Reviews May 19, 2023
South African Bongeziwe Mabandla Releases Fourth Studio Album, amaXesha

The whole Bongeziwe experience is conceptual in nature in the vein of The Miseducation of Lauren Hill, from an artist he is deeply inspired by. However Bongeziwe is a completely South African original in his falsetto voice, simple textuality and spiritual messaging, so the comparison goes only so far. amaXesha is rooted in the folk tradition of Umxhentso Transkei, homeland in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa and birthplace of Bongeziwe, but also home to many of South Africa´s musical legends.

I can count the Eastern Cape as part of my own lineage as abaMbo, clans of Mfengu/fingo /amaMfengu, amaHlubi, amaBhele, amaZizi and other chiefdoms and individuals in my family who fled KwaZulu-Natal in the time of King Tshaka (1818 - 1828) northwards to Zimbabwe. The folk histories of these migrations and indeed those who stayed behind created the foundation for the music that the Eastern Cape is well known for, music whose tonality is influenced by vows made seeking self-determination and refuge in the lands of the Xhosa King Hintsa. It is said they were the first to plant wheat in South Africa and where songs would accompany the migratory patterns of uNtu, emphasized by agriculture and trade. The histories and naming of clans in southern Africa is so profound and intertwined with music to mark an event makes me hear these cultural undercurrents as an everlasting well of folk musical heritage that Bongeziwe draws from.

Overlapping histories of peoples migrating and needing songs to make their histories cohesive might not be the whole truth of the matter, but these underpinnings give unspoken authenticity to the songs of Bongeziwe, and for a person who shares a part of that lineage, I understand how the music flows seamlessly from one song to the next as a continuous meditation of anguish, pain, dislocation, destitution, longing, pleasure and love. Saudade is an Afro-Portuguese word rooted in the experience of slavery and dislocation in Brazil from Africa, invented to express the emotional state of melancholic or profoundly nostalgic longing for a beloved or absent place, something or someone lost or desired. I might be reading too much into it but this idea encapsulates my impression of the overall tone of the album. It is a deep introspection into an unknown emotional space for many yet the culture it draws from sings melancholy with great optimism which permeates throughout the album.

amaXesha was written during the lockdown, a period of time that will go down in history as affecting nearly every living thing on the planet.

This studio album has simple melodies and the arrangements are delicate without being contrived, and you will realize as you hear it over and over again, that you sometimes need to sit down and take stock of life. The album has a resonance for anyone who has wrestled with the dislocation that was lockdown and the uncertainty of the times. When you settle and listen to the whole album, you truly grasp the depths of emotion and gravitas running through these fourteen songs.

The first track showcases Bongeziwe’s angelic, ethereal, horn-like high tenor, with a call to awaken. The song, “Sisahleleleni (i),” asks,
Why are we still here
If we are not happy here
What is it exactly that’s keeping us here
Why are we still here
If we are not happy here
What is it exactly that’s keeping us here

Honest existential questions abound on the album and the second song “Sisahleleleni (ii),” improvises on the original album. Producer Tiago Correia-Paulo, deftly sustains the suspense musically and allows the song to have its own organic build up. This is something that I have never been able to articulate on paper but having seen the songs on this album performed live, I see how it is a musical mechanism that allows the audience to ponder the questions Bongeziwe asks gradually over time.

By the third song “Ukuthanda Wena,” a love song that translates “your existence or your presence,” the pulse is disrupted with a fragmented techno-inflected beat that will have you going into a trance. Before you know it, the album is seamlessly transitioning into each new song with simple electronic synthesized guitar chords, or slap bass drum beats that somehow express through music a future more beautiful.

The title track “AmaXesha, introduces another studio device right out Lauren Hill’s creative toolbox. It is a conversation between Bongeziwe as he is laying down the ideas for the tracks with Tiago, who must be somewhere in the mixing booth. This idea is dispersed subtly through the album and before you know it by track five “Noba Bangathini,” which translates to “they can say what they want,” Bongeziwe evokes the sickness that comes with love.

Producer Tiago’s stunning musicality and understanding of how to augment sounds brings out the simplicity of Bongeziwe’s spirit-filled vocals. This combination makes the whole album feel timeless. The rap section of this one is a touch of genius.

“Hlala,” which means “stay,” compels one to dance and brings in an indie vibe reminiscent of the sound Tiago cultivated in his tenure with the “Jozambican” band 350mil. For me this one is a feel good favorite.

By this time you realize you are dealing with an album perfectly calibrated for our post-lockdown reality. The final tracks begin a musical home run with “Ndikhale,” “I cried.”

The song echoes the melodies of the Eastern Cape and the influences of Bongeziwe´s musical heroes and heroines in all their glory, taking us back to the roots of folk music from the región. Track nine “Thula,” “be quiet” is a lullaby to a mother from a child followed by “Soze,” “never,” a poem of thanks with repeated choral phrases and echoing synth and guitar strums.

“Hamba,” “go way”, energizes with the sound of drum major rolls, taking us on a short journey into “Libale,” meaning “a story never forgotten.” The penultimate track brings the journey to an end, resolving into “Ubukho bakho” “your existence,” which bears witness to all we have heard. A chorus of falsetto harmonies by Bongeziwe takes us out with organ synth chords by Tiago and a coda reprise of the original melody from “AmaXesha,” a músical motif and a blessing in the form of a voice mail recording from Bongeziwe´s mother.

AmaXesha is a classic to be appreciated by your whole being. It is a series of sonic memories by a great artist and he will take you on a journey, during which time you can make your own interpretations as to what it all means, as I did.

Afropop Weigh in on Afropop's digital future and download an exclusive concert from the archives—free!