/ 2 May 2024

Nomthandazo by Zoe Modiga: Seeing the heaven inside us

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Say a little prayer: Zoe Modiga says that her just-released album Nomthandazo is different from the previous two, as it is ‘something of a hymnbook’. Photo: Tatenda Chidora Hilton

Zoe Modiga released her third studio album, four years in the making, on 26 April. Named after her grandmother, who was the matriarch of her family, and after whom she was named, Nomthandazo came to her like “a soft prayer at night”, Modiga says.

With 18 tracks, listeners are spoilt for choice with the album running the full gamut from heartfelt songs of prayer to dance-floor fillers. Fans will be exposed to this album live for the first time on 3 May at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

The first track Modiga wrote for the album was Imithandazo Yethu in 2020 — it set the tone. 

“It was something that was quite prayerful and I found myself leaning more and more into that space and that sound,” the 30-year-old singer tells me.

“My first album Yellow: the Novel was more of an introspective piece of work while the second, Inganekwane, was about celebrating the black experience and the human experience,” she says. 

Nomthandazo is very different from my other two albums as it is something of a hymnbook. There is a lot of moving towards that space and I think this project is a part of that spiritual uprising. 

“This project is there to help us see the heaven that is inside of us.”

One of the audience members who was at her listening session at Artistry in Sandton said “it sounds like a prayer”. 

Modiga says, after three albums, she has learnt that it is not her job to dictate where the work meets people but that it finds them where they are. 

“I am just there to evoke emotion and have them have that walk with themselves,” she says.

The beginning 

Growing up in Imbali township in Pietermaritzburg, Modiga was immersed in a rich tapestry of sounds and rhythms that shaped her perspective on music and life.

Picture this — it’s a Saturday morning and the air is alive with the vibrant sounds of Phil Collins, Hugh Masekela, Brothers of Peace, Shwi Nomtekhala, Brenda Fassie and Hlengiwe Mhlaba. 

For Modiga, this diverse soundtrack was not just background noise, it shaped her, and became the foundation on which her love for music was built.

“So, my first experience with music was listening to my neighbours play different kinds of records and different kinds of genres — and they played it really loudly as well,” she recalls, with a smile. 

“I really do believe I was privileged to be able to observe people who had a beautiful and wide range in terms of the music they listened to.”

It was this eclectic musical upbringing that laid the groundwork for Modiga’s boundary-pushing approach to her craft. And she had the privilege of growing up in the township, the suburbs, as well as in the rural areas.

Brought up in a family of academics, when she showed early signs of artistic prowess, her loved ones were right behind her. 

“There was never a moment where I had to explain that this is what I wanted to do,” Modiga recalls. “My family knew and they supported me all the way.”

She pursued studies in piano, clarinet and vocals at institutions such as the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town’s College of Music.

Yet, despite her classical training, Modiga remains deeply rooted in the musical traditions of her upbringing.

“The background of listening to different kinds of music has shaped my style,” she says. “And realising that being an observer was the first teacher, before I was exposed to the privilege of studying classical music, piano, clarinet and jazz performance, there was a school of learning from my community. My community were the first teachers.”

Modiga’s music defies easy categorisation, drawing inspiration from that diverse array of influences spanning Motown, R&B, hip-hop and jazz.

But, beneath the surface of her eclectic sound, lies a deeper commitment to exploring themes of self-realisation, empowerment and the human experience.

“What usually inspires me to explore the topics I do is a passion for human interest,” Modiga explains. “That is always going to be the common denominator, regardless of the actual subjects I might explore.”

Cape Town jazz festival

If you have ever had the privilege of watching Modiga on stage, you will know that her whole being goes into a performance. 

“When you work with the intention of what it is you want to do,” she says, “being in front of people, and the weight of that, of understanding that, of all the things they could have done, they chose to buy a ticket and come to your show.”

For those who choose to buy tickets for the first post-Covid Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Modiga promises to deliver with her Friday evening show.

“We are so excited — we’re in full swing preparing. This festival has been such an important part of my music story, from aspiring to be a musician, to my student years, all the way to my professional career.”

Modiga says the Mother City has been a place of discovery and expression and it is close to her heart.

“We are very excited having just released our third album Nomthandazo. We will be sharing some songs of this new journey and we know it is going to be a spirited, ceremonious and beautiful time. 

“We welcome the festival back — and its contribution to the musical landscape. It’s going to be absolutely amazing,” she says.