‘God so loved the world that she gave it music” is one of the many Tweets from multiple-award-winning musician Thandiswa Mazwai.
She explores the sentiment, saying: “Everything is sound. Sound moves things. You can move the entire universe with sound. It is very spiritual. Once you’re a musician, or even an audience member, you realise that something spiritual happens when the right kind of chemistry is put together.
“The only thing I pray for… I woke up this morning and I said: ‘God, wherever you are, whoever you are, you know why you gave me what you gave me’.”
The thing He gave her? The ability to perform alchemy with her voice – manipulating it through varying pitch and tone – affixing to something in her listener. Her singing is throaty, connecting with the ancestors – calling to them. Her music is a sigh, a salve, a caress. It’s playful, childlike, a tickle.
Her prayer continues: “And tonight I need magic between us because that’s the thing you need between the audience and the musician. You need magic. You need something to move in you. And I’m praying something moves in me and that something moves in the audience.”
Mazwai shared this thought at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival a few years ago.
With pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, drummer Ayanda Sikade, and bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, the incantation had no choice but to produce the magic. It’s a masterful trio tapping deliciously into the jazz aesthetics of improv and note play. Mazwai’s third, but first studio album, Belede, was launched recently – seven years after the release of Ibokwe. It is a dedication to her mother, Belede, who died when Mazwai was 16. Having grown up in Soweto it was befitting to host the launch at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani.
In a Sunday Independent interview, she said: “I aspire to be a part of a group of musicians that sound entrancingly South African. I grew up in a strong pan-African and black consciousness home. My mother was a radical pan-Africanist. She wore African clothes. When I was given an opportunity to present myself publicly, when I started out with Bongo Muffin, I thought about my mother and preserving the memory of what she taught me.”
The nine-track album has a deliberate jazz foundation. On it, Mazwai revisits music which first existed on vinyl before technological advancement.
“For any jazz musician to explore traditional music I think would be interesting. And that’s the kind of thing that I’m exploring – putting together traditional music with a kind of jazz sensibility. I think the two genres work well together. Jazz music became the music of resistance. A lot of our jazz musicians ended up being exiled. So, it was the music of longing, of resistance, of displacement – that’s what I think it represents to me.”
Mazwai leans on the musical genius that has preceded her – Caiphus Semenya, Dorothy Masuku, Bi Kidude, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Busi Mhlongo.
“I’ve always felt like mam’Busi’s child and that’s how she treated me. We were very close. Anytime something happens to me I think about her... My music is a tribute to all the women who came before me.”
She speaks of having been reared in a school of thought that understood music as a weapon. “I was raised on the music of people like Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba. I recognise the importance of that. If you look at the struggle in South Africa, there’s a documentary, Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony. It’s about the importance of music and how it can propel change in people’s lives. I don’t believe that change is only political – sometimes it’s about love. Or about other things.”
In piecing the album together; sifting through the covers performed by artists she reveres, and hymns and struggle songs she grew up with, she blended herself into renditions she steeped in jazz with a stir of spirit and a sprinkle of tradition. Mazwai has re-imagined these songs for a new space and time.
It’s this process that she found interesting; how the songs are still relevant in South Africa even though they were written as rebel music against apartheid. “They still have the same impact, ask the same questions and evoke the same actions,” Mazwai says.