Identify: Bongeziwe Mabandla Is Channeling The Beauty Of The Times

The masterful soul musician reveals his process

Bongeziwe Mabandla is walking. Behind him are lush green trees, the street quiet except for the sound of footsteps. It is some days after the release of ‘amaXesha’, the South African musician’s fourth studio album, and he’s momentarily resident in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. This is the hometown of Tiago Paulo, the longtime producer of Bongeziwe who has produced his last two albums. They are rehearsing in anticipation of some shows the artist would be playing early next month in London.

“This is part of the shows that I’m actually rehearsing for,” revealed Bongeziwe in a recent conversation with NATIVE Mag. “We have, like, two sold out shows, and it’s just an exciting time”. The time is surely prime for Bongeziwe, whose album has been heralded following the release of ‘iimini’ in 2020. Some weeks ago, the musician premiered the soulful “sisahleleleni (i)” on COLORS, delivering an evocative performance while serving skin in a graceful yellow top. It was an extension of the run-up that set the ground for ‘amaXesha’, which is an album that reiterated Bongeziwe’s artistic focus on those shared intimacies of the human race. 

“The whole album came about how do you go back to a relationship that didn’t work?” he says. “How do you approach that? How do you try and fix things with somebody that were broken? It’s all about relearning how to trust each other, relearning about the person, trying not to make the same mistakes, finding love again with somebody where there’s a lot of hurt.” 

Exploring tensions borne from a romantic affair has been a recurring totem in Bongeziwe’s writing. ‘amaXesha’ pondered those tensions in a direct style as he’s seldom done, weaning bigger lessons from his distinct experiences and those he’s observed in the world around him. Bongeziwe admits that the reason why he thought the album was important because of the relationships he observed around him. “You find somebody who’s divorced, maybe, going back to his significant other, and giving the marriage a second chance. And I just thought about how that process would be – because you’re going against a lot of people who are surprised, who don’t understand it. And people are like, ‘How can you go back’?”

Mabandla considers ‘amaXesha’ a Side-B of the pandemic era album, honing into its themes of positivity and finding new perspectives within the narrative it espoused. ‘iimini’ means ‘Days’ and ‘amaXesha’ translates to ‘The Times’, revealing the progressive scope of Bongeziwe’s ideations. “Both of these concepts are about sometimes, we are living, and we unaware and we just going through our days,” he explains, “not knowing that one day, when we look back our lives we’ll know, ‘Oh, those experiences that I was having, those were the times of our lives’. You know, life happens through time”. 

A lot of the writing happened during lockdown, in South Africa, where the artist was resident. “It brought a lot of challenges to the recording,” he says about the album’s creation process during that period. “I’d obviously start off at home and record my vocals and the guitar, and then send it to [Tiago] and we would talk over the phone, and then he would work on stuff, like put drums and bass and send it back to me. After a while, we were in the same space here in Mozambique to record together.” 

Tiago, the often mentioned producer who steers Bongeziwe’s sound, was a member of the 340ml band. His former bandmate Paulo Chibanga had produced the artist’s debut ‘Umlilo’, and one album afterwards, Tiago sought out Bongeziwe. Their first project was the award-winning ‘iimini’, where conceptual sonic flourishes were paired with evocative singing. ‘amaXesha’ parlays that understanding into riveting pieces with electro edges, offering a soundscape that continues Bongeziwe’s movement beyond the Folk tradition, yet retaining a characteristic soulfulness. “When I met Tiago, it felt like a really great match and it happened instantly,” said Bongeziwe. 

He doesn’t consider ‘amaXesha’ as “straightforward” as the preceding album, although the careful listener might find sonic parallels. For one, it echoes his philosophy about what an album should do. “An album is about capturing a certain period,” he said. If the atmosphere surrounding ‘iimini’ was the growing career of Bongeziwe, the close relationship he was approaching with Tiago, ‘amaXesha’ is more personal and melancholic. To capture those emotions, the sound moves on similar motivations. Affirming its direction, Bongeziwe says: “It evolves on the experimental side”. 

In the period before the 2010s, Bongeziwe Mabandla was unknown. At least, not in the music circles he’s dominating today. Prior to releasing music, Bongeziwe considered a career in theatre. He had grown up in the Eastern Cape, an area rich in Black and musical traditions, but Bongeziwe had plans to stake fresh territory. The world was changing, and belonging within English culture seemed the definitive medium for belonging anywhere of importance. In high school, he went by Bonge. 


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The move to Johannesburg would change Bongeziwe’s life forever. There he was supposed to become an actor, but found that “the training wasn’t as intense as I thought it would be,” as he said in an interview with Music In Africa. He was rather immersed into the world of art and music, where pro-Black ideologies had the philosophical edge on young people such as himself. That was when he decided to create art under his full name, and also to sing in his native Xhosa. “It was very black conscious music,” he says about the Jo Burg music scene. “Growing dreadlocks, claiming their culture and their language back. I wanted to be part of that because I knew it was very powerful; it was also very important. So I was super influenced by that”. 

Having attended English schools all his life, this re-education was important in the new phase of Bongeziwe. He credits artists such as Simphiwe Dana and Thandiswa Mazwai for sparking the necessary flame of cultural reclamation, while seeing himself as working in the tradition of artists who’d casually release an album entirely written in Xhosa. “It was a statement,” he said. 

Prior to signing a record deal, Bongeziwe worked with the aforementioned Chibanga of 340ml. They had created ‘Umlilo’, capturing the multifaceted sound of the artist. He had, after all, listened to artists such as Tracy Chapman, Asa and Lauryn Hill, whose solo work and as part of The Fugees  taught Bongeziwe to translate his music with more intentionality. “[Chibanga] had taken the record to different labels in South Africa and there were times when I would almost sign to one, and then it wouldn’t fall through,” he says, “And then I had heard about SONY Music, and there were interested, and I think I heard in June, and only got to sign the contract in March the following year. So it took a long time”. 

Behind the scenes, Bongeziwe mastered his craft. ‘Mangaliso’ was released five years later, in 2017, and was a calculated risk at broadening the perimeters of his sound. Emerging from the griot tradition did not mean he couldn’t build on their peculiarities; although estranging some section of his fanbase, the album proved a critical success as it was awarded the South African Music Award (SAMA) for Best Alternative Album. ‘iimini’ won in the same category three years afterwards, which would mean all eyes would be on Bongeziwe when the prestigious award comes by this year.

The more important acclaim for Bongeziwe is bound to be genuine musical connection, however. And that, he has lots and lots of. Early this year, when I really got into his music, I had searched for a live performance to watch. Finding one of “isiphelo (#untitled)”, he had recorded the video during the pandemic, a time when actual human connection was necessary but scarce. Mirroring the powerful emotions on display, the majority of comments on that YouTube page affirmed the transcendental pull of Bongeziwe’s music, whether in memory of a departed one or as a touchstone of a life-changing moment. Even something as commonplace as a breakup, which the song is actually about, becomes illuminated under Mabandla’s careful, soul-wrenching singing. 

Perhaps this quality can be attributed to Bongeziwe’s connection with theatre, establishing close emotional honesty in his songs. This can be traced also back to the music he listened to at the start, how resonant those messages of love and life were. He had distinct taste from the start; not being necessarily drawn to popular stuff. “I liked that about myself,” he said, “That I was not listening to what everybody was listening to. I found my kind of music, and that was a major thing for me. It made me individual”.

In the South African music scene which is right now studded with talent, Bongeziwe sticks out like gracefully. During the course of our conversation, I brought up Lloyiso, an R&B singer who this magazine recently covered. Mabandla affirms he’s met the musician not long ago; and while a collaboration might be possible in the future, right now he’s promoting the stunning collection that is ‘amaXesha’. Each time offering fresh perspectives to listeners, Bongeziwe’s approach to writing embraces a practical dedication that renders it rich narrative quality, making him, truly, a most competent purveyor of the times. 

“You know, I try and find topics that move me,” he says, now pulling on a strand of his hair. “I try to write about things that are important to me, that changed me and are important to how I live my life. If something really upsets me, I’ll go write a song about it. If something really makes me happy, I’ll go write a song about it”.