MAFIKIZOLO Isithombe:SANDILE MAKHOBA

There were rumours and then more rumours. Were Mafikizolo getting back together or not? The first time this was confirmed was when I arrived at Kalawa Jazmee Records for a meeting with the famous directors of the company. There I bumped into a nervous-looking Theo Kgosinkwe, one half of Mafikizolo.

He was there for a listening session with Kalawa for the first Mafikizolo album to be released since 2006. The obvious title, Reunited, sees Theo and Nhlanhla pair up after seven years following their respective solo careers, which had varying degrees of success.

As sweet as Kalawa’s Oskido, Bruce Dope, Spikiri and Mjokes are, I would imagine it would still be unnerving playing your creative offering to these great men.

“Kalawa’s impact and vision on and for us is always crucial,” explains Theo. “They understand Mafikizolo more than anyone else. They understand what works for us. They always think with us and what can be done.”

A few weeks later I meet Theo and Nhlanhla at the pool deck on top of the Holiday Inn Marine Parade to further discuss Reunited. It clearly met with the thumbs-up from the Kalawa directors and is set for release at the end of the month.

In the meantime, the first single from the album, Khona, is one of the biggest songs at the moment. It reached No 1 on YFM, Umhlobo Wenene FM, Ukhozi FM and True FM and is at No 2 on Metro FM. The duo will be shooting the video this weekend.

Judging by a few tracks from the album as well as the response from the public, Mafikizolo are looking at a huge comeback with this album, which is set to be one of the best of the year.

“What makes this scary is that previous bands who did reunions and comeback albums didn’t work out,” admits Theo. “And if it doesn’t work out it may wipe out your history.”

But as usual, Mafikizolo come with the whole package, including a new image.

Nhlanhla, who also has her own fashion label, NN Vintage, explains: “With Ngihambe Nawe we discovered what we wanted to look like in terms of dressing. We were inspired by Sofiatown and kwela. With our next album, Van Toeka Af, we changed slightly, and then with Six Mabone we were inspired by Harlem. With Reunited we are inspired by the white 1950s and 1960s culture of roller skates and drive-ins and diners.”

My first thought was they’ve lost the plot – Theo Kgosinkwe and Nhlanhla Nciza as John Travolta and Olivia Newton John doing the Grease thang?

But, later that night, when they revealed their radically different image, it did indeed work. Nhlanhla has a way of taking vintage fashion and moulding it into her own. She looked young and fresh in her pink lipstick and blonde-cropped wig. It was all done with a sense of humour, a side to her she rarely shows in public.

As usual, the two were chilled, yet formal throughout the interview, never giving much of themselves away.

Offstage both are quiet and shy. Unlike their younger colleagues, they do not brashly push themselves in front of the camera. Like most people with real talent, they prefer to prove their worth, on stage and in the studio. They are two of the most professional artists in the country, hard-working, focused and always polite.

Looking back over their career, they are very proud. The conversation touches on them winning Song of the Decade at the 10th annual Metro FM Awards a few years ago.

“There have been so many beautiful songs and Ngihamba Nawe won,” recalls Nhlanhla. “Now it’s going to be another 10 years before someone can win that title again.”

On returning to the studio as Mafikizolo, they say they wanted to give each other enough time to explore themselves outside the group. They also say they cannot recall how they decided the time was right, it just happened organically.

“When we were recording we were scared, but excited,” says Theo. “We were exploring different sounds and were worried about how people would react after such a long time, but it is also what motivated us.”

“Theo is a perfectionist and we had good songs,” continues Nhlanhla. “But he was always: ‘Eish, I am not sure.’ I think we balance each other out. It did take a while to find the energy between Theo and myself as well as the Kalawa crew.

“We were so privileged working with Xelimpilo, who is part of Kalawa’s latest group, Uhuru. He is really good. Working with someone that good makes you challenge yourself.”

Listening to the few songs they have played in public, it is clear that Mafikizolo are challenging themselves in the vocal department. At times their voices are unrecognisable. The Afro-pop vocals are higher and they have opted to lower their vocals and play with different sounds.

In terms of the new sound which mixes west African influences with house beats, they claim they weren’t sure if it was the right direction for them. Their Afro-pop from their previous albums was always such a strong trademark for the group. Should they risk exploring new avenues or would they lose their fan base?

Says Nhlanhla: “We had Afro-pop songs, but we also wanted a fresh sound. Oskido wasn’t sure about the direction and neither were we. One of the things we are worried about is that the new sound is young. But we first played Khona at a jazz festival and the older people loved it.”

They also say that they were hands-on with the production and songwriting on the album, more so than before.

“We used the knowledge which we learnt from our solo projects to explore other fields such as producing and adding live elements. Before it was always the Kalawa producers who did everything,” Theo says proudly.

They are also proud of the fact that the album is being received so positively.

“Kabomo was one of the first artists to tell us how much he loved it,” smiles Theo. “We have been gathering a lot of love from our colleagues. We are getting it from hip hop artists to house and dance DJs to kwaito artists and radio presenters.”

Nhlanhla has the final say: “When we came out with Afro-pop all those years ago we were one step ahead and now we have released this album. We are trendsetters.”

Mafikizolo are brave enough to embrace a brand-new sound, yet have not forgotten their old-school genre. This combination of old and brand-new will ensure that the album becomes one of the biggest releases of the year.