Interview with Bongeziwe Mablanda
Spend any amount of time with Bongeziwe Mabandla, and you soon figure out that he can’t sit still. The Eastern Cape-born musician, who first delighted Mzansi in 2012 with his debut project Umlilo, is excited about his forthcoming and as yet untitled third album. He paces about the room as he plays selections from it, unleashing commentary about what the songs mean, and what his and the project producer Tiago Paulo’s favourite tracks are.
Tiago hails from Maputo in Mozambique, and there’s a relationship between the two that stretches back to Bongeziwe’s first offering. Tiago was in a band called 340ml with drummer Paulo Chibanga, who produced Bongeziwe’s debut. This is the second time the two have worked together; Tiago’s the one Bongeziwe sought out following Umlilo’s release. Bongeziwe feels that this third album’s ‘different for many reasons’. It’s the first time in his decade-plus professional career that he had everything in place before recording the first song.
He explained more in this condensed version of a conversation we had on a somewhat warm winter afternoon in Jozi.
You were doing theatre-work before music? Was this as an actor and why the switch?
Yeah, I was working so hard to be an actor. Mostly in film. I did a couple of TV shows like Tsha Tsha, Generations and also played a part in the movie A Million Colours. I was really into it until music started taking all my attention.
How did the work on this new album start out?
With my previous albums, I used to appoint myself. This was the first time I actually got called into a meeting, and [my management] were like, “we need to work on an album.” I got really excited. I love playing live, I love the videos, I love a lot of the things about the music. But what I love most is working on ideas. I guess there’s no right way of doing it, so it’s always such a special thing for me to try to capture a moment and feelings; to talk about things I care about. That’s how the album came. I got asked.
“. . . what I love most is working on ideas”
Did your management have a specific direction in mind?
I don’t really get told what to do. I had already been thinking about ideas, so, after the first meeting, I started to look at how many songs I had, and what they were talking about. I needed to fit them into a structure. That’s really how albums begin. It’s hard to start writing. You need to have a certain idea. What I’ve noticed is that I really like themes; whether the album is about one topic or something similar. I did this with Mangaliso.
And what was Mangaliso’s theme?
Changing, spirituality and evolving. Very much about the pain I experienced in Joburg [while] trying to be a musician, and who I’d become. It was really an outcry from those feelings. There’s a song called Phila Kanzima, which means living hard. It’s about all that; all the terrible stuff that I went through. It’s very much about Joburg and my life.
That album’s concept evolved over time. Was it the same thing this time around?
There was a sense of immediacy with this album, and I really like that. The other albums took long, but not because I was sitting at home writing forever. Certain things weren’t in the right place; there wasn’t a record label. Some of the albums were done maybe 8 or 10 months before they actually came out. But with this one, there wasn’t any of that. I didn’t have to think about where to book the studio or where to get the cash to do this. It just happened. It was a good change, and a nice vibe as well.
Your sound has been described as a 'blend of African tradition and urban Folk.' Are you happy with that?
It’s not really Folk music any more. I’m doing away with the Folk description. It’s become so much more than that as I grow, and as I get influenced by different sounds. I would say it’s more like Soul music now. It deals with matters of the human soul and expresses that.
You said that the songs pretty much wrote themselves. Do you think that stability contributed to the speedy turn-around?
They did write themselves, but it took around 6 to 8 months of writing while recording as well. I had to use my time very effectively. I didn’t just come into the studio and start recording. There was a big thought process to it, and a lot of hours spent picking the right words.
What’s the theme for this album? Is there a name?
I don’t have a name yet. The album is about love. It’s almost like the beginning of a relationship, and it goes through the whole experience ‘til the end.
What’s the end?
The end is about when people separate. It’s what really inspired the whole album. That was the first song that would come. I had to re-visit some of the other moments. But [it] was really about running into somebody years later, that you used to never be separated from. What that does to your body.
Is that something that’s close to home for you?
Yeah. I don’t ever really write about things I don’t know. That’s why I decided to write on this topic. I realized that I think about love a lot, and me and my friends are always talking about finding the right one.
“I don’t ever write about things I don’t know”
You mentioned that you spent a lot of time thinking about the words. What does that mean?
Studying Drama and being a theatre actor for many years and being involved in that world, really helped me to attack lyrics in a playwright’s kind of way. The way that I write is almost like when a writer writes a book—what is the character thinking? It’s really about visualizing the story; making it real in front of me. What is the character trying to say, or what am I trying to say in this moment? It’s like writing a book, or a play, or a story.
This interview, by Tseliso Monaheng, comes from a partnership between Xeno and the People’s Stories Project (PSP)—part of the British Council’s arts programme in sub-Saharan Africa.