Picking up the phone for our telephonic chat, Zolani Mahola’s voice is accompanied by a whimper of a tot probably pining for the comfort of its mom. She asks me to hold for a few seconds while she reassures the child before being taken away. It’s a heart- warming, human moment.
The chat comes a day before the premiere of the brand new original musical that Mahola is a part of called Calling Me Home, which opened at the Joburg Theatre on August 17. In the background you can feel the juggling of roles in her life. Much of Mahola’s public identity is as the front-woman of the adored Afro-urban band, Freshlyground.
Essentially, however, she was introduced to us as an actress in the isiXhosa drama series Tsha Tsha back in 2003. So being on a theatre stage is not a departure for Mahola it’s a home coming (excuse the pun).
“I studied theatre performance at UCT and I thought I was going to be a stage or a film actress. The music was something that just happened along the way. I met musicians and got into music, but I had never planned to get into music at all. So 15 years on, I’ve come full circle. This musical came at a time when I needed a new challenge. And being back on stage feels like coming home to my primary passion,” she says.
The draw card for Calling Me Home, aside from being new and original, is that it is produced by women. The book, score and libretto were written by composer and producer, Alice Gillham who fuses classical music, African hybrid, jazz and traditional folk for this production. She approached Mahola for a role in the musical, and the show is directed by Magdalene Minnaar.
This is the official audio from the musical with its opening song:
A brief history: South Africa doesn’t have a lot of original musicals, but the ones that do exist are quite iconic.
King Kong which is having a revival right now (it is currently on at the Fugard in Cape Town until September 2, thereafter at the Joburg Theatre from September 12 to October 8) is SA’s first black musical which launched the international careers of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela in the early 1960s. Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina was also an international hit in the 1980s and is still very important today.
South Africa imports and produces classic Broadway musicals like Annie and West Side Story. In 2011 Dreamgirls also came to these shores and boasted a stunning black cast never seen before on local stages. Theatre is predominantly run by men, so it’s a big deal to have women at the helm of a new original musical that has three main female characters driving the story.
The text deals with displacement, migration, the idea of home, and what that means for different people. Love and hope are also central themes. The main character, Grace (played by Lynelle Kenned) flees her homeland after the outbreak of a civil war, moving across the continent to an American city. In a colourful and diverse community, she experiences both joy and great danger. Mahola is Lindiwe, a supporting character along Grace’s journey who is displaced in a different way.
“I think globally people can relate to this topic of longing for this place called home which can’t be home, because you can’t thrive there. It’s heart-breaking and it’s something that we hear about all the time – we see Africans and non-Africans here in our country, [and] it’s very hard to connect to that until you’ve lived the experience yourself,” says Mahola.
She uses her band as a platform to voice her political objections as heard in the empathetic tune Working Class and the controversial Chicken to Change which was dedicated to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Earlier this year, on South Africa’s Freedom Day (27 April) Freshlyground teased the imminence of their seventh studio album with the politically-charged single Banana Republic directed at the corruption of President Jacob Zuma and his regime. It’s a protest song and its punk rock vibe infused with the band’s signature Afro groove give it a feisty spirit and approach.
“For me it just seems like people have lost sight of their mandate to take care of the people and to put the people first. There’s also the huge disregard of the law.” The new Freshlyground album will be released early 2018. And generally Mahola is in a good space.
“I feel quite challenged creatively. It feels great to reconnect with my first love – the theatre – and to be pushed and pulled in different directions. I’d hope for anyone reading this to experience that in their own lives, in whatever fields they’re in. It is such great thing to be challenged, to challenge yourself and to enjoy what you do.”
*Calling Me Home the musical is on at the Joburg Theatre until September 3.