simone and still be the same. The dirges of Billie Holiday have to blow your mind and the horns of Louis Armstrong and Bra Hugh can be summed up in one word: exceptional.
Zahara is no genius; she is merely a young talent with great potential. As opposed to feeding her ego, should we not be enrolling her in a musical school where she can learn to sing, read and write music?
Or, in the rough-and-tumble nature of South Africa’s latter-day body politic, is it mainly the brawny and scaly among us that shall inherit Mandela’s faded dream?