/ 1 November 2019

Spha Mdlalose finds her way home

Blended vessel: Spha Mdlalose says being boxed into a genre makes her nervous; she describes her debut album Indlel’eyekhaya as a display of all her influences. Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G
Blended vessel: Spha Mdlalose says being boxed into a genre makes her nervous; she describes her debut album Indlel’eyekhaya as a display of all her influences. (Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Sometimes pain — loss — reverberates like white noise. Shuts everything out so it’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, Indlel’eyekhaya, is released. You’ve spent the evening with the guy responsible for mixing it, sifting through final song selection, high spirits accompanied by some gin. Forté.

You point out what you like, what you don’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 you’ll be home. Once you’re sharing space with him you learn that your mother’s father has passed. The only grandfather you have left is gone. Diminuendo.

That Thursday the second track on the album hadn’t yet been baptised. “I suck at naming songs — it’s something I hate about myself. When I play with bands it’s like: ‘Which Untitled is this one?’ And I’ll have to sing a bit of the song to let them know,” says singer-songwriter  Spha Mdlalose.

“There 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.”

The title, finally, D 103 — her grandparents’ 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 “full of wisdom”. Simply, she says, “We loved him. He was great.”

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#TBT . . Recording some finishing touches to Indlel’eyekhaya at @dyertribestudio! . . @mananavocals

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It’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. “That’s the song people are loving. I keep asking ‘Niyithandela’ni le ngoma?’ I’m told: ‘It’s beautiful. It makes me cry.’ And I’m like — but I’m not saying anything …

“That’s the thing about music — it humbles you. You’re a vessel — a nothing in this process,” she admits.

As an artist you give way. You’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 “jazz”. At least that’s what Mdlalose found when doing PR for the album.

“I don’t think of it as a jazz album or me as a jazz singer,” she says. “Being boxed makes me anxious. When people pigeonhole you they can’t see you doing anything else … The album is a beautiful display of all my influences. Plus, who knows what I’m going to do next?”

Mdlalose mentions how gospel resonates with her: “That’s the music that hits home.” She mentions the opening track, Come Back to Me, saying, “At the beginning, the hymnal, it’s similar to the way Zim Ngqawana used to write — gospelly moving into something else.” Ntuli’s chord-play is simple. Soothing. A coaxing plea.

Seliyana has the reverence of thanksgiving, whereas Noah’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 D’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. “It was my dad’s doing — he’s an R&B-slash-neo soul guy,” 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. She’s trying to get him to say “Mama” and getting no joy. Finally she says his name, a toy shaker for emphasis and the little one finally obliges. Cue Bokani Dyer’s serenade on the keys. Dyer also doubled-up as producer of the album.

She says that genres aren’t owned. “Labels are not a vibe.” For Mdlalose what is more important than genre is: “Is it a good album? Is it something I can stand behind? Does it move you? What’s the message? Does it resonate with you?”

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 band’s bassist, Shane Cooper, referred to it as an “electrifying night”, saying he had never played around such positive, beautiful, reciprocal energy.

About the album’s title she says, “I don’t know man, English doesn’t slap like the home language.” And she’s not wrong: The Road Home simply doesn’t land the same.

“It’s tricky because Indlel’eyekhaya is not an easy name to market, to brand. It doesn’t roll off the tongue even as a vernac name,” she says. “When 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.”

Mdlalose was born in Umlazi, but her family moved to Cape Town’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, “The most Caucasian place you’ll ever find”.

Mdlalose admits to the move being a culture shock. “There was a certain kind of lifestyle people lived there that I wasn’t accustomed to.” Still, the adjustment wasn’t always chaffing. “That’s where I was introduced to jazz. That transition changed the course of my life. It’s where I learnt I could do music.”

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 Jo’burg. “Oh my God — no one builds a music career in Cape Town … By the time I graduated I’d played all the venues. So if I wanted to take things to the next level why would I stay there?”

She refers to the jazz community that exists eGoli. Many young musicians who’ve made the move from the Mother City have been fortunate to land in a culture of “community 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 ate”. It’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 “incredible”, “awesome”, “it goes in”. They’re not wrong.


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