If you wanted one word to describe South Africa’s Pilani Bubu, the word might be “vibrant.” Bubu has a vibrancy when you see her, when you hear her sing, or even just talk. At the opening gathering of this year's WOMEX conference, held in Lisbon, Portugal, someone asked who I was interested in interviewing. When I mentioned Bubu, that person pointed and said, “Oh, she's just right over there.” I looked towards where they were pointing and there were more than 50 people standing there. Now maybe it was simply her love of inventive and colorful fashion that made her stand out, but it was easy to spot her – a vibrant colorful woman amongst a throng of others all grayscale in comparison.
Now when you ask Bubu to introduce herself, you will hear some variation of: “I'm a singer, songwriter, TV presenter, poet, content developer, but I also dabble in other things as well.” Breaking that down as her bio reads: “I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost, exploring themes of culture, identity, spirituality, love, light, human consciousness and transformation. These concepts and thematic narratives are held together by poetic spoken word, versatility and dynamic storytelling in a fusion of jazz, folk, funk, and soul.”
After walking away from a successful corporate career, Bubu began her musical career in 2012 releasing a “self-funded, self-managed, self-published” EP, Journey of A Heart. Her first full LP, Warrior of Light, came out in 2016,, and she followed that up in 2019 with Folklore: Chapter 1, which took Best African Adult Contemporary Album award that year at the South African Music Awards (SAMA). The album is indeed the first chapter of what Bubu sees as a five-album cycle telling the story of her life experience, which is also the story of her people. And as mentioned, amongst her many “dabblings” is that she's the host of an interior design television program, Design For You With Pilani Bubu, now in its 10th season.
But while words, as Bubu would agree, are important, perhaps the best way to get to know her is through song. Here she is singing “Miss Understood” live from the Journey of A Heart EP.
“I can't deny the child that I am,” she says. “I grew up in the MTV generation. But where I grew up was also just a 13 minute distance from my grandparents' places and sleeping in a hut. Being so close to ceremonies and traditional music, it was so much a part of me. But as the world opened up, we kind of looked towards globalization and wanted to embrace different parts of the world, especially American culture. I haven't denied these influences, these places of inspiration, but what came about was there was so much I was under-utilizing in my language in the way we speak and the way it sounds, in the way that is so intelligent. There was so much I found in indigenous folk music that helped me realize different rhythms and the patterns, and so I wanted to explore these styles and find myself writing from that place. You have to understand that we've lost time as a people as we've been fighting for equality and freedom and all of these things. But I think now is just about the time.”
Bubu has developed a strong connection with the city of New Orleans. After releasing Journey of A Heart, she spent several months in the city, performing and soaking in its musical tradition. She then has said she wrote much of the music for Warrior of Light as a response to her experiences there.
“My first visit to New Orleans was in 2012, I was meant to spend five days there during Jazzfest and I stayed three months. The world of music in New Orleans just opened up for me. During this time I started to include some traditional folk songs from South Africa into my repertoire and to share a little more about my culture and people with the folks there.”
Bubu returned to New Orleans in 2015 and again in 2017, and as she says: “NOLA was the ears and the eyes and the curious place that made my folklore stories so resonant and relevant,” and became a major inspiration for her to think about what would become the Folklore cycle. But it also led her even deeper to create what she hopes will be an annual folklore festival [https://folklore.community] and which she had just launched the week before coming to WOMEX.
“This is an idea that's been in incubation for about three years since I first released my album Folklore: Chapter One. I felt that, of course, when you start the first chapter of something there's so much conversation to be had. But then you realize there are so many different platforms on which you could be having these conversations, and also the audience type for these conversations, whether that be children or adults. So I started with sort of 'Folklore Firesides,' involving other storytellers into my shows – poets and book authors – to explore conversations around our culture. They would share their work on stage, and whether they are writing on domestic violence, or just ritual rites of passages, there were storytellers who were addressing certain content in our culture. So the band would play, and the poets would tell their stories. Or with an author, they would just read against a song. And through that, we decided we should just do a book fair, because,” she laughs, “I can't do it all.”
“So, we started 'Folklore for Kids,'” she continues. “It was like 'let's teach these kids what kind of indigenous instruments exist, how they make them, get them to understand traditional sounds,' and also perform as plays, riddles, rhymes. And then we involved authors who would read to the kids different stories, so they could see themselves inclusively represented in storybooks.
“Then I thought, 'Wow, let's have a food market, a crafts market, some workshops, a book fair for children's books, as well as performance play, and a main stage with some of the artists who can kind of create contemporary folk music using indigenous instruments.' So we held it this year at the National School of the Arts.”
Now asking Bubu to explain what exactly this five-album Folklore cycle is about, has her eyes widened and she jumps excitedly into a new position on the couch.
“O.K.,” she says. “So Chapter One is about exploring the fundamentals of our community and culture – where women are placed, how they feel, the issues they are suffering now because of culture and patriarchy, and how we need to undo them. We look at identity, spirituality and spirit guides. Also, exploring these rites of passages that men have to go through which we feel really destruct the idea of equality and unity and the building of the Black family. Some of it was caused by apartheid, migrant labor, absent fathers – we have 60 percent absent fathers in South Africa. It asks what we actually need to grow good kids who will become good adults.
“The album starts with a disgruntled woman's story, then to where I am kind of setting up the idea that there is a lot of brokenness in Black families, and then a song where we beg for the men to come home. Coming out of that, we explore ideas about identity and something a little more ancient. Like it's good to move forward, but also look at our ancient spirit. And so I explore a few folk songs that talk about animals and how they guide us, like covering the classic Miriam Makeba song, “Qongqothwane."
The song is generally known in English as “The Click Song” and, according to Wikipedia, literally translates from Xhosa as "the knock-knock beetle."
“Makeba was really just that person for me,” Bubu explains, “that went out into the world and took nothing for granted – like our rich history and, of course, what was happening then at home. So she acted as an activist, but also as someone who explored our culture and shared it with the world, unashamedly and was inspired by it to create contemporary music. I wanted to do a remake of “Qongqothwane” because I felt it quite deeply. I feel as kids we don't get enough wisdom from our parents. That intergenerational dialogue isn't happening as much as did before. So we do these things, enact things, and sing things that we don't really understand. I really wanted to create a lot more meaning in these traditional folk songs.
“So the song is about a dung beetle that is the healer of the road. It goes around collecting stuff on its back. We just watch the beetle go up and down and gather the dirt and clear the roads. But I wanted to put more meaning into that. So I wrote a poem which is embedded in the song and speaks about the ancient pathways, roads where, way back in ancient times, we were guided by them. So yes, I'm saying that the dung beetle is one of guides for the road, but also I'm letting you know we had a way of praise and worship and were spiritual people. I'm just seeding the idea that potentially if we look to nature and various spirit guides we might find answers to ourselves – just opening a conversation for us to explore what that could be.
“There are stories written about the dung beetle, but no one sat and gave us the long form or wrote the book about it. The songs that told these stories I learned growing up. They are old, traditional songs with a story, but now I'm adding my own poems and storytelling and working to propel traditional folk music as well into the 21st century. To clear a path, like the dung beetle is, so we can move forward. So it's also an undoing of the idea that when the missionaries arrived here and colonialism came about we were 'heathens.' We used to create these shrines where you place stones along path ways, along the roads, and the poem talks about these ancient paths and looking to these ancient spirit guides like the dung beetle so that we can maybe find a new way and maybe unburden ourselves of the idea that Black people were 'heathens' and now saved. So seeing that the dung beetle in the song is seen as the healer of the road has such significance for me. Because there are things in life and in nature that really do clear and heal our paths.”
Another song on the album, “Boom Che,” is also based around a traditional folk song, and, as Bubu explains it, is a celebration of women and released as a single during “Women's Month,” in South Africa.
“It's a story about women going around to gather firewood in the forest,” she says. “Especially at the end of the song there's this expression of the women dancing because they're having fun while they're doing this. So when you hear them singing, it's also a dance. You can kind of hear all the movements going in that story.
“I believe in really painting the scene in the music. So when I'm creating the music I often have a visual picture. Then, I try to make that picture come alive through the drumming pattern which will inform the dance pattern. And because when I'm creating it's coming from a place of lived experience. I see it. I go to that place and try and color the sound. I think every piece of music has a context, a place, a rite, a ceremony, a time and a place, a reason. I'm trying to color the happening. There is a reason to every song. And that's what I'm trying to evoke in this series of albums.”
While Folklore: Chapter One was about her community, in Folklore: Chapter Two the story becomes more personal.
“So Folklore: Chapter Two dives deep into African spirituality and tells the journey of a sangoma, a traditional healer in our culture,” Bubu explains. “So much about my purpose, my calling I see as a healer in music. Miriam Makeba's mom was a sangoma, and Miriam would describe the same for her. It's a gift that gets passed down and becomes a part of what your work serves. Others may become real traditional healers who use medicine and bones, others use music. There are certain journeys I've taken with my parents and ancestors – some living and some dead – who've walked these paths that I'm now walking. So here I'm writing and arranging a story that's happening to me and has happened to me in real time that maybe South Africans will resonate with, but I feel that other people will just really feel these ideas in the music.
“When a child is born, the umbilical cord is buried in the patriarchal home. Those who don't carry out this ritual, often feel like their ancestors are not walking with them. To me, this ritual was skipped because my parents went to the Zionist Church and were afraid that my ancestors would give me my inherited gift of healing. There are people who have embraced a Christianity wherein they have demonized African culture and rituals. So I have a song about me going back to performing this ritual. It took a lot for me to tell my family that we need to do this. I felt like this child that's half-declared by my ancestors and spirits. So I'm actually doing the ceremony in January. It has to be done on a full moon, and we keep missing it. It's crazy. It should have been when I was younger, like five or seven years old. But they skipped past it. Ten years ago, I wasn't just doing music, I was doing other things. But the more I started to explore sounds and folklore the more I felt connected to them. And now I'm going to seal that connection.
“So, for example, there's one song "Makhwalo" – that's the name of my clan. I start to make this communion with them, telling them 'these are your songs and I'm your child and they should guide me.' I sing: 'This is me. I'm the child of the song.' And then I say their clan names because that's how you summon them. When I've made that declaration, the paths are open. And there's another song about opening the path: 'move the kids away, here comes the healer.'”
Folklore: Chapter Two will be released in September 2023, though a few singles will be released beforehand throughout the year. Another song on the album, “Abantwana,” that will be released ahead of the album in a remix sees Bubu collaborating with the always-innovative Cameroonian artist Blick Bassy. This version has already debuted, included in Bassy's Afro-Futuris multimedia production Bikutsi 3000 in June 2022 in Paris, and will soon be featured as the title song of an upcoming Netflix television series.
Meanwhile, Bubu has already mapped out and is working on the remainder of the chapters. She explains that Chapter Three will be the story of this breaking of the tradition within her family and the struggle that her parents had. Then Chapter Four is how it all gets resolved with the journey her mother's family went through with their church and the eventual sort of a peace between the conflicting beliefs. And finally, Chapter Five takes us through the death and rebirth of the sangoma as she takes her place as part of a dynasty of healers.
Bubu also released an EP in March 2022, Lockdown Love Story, which is another personal journey she went through during the pandemic.
“During lockdown I wanted to do more collaborations as I had time, which I usually don't have, so I put out a call that anybody who wants to collaborate,” Bubu says. “Lockdown in South Africa was a hard lockdown. No alcohol.... Don't leave your house for a good three to four months. So I had found myself falling in love with someone who at that time I'd just met. I can't tell you too much about the person, but I had only seen them at a show and then we kind of really started to connect via text. And soon, the conversations we were having online got a little, shall we say, erotic.
“So the first two songs start out light and day-dreamy, the prelude. And then it gets into desire. It was written just as how things were happening. And then, we're just in love, just in five months. It was the crazy euphoria of lockdown. But then we move on to the pendulum swing. Something happened where the relationship was swinging really high and he kind of like started retreating. Then, on the day I won the award for the Folklore album, he totally ghosted me. So was this just a lockdown lonely fling? Was he just bored during the first four months of lockdown? Was it all just up in my head? And then there's the transition where you don't know where you stand with the person, but you keep sending texts. And that's the conundrum. So I wrote another song that maybe this just wasn't it. I think a lot of people went through a lot of relationship issues during lockdown and I wanted to use my story to open up the conversation about 'What were you doing during lockdown? Any love relationships? Broken hearts? Or love created?' So it's all in there.”
Needing to ask if since the album release has Bubu had any reconnection with this person, she laughs: “I love this question! There won't be a Lockdown: Part Two, but the person definitely came back and we spoke. After my dad passed away, they reached out to me. People are still wondering who it is, but I think it's going to stay a secret.... For now.”
But we can't end without offering some interior design tips from Bubu's television series.....
All photographs by Carlos Frazao