Sometimes pain — loss — reverberates like white noise. Shuts everything out so itâ€™s all you can hear-not-hear. Pianissimo.
This is instinctive, befitting coming home after a good night — a Thursday, two weeks before your debut album, Indlelâ€™eyekhaya, is released. Youâ€™ve spent the evening with the guy responsible for mixing it, sifting through final song selection, high spirits accompanied by some gin. FortÃ©.
You point out what you like, what you donâ€™t, what sits right. The evening allows it all: both highs and lows in one frame, one bar. Legato.
You get a call from your husband asking when youâ€™ll be home. Once youâ€™re sharing space with him you learn that your motherâ€™s father has passed. The only grandfather you have left is gone. Diminuendo.
That Thursday the second track on the album hadnâ€™t yet been baptised. â€œI suck at naming songs — itâ€™s something I hate about myself. When I play with bands itâ€™s like: â€˜Which Untitled is this one?â€™ And Iâ€™ll have to sing a bit of the song to let them know,â€ says singer-songwriter Spha Mdlalose.
â€œThere was something about it while I was listening to it on repeat. The church in it hits me and it makes sense. He was super-religious. Sleeping over meant waking up for Sunday church. No tummy-ache excuses. So this became a beautiful tribute to him.â€
The title, finally, D 103 — her grandparentsâ€™ address when she was growing up. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the song without language, a scatting eulogy, becomes the dedication to the man. Mdlalose has a gravity to her voice that holds it in place. A grandfather who was a pillar, a disciplinarian, an elder â€œfull of wisdomâ€. Simply, she says, â€œWe loved him. He was great.â€
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Itâ€™s perhaps that love that has garnered such a visceral response from her audience. That, and the groove — an interplay between drummer Sphephelo Mazibuko, pianist Thandi Ntuli, and trumpeter Sthembiso Bhengu. â€œThatâ€™s the song people are loving. I keep asking â€˜Niyithandelaâ€™ni le ngoma?â€™ Iâ€™m told: â€˜Itâ€™s beautiful. It makes me cry.â€™ And Iâ€™m like — but Iâ€™m not saying anything …
â€œThatâ€™s the thing about music — it humbles you. Youâ€™re a vessel — a nothing in this process,â€ she admits.
As an artist you give way. Youâ€™re a conduit and, to an extent, you let the music self-compose. And, like a good parent, you let the music lead its own life. Various people — media and audience alike — described the 10-track album as â€œjazzâ€. At least thatâ€™s what Mdlalose found when doing PR for the album.
â€œI donâ€™t think of it as a jazz album or me as a jazz singer,â€ she says. â€œBeing boxed makes me anxious. When people pigeonhole you they canâ€™t see you doing anything else … The album is a beautiful display of all my influences. Plus, who knows what Iâ€™m going to do next?â€
Mdlalose mentions how gospel resonates with her: â€œThatâ€™s the music that hits home.â€ She mentions the opening track, Come Back to Me, saying, â€œAt the beginning, the hymnal, itâ€™s similar to the way Zim Ngqawana used to write — gospelly moving into something else.â€ Ntuliâ€™s chord-play is simple. Soothing. A coaxing plea.
Seliyana has the reverence of thanksgiving, whereas Noahâ€™s Ark holds a neo-soul influence — edgy, playful. It was originally released by Youthphemism, made up of Ndumiso Manana (who doubles up as a backing vocalist on this album), Elizabeth Gaylord and Siphephelo Ndlovu. The song is produced by Bubele Booi and features Khwezi Ziqubu on bass. Mdlalose acknowledges Dâ€™Angelo, Jill Scott, Glenn Lewis, Musiq Soulchild, and Maxwell as some of her neo-soul go-tos when she was growing up, admitting that if it were possible, studying the genre — her first love — as a course or subject, would have been first prize. â€œIt was my dadâ€™s doing — heâ€™s an R&B-slash-neo soul guy,â€ she says.
The fourth track, When I Think of You, Pt. 1 is the prelude to Pt. 2, which begins as a tender moment between mother and son, Zanokuhle, whom she says is living up to his name. Sheâ€™s trying to get him to say â€œMamaâ€ and getting no joy. Finally she says his name, a toy shaker for emphasis and the little one finally obliges. Cue Bokani Dyerâ€™s serenade on the keys. Dyer also doubled-up as producer of the album.
She says that genres arenâ€™t owned. â€œLabels are not a vibe.â€ For Mdlalose what is more important than genre is: â€œIs it a good album? Is it something I can stand behind? Does it move you? Whatâ€™s the message? Does it resonate with you?â€
She launched her first offering at Untitled Basement in Braamfontein on August 31. It was about three years in the making. When the show was over, the bandâ€™s bassist, Shane Cooper, referred to it as an â€œelectrifying nightâ€, saying he had never played around such positive, beautiful, reciprocal energy.
About the albumâ€™s title she says, â€œI donâ€™t know man, English doesnâ€™t slap like the home language.â€ And sheâ€™s not wrong: The Road Home simply doesnâ€™t land the same.
â€œItâ€™s tricky because Indlelâ€™eyekhaya is not an easy name to market, to brand. It doesnâ€™t roll off the tongue even as a vernac name,â€ she says. â€œWhen I looked at the material — the majority was in my home language, or a mix of isiXhosa nesiZulu. So coming out with an English title would have been strange.â€
Mdlalose was born in Umlazi, but her family moved to Cape Townâ€™s Rondebosch East when she was nine. A teacher recommended she attend Pinelands High School for the better access to resources and opportunities. She calls the school, â€œThe most Caucasian place youâ€™ll ever findâ€.
Mdlalose admits to the move being a culture shock. â€œThere was a certain kind of lifestyle people lived there that I wasnâ€™t accustomed to.â€ Still, the adjustment wasnâ€™t always chaffing. â€œThatâ€™s where I was introduced to jazz. That transition changed the course of my life. Itâ€™s where I learnt I could do music.â€
She studied a bachelor of music at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town (UCT). When she got the chance, she moved to Joâ€™burg. â€œOh my God — no one builds a music career in Cape Town … By the time I graduated Iâ€™d played all the venues. So if I wanted to take things to the next level why would I stay there?â€
She refers to the jazz community that exists eGoli. Many young musicians whoâ€™ve made the move from the Mother City have been fortunate to land in a culture of â€œcommunity and sharing that started at UCT … There was an unwritten rule that when someone moves up they need to be booked. To make sure we all ateâ€. Itâ€™s this community that she tapped into for the recording of her album. On Facebook, friends and fans refer to her and the music as â€œincredibleâ€, â€œawesomeâ€, â€œit goes inâ€. Theyâ€™re not wrong.