/ 9 May 2024

Thandiswa Mazwai on Sankofa and political currents in South Africa

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Thandiswa Mazwai. Photos by Nick Boulton and Charles Leonard

The landings’ oxblood tiles with their arty off-white patterns and the maroon walls with matching leaf patterns and black tiles keep it interesting as I make my way up three flights of marble stairs. 

The only sound is my puffing — the friendly security guard at the ground floor told me the lift wasn’t working in this stately, quiet former bank building.

Composing myself (while thinking I better get stairs-fit), the door to the top floor opens before I can press the bell. Although I’m early, a welcoming Thandiswa Mazwai has been expecting me at her spacious, high-ceilinged HQ/studio in the Johannesburg CBD. 

To the right, as you walk down the parquet-tiled passage gleaming in the mid-afternoon sun, is the singer’s well-equipped rehearsal room — a drum kit at the back and chairs and mics for a brass section to the left.

We settle into a generous, north-facing room further down the hallway. I bet it was the bank manager’s corner office. I could imagine him struggling to stay awake after a long lunch in an Indian summer like the one we are having.

“What are you interested in, in me right now?” Mazwai asks, playfully.

There is the “little matter” of her highly anticipated new record Sankofa, ready for release on 10 May, then the mini-concert tour starting on 11 May at Carnival City, I reply.

“Unless you’ve got other revelations that the tabloids would love to hear about?” I wink back.

“I have none of that,” she smiles. “They’ve tried, to no avail.”

It is quiet on Mazwai’s floor, because Sankofa has long been in the bag and rehearsals are done for the day. But from three floors down comes a cacophony of taxi hooters in the busy streets, reminding us our city is the commercial heartbeat of the country and people need to move. 

And, equally inescapable, posters on every lamppost telling us who to vote for later this month.

“Why don’t you tell me what you’re going to do?” Mazwai asks. “I mean, our choice is pseudo-socialists who wear Louis Vuitton bags, proven thieves and right-wing populists.”

She laughs wryly. “I mean, the choices are stunning … I think of that Chinese saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ 

“It’s actually a curse.

“And every time I look at this I’m, like, this is what they meant when they said ‘interesting times’. This is definitely sleepless nights. You’re cracking your skull every night, wondering what’s next and how.”

Sankofa, which was recorded in Joburg, New York and Senegal, has its fair share of political songs.

“I couldn’t escape it,” she says. “You can’t escape writing about corruption and greed.”

The album has been shrouded in secrecy and only the single Kulungile  has been released so far, because leaks happen too easily, especially with a big artist like Mazwai. 

I ask Mazwai to play critic — but first give me an idiot’s guide to Sankofa.

“There are 10 tracks [and] there is a little 40-second interlude, which these days is an entire song. 

“The bedrock of the music was … I got access to a Xhosa archive from ILAM, the International Library of African Music (at Rhodes) … field recordings of Xhosa music.”

It had been with her since 2010. When she started working on Sankofa around August 2022, she dug up this archive and it “became the impetus, like the spark”. 

“So, I used samples from that as the bedrock. And then we put some bass lines and some guitar lines. And used that pre-production as the conversation starter.”

Mazwai gave it to West African musicians, with Nduduzo Makhathini her producer for the Senegal sessions. 

“They had to then respond to this, to the archive, and to what we put on the page.”

They played West African instruments, such as the kora and the ngoni, which combined with the traditional South African bow instruments umrhubhe and uhadi from the ILAM archive. 

“But we also have synths, which is, I guess, a very modern way of playing music. Or creating music sounds. There’s a lot of that. 

“It’s a very cinematic kind of space. Very lush space. The synths give this vast sense. And so do these kora instruments as well.”

Mazwai also collaborated with the American singer-songwriter and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who produced three songs on the album. 

“And she then responds from this African-American perspective. 

“So, really, it’s this kind of three-dimensional conversation between South Africa, West Africa and the diaspora in the US. 

“For me, anyway, this new language is being evolved, that connects through this line.”

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Hand it to her: The renowned South African musician Thandiswa Mazwai wears a ring with a portrait of her late friend Busi Mhlongo on it.

I prompt Mazwai for a critic’s shorthand to describe Sankofa: “It’s jazzy. And I’ll say jazz with a ‘y’. This is not jazz, but it’s jazz-ish.”

Now that crucial part for any music fan: “Ms Critic, tell me, should I buy this record?”

“I would say you should buy this record,” she says.

What will it do to me?

“That I cannot predict. The work does what it does when it arrives in the hands or in the ears of whoever is listening. 

“Some people cry from a dance song, that you think is supposed to make someone dance, and they will cry. I cannot predict what you should feel from it.”

There is no doubt how she felt. 

“I felt a great sense of relief! It took me so long to make, so I’m really happy that it’s finally done. And I think, really, when you’re an artist, that’s the true marker of success — finishing your work.

“Because a very possible outcome is to not finish, or at least to work on it forever. So, I am satisfied with the fact that the work is done.”

I ask her who should listen to it.

“I used to feel that my work is only for black South African ears. That’s who I was having the conversation with. That was essentially who the conversation was with.

“But this album, for me, I think, breaks that mould quite a bit and says anyone can listen to it at any time. And I’m speaking about things that are a little bit more universal.

“Whereas before, in my kwaito days, I was really focused on ghetto youth. As long as you were a young person from a township, that was who I was speaking to, because that’s who I was. And I’m always speaking to self.”

Mazwai says she feels herself beyond certain confines. 

“Outside of myself, just being a South African artist, I can be an African artist. And beyond that, I can just be an artist of the world. And so, my work can be consumed by anyone who shares the same sentiments: joy, healing, those things.”

Mazwai is one of South Africa’s most important post-apartheid artists, starting her career in the groups Jack Knife and Bongo Maffin and pioneering kwaito music. 

After six award-winning albums with Bongo Maffin she went solo, with her first album, 2004’s Zabalala, reaching double platinum status.

Sankofa is her fourth solo album. I ask the 48-year-old Mazwai if it has made her feel older or younger.

“When I started, it definitely made me feel a lot younger. I really thought I would be making a very youthful-sounding, very happy-sounding album. But, ultimately, I made a pensive, meditative piece of work.

“But I think the place where creativity emanates is always in that childlike state where you are able to imagine things that don’t exist.”

It always begins in this youthful place, she says. 

“But then I think, obviously, as you chisel, you’re required to use a little bit of your gained knowledge through time.

“And so, I have had almost 50 years in this life and, even as I play, I am informed by my experiences. So, yeah, it’s a little bit more mature than I expected it to be. 

“And I guess I am too.”

The album’s title Sankofa means “to go back and fetch what’s been left behind” in the Ghanaian language Twi. The album has started to play that changing role for Mazwai too.

“On a personal kind of note, it has begun, but it hasn’t finished, its work. It has begun to free me of some really ingrained traumas that I carry with me, though.

“So, the work is definitely curing me of my melancholy … it’s beginning to do that. But I think that making this work and celebrating 20 years of Zabalaza this year, there’s a shift in how I’m allowing myself to see myself.

“I used to be quite reticent about saying, ‘I’m an adult,’ you know, that I’m this thing … what the kids will call ‘iconic’ or ‘legendary’. These words have always been uncomfortable to me.”

Mazwai says making this album has helped her “working through my own imposter syndrome and working through that … has allowed me to finally arrive at a place where I can say, ‘Well, some of this is my doing and I can take some of the credit.’”

I ask what she means by saying Sankofa still has a job to complete.

“Well, I was speaking about this idea of healing myself and that creating the work is the beginning of that. But the song, once it’s alive and it’s living in the world, keeps being played over and over and over again — it will continue to do the work of soothing for me.

“Songs have reasons that they want to exist and they have very long lives in which to accomplish that.”

Mazwai’s mother Belede died at the young age of 34 — the singer was just 16.

“It’s hard to say what she would have made of the album,” she says. “But, you know, I spent my whole life trying to make her proud. Trying to create the kind of work that she would deal with.”

Her mom didn’t know that she could sing until Mazwai was about 14 years old. 

“She came to my boarding school and I was singing there,” she recalls. “I remember we drove home that night and she said to me, ‘I didn’t know you could sing like that.’”

Her mom was working as a journalist at The Star when she died. 

“We were still having a lot of fun,” Mazwai says. “We used to come to Wits and watch plays. I remember I watched Athol Fugard’s People Are Living There with her.

“And I remember my favourite film we watched together was Cinema Paradiso. That was our movie. Yeah, that was the movie that I associated with my mother.”

Mazwai pauses.

“And I’ve always wondered what she would make of me … now.

“I have dreams where she appears. That could just be my mind playing tricks on me. But it also is part of my belief system.

“And so, I think that she would be proud of it because she is the one who embedded the ideas of pan-Africanism in me. She handed me Frantz Fanon; she handed me Chinua Achebe. She wore African dresses — we used to call them dashikis.”

Belede, after whom Mazwai named her third album, is still very clearly a presence in her daughter’s life.

“So, all the things I put in my work are the things that she left me with. These were her gifts to me and so I think that, yes, she definitely would be proud of me. She would like the idea that I’m a singer.”

Once, when Mazwai was going through a stage of depression and wasn’t embellishing her hair — “I’ve always worn a crown … I like a little drama in the hair” — her mom spoke to her in a dream.

“It’s very seldom that she speaks in the dreams. But I had this dream where she was staring at me and she said, ‘When are you going to do your nice hairstyles again?’”

Mazwai has taken it to heart. She is looking regal with cowrie shells crowning her hair. She is dressed in white sneakers, green pleated pants and a black and green top, complemented by dark green nails. 

Her chunky, dramatic Indian bracelets plus intricate silver rings on both hands say African hippie-stroke-beautifully bohemian. 

The highlight for me is a ring with an ochre and black micro-painting of Busi Mhlongo in its head. The celebrated singer would have approved, as they were close friends. Mhlongo died in 2010.

Even though Mazwai was working with people she has played with for 15 years, people she describes as family, Sankofa was “extremely difficult” to record. 

That is because “life also was happening at the same time”. 

“And so, I would be derailed by a personal issue for four to five months while trying to make this album. A lot of struggle and trauma in the making. That’s why I’m relieved it’s done. I’m so relieved.”

The core of her band is Lungile (Lulu) Maduna, drums, vocals; Sunnyboy Mthimunye, guitar; Tendai Ali Shoko (Shox), bass; Thabang Tabane, percussion and Xolani Thabethe, keys, vocals.

In addition to her beloved band, Mazwai “had incredible producers”. 

“I mean, the thing is to work with people you love intensely. I have great reverence to both of them, to Nduduzo [Makhathini] and to Meshell [Ndegeocello].”

I ask her if she is a meddler or if she lets go of a song or album.

“A meddler to the core. To the core, I’m a meddler. Yes, I will change it 100 million times and then return to the first one. And say, ‘Oh, this was perfect all along.’ But then we’ll record just the music. I won’t be singing along with the band. And then I’ll spend a good year working on vocals. Just this and that, maybe that, maybe this, not that.

“Yeah, I guess I’m a … the arch meddler.”

That meddling is over, at least for now. The focus is on getting ready for the South African shows, to be followed by a tour in the US.

“We are constantly rehearsing,” says Mazwai. “So, maybe we’ll do about 10 days of rehearsing. Just to make sure that the new music is there. Because the old music, the band has been playing it for 15 years. And they know it well. 

“We don’t have a problem playing the old stuff. But we definitely prepared for the new releases.”

After the US, they want to do a West African tour, says Mazwai.

“I just want to do Mali for the hell of it, because I love Mali. But it’s Senegal and Nigeria mostly. And then we’ll do East Africa as well. I just want everyone to hear the music, [that is what] I want it to be.”

I am totally in awe of Mazwai’s voice. I ask her what it feels like when she sings and that beautiful voice comes out of her mouth.

“On stage, definitely effortless; in the studio, difficult. Hard work. Hard work in the studio. I don’t know why.

“I think maybe because the stage is transient. You are there for the moment that you’re in and so there’s no pressure for perfection.

“But, in a recording, you really want to make it perfect or as close to perfect as you can. 

“I have this kind of weird relationship with my voice where it is an entity of its own. I even have a name for it.”


“Kgalema lenyatso!”

That is a Tswana and Pedi proverb which, directly translated, is “reprimand the disrespect”. It means to deal harshly with children who undermine grown-ups.

Mazwai explains further: “So, my voice’s name is, I scold disrespect. That’s the name of the voice.”

We both burst out laughing.

“So, my voice does have an ego, I’ll say. That’s why it has a name like that. But yeah, I just have this interesting relationship with it. 

“She’s a thing all on her own and she does incredible things that I could never imagine myself doing.”

And we, as listeners, are the more fortunate for that.

The Sankofa album launch is at Carnival City, Johannesburg, on 11 May, with shows at the Durban Playhouse on 31 May and Artscape in Cape Town on 20 July.