November 3 is an important date for singer and activist Simphiwe Dana. It is a day when she gets to focus on the first iteration of her public persona: the supernova, the poet, the messenger.
For several years since clocking a decade in the music industry, the singer has — give or take a few seasons — thrown an annual concert for her “staunchest” fans.
“They travel from around the country to come to it,” she says from her home in Johannesburg. “They have me for as long as they want. It usually lasts more than three hours. We perform almost all of my repertoire. You have everyone singing along, requesting that I play this and that song for them. It’s a very intimate, almost conversation, almost church-like environment.”
The occasion is also foregrounded by the recent release of a double-disc of Dana’s, titled the Simphiwe Dana Symphony Experience, an opulent release featuring collaborators such as Msaki, Asa, Concha Buika, The MIAGI Youth Orchestra and the University of Johannesburg Horizon Residence Choir, to name but a few.
“For me it was a milestone,” says Dana. “In the sense that I’ve done it outside of the record label industry. I’ve always been a record label artist. But since all the changes in the industry, with all the record labels going under, a lot of us have had to rethink the strategy that we normally implemented when we have albums.”
The live recording, credited to Sony/ATV as part of a publishing deal, is Dana’s second live recording. It’s also her first release since her fourth studio album Firebrand came out in late 2014.
The appearance of this album, though, at least on the occasion of our interview, forces me to ask Dana about an apparently shelved release, helmed by none other than Grammy-winning producer Om’Mas Keith (who produced much of Frank Ocean’s awesome Channel Orange).
“The album is there, it is done, but I have not found the right time to release it,” says Dana. “Since it is an album of covers, and it’s not original material, I’m holding on to it until the right time to release it.”
Dana’s cageyness about the album seems at odds with the warmth it seems to inspire in her, especially when she reveals that she hand-picked individual songs that she covered for the album. There is Sambolera, an emotive ballad by Burundian singer Khadja Nin that is an appeal to a more reflective masculinity, delivered by mother to son. Another favourite is Tracy Chapman’s The Promise, from her 1995 album New Beginnings.
In the Friday morning quiet of her lounge, as she fumbles for the title, she hums and half-sings the melody.
Her voice is unadorned, the melancholy of the melody enveloping us for a few hazy seconds. It is as if Dana has cast a fleeting spell on the room.
Perhaps Chapman is an easy, yet fitting touchstone for Dana. Both artists have, in a sense, used pathos as the jump-off point from which to explore a more holistic range of emotions and experiences.
“You know writing songs can be very difficult,” she says, her guard loosening a bit. “It can drive you crazy. So it was nice not to have to write songs and just interpret people’s songs and challenge myself also, to see whether I can sing those people’s songs. There are people whose songs I can’t sing, like Brenda Fassie, for example. I find her songs not suited for my voice.”
Recorded over a few weeks during a 2012 visit to the United States, Dana says she was quite happy with the quality of the music, except that “the intention was to come back and get some local musicians to play on it. So when the time is right we can revisit all of that.”
I search for the sincerity in her voice but I’m only greeted by traces of resignation, like she has put the album on ice for good. Perhaps the shelving is not completely far-fetched. Dana has an aversion to singing in English, an aversion that has probably limited her crossover appeal.
“I was lucky to have grown up in a Xhosa community, a rural one at that, where the Xhosa was very, very deep,” she says proudly. “It’s not your loxion kind of Xhosa. It’s the original. I think that has helped quite a lot. I’m an artist. I get inspired, I write songs. I don’t plan and deliberate. I write what
For Dana, the creative process is varied, but it usually involves her two cornerstones: her sense of melodies and harmonies, or the pen. Her lyrical range spans the gamut from poetic, abstract verse to literal and earnest.
“I work alone,” she says. “I only get people on board after I have finished writing. Then I get a producer who will assemble everyone else.”
At different points in her career, squabbles have arisen over the crediting of compositions, which is perhaps why Dana has put some effort towards learning the rudiments of instruments.
“Whereas before, I’d write all the music a cappella, from the second album I started dabbling in instruments. I can’t play an instrument, really, but I can create melodies — basically what the song is supposed to sound like,” she says.
“On my third album Kulture Noir, almost all the songs in there, I basically built the instrumental foundation. Mayine for instance, that is my production, Inkwenkwezi also, Ndimi Nawe. It’s also easier for the producer to understand the direction, because my harmonies and stuff are like this,” she says. “When I was working on my second album, the producer would think that my harmonies are in a different key because of how the harmonies were arranged.”
At the point that Dana says “like this”, she folds her forearms to form an X, like an open-palmed Buccaneers symbol, a kind of physical shorthand for “unconventional”.
Dana, through copious hours spent deconstructing the stylings of the likes of Madosini, African choral and gospel ensembles, Busi Mhlongo, Dorothy Masuka and Miriam Makeba, happened on a science that had somehow evaded her contemporaries: how to mould these seemingly disparate strains into an almost self-contained language.
“Traditional music and church music are the two biggest influences when it comes to my music for me,” she says.
“So, obviously, later, I’d be introduced to abo Brenda Fassie,
abo Stimela, abo Dorothy Masuka, abo Miriam Makeba. They happened so much later and then I realised ukuba I am not alone. When I discovered Dorothy Masuka, it was like running into people who were kindred spirits that I had been looking for all my life.”
Through her songwriting stride and delivery, Dana is both a woman apart and an imperfect cultural icon. Her discography is divisive, with fans discarding and deriding entire albums only to wholeheartedly embody others. For this singularity of vision, not to mention the bruising nature through which she has guarded both her triumphs and failures, she has paid the price of discarded friendships and terminated professional relationships.
In a recent City Press interview, Dana, at length, revealed that she has for a long time battled depression. It is a statement she had repeated to me, when discussing her pulling back from social commentary through social media.
Thinking about it later — how I did not bat an eyelid as she said it — I realised that I may just be Dana’s typical fan: a fair-weather friend, judgmental to boot, and a little incapable of reaching out, except when swept up by a moment of musical ecstasy.
Seeing her tentatively stepping back into the limelight, again, on terms that she will fiercely guard as her own, I want to be there to witness her glide on stage. Perhaps then, an indelible classic like Ndiredi will be infused with deeper hues.