When we last left Bongeziwe Mabandla, he was shutting the door on a relationship. Very literally, since his previous album, iimini, ended with the sound of a door slamming closed. But then the pandemic happened and, like so many of us, the singer found himself wondering about – perhaps, maybe – trying to open it back up again. You know, just in case this was how life was going to be forever.
“I was in that space of understanding that a lot of us revisit old relationships, old loves, trying to make something that didn't work, work,” he tells OkayAfrica. It was in this way that amaXesha, Mabandla’s latest album, began taking shape. The singer sees it as a continuation of iimini, his third album, which was released just as the lockdown in South Africa began. Rather than halt his songwriting, Mabandla, with a word of encouragement from his manager, kept on with the business of mining his thoughts and feelings about the things that were coming up for him during this time of enforced solitude.
AmaXesha means ‘the times,’ in his vernac of Xhosa, and the album roots itself in the idea of returning to a relationship over a span of time – reinvesting in it, fighting for it, giving it a second chance, even if there is no guarantee it will all work out again. “I just thought about the complexities of that; of going against everything that you said and trying to make a very turbulent relationship work again, and what it actually means,” says Mabandla. “What does it mean, relearning somebody, learning to forgive, finding love where there's a lot of pain?”
Let there be nothing that will again separate us
It’s how songs like “noba bangathini” came about. “That song means, no matter what anybody says, I think we are destined to be together,” says Mabandla. Or, as he sings, "makungabikho nto eyophinde isahlule (let there be nothing that will again separate us)." Like with iimini, he writes about his own experiences and there is much introspection as we hear Mabandla’s inner dialogue, the reckoning he goes through, and the desires he wrestles with, over folk-based and pop-tinged songs.
While the album may have been created during the insulated time of lockdown, it has an expansiveness to it. For Mabandla, who lives in Johannesburg but spent most of the early pandemic in Mozambique where he recorded with Correia-Paulo, writing lyrics that are able to extend far beyond his own experience is a skill he honed while studying acting at AFDA. His ability to reach into his own inner depth opens the door for others to do the same; to ask, where do I really belong?
Bongeziwe Mabandla - noba bangathini (official visualizer)www.youtube.com
AmaXesha captures that yearning for true connection, a yearning the pandemic only made more acute. As Mabandla’s fourth album, it’s connected to his previous work through little sonic trademarks, snippets of conversations – oftentimes between him and his producer Tiago Correia-Paulo – that are left in for us to hear. On 2017’s Mangaliso, the album that earned him the first of two SAMAs, you can hear Correia-Paulo at the beginning of “Ndibuyile” say, ‘Want to get closer to the mic?’ and then later on, his encouragement, ‘That’s it, little bit better.’
Now, as if responding years later – a progression of their working partnership – we hear Mabandla’s words to Correia-Paulo: ‘Should I try one last one? I’ve got one last one in me.’ He’s referring to a take, and keeping this in the recording lets us in on trust that exists between them. As much as this is Mabandla’s work, it’s also a feat of Correia-Paulo’s dexterity. He draws out elements from the singer: a sped-up vocal here, a drawn-out note there. They’ve worked together on the last three of Mabandla’s albums, shaping what some call the “Afro indie” sound of his songs – a mix of folk, soul, R&B, rock, and electronic that’s earned the singer a well-respected place in a country where amapiano and house rule the day.
“He’s definitely one of my closest friends,” says Mabandla of Correia-Paulo. “I feel like he has that sensibility of what an artist needs and what an artist doesn’t need. His way of working is not so much the technical, but it goes to understanding an artist’s sensitivity and emotive quality.” The trust between artist and producer creates the kind of atmosphere that allows Mabandla to relax and show us what he’s feeling, even when it’s a difficult song to share.
From "Zange" to "Thula"
There’s usually always one song on his albums that causes him a little bit of apprehension to share. With iimini it was “zange,” on amaXesha, it’s “thula,” a song that features Mabandla’s mother singing a lullaby, which was taken from a Whatsapp voice note she sent to him. The song is about his mother, “and some of the deep differences we have,” he says. One doesn’t have to know the details of their relationship, or what they don’t see eye-to-eye on to understand the conflicting emotions that can come with a mother-child relationship.
Mabandla, who was born in the Eastern Cape town of Tsolo, was raised without his father. “It's hard because I've always been very close with my mother,” he says. “So to have so many problems and issues between us, and to even put that into the music, it feels like a betrayal.” During a recording of “thula,” he changed one of the lyrics so that it “landed a little bit softer.” But it wasn’t really true to how he was feeling. He came back into the studio and found the original lyric had been placed back in the song by his producer. The old take “just worked better.”
Bongeziwe Mabandla studied acting but has made his name in music for over the course of a decade and four albums.Photo courtesy Black Major.
To be sure, Mabandla has learned that diminishing the intensity of feelings doesn’t help. “With ‘khangele’ on my previous album, it was like, I have this song that I want to write and it’s about this feeling of loneliness that I sometimes get, which is super intense, but I'm not sure if I want to tell people that I'm actually a very lonely person,” he says. He wrote one verse, but felt it seemed a bit too needy, a bit too exposing. On the day he went to record the song, the loneliness made itself all too known.
“I was in the studio and I had that conversation with myself: ‘Dude, if you're not gonna go there, it’s never gonna land. If you’re not willing to risk it, it’s just gonna be, like, melodies and sound.’ And I took the risk, and had to write the second verse in the studio, and I decided like, I'm just gonna describe it – the chaos, the confusion, the mess. The loneliness.”
And it paid off. “Because people saw themselves in that song so much,” he says. They still see themselves in his music. Mabandla’s fans span the world, his tour dates cover from London to Mexico City, and he recently taped the single “sisahleleleni(i)” for the esteemed Colors show. As a nod to his roots, he also recently recorded covers of Brenda Fassie’s “Too Late for Mama” and Shwi No Mtekhala’s “Ngafa,” – the former being one of his favorite songs of all time.
Bongeziwe Mabandla - sisahleleleni (i) | A COLORS SHOWwww.youtube.com
“It’s one of those songs you listen to and never really digest the lyrics,” he says. Turns out, the maskandi classic has “the most heartbreaking lyrics that you can ever imagine.” Mabandla relates to their simplicity; of a man who believes he is dying for nothing, wondering out loud what has become of his relationship. South African artists, from Shwi to Simphiwe Dana and Thandiswa, are the base of Mabandla’s inspiration, with the likes of Frank Ocean, Solange and Bon Iver providing additional layers, too.
“I really have to give gratitude to the young me,” says Mabandla. “When I started out, I wasn’t sure about anything. It’s amazing how I've been able to build a career from knowing so little about music.” He chuckles when he thinks back to the days he’d walk around Melville in Joburg, guitar on his back, just trying to make a name for himself. The plan was to be an actor, and although he still takes on roles (he has a part in Baloji’s Omen, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival), music is the door he chose to walk through over a decade ago. It’s one his fans are ever grateful he decided to keep open.