Berita and I sit at a large table at the new offices of the record label she is signed to, The Vth Season. On a wall behind this multi-award-winning singer-songwriter are newspaper clippings of stories about her and her labelmates - both past and present.
But right now, Berita’s third self-titled album is the news that afro-soul lovers are most excited about. She worked closely with veteran afro-soul and afro-pop songwriter and producer, Mojalefa “Mjakes” Thebe, to deliver some of the 14 tracks that show Berita to be a young woman who is coming into her own and exploring the heights that her vocal range can take her to.
The 26-year-old, whose real name is Gugulethu Khumalo, took on her mother’s name as a stagename. She says: “Mjakes has done a lot of amazing afro-soul projects with the likes of Zahara, Ntando, Naima Kay and many others. But, to be quite honest, before this album, I had never thought about working with him because he was always a producer I thought I couldn’t reach.”
“But then we did Wena Wedwa and Over You - the first two songs - and then there was really great chemistry. I came in with demos and he would basically expand on my ideas. My main worry about working with him was sounding very afro-pop. I respect the genre, but I don’t think I fully represent that genre. So I was pleasantly surprised by how versatile Mjakes was and how open he was to diversity.”
Phindile and Indoda - which are the first two songs on the album -- are the only ones with remnants of afro-pop in its truest form. But songs such as Ezizweni as well as Bom’ Uyandazi (which was written by M.Que of City Rains fame) give a freshness to some tried and tested soul songs about growing pains.
Uyandiphambanisa has a fun, island groove and is about being crazy in love. The cadence Berita sings in on Milele, one of two songs written by labelmate Tresor falls firmly into that world music category and paints a different side to Berita.
“Milele means forever in Swahili,” she tells me. “I am singing about unconditional love and finding that person that you feel most at peace with. About the person that you feel like God has put into your life for you to be together forever.”
During this interview, we were looking at an image on her album cover sleeve, where she stands in front of a wall of LP covers by female musicians. The LPs are in black and white and she animatedly stands before them in living colour.
I ask Berita if this image signifies that she is popping out of their lineage and picking up where they left off. “I wouldn’t say that,” she smiles bashfully, “I definitely look up to all of those women on there and continue to look up to them. They have shaped my voice.”
Berita. Picture: Twitter
The picture is beautiful. “Mam’ Miriam Makeba, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Letta Mbulu ” Berita rattles off a list as though we’re in a trivia game show. I don’t immediately see Chaka Chaka and I tell Berita as much. “No way,” Berita exclaims, “she has to be here! She’s my favourite. The first time we met was through Twitter.”
They have since gone on to collaborate on a song for Chaka Chaka’s upcoming album but Berita reminisces on how their close bond started: “Mam’ Yvonne Chaka Chaka Tweeted me - she’s amazing - because she heard me sing on radio. She was like: ‘Ah, my girl. Thandolwethu, I love that song.’ And so I took that opportunity, Tweeted her back and asked her to follow me so I could DM her. She replied. She’s so slick.”
“She gave me her office phone numbers and said I should make an appointment to see her.” Berita excitedly continues: “when I got there, we chilled for maybe two hours, just talking. She told me so many things about the industry. She’s so free. We did a very nice song together.”
Berita released Conquering Spirit in 2012 and Songs of Empowerment in 2014 and, with this self-titled third album receiving a lot of love, I ask her if she did anything special to celebrate its release.
“A couple of special things happened. The most important thing is that my mom came to the listening session. She had never come to any of my music stuff because she doesn’t live here. She was there the morning the album came out and the album was Top 10 on the iTunes Pop Chart. It was really special having her around.
“Growing up, she never really thought I was going to be a musician because I was always a scholar and very secretive about making music. When my mom was here, I was getting so much done she couldn’t believe how much work I actually do as a musician.”
To Berita, this feels like only the beginning.
* Berita’s new self-titled album is available in store and online.