Fifteen years ago, after only two years working as a journalist, I watched as Thandiswa Mazwai walked out of our interview without so much as an announcement of her exit. The interview had already been strained by Mazwai’s impatience with my line of questioning, and while I was in the middle of asking her something else, without saying a word, she got up and left. Stunned but mostly confused, I sat at Full Stop Café in Parkhurst, hoping for the best but knowing that our interview was done like cassette tapes. I was mortified, but grateful she had at least given me 20 minutes. I wouldn’t be going back to the newsroom empty-handed, as had happened to so many of my colleagues. Mazwai was known to put journalists in their place before walking out of interviews.
I had been assigned by the magazine I was working for to interview “the lead singer of Bongo Maffin”. It was 2001, and the group had just released its Bongolution album. Her vocals were so sweet, all everyone wanted to know was when she was going to leave the group and give us more of those buttery, sweet African sounds. That was the question I couldn’t come back to my editor without having gotten an answer to. I suspect, but can’t confirm – mostly because my mind has chosen to block it out – that this was the moment when Mazwai decided she was no longer interested in anything I had to say and dispensed with all niceties. For the next decade, I would out-and-out refuse to interview her, because of that experience. However, in that time, I also became a huge fan of her music. My feelings of inadequacy as a journalist (having bungled an interview with one of our few real stars) never clouded my love for the sheer brilliance of her musical prowess. Her debut album, Zabalaza – released three years after that disastrous interview, would win her the Best Female Artist South African Music Award (SAMA).
But because the universe has a sick sense of humour, 15 years later, I find myself in Parkhurst again, about to interview her for the first time since “the incident”. The restaurant where we’re supposed meet initially turns out to be closed, and so Mazwai tells her publicist that she’ll meet me at Vovo Telo. I chuckle as I read the text message from Maria McCloy... Vovo Telo is the scene of the aforementioned crime, although it was Full Stop Café all those years ago. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me. Suddenly I’m 21 again, sweaty-palmed and frazzled. I can’t parallel park; I drive around the block three times like a crazy person. Mazwai is an hour late and in that time, I start having conniptions – what if she doesn’t come? Maybe I should bail out and send her questions instead? Luckily, before my thoughts swallow me whole, King Tha aka Red aka Gunzah Blaze walks in and gives me a hug. I exhale. This level of intimacy is not something we associate with the singer. Even she acknowledges this. On 14 June 2006, she posted a note on her Instagram page: “I’ve only recently learned to hug my friends. I was always so afraid of the intimacy,” and it is accompanied by a caption that reads: “Strange how love can be scary”. Time, I make a note, has softened the woman The Guardian newspaper called “South Africa’s finest female contemporary singer”.
When I mention her apparent new sunny and equally easy-going disposition, especially around journalists, she smiles politely.
“At that time, I was meeting a lot of journalists for the first time and they were meeting me for the first time. When a journalist would ask me an inappropriate question, that you wouldn’t ordinarily ask another person, I would be mystified… because I know how to talk to journalists, how to be in the public eye, I know how to do that. The last person to whom I would choose my words with is a journalist. Ordinarily I’m incredibly meticulous about which words I choose. That said, though, I was a different person then, yes. I was young but I knew what I wanted, how to articulate it and would never allow anyone to misrepresent me. I would tell journalists that my parents were journalists and I recognise the power of words. There’s no way me of all people, especially considering who raised me, would have a problem with journalists,” laments Mazwai. When your father is publisher and entrepreneur Thami Mazwai, and your sisters a poet and singer respectively, then words are part of the fabric of your being.
Mazwai’s late mother, Belede (after whom she titled her new jazz album), a Pan-Africanist and a journalist for The Star newspaper in Johannesburg, died when Mazwai was only 16. Three years after her mother’s death, Mazwai recorded Uzobuya Nini with Jack Knife, and her music – whether solo on 2009’s Ibokwe or on Bongo Maffin’s New Construction – would subsequently become the voice of her generation. Yet, the truth is we’ve observed as Mazwai has tried to wade through the waters of grieving for her mother while under public scrutiny during her 22-year music career. It then makes perfect sense that after turning 40 last year, she would release an album named after her mother.
“For a long time, I deified my mother; I would go as far as to say I iconified her. Losing her at such a young age was a huge moment in my life. My mother died when she 34 years old, and I remember when I was her age praying that God doesn’t take me, because I didn’t want to leave Malaika without a mother,” explains the mother of one. Mazwai has a teenage daughter with Bongo Maffin bandmate, Stoan Seete. “I didn’t want her to make the same mistakes I had made, because of having lost my mother so early in life. It was a fear of mine. Motherhood reveals you to yourself. And for the first time in my life, there’s a sense of joy when I talk about my mother. I feel like I’ve come full circle,” she says warmly.
When putting together the tracklist for Belede, her third album, she wanted to celebrate the music she grew up hearing but which signified the time we live in now. The first single, Jikijela, is a Letta Mbulu – she who provided the sensuous Swahili chant in Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl – struggle song, recorded during the apartheid era, where Mbulu refers to black South Africans throwing stones against the tyranny of the apartheid regime. “When I saw the images and news clippings of the #FeesMustFall movement, I knew I had to record that song, because of how relevant it was to the student uprisings we were experiencing in 2015,” says Mazwai. At the launch of the album, held at the Soweto Theatre, “ekasi” (township) where she grew up, Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya, her Academy Award-nominated husband (for the original score for Steven Spielberg’s The Colour Purple), were there to watch Mazwai sing Mbulu’s song.
However, the stand-out performance of that night came when Mazwai moved all of us to tears with her rendition of the Xhosa gospel hymn, Wakrazulwa. “Busi Mhlongo had recorded the song on her last album, Amakholwa/Believers, and because of my emotional connection with her – she was like my second mother – I needed to record that song,” Mazwai says softly. Mhlongo, who refers to Mazwai as her “musical daughter” in that album’s thank-you note, recorded the song (about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins) while battling cancer. The song starts softly, with Mhlongo sounding almost resigned to the reality that cancer might take her life. But a minute into the song, it takes an upbeat turn and that Zulu gruffness we knew Mhlongo for pierces the sadness and softness and, rather eerily sounding like Mazwai’s vocals, returns to the song again. Life, the melody invokes, is fragile. For Amakholwa, Mhlongo enlisted the talent of Nduduzo Makhathini, who is also the pianist for Mazwai’s Belede (along with bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and drummer Ayanda Sikade). “I wanted to record Wakrazulwa,” says Mazwai, “but it refused to be sung in the way I had wanted originally. Something was missing. It wasn’t coming through the way I thought it would and so I sat with it for a long time, not knowing how to make it better.” After months of vacillating, she went into the studio to record the second part and the ancestors finally came to bless her. “When Busi knew she had hit a good one, she would say: ‘Siy’bulele madoda’ (we’ve killed it, man) – and that’s what happened when I started calling out her clan names during the song. I could feel her spirit was with me when my voice went hoarse. I knew I had it,” she says, both forlornly and proudly.
At 40, Mazwai has lived the kind of rich life that very few of us who, like her, come from Soweto but will rarely ever experience. She’s performed a duet with Paul Simon, had lunch with both Madiba and Michael Jackson at the same table, she’s raised a child, had an almost decade-long beautiful love affair with her partner, Anika, and allowed us to travel deep within the recesses of her mind, giving us sassy in Zabalaza’s Lahlu’mlenze and sexy in Ibokwe’s ultimate love song, Ingoma. So, what else is left to do when you’re considered to be one of SA’s living legends?
“I have had the honour of knowing and having friends who are real legends, like Bra Hugh Masekela. People who’ve survived life’s struggles, made music and lived rich lives. I often paraphrase a quote by Mark Twain by saying I truly believe that the report of my greatness has been greatly an exaggeration. I’m still young, I still want to break the rules. I want to make an erotic album, I’m planning on recording music in Mali and I’m about to record an album with the Blk Jks. I’m not done, I still have so much to do.”
At the end of the interview, after an hour-and-a-half of chatting, witnessing Mazwai in her new incarnation – open, animated, free – and having shared a dessert with her, I remind her of our unfortunate first meeting almost 20 years ago. She laughs hard. “Hahaha! Seriously, did I do that?” she pauses to consider the thought… “Actually, I can believe it. My friend Bonnie (Mbuli) reminded me recently of how much we just didn’t give a damn back then…” She releases another mischievous belly laugh and, before grabbing her car keys, turns to me and says, “I love that I could stand up for myself like that at that age. I was such a badass,” she says, while laughing raucously.
As if she ever stopped being.
She's performed a duet with Paul Simon, had lunch with both Madiba and Michael Jackson at the same table...
“I often paraphrase a quote by Mark Twain by saying I truly believe the the report of my greatness has been exaggeration”