NATIVE Exclusive: Thando Skwatsha Addresses Personal & Universal Themes on Debut Album ‘iimini nentsuku’

Thando Skwatsha’s music is soul-stirring.

Thando Skwatsha’s music is soul-stirring. It combines heartfelt melodies and his powerful vocals, which were strengthened through years as a lead choral singer. Skwatsha, who grew up in Gugulethu, Cape Town, infuses his African heritage into his music, creating a blend of modern and past sounds. In 2018, Skwatsha met South African music producer Milan Rendall, after a friend had told him of a producer who needed the assistance of a vocalist. Since then, Skwatsha and Rendall have forged a deep connection and in 2020, they released the project ‘Love Is.’

Last month, Skwatsha shared his debut album ‘iimini nentsuku,’ which means “days and nights.” The Rendall-produced and emPawa Africa-supported project is Skwatsha’s first time singing in his mother tongue isiXhosa, well as in isiZulu and English. From songs like “ngyazfela” that deal with love to songs like “iskhalo sabantwana” that preach hope, Skwatsha’s ‘iimini nentsuku’ is a documentation of situations that remind us of our humanity.

Skwatsha, who is also a stage performer and actor, speaks with the NATIVE about his upbringing, creative process and aspirations for his career.


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NATIVE: What was life for you like growing up?

Thando: Okay, so I grew up in a family of four with my mother, my father and my younger brother. He’s four years younger than me. I lived at home for the first 12 years of my life, after which I went to boarding school because I enrolled at a music school in South Africa. And that is where my journey with music started professionally. Because at the school that I attended, I was enabled and equipped with the necessary tools that allowed me to be able to present myself and be musically enrolled in the way that I am today.

So I went to a boys’ school in Cape Town, [and] then I had to move because the way that happened how I went to music school was that my mom, who organised the audition, didn’t actually know that it was a school, she thought it was just a choir and something that I could do on the side. And at the end of the audition, they told us that I had passed the audition and now I need to move schools. So that was a big change. But I grew up as quite an exciting child, meaning basically, I was quite hyperactive. Very bubbly, and loving, quite warm. I was very much what I think people would label as a happy child, in terms of that I was always enthusiastic about everything and anything and forever cracking jokes.

Life was pleasant, thankfully, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that. I didn’t really struggle for anything. You know, we grew up in Guguletu, which is a location in Cape Town. But that really didn’t change anything. My parents worked really, really hard in order to make sure that we never lacked anything, so we never really actually did. And then I went to school, I finished school; I matriculated grade 12 at the age of 18 at boarding school, which I continued, and I moved back to Cape Town where I enrolled in university, and then I am where I am now.

NATIVE: You’re multi-talented and do a lot, from music, film and theatre. At what point did you discover your passion for performing arts?

Thando: It was more of a process, of me just, you know, really starting to do things that I really liked at school such as performing in plays and being on stage, joining the choir, and then being drawn to do things naturally. And then realising that actually, you know, I’ve got a bit of a talent and a gift that I can use. And then eventually, where I am now in being conscious of that usage and actually deciding that “Look, I’m going to use this gift now in this particular way, this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.” So it was really a growing and learning process for me and the arts to grow and learn together. But it originally started as just pure enjoyment, because it was something that I love to do.

And part of that learning process was discovering that look, it’s not just the choir that I enjoy being a part of, I also love being on stage as an actor in the theatre. And on top of that, I also love joining the dance troupe, you know, for example. So it really was a learning process.

NATIVE: And during this period where you were discovering your passions for these different art forms? How was the support from your family?

Thando: Amazing, it was really, really good. I’m really, really fortunate enough to be blessed with parents and family that really are supportive of what I do. I have a lot of friends, immediate friends who even come and ask me like, “Mate, how did you do that? I have this thing, I want to do this. But my mom says this, or my dad says this, and I can’t do this.” Honestly, it was really easy for me, because I just came out like “Dad and Mom, this is what I want to do” and they really never gave me a hard time about it. And they were really like, “Yeah, if that’s what you want to do, you’re more than welcome to do it.” In fact, they encouraged me to do it. So I’m really fortunate to be in that position.

NATIVE: You were a lead choral singer. How has that shaped you as an artist?

Thando: Being a classically trained musician and starting in choral music especially has shaped my musicianship skills in a way that I actually struggle to articulate because of how big the impact it has had, on not only my musical journey but my artistic journey in general. I think it is very important basics that are not required, but really do serve the artist well, if equipped to be starting in a choir and you want to break [through] as a solo singer. There are certain things that you learn, not only from the conductor or the music teacher in front of you but from your fellow choristers singing with you about yourself [and] about music in general.

When I left music school, I look back [as I have gotten into the rest of society] and I’m like, “I’m actually a bit ahead musically than other people” because, at music school, we were 12, 13, 14 years old doing university level stuff because of how intense the program was. And it really put me that much ahead and made me that much different from the artists next to me, who perhaps didn’t get the training that I did.

NATIVE: In your interview with emPawa Africa, you spoke about not planning to be a recording artist and how it happened out of a stroke of luck. Was music just a thing of passion at that time?

Thando: I think it would be a lie for me to say I joined the music to not make a career out of it for the arts because that was the goal from [the] get-go, like I really wanted to keep doing this for as long as I possibly can from as young as I can remember. I didn’t plan on becoming a recording artist, though. I must tell you that. That happened through my relationship and meeting my manager/producer Milan and that also was [due] me just doing my thing. But it was always the intention to be able to get to a position in my career where I am able to do this for as long as I want to, without having to struggle for it.

NATIVE: A lot of your songs touch on the human condition and situations of life. What is it about making that kind of music that appeals to you as an artist?

Thando: So I write a lot about love in general. But I think what makes this upcoming stage of my music career so exciting and unique is the fact that I play a lot with imagination, and bringing it back to the human condition, I think, every human being can relate [to] being or having an imagination of sorts. And that’s really what my music [is] now. I’m singing in a different language, which I’ve never sung in before, in the way that I’m seeing right now. And the melodies are amazing, [including] the beats and the harmonies.

I heard a review from a friend of mine, who was listening to my songs and he was like, “It sounds like I’m in a movie.” And really, that’s the imagination aspect that I’ve been playing on. So I think that’s what makes my music quite relatable on top of the experience of personal life in general. But the imagination aspect is quite powerful.


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NATIVE: What prompted you to sing your mother tongue on this project?

Thando: Everyone asks this question and there’s no direct answer. We [Thando and Milan] were in the studio and we stay in the studio for hours and hours, man, and we play around a lot. A lot of the work that I do is based [on] us wanting to create something and seeing how it goes. It’s intentional in the fact that we want to make music and we want it to go somewhere, but we don’t know exactly where it’s gonna go, if it can go anywhere at all. So when I got into the studio, I heard a couple of beats and I was very, very happy with them and I just started singing. And what was natural for me at the time was that I just tried out singing in my mother tongue, which was something that I’d never done before, which was very scary.

So we did it once with the first song that was released from the album “isaziso” and it came out quite beautifully, I think. And then we just did it again or we did it again or we just kept on doing it and each and every day became a different day in the studio with a different beat and seeing what the feeling of that beat is and then translating it into text. My artistic journey really revolves around, in the studio especially when recording music as a singer, it revolves around me hearing the beats and discovering the melody first and then coming back and writing the text.

NATIVE: You spoke about how singing in your mother tongue was scary at first for you. Could you describe the process of recording this project, from start to finish?

Thando: Yeah, like I said, it was a bit scary at the beginning, because I didn’t listen to the entire project until about a year after we started the whole process. I remember at the end of one of the sessions, my producer looked at me like, “That’s an album.” And then I was like, wait, I wrote every single song on here and I never thought that before. So the whole process was very revealing to me. And like I said, at first, I was a bit scared; the scaredness didn’t really come from fear, it came from nerves, as to like, you know, the first time doing something, like, “Look, I don’t know if I’m doing it right.” You know what I mean?  That feeling of the unknown really hit hard in the beginning. And then after hearing the entire project, or at least, after hearing a couple of songs on the project, I felt very confident and comfortable enough to be able to say, “Look, I think we’ve got at least something going here.”

NATIVE: On this project, you sing about your childhood, connecting the dots to your hometown and evoking emotions that pull the listener into your own world. Why was it important to interrogate the past?

Thando: The few songs that are really speaking about the past, which is only like one or two, it’s just me speaking about my childhood experiences and wanting to connect more with my inner child. The rest of the album was really—and we’re speaking past tense now because it was about four years ago—the rest of the album was really created in that moment of what I was feeling [at] that time. You know, whatever I was going through [at] that time in my life; there was heartbreak [and] there was, there was an artist part of me that I was wanting to still discover, and that’s where the imagination and the storytelling comes from. And then the one [song] that connected with my inner child are really the ones that I was just trying to make a full circle, in my healing as a person.

NATIVE: You worked with Milan Rendall on this project and you guys have worked extensively. How has that relationship evolved?

Thando: Our relationship has evolved in a manner that, once again, is quite difficult to articulate, because Milan is my brother today. But, you know, four years ago, I didn’t know who he was. And he and I are really, really tight. And what really knits us together is the fact that we formed a really, really close bond and friendship first, that is also enhanced by the music that we both have a passion about and, you know, things that we care about that; naturally, music drew us together. And then I found out that “Hey, this guy is actually kind of cool.” I actually enjoy this guy’s presence, like I like this guy, you know, and he felt the same. So it developed into something quite strong and close-knitted. So I’m forever grateful for that. And the music that we make on top of that and how far it’s already come is just like a cherry on top. Because go into the studio and make music because it’s fun, like, we make music for fun.

NATIVE: What was the best thing about working with Milan on this project?

Thando: The best thing about working with Milan on this project was his wisdom, his constant confidence in me, which sometimes comes more from him than it does from myself because of how much he sees and believes in me, and I think that was showcased more than ever during this project.

NATIVE: Was there any track on this album that was emotionally tasking to make?

Thando: Yes, of course, there were a lot of really emotionally tasking tracks that I worked on this album. You know, it’s never nice reliving hurt or things that didn’t serve you well. But I had to dig deep down as an artist and really overcome that, in order to be able to tell and sort of be stronger for the next person. And there were a couple of tracks, you know, “thandolwami,” “ngyazfela,” all of those love songs. And there’s even the one where I speak about heartbreak, but I speak about it next to a beat that is like pumping that you’d hear in the club, so it’s like a happy heartbreak song.

You know, just reliving all of those emotions is never an easy task. So I really find it quite challenging. And I’m really glad I overcame it in that manner.

NATIVE: Has that reinforced your belief as an artist to dig deeper? Or will you be more careful next time?

Thando: No, no, it showed me a few things. And one of those things is that, yes, it’s good to dig deeper, as much as it might be a scary thing to do, something that you don’t necessarily want. Digging deeper is where the magic stems from and how you become stronger and grow as a person as well. Because coming [face to face] with those deep emotions is necessary. Whether you do it in the forms of therapy—or, I choose to sing about it. But you know, it’s really, really messy and has really shown me that “Look, keep going. Keep going deeper and discover more, because there’s so much more.” This is only the first album; there’s so much more than I could dig deep upon as an artist.

NATIVE: Let’s talk about your work in film and theatre. Is there a satisfaction that film and theatre give you that music doesn’t give you?

Thando: No. All of my three babies, which I call them—music, acting and dance—none of them gives me a feeling that is higher than the other. It’s all just really, really good sense of dopamine because it’s all just expressive in different ways. It’s all using the body. It’s all telling a story in a certain way. And all of those things really make me feel the same way. No one gives me a higher power than the other.

NATIVE: You have a deal with emPawa Africa and you have shared your admiration for the outfit. What was it about emPawa Africa that made you want to work with them?

Thando: It really boiled down to my creator process not being hindered on, such as me not having someone who’s going to dictate how I make my music and where it comes from. The fact that I’m still retaining full ownership of my music was also a big factor. And a very big factor was the fact that emPawa aspires to empower young, independent African artists from Africa. So all of those things were really, really attractive to me. And I found it to be, I think, the best fitting home.

NATIVE: What do you hope your deal with emPawa Africa does for your music?

Thando: I hope my music is experienced in the best way possible. I hope people allow the music to take [them] on a journey. And I hope people let go and listen freely and simply just enjoy it.

NATIVE: What do you hope audiences take out from that project?

Thando: I’m feeling very confident about my project. You know, this process started four years ago and I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting; there was a stage I didn’t know [if] this project was going to come out at all. But looking back on it now, I’m really confident [about] the art that I created; I think music is a blessing and being able to make music is such a huge blessing because it makes me feel things that sometimes I can’t explain, and I’m sure for the listener as well it does the same; music is a feeling, it’s a journey. And that’s what I hope my listeners aspire to when they listen to the album, in that they really take it in and allow the music to take them on a course.

Stream ‘iimini nentsuku’ below.

Featured image credits/NATIVE