/ 23 February 2024

Ziza Muftic: Album trips off the tongue

Ziza Muftic (1)
Texture: Ziza Muftic’s new album Singing in Tongues explores the range of what the human voice can do. Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi

‘There’s nothing,” says singer and composer Ziza Muftic, “quite like the quality of female voices singing together.” 

She’s reflecting on the spine-chilling, a capella version of Bulgarian composer Petar Lyondev’s song Ergen Dedo that sits in the middle of her latest album, Singing in Tongues, which was launched on 22 February. It’s sung by the vocal trio AmaNanule: Muftic, Zarcia Zacheus and Zsofia Borsanyi.

The folk-flavoured Ergen Dedo isn’t a song you’d expect on a conventional jazz-singer album — but then Muftic isn’t that kind of musician. 

When we meet, one of the things we discuss is the increasing irrelevance of conventional genre labels, not only to her work, but to that of most new-generation South African jazz artists. 

It’s not that Muftic doesn’t admire and study classic female jazz song — she’s relishing a recently gifted complete Ella Fitzgerald CD collection she’s had on repeat since she got it. “Even if I only have time for one song in a day, there’s so much there!” 

Her interest encompasses everything the human voice can do and Singing in Tongues, she declares, “is an album about voice”. 

So, the 10-track album stretches from unaccompanied Bulgarian folk to her own compositions and vocal arrangements of work by Moses Molelekwa, Bheki Mseleku (Cycles), McCoy Mrubata (Ziphi), Bela Bartok, Kenny Barron and John Coltrane (a quiet, shadowy Naima). 

Straightforward Quartet numbers with longtime collaborators guitarist Graeme Sacks, bassist Concord Nkabinde and drummer (and album engineer and co-producer) Peter Auret share the space with Quartet plus AmaNanule, and a duet powered by breath, strings and wood with bassist Romy Brauteseth.

The project began in 2022 — Barron’s Rain with Brauteseth was the first track laid down. It took two years, sometimes of precious time clawed back between other projects, to complete it. 

The concept germinated a while before that: “I was with my piano teacher one day, before Covid, and I started wondering, ‘What would Ziza sound like if she hadn’t had all this classical and jazz teaching?’

“I started trying to remember music back with my family in childhood. Back then, I was certainly singing and playing violin but I wasn’t any kind of wunderkind. 

“In fact, it was only when one of my teachers picked me for a solo in a concert that I realised I might have something as a singer. Could I find that Ziza again, I wondered.”

Ergen Dedo was a song she got to know much later, shared with her by a vocalist at the Berklee in Valencia summer school in Spain — but somehow it had the right feel of time and place to evoke those early days. 

A similar process guided selecting the repertoire for the whole album: “You’ve got this ocean of songs, and then you narrow it to a river and then a stream and, eventually, to say: ‘Yes, this one works and it belongs here with these others.’”

What makes a song “work” for Muftic is also how the musicians read it. Bartok’s Ablakomba, Ablakomba, for example, appeared as Silver Moonbeams on her album of that name. Here, the song gets the AmaNanule treatment. “I asked myself: ‘Why aren’t I singing it in Hungarian? How would that read?’ And it had a completely different texture; the relationship of voice to melody,” she says, was transformed.  

Melody matters for the singer and that’s one reason for the inclusion of the two Molelekwa songs: Spirits of Tembisa and Mountain Shade. Acknowledging the complexity of the composer’s personal life — his partner died at his hands and that cannot be forgotten — for Muftic his melodicism is irresistible. 

“In his writing, he was a musician through and through. His music just lends itself to lyrics. When I slowed down Spirits of Tembisa to work on it, the words just came. 

“And I can’t think of a more perfect marriage of lyrics and melody than Sibongile Khumalo’s lyric for Mountain Shade. But then she, too, was so much more in musicianship than just the ‘singer’ she’s sometimes described as.”

I have to declare an interest in this album. The title, Singing in Tongues, comes from my blog review of her sophomore release, Shining Hour. There, I was discussing the literal multilingualism that had characterised Muftic’s career: singing in Portuguese, the Western European languages of her classical training, the Serbo-Croat languages of her childhood and the African languages she’s learned here.

She says there are new “tongues” — sonic as well as linguistic — on this latest outing. “As well as the different languages we sing in, the percussion and electronic sounds too, some added in post-production.” 

Much of the underlying texture of Ergen Dedo, for example, comes from Muftic’s contribution of Zulu leg rattles, Borsanyi’s castanets and Zacheus’s body percussion.

None of this could happen from one individual’s vision alone. Both with AmaNanule and with the instrumentalists (with whom she’s built a lasting, warm relationship), collaboration has shaped this album. “It literally all happens organically, in the process, as we explore together.” 

That’s audible, for example, in the intense empathy with Brauteseth on Rain and in Sacks’s perfectly judged guitar work on Cycle

I’ve suggested before the French concept of the chanteur — which translates simply as “singer”, but implies both an intimacy of connection with audience, and songs assembled idiosyncratically because they work for that vision and voice — suits singers like Muftic far better than the confining walls of “jazz singer”. (Another of whom that’s true is Tutu Puoane, whose album based on the poetry of Lebo Mashile lands in a couple of weeks.) 

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of jazz on Singing in Tongues, interpreted with subtlety and imagination. It’s not jazz forced into a box; creativity, not market definitions, rules here. 

Still, Muftic acknowledges, with supportive, regular venues scarce, sometimes accepting more stereotyped gigs pays an artist’s rent. She’s fortunate to have additional income from teaching, “Because if you have the freedom,” she muses, “why wouldn’t you use it?”