Zabalaza: The album that defined a generation

By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)

What she misses is that in exorcising her own demons, she was also calling a generation to the alter and holding up the crucifix-en-masse to heal the gaping wounds of what was referred to then as a lost generation. She gave credence to their struggles and helped define the context of their times. A generation born in a different country, apartheid South Africa, and now living in a new nation, with a weight of expectations on their shoulders and challenged in ways that their parents had never been.

This post was originally published in September 2014 and is republished here as part of our one year anniversary retrospective.

By chance encounter on one of my regular Jozi  night jaunts, I found myself in conversation with Thandiswa Mazwai about her seminal solo debut, ‘Zabalaza’, now ‘celebrating’ its ten year anniversary.

Spotting her at the First Wednesday Film Club, I carpe diem’d the moment. We stood in a little corner just at the entrance of Atlas Studios, like friends out for a casual midweek get together, me firing questions and her, almost uncensored in her responses, while waiting for that evening’s feature, Baldwin’s Nigger to begin.

I have such a vivid memory of hearing the opening verse to ‘Zabalaza’. On a late Thursday evening listening to MetroFM then, the beat began and an eclectic mix of sounds followed, going on for what seemed an eternity as I waited for her voice.

“Gogo bheki umthwalo/kunini u hlupheka/little ghetto child/ungasibulali sana/ooooooooohhhh oooooohhhh oooohh/if you hold my hand/I’ll show you/how to dream.”

With these words and the melody of her voice, Thandiswa Zabalaza’d her way into my heart and I wanted more from her. It was the start of a long standing love affair with an artist who is destined for iconic stature in Pan Africanist sound.

A bit reluctant to talk about the album, but after a bit of enticement from my side, she finally offered herself. “I was in a lot of pain. I was going through a lot that was challenging me in my life at the time. I wouldn’t say I was depressed but it was a dark time and I was also missing my mother and the only way I knew how to deal with it all was to put pen to paper and write. ”

Months later, ‘Nizalwa Ngobani‘, a Pan African Language Board Song of the Decade award winner, started to dominate the airwaves and I knew she was an artist after my own heart. I went out looking for a copy of the CD. It was this song that confirmed it was okay to let my heart go there, to journey with Thandiswa. I felt I didn’t need another South African artist do pop and she delivered a sound and persona deeply embedded in our heritage.

To me, she was doing the unthinkable. She was immortalising our struggle heroes, as it seemed she had written the song as an ode to one Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

On performing the song in front of Mam’ Winnie at the MetroFM showcase she says “I was numbed by that experience. I was told she was in the audience and I didn’t know how I was going to go on. It was emotional and such an honour to have performed the song in front of her. It is one of those out of body experiences.”

I ask her how she feels that even ten years later, the album is still revered. “What can I say about something that was born out of necessity? It was something that had to be done. It is like this, let’s say its winter and its cold and you need a jersey to keep you warm but you don’t have the money to buy the jersey. Then you decide to knit yourself the jersey. You resolve your problem and then you step out into the world and everyone likes your jersey and they keep asking you where you got the jersey because they want to have one too. The jersey was knitted because I needed one. That people out there liked the jersey was never the motivation for why it was knitted”.

thandiswamazai zabalaza

What she misses is that in exorcising her own demons, she was also calling a generation to the alter and holding up the crucifix-en-masse to heal the gaping wounds of what was referred to then as a lost generation. She gave credence to their struggles and helped define the context of their times. A generation born in a different country, apartheid South Africa, and now living in a new nation, with a weight of expectations on their shoulders and challenged in ways that their parents had never been.

With the album on high rotation in my one roomed student cottage, I fell in love over and over again. The percussion heavy collaboration with Ntate Tshepo Tshola on ‘Ndilinde’ made me marvel at her matter of fact request of her beloved. Not being Xhosa, I went on a quest for translations, needing to understand every single word sang in the song.

Zabalaza Thandiswa Mazwai 2

On ‘Revelation’ she was unhinged and different to the rest of the album, making you feel like you’re in the deep south of African America at a church service. It became a late night favourite of mine. Inquiring about the inclusion of the song, she simply offers, “It was my mother’s favourite song. That’s why”.

On the origins of the smooth, love song titled ‘Transkei Moon’, in an it-was-nothing-off-my-skin-perfunctoriness, she says “It was late one evening and I was outside and I looked at the moon. The words just came to me and I had nowhere to write them. I asked the little kids running around to find me pen and paper and they brought a little piece of paper and an unsharpened pencil that I had to use my teeth to sharpen and write the words down. It was months later when I was back in Jo’burg that someone gave me a piece of music and I figured it could go well with the words to the song.”

The charm of the album is its diversity. It is just the right blend of house influences in ‘Ndizakulibala’ and ‘Kwanele’, the traditional Xhosa arrangements in ‘Ndiyahamba’ and all the interludes, the reggae influence on ‘Lahlumlenze’ which features her Bongo Muffin band mate Jahseed and the smoother, almost vulnerable ‘Ntyilo Ntyilo’ cover. Like an act of sorcery, the combinations of sounds worked and remain timeless.

Winding up our conversation outside, I confess how the album had kept me sane as 2004 had also been a difficult year for me. She was at pains to declare she “doesn’t consider herself to have done anything special to warrant the status of the voice of a generation”. I point out to her that it is that braveness of creating from her pain that heralded her and the album to that status.

We walked into the screening and continued our conversation on matters unrelated to Zabalaza and found common experiences and my heart was assured again that it did the right thing ten years ago when it chose to freefall into her world.

Since the release of Zabalaza, I have owned a total of three copies, two of which have gone missing but I am not complaining. I will continue to replace each time one is taken because I know and understand that people want to experience the boldness and magic of Thandiswa on that album as well.

FURTHER READING:

VISIT: thandiswa.com

LISTEN: Ibokwe, Dance of the forgotten free

 

31 Comments
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