When Bongeziwe Mabandla surfaced with his debut album in 2012 he was hailed as the new face of Afro-Folk, effortlessly able to entwine Xhosa lyrics with traditional music and folk stylings to create something uniquely captivating.
In the five years that have passed since Umlilo’s release, Mabandla has amplified his already considerable gifts and is now capable of joining Africa’s most highly regarded musical exports in creating a global audience for the music he makes.
That the Eastern Cape artist can move into territory occupied by Africa’s most gifted singer-songwriters (Baaba Maal; Ismaël Lô for instance) is visible in his second album, Mangaliso – his first through a new deal with Universal Music. The 10-track record is a sumptuous listen that spotlights Mabandla’s artistic growth into one of the most purposeful and gifted artists working in South Africa today.
The first single off Mangaliso is “Ndokhulandela”, a hypnotic song that showcases Mabandla’s meditative, yet powerful, voice – and provides an easy way in to what is likely to be one of 2017’s most acclaimed releases. And there are plenty more songs on the new album that more than prove the flurry of praise and accolades (including two South African Music Awards nominations) that surrounded Umlilo’s release were deserved. The album’s closing track “Bawo Wam”, for instance, carries with it spirit of the ancient in a song built around a distinctively modern beat-heavy groove and “Khaya” is evidence enough that Mabandla’s guitarwork is amongst the most lyrical South Africa has produced.
For the artist, Mangaliso’s dual meaning – “mountain” or “miracle” – is indicative of the highs and lows of his journey since the release of Umlilo.
“The period between Umlilo and this album was not always easy,” explains the artist. “But it meant I had to do a lot of growing up and I think that is reflected in the new material. In a way, I feel like I am starting again so Mangaliso carries the energy of something totally new and invigorating.”
In creating his second album, Mabandla initially fell back on the songwriting approach that had seen him through his debut. “But the team around me pushed me hard to create music that was beyond a South African sound. By that I mean, to create a sound that was less instantly recognisable as South African, even though it’s always going to have its deepest roots here, and instead one that carries with it an international quality that can transcend borders and genres.”
In this journey, Mabandla was joined by Tiago Correia Paulo, formerly of Tumi and the Volume and 340ml, and among Southern Africa’s most adventurous producers. “There were times when we were in the studio and Tiago had me kneeling and singing, as a way of enhancing the emotion that my new music is filled with,” says Mabandla of the recording process. “Tiago’s incredibly forward-thinking and working with him felt instinctive and very special from the word go.”
The majority of Mangaliso’s were tracked in Cape Town by Beatenberg’s Ross Dorkin and the album also features Robin Brink from Beatenberg on drums as well as a guest vocal by Spoek Mathambo. “I really love Spoek’s work,” says Mabandla of the collaboration.
Lyrically, Mangaliso reflects the binary world that Mabandla inhabits. “It’s about my hopes and my regrets, about the darkness and the light and about life and death and our very existence,” he says. “Although elements of the album are very contemporary, there is a quality to the songs and music that captures the deep spirituality that has always been in African culture.”
In support of Mangaliso, Mabandla is playing live – this time augmented by Correia-Paolo on guitar and samples and Mike Wright (Zebra & Giraffe) on drums. Watching the trio perform is nothing short of captivating and it’s no surprise to find that Mabandla’s international bookings for 2017 are gathering pace. Already he’s travelled extensively over the past few years, playing Primavera Sound in Barcelona and Africa Festival in Germany. Mabandla has also toured Australia, Asia and Canada, substantially expanding his audience through a series of critically-acclaimed live performances.
“I am incredibly grateful to be doing what I love, and travelling the world while I do it,” says Mabandla.
“Touring internationally opened my eyes to how popular folk-based music is, and although my new music is more artistically experimental than anything I’ve done before, it remains located in this age-old idiom. Performing globally over the past few years has also showed me that my music can travel and I can’t wait to bring my new songs to audiences in South Africa and beyond.”