The Portfolio: Naftali

When I came to study in Pretoria, in about 2003, I enrolled at the Vusi Mahlasela Music Foundation to study vocals but you had to take up an instrument, so I ended up learning piano. The guitar I picked up on my own. During an exam, they wanted me to sing a jazz standard, but I wanted to perform my own song, a composition called Gun Free. I ended up winning first prize with it.

In the city, Uhuru wa Maisha, which were sessions run by Mogomotsi “Doctor” Magome and Mthunzi Nkosi, were pivotal for the development of many artists. That is where I met Ntando and Sibusile, with whom I play to this day. 

In this period, I was fortunate to hang around a lot of jazz musicians, primarily those in the band Four Seasons. It comprised drummer Bonolo Nkoane, guitarist Sibusile Xaba, Ntando Mbatha, Bongi Madonsela, Lesedi Ntsane and, at some point, Nhlanhla Mahlangu.

When they’d do their sets, they’d incorporate one or two songs written by me, like Brown Skin Lady, and a cover of Wyclef Jean’s Diallo that the guys really liked. Their style was an experimental, free jazz approach, which began to blend into mine. 

The past two to five years have brought a lot of opportunities for the guys to record their music. Before that, it was bruises and pure hustling. Pretoria is slower than Joburg and we made peace with that, especially because it allowed us to hone our voices organically, without too much pressure.

In about 2012 and 2013, Sibusile, myself and a guitarist named Gerrit Strydom shared a place in Sunnyside. In that environment we co-wrote a lot of songs and then figured out a way to get on the move to take them to people.

With no money, we headed for the coast of Mozambique. We hit  Xai-Xai, Inhambane, Tofo, places like that — targeting backpackers in search of receptive ears. We met a lot of promoters and producers and ended up recording an EP titled Naftali of the Royal Family in Cape Town.

Even though I have been in music for a long time, I consider Kea Shwa as my first single release. It’s dedicated to black women, inspired particularly by my mom. She struggled to raise me but she made it look easy, with a whole lot of love, pride and joy.

Ke a shwa kea ikepela ka wena. If you say that to someone, you’re done. You’ve said the unsayable. I composed it on guitar to a one-two nyabinghi drum beat.

Vocally, I still draw a lot of influence from my mom, who had a strong, operatic voice in the mold of early Miriam Makeba and Sibongile Khumalo. I had planned to make music with her, but she passed away before we could get that chance. 

Kea Shwa is available on online platforms.

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Naftali is a Pretoria-based multi instrumentalist and songwriter

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