Bongeziwe Mabandla keeps the fire burning

Bongeziwe Mabandla. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Bongeziwe Mabandla. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

If someone hands you a brush and paint and plays you a song by a musician you have never seen or heard before, could you sketch a portrait of the musician from the lyrics?

At their first listen of Bongeziwe Mabandla's album Umlilo ­(isiZulu for fire), someone who had never seen or heard him before might sketch him as an old man with grey hair.

Yet Mabandla is 29 years old. He specialises in melancholic ­melodies and poignant social ­commentary, in lyrics in which he himself features.

Sitting on a concrete stoep outside Truth Coffee in Cape Town where he is to perform later on the day we meet, he says he tries to put a lot of himself in his work. "Sometimes that resonates with people," he muses.

Umlilo, released in 2012, is a refreshing redefinition of folk and traditional music.
Mbandla's lyrics pull you into a story trance, and when he stops singing – when he hums, or plays his guitar – you emerge too suddenly, anxious for other lyrics to rescue you.

In a song called ­Wandenzanina, he unburdens his heart, singing of how he can never do what someone has done to him. The song is also deceptive in its composition. Its first two verses hint at a father who left and never came back. In the third verse it switches to an estranged love story – a song embedded within another. Does any song need to be about just one thing or another?

Mabandla sings about his mother. "My mom was very intelligent. She has been pushing me to good schools, teaching me about the world," the songwriter says. "My family was always very aspirational, in fact like a lot of black families I know."

Mabandla was born in Tsolo, a town 42km from Mthatha, Eastern Cape. Being a musician was not an obvious career for him, although he took guitar lessons as a child. He studied acting at the Afda school before music found him.

"I discovered music very late in my life. But when I came to Jozi, I began to listen to music properly," he says of his earlier years.

"I listened to Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai, Jabu Khanyile, Busi Mhlongo, Kwani Experience, MXO, Lauryn Hill."

Jabu Khanyile
Of all the artists who have departed this Earth, who would he want to record an album with?

"Jabu Khanyile," says Mabandla, staring out into space. The answer rushes out, as if he had previously considered such a collaboration with the late Bayete vocalist, whose pan-African ideals led him to seek to unify musical styles from across the continent.

At Truth Coffee later that night, his ­guitar and isiXhosa ­lyrics seduce a predominantly white crowd. He pulls them in with the first song and soon has them singing along to Ndibonisiwe, in a language they do not speak or understand.

His last performance in Cape Town, a few days after the one at Truth Coffee, is to be Greenmarket Square. There, he will play Hamba Nami in a rhythm completely different to the one on the album. In the song, he suggests that the listener is part of his journey, that without the listener with him along the way, he will not go. He brings the listener into collaboration. Such collaboration is not easy, he says. Writing songs is a brutal process, and he admits he is not a fast songwriter. But work on the next album is already under way.

It is going to be a "conceptual" album, Mabandla remarks in his laconic voice. "Today, I am here.Tomorrow, I am gone. Growth fascinates me. I want to be a better me, you know. I want to grow."

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