Zoë Modiga has not been home for a while because she’s “getting money three ways”.
At first she was occupied with the duties of being a member of Afro jazz band, Seba Kaapstad. A large chunk of her year was spent promoting their album, Thina, in Germany. After this tour, in about July, Modiga went to New York and then Harlem to work with the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and songstress Somi, an American songstress of Ugandan and Rwandan descent.
The Ginger Me Slowly singer has a stage play called Dreaming Zenzile, which, according to Modiga, is “based loosely on the life of uMam’ Miriam Makeba while tying into her life experience as Somi”.
As a consultant in the process, Modiga was asked to contribute towards the play’s score as well as the script.
But she’s home now. And first on the agenda was bidding farewell to her debut album, Yellow the Novel, through a show titled Kwasuka Sukela. In addition to it being a means to reflect on Modiga’s work so far, the Kwasuka Sukela concert also served to prepare us for a new album.
“Thank you so much for being here,” she said while catching her breath after opening with the song Me. “This is Kwasuka Sukela, and I’m sure you’re wondering why there aren’t any yellow balloons on stage. Well that’s because we’re moving on from Yellow the Novel,” she said with a smile, in the middle of the roars of a cheering crowd.
For more than two hours Modiga recreated fan favourites from her debut album, each with an anecdote about how the song came into being. To punctuate every chapter of the story, the singer offered her renditions of Four Women, Uganga Nge Ngane and There’s Music in the Air because Nina Simone, Busi Mhlongo and Letta Mbulu are the women she wants to emulate in her lifetime. She sang, changed outfits, screamed in elation, fell prostrate, prayed in harmonious verse, air-kicked in heels, twerked and laughed her heart out.
Her energy made sense over lunch when Modiga explained how that weekend of performances at the Joburg Theatre was a “full circle moment” because it was on that very stage that she launched Yellow the Novel. It has been two years since Modiga dropped her debut album. From junior choir to studying classical music at the National School of Arts and jazz at the University of Cape Town, Modiga had the receipts for doing “everything by the book” by the time she graduated. So she was determined to exhibit lyrical, instrumental and vocal expression on her own terms.
Even though Modiga’s emergence saw her receiving offers from prominent record labels, she chose to release Yellow the Novel independently because “contracts were going to keep me from doing what I want to do creatively”. Under no circumstances was Modiga willing to compromise on her lengthy songs “because it needs to be radio friendly”. Neither was she open to making her image conform to suit an outdated marketing model.
After her performance, the Mail & Guardian sat down with Modiga to talk about the lessons she’s learned and the role her mother has played in integrating them into her career. Unlike her dazzling onstage garb — courtesy of her best friend and sartorial partner Nao Serati — Modiga’s everyday wear is a luxurious take on normcore. She wears a white turtleneck and high-waisted blue jeans. A pinch of her onstage character shines through her soft but elaborate golden eyeshadow, and a red lip right under the septum and nose-ring piercing that she wears like birthmarks.
“Now people know me as I am; now it’s just a matter of building from that,” she says before gulping down a mouthful of green juice.
Modiga’s determination gave us the militantly romantic Inganekwane and the deeply (but softly) introspective ballad Shake the World. These two songs are the longest on the album — with the former sitting close to nine minutes and the latter at more than 11 minutes long — but Modiga’s unwavering voice is an easy well to sink into.
In addition to the length of its songs, Yellow the Novel is made up of 23 tracks. Although Modiga is aware of its length coming across as self indulgent, she is unapologetic because the goal was for the record to “feel like you’re reading a book”.
And now that the public has become accustomed to the full, unadulterated Modiga, her album in progress will see her relaxing some of her terms and conditions. First, Modiga plans on stretching the reach of her music by ensuring “it’s radio friendly”.
Another, and more significant, change between her debut and the upcoming sophomore album is the role played by Modiga’s mother because “a lot of the songs are ngesiZulu”.
After spending her first years living in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a 10-year-old Modiga moved to Johannesburg with her mom. “We were moving around quite extensively because her job required her to be in different places,” she says.
As a result of this migration, Modiga has decided to address her displacement through the music. “I identify as a Zulu woman,” says Modiga. However, she feels that her enunciation and diction make her declaration questionable. “The thought of being ridiculed while singing in my mother tongue because I got something wrong is a sore point for me,” she sighs.
It is for this reason that Modiga’s sophomore album will be written and sung mostly in isiZulu. In addition to “addressing an insecurity” the decision came from the need to study the weight of words in indigenous languages. “I’ve realised that what might take a whole sonata in the English language could be expressed through the repetition of two words ngesiZulu,” Modiga laughs in awe.
This is evident in Lengoma, the first single from the upcoming, as yet unnamed album. In the song Modiga sings, “Si la, siphilela lengoma” on a loop. In addition to the direct translation, “We’re here, living for the song”, the dance track speaks of the hopeful search for healing because “ngoma” can be used in reference to a song or a healer.
Modiga repeats this phrase, her voice ebbing and flowing, because of a conversation that she had with her mother about how ngesintu, “repetition is reinforcement. It is meditation. It’s a mantra. A confession. Confessions manifest.”
In addition to ensuring that her daughter’s words are without fault, Modiga’s mother has imparted the important lesson of acknowledging that “ there are other knowledge systems existing outside formal institutions”.
Together with her formal training, Modiga’s newfound reverence for expression in an indigenous language has us waiting for her new album with bated breath.