Bongeziwe Mabandla
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Bongeziwe Mabandla

Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa | Established. Jan 01, 2014

Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
Established on Jan, 2014
Solo Folk Afropop


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This band has not uploaded any videos



"Keep the fire burning"

If someone hands you a brush and paint and plays you a song by a musician you have never seen or heard before, could you sketch a portrait of the musician from the lyrics?

At their first listen of Bongeziwe Mabandla's album Umlilo ­(isiZulu for fire), someone who had never seen or heard him before might sketch him as an old man with grey hair.

Yet Mabandla is 29 years old. He specialises in melancholic ­melodies and poignant social ­commentary, in lyrics in which he himself features.

Sitting on a concrete stoep outside Truth Coffee in Cape Town where he is to perform later on the day we meet, he says he tries to put a lot of himself in his work. "Sometimes that resonates with people," he muses.

Umlilo, released in 2012, is a refreshing redefinition of folk and traditional music. Mbandla's lyrics pull you into a story trance, and when he stops singing – when he hums, or plays his guitar – you emerge too suddenly, anxious for other lyrics to rescue you.

In a song called ­Wandenzanina, he unburdens his heart, singing of how he can never do what someone has done to him. The song is also deceptive in its composition. Its first two verses hint at a father who left and never came back. In the third verse it switches to an estranged love story – a song embedded within another. Does any song need to be about just one thing or another?

Mabandla sings about his mother. "My mom was very intelligent. She has been pushing me to good schools, teaching me about the world," the songwriter says. "My family was always very aspirational, in fact like a lot of black families I know."

Mabandla was born in Tsolo, a town 42km from Mthatha, Eastern Cape. Being a musician was not an obvious career for him, although he took guitar lessons as a child. He studied acting at the Afda school before music found him.

"I discovered music very late in my life. But when I came to Jozi, I began to listen to music properly," he says of his earlier years.

"I listened to Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai, Jabu Khanyile, Busi Mhlongo, Kwani Experience, MXO, Lauryn Hill."

Jabu Khanyile
Of all the artists who have departed this Earth, who would he want to record an album with?

"Jabu Khanyile," says Mabandla, staring out into space. The answer rushes out, as if he had previously considered such a collaboration with the late Bayete vocalist, whose pan-African ideals led him to seek to unify musical styles from across the continent.

At Truth Coffee later that night, his ­guitar and isiXhosa ­lyrics seduce a predominantly white crowd. He pulls them in with the first song and soon has them singing along to Ndibonisiwe, in a language they do not speak or understand.

His last performance in Cape Town, a few days after the one at Truth Coffee, is to be Greenmarket Square. There, he will play Hamba Nami in a rhythm completely different to the one on the album. In the song, he suggests that the listener is part of his journey, that without the listener with him along the way, he will not go. He brings the listener into collaboration. Such collaboration is not easy, he says. Writing songs is a brutal process, and he admits he is not a fast songwriter. But work on the next album is already under way.

It is going to be a "conceptual" album, Mabandla remarks in his laconic voice. "Today, I am here.Tomorrow, I am gone. Growth fascinates me. I want to be a better me, you know. I want to grow." - Mail & Guardian

"Bongeziwe Mabandla fires up French music lovers"

Singer-songwriter Bongeziwe Mabandla's Afro-folk sound is starting to attract international attention – he's one of ten finalists in the Radio France Internationale Discoveries Awards. And with his debut album, “Umlilo” (fire), due to be released in September, home fans have something to look forward to as well. By THERESA MALLINSON.

You may not have heard of it before, but the RFI Prix Découvertes (Discoveries Award) is a pretty big deal in African and, to a lesser extent, Caribbean music. The competition, a project of Radio France Internationale, has been going for close to three decades, and most often been won by artists from Francophone African countries. Past winners include Amadou et Mariam from Mali (1982) and Zimbabwe's Chiwoniso (1998). The prize has never been won by a South African.

Bongeziwe Mabandla, who grew up in Eastern Cape and now lives in Joburg, is hoping to change that. His music label, 340ml Music, entered him into the competition earlier this year, and now he's one of ten finalists for 2011. The others are Afrikkanitha (Angola); Blakkayo (Mauritius); Cheikh MC (The Comoros); Elie Kamano (Guinea); Metzo Djatah (Senegal); Mao Otayeck (Côte d'Ivoire); Sia Tolno (Guinea); and Wanlove the Kubolor (Ghana). Yes, you counted correctly: that only adds up to nine. The finalists are being announced one each day, and the name of the final finalist has yet to be released.

The prize brings €10,000, promotional backing, a concert in Paris and an African city. “(Being a finalist is) actually very nerve-wracking, ‘cause I got called and they were really excited, and (said): 'You're in the top 10!'. So I'm very honoured to be nominated... I heard some (of) the musicians from this year are really amazing, and I'm the only one nominated in South Africa; it's an amazing thing,” Mabandla told Daily Maverick over coffee in Melville.

It's appropriate that we met there, as it's Melville were Mabandla first met Paulo Chibanga, when he bumped into him at a corner cafe buying bread. Chibanga is the drummer from Mozambican band 340ml, and he took the young musician under his wing. “I met Chibanga from 340ml. After school I was a bit like: 'I don't know what to do'. I'd been acting a bit, like on ‘Generations’, but it wasn't really artistic for me,” Mabandla confessed. “So I told him I play guitar, and I have some songs I'd love to record. We met later, and we recorded, and that's how I came to be a musician that's playing (gigs). I was 'discovered'.”

The band, 340ml, has its own music company called, simply enough, 340ml Music. Along with Levi Pon the Mic, Mabandla is one of only two artists signed to the label. “It's nice to be at a label like mine because they're all artists. I can just come and say this is how I want to do it for artistic reasons, and they pretty much follow that,” says Mabandla. “They do dub and that type of stuff, (but) I want to be acoustic and more soulful.”

340ml Music released Mabandla's debut EP, “Umlilo” (meaning “fire”), in 2008 and his album of the same name is due for release in September. “The title of the album is actually a play around,” explains Mabandla. “Ukulila means to cry. Umlilo could also be seen as 'the cry'. The things I was writing about are the things that are painful for me inside, and talking about them was releasing a type of cry, those tears. I thought it was a great play around to make your tears fire as well.”

Watch: Bongeziwe Mabandla – official Umlilo we sizathu video

Mabandla's music is a fusion of traditional African and contemporary folk sounds, with some dub influence thrown in, courtesy, no doubt, of Chibanga. “Growing up I listened to Bongo Maffin a lot, I wanted to be their third member,” Mabandla says. “They really shaped me – it was one of the first times that I saw African music being idolised like that. Thandiswa was showing her dreads and beads, it really influenced me; initially that's what made me want to get into music. As I grew older, Tracy Chapman really influenced me, as well as The Fugees.

“I didn't come from a traditional home, but I was exposed to that kind of music, just being in rural Eastern Cape,” says Mabandla. “I think a lot of that is influence from Thandiswa and Busi (Mhlongo) – the people I discovered when I was in Joburg and trying to be a musician, ‘cause Joburg has so many different people. Jabu Khanyile influenced me immensely. My album's very African. We use a lot of percussion, African drums and the uhadi. But I would say the play with traditional element really comes through with the voice and vocals. There's a new Maskandi feel that I'm sort of going into. ”

Making the album has been a long and painstaking process. “I wrote for a few months, then I started performing with a band (to get) the feel of the songs. I came into studio for that and recorded guitars,” Mabandla says. “After guitars, my voice. It's important that your voice really drives the song – they can play around you. And they put all the instruments later, and the back-up vocals later. Then I came back and redid my vocals on top of them. But it's a long process, and once you start doing things like that, you almost can't get lazy in the middle, ‘cause (what you've done already) is so fine-tuned.”

Laziness isn't a quality you could accuse Mabandla of – between focusing on his music career, he's acted on “Generations”, “Intersections” and the forthcoming movie “A Million Colours”. But music is where his heart is. “I love being a musician because I can do my own thing, and I can always direct,” he says, “but I find in acting, you're always doing someone else's vision.” Mabandla has now attracted other musicians to become part of his vision, with Zulu-Boy, MXO, Kyla-Rose Smith (Freshlyground) and Nosisi (formerly of Kwani experience), all lending their talents to tracks on “Umlilo”.

Mabandla paused when I asked him why people should vote for him in the RFI Music competition. “That is a difficult question,” he laughed. “Because I think I'm a new type of product, if I can put it like that. It's something fresh, I don't think it's been done before – a lot of fusion.” - Daily Maverick

"Bongeziwe Mabandla Rolling Stone Feature"

At the tail end of Bongeziwe Mabandla's set at the Bassline in mid-January comes a flash of showmanship that rapidly dispels any notion that we're watching a straight-up troubadour.

Discarding his acoustic guitar, Mabandla prowls the stage, teasing the crowd with the promise of a dance – and when he finally hunkers down and springs up, it's with the urging of a crowd who'd come out to see Mali's Vieux Farka Touré but who'd easily been won over by the Eastern Cape-raised musician.

Speaking to Rolling Stone a few days later, 28-year-old Mabandla still carries the style he showed on the Bassline stage – a hairstyle straight out of the Kid 'n Play era, skinny pants and a short tie that few grown men are able to pull off with any kind of panache.

It's not long into our conversation that he brings up the comparisons that are frequently fielded when his name comes up. Because he plays an acoustic guitar and was born and raised in Tsolo, near Umtata, Zahara is one. There's also Vusi Mahlasela, for Mabandla's poetic, at times socially conscious lyrics. And his voice – like the Mamelodi musician, Mabandla's is pitched high, a gentle (though never meek) thing of beauty. But none of these do justice to the AFDA graduate's music, now finally captured in his debut solo album, Umlilo.

If Mabandla is part of a South African music trajectory, it's one that searches, with heart, soul and a rare intensity, for a way to instinctively refashion this country's roots music around the tradition of folk. In this, he's connected back to the late masters of the movement – like Jabu Khanyile and Umanji (whose "Moloi" remains one of the country's most criminally underrated compositions).

The 12-track Umlilo – issued through Mabandla's deal with Sony Africa – is a striking addition to this canon. Keening songs of personal and social struggle are rendered with a luminosity that turns Mabandla's debut into a rich listening experience. Produced by 340ml drummer Paulo Chibanga, songs like the instantly memorable "Isizathu" are meticulously crafted to draw out the essence of Mabandla's material.

Surprisingly for an offering that sounds so much like a true old-fashioned album, Umlilo's gestation wasn't easy. Once he'd decided to go it alone, leaving The Fridge – the band that introduced him to fans – Mabandla searched for a way to make a solo album. "When I was with The Fridge, it was always such an uncomfortable topic. People used to ask us when we were recording, but it was my music and it wasn't easy, deciding not to be with a band I had been with for years. It took a friend of mine, the singer Maleh, to encourage me to use my own name – and go it alone."

A chance encounter with Chibanga at a shop – "I told him he should record my music" – and the decision to pay R500 a song for the producer to record him was the start of Mabandla's solo journey. "Paulo was amazing because I later connected with Simphiwe Dana, who also grew up in my village, and she was so generous, giving me advice on how to record. I would keep telling 340ml just how I wanted the songs to sound – being very precise. I actually must really thank those guys so much for giving me what I wanted in the recording of Umlilo."

With Umlilo completed early in 2012, it's been a frustrating time for Mabandla to get it on mainstream release – now a reality since Sony Africa took over the record through a deal with 340ml Music and issued it in August 2012. Lyrically, Mabandla wanted to use Umlilo as a way of expressing his feelings about growing up poor, in a rural community where struggle punctuated each day. "I wouldn't say that I had a difficult, bad childhood. But my mother was a single parent and it was always very emotional seeing my mother trying to make ends meet – trying to do her best for me on Christmas," he recalls. One of the songs on Umlilo – "Ngiwe Mama" – is a tribute to Mabandla's mother for supporting his dream, starting with sending him to Lady Grey Arts Academy in Graaff -Reinet. "It wasn't easy for both of us, and she made a lot of sacrifices," the artist says of his mother.

"Ngiwe Mama" is not the only autobiographical song on Umlilo. The only English song on the album – "Freedom For Everyone" – is, says Mabandla, "a song about me and my family and my mother", although, like much of Mabandla's material, it has meaningful social resonance. "It says: 'Don't you think we all want to hold our heads up?/Have pride when we walk the streets?/ But in these cold, cold concrete days there are divisions contradictions/What is freedom if there is no freedom for everyone?'"

With guest performances by Kyla-Rose Smith of Freshlyground, Zuluboy and Nosisi, and a growing band of believers, Mabandla's music is finding a larger audience – which he says he finds gratifying after nine years of "trying to be a musician".

"The whole making of the album is about selfvalue – and I want people to hear that. During the recording I was beginning to realise the vast disconnection and division in South Africa. I was noticing that even a lot of black people are now envying money – we applaud people with money and I starting thinking: what a bad standard to have in a country where so many people aren't that."

As for his sound, Mabandla says it all starts with emotion. "A lot of people ask where my sound comes from – and to be honest, it's a mixture of different things. For me, there were several key moments in my life that all played a part in my songwriting. When I heard Bongo Maffi n for the first time, I thought how beautiful it was. Then when I was in Standard 7 I heard 'Zion' by Lauren Hill and that was a big moment in my life. I couldn't stop playing the song and I began to realise that there was this beautiful thing called music, and specifically the kind of music where people are singing what's in their heart, about emotion.

"Umlilo is that kind of album, I hope. It says this is who I am – these are the things that matter to me, these are the things that are personal for me. I always worried that I would never release an album and I thank God that I had the courage to wait for the right time." - Rolling Stone



Born in Tsolo, a rural town in the Eastern Cape, Bongeziwe displayed all the signs of a passion for art and music from an early age. After studying drama at AFDA Johannesburg, Bongeziwe dedicated his time to song writing and performing shows, developing his own unique unplugged style and earning recognition as a musician. Together with his band, Bongeziwe has created a matchless Afro-folk sound, over which his soulful voice delivers in both Xhosa and English.

Influenced by artists like Tracy Chapman, Simphiwe Dana, Jabu Khanyile and Oliver Mtukudzi, his sound has a rhythmically grass-roots vibe, while fusing elements of traditional Xhosa music, Mbaqanga, Soul, Hip-hop and Dub. 

Bongeziwe has performed at numerous festivals and venues across South Africa including Splashy Fen, Oppikoppi and Rocking the Daisies, as well as Sakifo Festival in Reunion and Azgo Festival in Mozambique. He has shared the stage, whether its performing his poetry or his music, with 340ml, Freshlyground and Blk Sonshine to name a few. Bongeziwe has made a number of TV appearances, including Weekend Live and Youth Expression on SABC, as well as having his music used for a variety of movies and TV series. As an actor hes worked on popular South African soap Generations, TV series Sekhulu & Partners and more recently A Million Colours, a Canadian feature film by Peter Bisha. In 2011, Bongeziwe reached second place in the Radio France Internationale Discoveries Award, and in 2013 he got the opportunity to perform at the Festival dlle de France in Paris to a warm reception.

In 2012 Bongeziwe released his debut album Umlilo, with producer Paulo Chibanga. The album includes collaborations with local talents Nosisi, former vocalist of Kwani Experience, and Zuluboy. The album has garnered critical acclaim, giving Bongeziwe two nominations at the South African Music Awards 2013, for Best Newcomer and Best Adult African album categories. Bongeziwe was also allowed the privilege of performing live at the SAMAs, and he provided a moving performance of Ngawe Mama, which was broadcast across the nation.

 Bongeziwe had the opportunity to perform with UK Soul Singer Joss Stone on her trip to South Africa in April 2014.

This is what the multi platinum selling star had to say about Bongeziwe:

 "Bongeziwe really did look and sound like a soul Id love to meet. I watched a few performance videos of him on YouTube so of course I had my own idea of what he would be like. Such sweetness he has, very warm, always with a big smile. Until he sings the words from his heart then that smile turns to the emotion of the story he is telling. This is soul." - Joss Stone