Bongeziwe Mabandla approaches the stage, walking with upright confidence in his trendy get-up.
It is only when he gently picks up his guitar and starts to sing that we learn anything about him. Singing only in isiXhosa, in his quietest moments the large audience gathered at the Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town sits in complete silence. His soulful cry reaches deep down and makes them sit up and take notice. At his loudest, they get up from their seats and dance.
Only a handful in the audience can understand the meaning of Mabandla’s words but he wins over a host of new fans. Simply put, he possesses what seems to be one of the country’s most beautiful voices of recent years.
Mangaliso is his newly launched second album, a spiritual exploration rooted in traditional Xhosa sounds with the addition of mbaqanga, electronica and hip-hop.
Despite his rise in the music industry, Mabandla has not forgotten his roots and remains humble.
Born in Tsolo, a small town in the rural Eastern Cape, his love for art led him to attend an arts high school.
Following that, he moved to Johannesburg and studied acting at Afda, the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance. Within two years, he had landed a brief role in the popular TV series Generations.
Some time after that, he switched gears to music, performing mostly within the confines of the school. There he found teachers and mentors who encouraged his songwriting.
“Around 2004, there was a whole music movement happening in Jo’burg. It was a very exciting, fresh, post-apartheid time — the first time young black people were really opening up to defining themselves. Xhosa and Zulu artists at the time felt very much rooted in Africanism and black consciousness,” he says.
Taking the lead from Eastern Cape heroines such as Thandiswa Mazwai and Simphiwe Dana, Mabandla started composing music to be performed solely in isiXhosa.
One evening in 2007, while hanging out in Melville’s popular Seventh Street, Mabandla picked up the courage to approach 340ml’s drummer, Paulo Chibanga, to ask about recording a track in his studio.
Chibanga gave the young man a chance and soon four songs were laid down. Later, Chibanga officially signed Mabandla to the 340ml music label, which meant he would often open for the band at performances.
The pair worked together on what ended up being the album Umlilo, released in 2012 and produced entirely by Chibanga. It earned Mabandla two South African Music Award nominations.
He was then signed by Sony Music, which distributed the album. But in 2013, Mabandla lost his record deal with Sony.
Soon afterwards, Mabandla was signed by Black Major, a Cape Town-based management agency. He was encouraged by them to create a fresher sound than the first album.
This coincided with him working with another 340ml member, bassist Tiago Correia-Paulo. The pair worked in the studio for some time, figuring out new possibilities for sounds.
“I really wanted to prove to people that I belong here in the music industry. I made Umlilo from the heart, and it didn’t do that well.
“So I decided that I’m going to create something new. Something I can control. That was the real basis about the album. Something maybe more beautiful than Umlilo. And I wanted to do it for myself, whether it got played on radio or not. I really wanted to make it feel genuine.”
This process has seen Mabandla taking on a new direction with his new album, Mangaliso.
“I struggled a lot on the way. Music has been one thing I felt like I had to re-choose many times over, even though there were signs saying: ‘Let go. Do something else!’ But I always felt like this is what I want to do,” he says.
Composing new material was difficult for Mabandla. It was not until he wrote the track Wena, which deals with deep personal conflict, that he found a pathway into what would become the new record.
“It was influenced by my experience with Sony and what I had gone through, especially trying to be a musician and what it meant. I became involved in thinking about purpose, God and African spirituality,” he says.
After that, he says, the rest of the album just flowed.
Correia-Paulo produced the album, which is rich in percussion, synth and organic sounds that complement the traditional Xhosa elements that permeate throughout.
All the tracks were written and arranged by Mabandla and the album features a collaboration with Spoek Mathambo.
Tracks such as Ndokulandela and title tune Mangaliso are instantly contagious.
“I discovered that music for African people is very much a spiritual thing. We sing for ceremony. We sing for the rain. We sing at weddings and at funerals. Music is always there.
“I started to combine that mixture of Xhosa traditional spirituality mixed in with music. The music came alive for me. The songs became almost like prayers in certain parts of my life,” he says.
The five-year hiatus between albums also gave him the opportunity to perform at local festivals such as Rocking the Daisies and Oppikoppi, and to undertake tours to Japan, Australia, France and Spain.
The really good news came at the end of last year when Mabandla was signed by Universal Music. For now, he is touring around the country to promote the new album.
He says that it does not bother him that some members of his audience cannot understand his lyrics. We both agree that it is either their duty to learn or to accept that music has the rare ability to transcend language.