How to wear denim this summer
Zakes Bantwini has released his much anticipated album. He took Therese Owen on a trip of KwaMashu and Durban where she discovered the real Zakes Bantwini, an artist who wants to change the world.
Did you know that Zakes Bantwini once waited for Arthur Mofakate for hours at Carlton Centre in downtown Johannesburg to give him a demo – to no avail, as the kwaito producer never bothered to turn up?
Did you know that at the age of 12, Zakes and his dance crew parti- cipated in the FNB Dance Umbrella? And that Zakes and his dance crew opened for Peabo Bryson in Durban’s Westridge Stadium?
I discovered all of this while cruising his KwaMashu child- hood neighbourhood with him and listening to his new album. The 12-track album is called The Fake Book and The Real Book: My Music Bible.
Just from the name alone, it is evident that Bantwini has put a lot of thought into his latest album. The album took three-and-a-half years to make, partly because Zakes is one of the busiest artists in South Africa and the rest of the continent and partly because the young musician and dancer is a perfectionist. Hence my tour of his ‘hood.
As we drive into the township from Durban we are listening to his first single from the album, Ghetto. The line “Where dreams are big and hearts have a home” is poignant. Zakes turns to me and says: “I was raised a man because boys don’t survive the township.”
So in keeping with that theme, Zakes thought it was a good idea for his fans to find out just where he comes from.
Our first stop is a little house on Magwaza Road in F Section where a toddler stands outside the open door sucking a dummy. This was where he was born. He greets the two women inside and we drive on.
He points out his preschool which is tiny and rundown. “I started here and gradually moved closer to Durban.”
At Shayamoya Junior Primary School we get out. There is a vege- table garden outside. In the school the pupils peer out in curiosity. “At the time I was here we were going through trouble in KZN. We lived in an ANC section and 5kms away there was an IFP section.
“But some of the kids from the IFP section attended our schools. People wanted to kill the IFP Kids. The IFP activists came here looking to kill the activists. They closed us for three months and only opened to write exams.”
The pupils become excited when they realise who he is. Sandile Makhoba allows a few of the pupils in the picture. The teachers and principal insist on having their picture taken. Clearly the principal is a groupie too and the pupils find this most amusing.
We eventually leave and Zakes is quiet for a while. The memories are flooding back. “The principal used to teach me. He was tough. That time was a serious transition in our area. We had to take our bags and books wherever we went. I never finished because it was too dangerous.
“I was already dancing by then. I was too young to realise what was going on in the country. I just knew I had to stay out of trouble because there were gunmen who would kill. To stay out of trouble I had to play soccer or dance and get girls.”
“We used to rehearse at my high school because it was the only school in the area which had electricity.”
Outside Mqabakazali High School there are fruit sellers. However, we decide not to enter as it would be a bit more difficult controlling teenage fans than younger ones.
We enter a poorer area where there are matchbox two-roomed houses. Clearly by the amount of mielies and vegetable gardens, many of these people are micro subsistence farmers. “At one stage there were 14 people living in our two-roomed house. We would take turns sleeping. I had uncles who used to work 6-to-6 shifts. It was one of the most amazing times of my life. I never knew how bad things were.
“Then when my mother got a job as a teacher she bought a six-roomed house. Can you imagine? There is no place where we have driven now that I have not walked.”
We stop at a rundown chisa nyama for lunch. While the meat is ordered and taken to the back to braai, we listen to the album. The opening number, Darling, is an ethereal jazz track with fusion keyboard influences and vocals à la Joe Jackson.
The second track is catchy and radio-friendly with the cheeky lines: “One glass of wine is all I ask. One glass of wine is all I want.” It is about a boy asking a girl on a date so that he can tell her his feelings.
In contrast, track three tells the story of Marikana. “I feel as artists in this country we no longer play the role of questioning. We are public figures who do not question. With the Boipatong massacre, Brenda sang about it. This is a conscience song.”
At the chisa nyama a few SAPS types greet him languidly. The pile of braaied meat consists of kidney, liver, wors and steak. He cleans his hands with bread and laughs at my surprised expression. “Aai, you don’t know this trick.”
When he gracefully bends over the bucket of warm water with Handy Andy, it is clear he is a dancer.
We depart KwaMashu and head for the BAT Centre at the harbour. In this creative space, he is building a studio as part of his vision to help build KZN as a musical hotspot.
“You can complain about a whole lotta things but you need to be pro-active. I don’t need this studio but it is important for up-and-coming artists to have a place to record. I brought in an acoustic designer and I can record a choir in the hall, a band in the restaurant and a lead singer in here. I am hoping to open it next year and let it run on its own.”
We move upstairs to the balcony with the backdrop of the Bluff in the distance and the ships just a stone’s throw away. We finally get to talk about the album.
Zakes has a diploma in music from UKZN. During that course they teach about the fake book and the real book, based on the New Orleans jazz scene.
“The fake book are the black uptown musicians who were not able to read music and the real book is about the white jazz artists who could read music. If I want to understand more of my music I go to those books. The word Bible in my album title is singular.”
“The Ghetto is a soundtrack of what I am trying to achieve and who I am right now.”
So who are you right now?
“I am a guy who wants to live the talk, a person who wants to make a change. In South Africa we have a long way to go before we can sing about Bugattis. We need to brag about taking 100 kids to school. We need to be social entrepreneurs. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about making a difference in this country.
“I put a lot of knowledge into this album. It’s no longer about my face. The album cover is an old typewriter which represent the old jazz and the paper in the typewriter represents my face.”
He worked with Themba Mkhize, GI’s Zion and J Martins from Nigeria.
“I wanted this album to do itself. It was a spiritual experience. I asked a whole lotta shout-outs but only those three people responded which means that the album only wanted three people. I pushed myself musically and melodically. I want everybody who bought this album to say it’s for keeps.
“What people see is who I am. I am an artist more than just being a musician. I also have an opinion on everything that has to do with art, from sculpture to plays. Zakes Bantwini is in an art space where he sings about Marikana, who will tell you about his story and inspire you.”
“We don’t have social leaders. We need positive stuff about our country. We haven’t done enough to make a cohesive nation.”