The fire within
As the Joburg skyline succumbs to the shimmering blanket of lights and a darkening sky at dusk, Bongeziwe Mabandla’s mood is reflective.
We are hanging out on the balcony of his Yeoville flat. The subject is the release of his debut album, Umlilo, with Sony Music and his recent gig at the Bassline in Newtown, where he opened for Mali’s Vieux Farka Touré.
He says: “It’s a very important time in my life. My dreams are coming true.”
He wears a denim shirt with tight pants and his hair is cut in the shape of a crown as if coding 1980s rap star fashion. Except Mabandla is a folk musician in a tradition that merges sonic influences like Jabu Khanyile and Jack Johnson, the American singer and guitarist.
However, the spirit of Eastern Cape is much more comfortable with his voice than with the two crooners. He sings in isiXhosa and says he is interested in telling his own stories.
The 27-year-old was born in Tsolo, near Mthatha, in Eastern Cape. A life of constant movement with his mother changing jobs saw him add both Cape Town and East London to his list of former hometowns.
So he was put into boarding school as early as Standard 2 (now Grade 4), but he still struggled.
“I was having trouble at school. I wasn’t very good with subjects such as Maths and Biology. So the teachers said to my mum: “uBongi is good at acting. We think he must go to a special school. So there I went,” he remembers, then chuckles.
He was sent to Lady Grey Arts Academy in Graaff-Reinet, where his love for the arts began to blossom.
This is where he gets emotional and starts talking about how thankful he is to his mother for being an encouraging force in his life. In fact, he wrote Ngawe Mama on Umlilo as an ode to her.
The great migration to Joburg followed after he passed matric. Mabandla settled in Melville and studied acting at Afda, the school of motion picture medium and live performance. “It wasn’t working out, so the following year I switched to music.”
This made all the difference.
Mabandla would later (around 2007) run into 340ml drummer and producer Paulo Chibanga at the shops. “I told him I had some songs and wanted him to have a listen. I knew he was a professional musician. I respected him.”
Mabandla recently received his degree in performance at Afda. Though he scored cameo roles on SABC1 soapie Generations, he was broke. It took some faith and guts to fork out R500 per track to pay Chibanga’s recording and production fees for his seven-piece demo tape.
The process helped him launch his career as a musician. It also made it possible for him to approach promoters for gigs and, ultimately, Sony Music for a recording deal.
But Mabandla is not really taken with the high-rises and shining lights. “I’m curious about those hills beyond the city,” he says as he stares into the void. A short silence falls upon us, then he remarks: “I’m really grateful for how people are responding to me, man. I want to at least reach gold (over 20 000 copies).”