While Kabelo and Tokollo have carved out famously and infamously credible careers for themselves as solo artists, the Zee in TKZee has chosen a different musical path, until now that is. Therese Owen speaks to Zwai Bala, a national treasure who has excelled in all spheres of music and finally released his debut solo album.

Zwai Bala is funny. He is very funny. In fact, when Tokollo Tshabalala and Kabelo Mabalane were asked on separate occasions who the funniest person was that they knew, without hesitation, they both answered “Zwai”.

His sharp wit is one of the reasons I love standing next to him at events. His whispered running commentary keeps me entertained during the most tedious of speeches, although, at times, his wicked observations force me to bite my cheeks till they bleed.

He is also a great raconteur. |At dinner tables he holds court, people hanging on to each word as he tells his far-fetched tales which are peppered with jokes and culminate in all those at the table guffawing for ages afterwards.

Zwai’s brain is constantly working, examining, inventing, questioning, observing. He could border on ADD (attention deficit disorder) but, well, he just couldn’t be bothered because that would be too much like hard work. Zwai is also one of the most laid-back people I know.

“I suppose I am curious, sometimes to my detriment. I focus on something and then something else comes along and I am excited,” he admits. “But in the studio I never lose perspective. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t such a perfectionist. But I find the older I get the less finicky |I get. My creative world is much simpler.”

It is his intelligence and personality, so often at odds with his humour, so much a part of his natural talent, that have made him an integral part of South African music, albeit under the radar at times. Of course, there is TKZee, then the TKZee Family and then the Bala Brothers as well as his ventures into television.

The Eastern Cape native recalls his childhood memories in the industry: “I realised I wanted to do music for the rest of my life when I was seven. I was helping choir masters teach the notes to the choir. Yoh, I was a lighty. I was like, ‘wow, this thing, I am really good at it’. By the age of 10 I was on a roll.

“In 1986 I went into the studio for the first time. I was 11 years old. I recorded a number of gospel songs as a soloist with a group called Living Waters. That year I entered Shell Road to Fame with my sister.

“I remember staying in Hillbrow in a posh hotel to perform for a television show on TV2. I was introduced to the big lights of Jozi and that is where I wanted to be. When I was leaving on the bus back to the Eastern Cape I looked back until the city disappeared.

“In 1987 I entered the competi-tion as a soloist. I was working with Duck Chowles who is now one of the owners of Barnyard Theatre. |He wrote all my songs for me. I was the youngest finalist. It was the year that Rebecca (Malope) won. She was 19. I think Ringo won the previous year.”

In 1988 he became the first black child to be admitted into the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir. In that year he won an acting part in King Africa, a musical produced by Des and Dawn Lindberg.

“I played Mara Louw’s son. Henry Cele and Abigail Kubeka were also in it. It was at the Standard Bank Arena.”

During that time he toured with his school as a soloist to Europe and Taiwan. In 1992 he won a scholarship to attend St Stithians, a private school in Joburg.

“They were introducing music for the first time in Saints and thought it would be a good idea to put me in the school. There was no culture there. It was a rugby-playing school. I got everyone not just to sing, but to sing in harmonies. The choir was so good it was like a night out. Kabelo was doing this great beat-boxing thing. I even formed a group called Silhouette which was like two white guys and two black guys. Now music and culture is cool to do at at St Stithians.”

By 1996 he and two ex-St Stithians buddies had formed the revolutionary TKZee and by 1997 they were household names.

Later on in his career he made his name on TV as a presenter on SABC1’s All You Need is Love, Gospel Gold as well as judging Coca-Cola Popstars. As a producer he’s worked with Bongo Maffin, Tshepo Tshola, Ghetto Luv and Hugh Masekela.

Then, of course, there is the Bala Brothers, an opera trio comprised of himself and younger brothers Loyiso and Phelo. They’ve managed to turn popular classical culture on its pale-male head. Hell, they even appeared at Aardklop and the KKNK (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees.

More recently he worked on the South African 3D animation film Zambezia with Bruce Retief which is nominated for an Annie Award (US award for accomplishments in animation).

“Bruce asked me to come in on the project for an African feel. I co-composed and performed some of the vocals. I also got an opportunity to work in Los Angeles. It was an amazing experience. I was watching the best musicians in the world record. They record 10 double basses at a time. When you hear it that loud in the cinema, it is because it is that loud. We went to Skywalker Studios, owned by George Lucas, to mix the Zambezia soundtrack. They were mixing Mission Impossible 4 next door. It was impressive. My goal is |to receive an Oscar for Best Music Score one day. But for now I want to tour my new album.”

A wicked glint appears in his eye: “I also want to be a solo artist. |I also want to make it in the music industry.”