The first time Buhle Mbonambi met late kwaito star, Mandoza, he revealed something shocking. Here the writer remembers meeting the legend and interviewing him.
When I received a call from Mandoza’s manager in December 2011, telling me that he was coming to Durban with the musician and wanted me to interview him, I didn’t know how to react. For the longest time I was a fan of Mandoza, even before he was ‘Mandoza’. From his days with kwaito group, Chiskop and their subsequent 90s hit song, Klaimer and Sifun' abantwana, I was a huge Mandoza fan. When he broke away to become a solo artist, I was ecstatic because I honestly felt like he was the star of the group and as it turned out, he was.
I remember when Nkalakatha, from his debut solo album, 9II5 Zola South was released. As per usual, I was listening to Ukhozi FM and Linda Sibiya played it on his then drive time show in the year 2000. It was catchy as hell. I could dance to it too. It was kwaito perfection. We would sing it as school children on our way home in the hood, from our former model-c schools. We would have kwasa-kwasa dance-offs to the song. No day went by without a bus, taxi and car blasting the song. And so it wasn’t much of a surprise when at our school’s fun day, the teachers wanted to learn how to dance to this song, which had taken over the music industry. And so we taught our teachers, all white and predominantly Afrikaans, how to dance to this song, what it meant and how to pronounce ‘Nkalakatha’. Most ended up saying ‘chakalaka’ and we’d laugh at them.
It never hit me just how much the song was going to define Mandoza’s career and also be a burden to him. Like Michael Jackson and Thriller, Nkalakatha became an albatross. I don’t think he recovered from the success of the song. Everything he released after the song, was basically deemed not good enough. And so when I asked Mandoza back in December 2011 whether he recovered from the success of the song, he got upset.
“But I did recover! I grew. After Nkalakatha, I became a huge artist. It made me a brand. I can’t keep comparing everything I do with it. That was 11 years ago. Come on. People need to give me a break. You know it wasn’t supposed to be a hit. We were just messing about. There were better songs on the album.”
It was when I pressed on said the song was his biggest him, that he dropped the bomb: he hated Nkalakatha. “I’m so sick of that song, so sick of performing it. (He covers his head.) I’ve performed it for 11 years. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for its success, but I really don’t like performing it any more.”
And I don’t blame him. Imagine being booked for a performance and you have your new material ready and the people only react to Nkalakatha? It frustrated him. And I guess that’s why he tried to venture away from kwaito and try out other music genres, like his collaboration with Danny K. That collab worked. It gave us Friday, Music and Mission. It solidified his crossover appeal, which is so important in South Africa. I could go as far as to say that it was thanks to Mandoza that Danny K was catapulted to superstardom in the mid-2000s.
It’s sad that for many, his career will be defined by one song, the one song that he had come to hate. He had many more songs. Songs like Uzoyithola Kanjani, Godoba, Tornado, Sgelekeqe, Phunyuka Bamphethe, Indoda and 50/50. These were all hit songs, songs that were better than Nkalakatha, but sadly didn’t enjoy the crossover success. And ultimately that broke him.
Mandoza wanted to do more music, different music and not just kwaito. “I’m an artist,” he told me. “People can’t expect me to sound the same; I need to evolve in my music too. I had to move away from songs like Nkalakatha, Ghodoba and Tornado and start singing message songs. I feel like people put me in a box early on in my career and I became a kwaito musician before I was a musician.”
With his 2011 release, So Fresh, he tried his hand at electro, which at the time wasn’t big in South Africa. At least not to the general public. And Mandoza was the last person anyone would expect to do anything other than kwaito. “I’m setting a trend here and doing electro,” he said. “Not many people in the country even dare to touch electro. My music will have appeal everywhere in the world. I’m not going to limit myself to the South African audience. My song, Ayoba on the album, I did it with a German artist (Namibian/Germany kwaito musician, Ees). It’s going to be released in Germany. That’s how big I’m going.”
The last time I spoke to Mandoza, was in 2013 for his reality show with e.tv, Rolling with Mandoza. It was after spending more than a year as a private citizen, even with the court cases he was facing. In that time he decided to focus on his family and be there for his children. “I ask Mpho about everything and if she’s not comfortable, if she’s not happy, then I’m not happy. I’m a better person because of her.”
Ultimatley, I think Mandoza hated being in the music industry. It hadn’t been kind to him. Before he left during our 2011 interview, he told me something that showed just how difficult it sometimes is being an entertainer: “I remember at the Samas in 2010 I was still under a lot of stress. I had people whispering about my weight loss, my illness and how I was going to die in a few weeks. It was a lot of rubbish. These are the same people who said I looked good, but behind my back were telling tabloids nonsense about my life. I’ve never gone out of my way to seek people’s approval. Yes, the people made me and they can break me, but I’m human and at the end of the day I also get hurt. I’ve realised that I must always look at the positive things in life. My talent has brought me joy and hardships, but mostly joy and I like that.”