Thandiswa Mazwai’s impact on South African pop culture cannot be over-stated. As Bongo Maffin’s most complete artist and as her own era-defining solo star, she’s been raging against the system, raving in soundsystems at shebeens, festivals and get-togethers, and letting free the love so many of us keep caged in our hearts, for fear of reprisal perhaps. In turn King Tha, as she’s otherwise known, has been getting a gang of love from people who’ve found joy and solace and growth in her craft for over 20 years. She recently celebrated her fortieth birthday. To celebrate with her, we asked four South African musicians how they’ve been impacted by the music of King Tha.
“Thandiswa’s music has impacted me a lot,” exclaims composer and pianist Thandi Ntuli. Thandi’s been party to King Tha’s groove for a long minute, growing up to her voice on Bongo Maffin’s songs, and transitioning with her into solo territory. “I think it was important to have artists who celebrated their identity (as Zulu/Xhosa/Sotho, etc.) in the 90s considering where we were as a nation, but even more so in terms of where we needed to go,” she says.
A forthright bandleader in her own regard, Thandi stressed the importance of celebrating African identity in its entirety. “I think they (Bongo Maffin) and Thandiswa in particular played a big role in leading me to a greater curiosity about our continent. Musically, historically, spiritually, etc.,” she says.
In 2012, King Tha put out a countrywide call for for an all-woman band. Thandi made the cut during the auditions, and with it the transition from Cape Town where she’d been studying towards a degree in jazz composition, to Joburg where, two years later, she’d launch her own debut album The Offering. King Tha was the first big artist Thandi worked with.
“When I work with people, beyond the music, I enjoy seeing how they deal with other aspects in their lives, learning from their views, soaking all the ‘other’ stuff in because many people don’t realize that that’s what gives a musicians art it’s substance,” she says.
Thandi Ntuli performs with her quartet at the Moses Molelekwa stage during this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
“I remember having conversations about it, and my friends and I (who were devout Christians) were frightened of the album. Absolutely terrified!” recalls Nakhane Touré of his initial interactions with Ibokwe, King Tha’s follow-up to her debut Zabalaza. “Where Zabalaza had gospel songs about being unashamed of going to church, Ibokwe was talking about her ancestors, about her Xhosa spirituality,” he says.
These days, Nakhane splits his time between making music and writing. He launched his debut novel Piggy Boy’s Blues in 2015. He also released his EP Laughing Son, the follow-up to his debut album Brave Confusion.
Ibokwe is King Tha’s opus, he says. “Like Zabalaza, but there’s something beautifully stripped down about the second album. Also, it didn’t, and still doesn’t sound like much I’ve heard anywhere else. She pushed herself on that one.”
Shortly before her band Zuko Collective’s gig this weekend, vocalist and composer Nozuko Mapoma (Zu for short) spoke about how King Tha’s carved a track all of her own making; how, through multiple cross-genre collaborations, she’s become. “Yoh, there’s been a lot of music from this woman,” says Zu, disbelief creeping in between the statement, in a hashtag-blessed kind of way. “She hasn’t disappointed, not once! That’s why she’s the crush…because she’s also educating, she’s not just singing. She’s spitting some real things. She’s waking us, at least she’s trying to,” says Zu.
She takes time to reflect, through King Tha, on her own band’s path. “As an artist, I know it’s not easy behind the scenes, but from the audience side, it’s such an effortless ownership of expression. You look at her and she’s like ‘listen, here’s what I’m here to say,’ and you’re like ‘yes!’ You cannot help but agree, because it’s truth and she expresses it in a way that makes you just wanna go there with her.”
“Her influence has been: Express. Sing real. Just allow the music to be, and become through you.”
Zuko Collective are performing at Kulcher Cafe in Joburg on Friday night. Their debut album Relationtrips is out now on iTunes
Sakumzi Qumana, vocalist and producer of the collective, remixed King Tha’s Ingoma for the band’s Remix Mix Mixes EP. This is what he had to say about her:
“Thandiswa to me is pure style. Her vocal delivery and cadence levels are way up. How do you make kwaito soulful and tribal but still kwaito?! How do you make traditional so modern sexy? She does it every time, man,” he says.
Saki continues: “So when I wanted to do a remix project she was an easy pick for me. I remember hearing the song Ingoma for the first time when she did a live set on radio in Cape Town I think. It blew my mind. It’s like she was mid-orgasm and said: ‘Hol’ up bae…’, quickly ran to the studio and sang the shit out of that song then went back to bed for her dismount.”
Johnny Cradle headlines the Soweto Art & Craft Fair this Saturday
Check out some of Thandiswa’s definitive music on Apple Music.
All pictures by Tseliso Monaheng