Even before she takes it off to interlock her fingers and show me a Babes Wodumo dance move, I notice it. A huge, black, heart-shaped ring adorns Thandiswa Mazwai’s right middle finger.
“I love me some Babes Wodumo,” Mazwai’s dimples take centre stage as she laughs.
“My party trick is this now,” she says as she shows me the move.
“My daughter can’t understand. She’s like: ‘How do you even know that dance?’ It’s just that now that I’m 40, that other move – eish.”
Luckily for us – and for Babes – Mazwai’s focus is not on dancing. She’s making other moves. Her ring is a telling sign. It seems like both a big, unwavering love for the people and, well, a middle finger to those who don’t possess this love. The accessory signifies one of the main themes that pulsate through this singer-songwriter performance powerhouse’s third solo album, Belede.
It follows Mazwai’s stellar solo debut, Zabalaza (2006), and her critically acclaimed second album, Ibokwe (2009). And, of course, before all that, the world came to know Mazwai as the frontwoman of the kwaito vanguard band, Bongo Maffin.
With nine songs on the album that will be released on Friday following a public launch concert at the Soweto Theatre tomorrow, Mazwai is reinventing herself through jazz. All the songs are covers written by the likes of Caiphus Semenya and Dorothy Masuku and made famous by the likes of Letta Mbulu, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Busi Mhlongo and more.
Belede is primarily played by Mazwai with pianist, Nduduzo Makhathini, drummer, Ayanda Sikade, and bassist, Herbie Tsoaeli. This band has been performing together for some time and for the recording of the album, artists like Mthunzi Mvubu play flute and saxophone on Malaika and Mandla Mlangeni is on the trumpet on Makubenjalo, while DJ Raiko scratches on the single, Jikijela. The apartheid-era Semenya-penned song is about throwing rocks at the oppressor and this year, Mazwai specifically sang it in honour of the #FeesMustFall movement.
Seated at the corner window in a quaint restaurant in Joburg, I meet with Mazwai and ask if she was afraid of seeming like she was commodifying or co-opting the movement.
“I almost didn’t want to say that because I understand this movement and the need to keep it in the hands of the people who know what drives it,” she says matter-of-factly.
“But I am an ally and one that wants to leave something on the ground that says they are not alone. As much as the students want everyone to stay the hell away, it is a part of our collective experience. As they struggle and fight, they fight for us as well.”
The nine songs on the album share a common thread: honouring the people who made her who she is: artists, activists and family.
“I think as South Africans, we don’t know how to build monuments,” she says. “For me, this was the beginning of a monument in the name of these people.”
“Belede” is the name of Mazwai’s late mother. But the album didn’t always have that title.
“I had called the album something else,” she admits. “It was called Inkonzo, which is an (Nguni) word that means ‘church’ or a ‘gathering in the name of’ or ‘commemoration’ or a ‘spiritual moment’ because that’s how it feels with musicians in the studio or on stage – that’s our church.”
She continues: “‘Inkonzo’ can also mean ‘a tribute’ to someone. So that’s what it was called before and it felt right. But (filmmaker, former TV personality and friend), Isaac Chokwe, said: ‘Hmm. Someone is missing here’.
“He brought back this idea that my mother is always the common thread in all of my work. And even in this work because she introduced a lot of this music to me and introduced the idea of being a rebel to me. She was the first woman rebel I knew, next to Winnie Mandela. I kind of felt like they were the same person. So Isaac said: ‘Why not name it after your mother? Name it Belede!’ Isaac sparked that, but it was so perfect.”
Interestingly, among the tributes, Mazwai also covers herself. Off the Zabalaza album, Ndiyahamba is one of Mazwai’s most beloved songs. On Belede, it is given a slower, more harrowing jazz makeover featuring amazing vocal harmony.
“That song also kind of ties in with the whole theme around struggle and some of the emotional fatigue that goes into it,” says Mazwai.
“Ndiyahamba was also one of the band’s favourite songs. We had been performing it for years. It was kind of the catalyst for starting the jazz band and figuring out what to do.
“I love this new arrangement. The jazz mode it’s in. It made sense. It wasn’t about any delusions of grandeur. In fact, I have an imposter syndrome. I think it’s because of being a conduit. You don’t ever feel like it’s you doing ‘the thing’. You still feel like ‘the thing’ isn’t yours. You know, ‘don’t shoot the messenger?’ For me, it’s a little like ‘don’t laud the conduit.’”
Conduits like Nina Simone have taught Mazwai about how to use silence and other nuances in the music as activism. This shows in the final track on the album: Makubenjalo (which means “let it be so”). Not only is it a cover of what is now a part of the South African national anthem, but it’s also the only song that Mazwai doesn’t sing on.
“There are parts of this national anthem to which I go rogue,” Mazwai confesses. “I go rebel. I am not a part of that. There are parts of our national anthem to which I immediately put up my fist when they begin and purposefully withhold my voice.”
The anthem starts by asking God to protect the nation, represents different languages in the middle, and then ends with everyone, in unison, declaring that it will be so.
“When we used to sing this part of the national anthem, it meant so much that ‘it should be so,’” Mazwai explains. “I directed the creative process (of Belede) so I’m still in there, deciding that this song needs to go a little dark in this section in order to illustrate that. It was intentional to end the album with that because that is the last request of the black community – or of anyone who is marginalised because of their gender or who they love – that it may be so.”
Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede is online and in stores from Friday. Catch her launch party at the Soweto Theatre tomorrow. Book at Computicket.