/ 8 June 2023

Reflections and Odysseys in Sjava’s new album

A Night With Sjava Concert
Performing: Award-winning singer Jabulani Hadebe, aka Sjava, on stage. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

‘I do not want to dictate how people interpret the music or influence how they feel. It is a personal experience for everyone,” says Jabulani Hadebe, known as Sjava.

He spoke to the Mail & Guardian about his journey in music and his latest studio album, Isibuko. 

“I started doing music from a very early age. I must have been about five years old when I knew that this is what I wanted to do; I never wanted to do anything else,” says Hadebe. 

Born in the outskirts of Izintaba zoKhahlamba (the Drakensberg), in  Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, Sjava says he had support from his family from the beginning of his career. 

“No one has done it like I did, where I come from. So, of course, there was fear of whether this would pay off or not. 

“When I started putting out cool music, that’s when they saw that I was really serious about this. At no point did I feel pressure from my family to pursue anything else — they supported me throughout,” says the 39-year-old. 

In 2015, he landed a feature on the hit song Ameni by Miss Pru, alongside Emtee, Saudi, Fifi Cooper, A-Reece and B3nchMarQ. This strong introduction to the music industry had South Africans eager to hear more of what he could offer as his sound was different from what was being released at the time. 

A year later, he released Isina Muva, featuring the hit single Uthando, which propelled Sjava to greater heights.

Pioneering the urban Zulu genre of music, Sjava has created a platform for an array of musicians under 1020 Cartel, a record label he co-owns. It has signed up artists such as  Anzo, Mzukulu and Nue_Sam, as well as Ruff, a highly acclaimed producer and music engineer. 

Sjava has cemented his place as a wholesome artist who looks within and makes music everyone can resonate with on one level or another. 

Isibuko, which means “mirror” in isiZulu, Sjava’s third studio album, was released in January. 

“This album obviously is a reflection of my journey over the last few years and speaks to my experiences and growth as a person and as a musician,” he says. 

It comes three years after Umsebenzi (Gold Deluxe) which was released in October 2021.

“I always take time with the music. I took time making Isina Muva, and after releasing Isina Muva, I took time to release Umqhele.” 

“The type of music I make is not easy to just get into. There is a lot of writing I need to do, there is also production that we need to consider.

“I go to camps to conceptualise because none of my albums are the same. I always try to find ways to create something different, so that is the reason why I take time to release my projects,” he says.

The conceptualising camp, and the recording of the initial music and vocals, for Isibuko took place in February last year, in the Okhahlamba mountains in KZN. 

On the team was Ruff, a longtime producer of Sjava’s work, local producer Vuyo Manyike and British producers Delayde and Webmoms. 

The rest of the year was dedicated to polishing and perfecting the album, which was completed in December. 

The album stays true to Sjava’s authentic sound — very soulful. It is a collection of love songs, songs about life and its obstacles. 

sjava 2 jpeg (1)
Authentic sound: Sjava, who hails from the Drakensberg area of KwaZulu-Natal, released his third studio album ‘Isibuko’ in January. Photo: Gift Dick Banda

It is not heavy — if anything, it is balanced. It allows you to reflect on what you will and will not accept but it also gives you breathing space to dance and immerse yourself in the good parts of life, in true Sjava fashion. 

The album features Emtee, Saudi, Shwi, Mzukulu, Dumakahle, the Qwabe Twins and Zambian rapper Sampa the Great, among others. 

“I am not the type of person who randomly meets people and asks them to hop into a studio and make a song. That only happens when it is their song and I respect that as it may be their process. 

“With me, I first need to make the song. Once it is done, I will know who would be the perfect person to feature, then I reach out to them,” says Sjava. 

Sjava’s sound transcends borders and continents, as we have seen throughout his career. He was featured on the Kendrick Lamar-produced and Grammy-nominated Black Panther album and received a BET Award for Best New International Act. 

In 2017, he won the Album of the Year award at the South African Music Awards for Umqhele.

Recently, as he was about to perform Isoka from his latest album at the Bassline Fest in Johannesburg, he said the song was inspired by music from Mozambique, which speaks to his habit of exploring music beyond the borders of South Africa, while staying authentic to who he is. 

It has been a big year for Sjava. He joined forces with Big Zulu  to form Inkabi Zezwe and make the album Ukhamba, which means “calabash” in isiZulu. Released last month, the joint work symbolises camaraderie and collaboration. 

And it features South Africa’s biggest song at the moment —  Umbayimbayi. It is being played on all school transport, at girls’ trips and all sorts of other gatherings. It has gathered momentum on TikTok, with people from every tribe singing and dancing to it.

Sjava says the linkup was a long time coming and that the planning for, and recording of, the album took two weeks. 

“The collaboration came from fans wanting us to work together, and we have also wanted to work together, but the timing was never right. I think now is the time — everything is working out as it should,” Sjava said in an interview with eNCA.  

Ukhamba is like a box of chocolate — every time you pick one, you are surprised by the flavour. 

Looking at the cover, you would think it would be heavy on maskandi — quite the contrary. 

Ukhamba has everything from Maskandi to afrosoul, R&B and hip-hop. The album marries well, with each song flowing into the next, and the writing is superb. 

“I want people to take all they can from the music I make because the messages do not come from me — I also don’t know where they come from. So, I’d like people to take whatever message they need from the music,” says Hadebe. 

Inkabi Zezwe is on tour — their next show is on 24 June at the Sun Bet Arena at Time Square Casino in Pretoria.