Eli Zaelo, real name Tshegofatso Mhlongo, 27, is making a name for herself in China. Picture: Supplied
Eli Zaelo, real name Tshegofatso Mhlongo, 27, is making a name for herself in China. Picture: Supplied

Tshwane musician hitting right notes in China

By James Mahlokwane Time of article published Feb 15, 2021

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Pretoria - From the north of Tshwane to the world - that’s the story of a South African woman from Amandasig who has settled in Hong Kong in pursuit of a music career.

Eli Zaelo, real name Tshegofatso Mhlongo, 27, said most African musicians thought of the US as the perfect destination to settle and pursue music. However, she said she actually left the US for the “huge music industry in China”.

“I went to Assumption Convent Primary School and then Pro Arte Alphen Park for high school. I then moved to California, Pasadena, a small suburb outside of Los Angeles at age 19 for an 18-month music programme under the vocal department at the Los Angeles College of Music.”

There, Mhlongo had wonderful professors actively involved in the music industry like Grammy nominated jazz artist Tierney Sutton and Dorian Holley, who was Michael Jackson’s director of music. She received seminars by stars like The Black Eyed Peas and Damien Marley.

Mhlongo said she always loved singing and often watched shows and videos of stars like Brenda Fassie, Beyoncé, Whitney Houston and Bob Marley.

Aged just 8, she aligned chairs and pretended to be singing in an arena.

That was when Mhlongo’s parents started being supportive of her artistic side and took her to Johannesburg to attend acting classes at a drama and film school for kids called Characters.

When she was around 12, she and her friend would sing Destiny’s Child songs word for word at every school break. That was when Mhlongo decided to go to an art high school and study drama.

On weekends, she attended private music school Vibrience in Wonderboom and juggled music and drama for her entire high school life.

“At the Los Angeles College of Music we covered all genres. We had to learn how to perform jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, pop and others. So I am quite versatile in that regard but I just tend to enjoy R&B and house music more. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Pretorian, but I definitely love rendering my voice to house and soulful tunes,” she said.

Mhlongo also made her mark in Tshwane when she was part of youth choir Healing Voice in Ga-Rankuwa. She also joined a family pop group, Fireproof.

“I came in as the lead vocalist of the sibling group. We didn’t really perform a lot together because I moved to Hong Kong less than a year after I joined them.

“However, we did perform for a fundraising event amidst Springbok legends for Joost van der Westhuizen and we also performed at the Sun City Valley of the Waves during their spring break”

Mhlongo explained her drama studies led her to acting prominent roles in seven Mzansi Magic films, including Umfelokazi 2, which won a Simon Sabela award.

However, she actually ended up in Hong Kong after auditioning and getting the role of Nala for Hong Kong Disneyland’s The Lion King Musical.

“I auditioned in mid 2014. They called me in October and in November, they told me that I got the role. The company flew me over in March of 2015 and I played the role for a year and a half.

Mhlongo then stayed longer and started teaching drama and musical theatre to children from the ages of four to 14 and singing in restaurants and hotels.

“I then met the South African Consulate in Hong Kong and I performed for their official events a number of times, to the point where I performed for the Hong Kong Chief executive officer Ms Carrie Lam, twice.

“Through them, I met Brand South Africa and I performed at their events in Beijing and Shanghai. The lady who is my agent on this side, who helped me get my hotel gigs, also scored me the opportunity to perform in Thailand for New Year’s Eve of 2018.”

She said she decided to stay in China longer and observed the industry. She noticed the Mandopop and Cantopop (Chinese) industries were huge.

“I mean, we can see the ruse of Asian pop by how much K-pop is dominating internationally right now so I wanted in. Not only to challenge myself but to take a step into a world that is so different.

“Luckily for me, the Chinese industry is very much into ballads and R&B. So I get to explore both sides of me musically. I reserve more of the upbeat music for the English side and more of the slow jams for the Chinese side. It’s a formula that makes perfect sense to me, so we will just see how it plays out.”

Mhlongo said: “I think it’s been a long time coming. People are always looking for something new. I’m looking forward to releasing my Chinese single soon. But my English single has been well received. Views are climbing up by the minute on YouTube and I’m very happy about that.

“When I sang Chinese covers in the years prior, people were pleasantly surprised and enjoyed it quite a lot so I feel ready to be releasing my own music right now. The music scene is really big. A lot of restaurants and clubs have live music. It’s just a way of life.

“The challenges I face as an African are mainly around language barriers,” said the songstress who recently sang on ViuTV with Chinese pop start Alfred Hui.

She will be releasing singles this year.

Pretoria News

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