Songs In The Key Of… South African folk music
Bongeziwe Mabandla takes us inside a genre that uses storytelling to carry its political message and tales of everyday struggle
Understanding South African folk music would mean you would have to understand that our music has always had folk music ideals. Our music has always been about the common man and the struggles he faces every day. Our difficult history really made it important that we stand up for equality and what is fair and that we empower our own people. Maskandi, Mbaqanga [both styles of Zulu folk music] and traditional South African music have always had attributes of songs that are simple yet have a social commentary about everyday life and man trying to survive this difficult life. South African music is rich in storytelling with a background of a hard, poor and unequal society.
Even though my music has many different elements, my writing is very much folk. I like music to have a message and tell a story. My initial love of folk music was through American artists but it was great to turn around and see the contribution we have made to this genre, mostly political for me. I think what is very important about the genre is that it questions society and does so at times by simply telling a story and without saying this is right or wrong, it lets you draw the conclusion.
Folk music is where all these genres come from, it will always be relevant especially in the time we live in. With GBV [gender-based violence], the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter, it’s an important time for artists not to stay silent. Other major folk artists in South Africa include Tu Nokwe, Vusi Mahlasela, Johnny Clegg, Vusi Ximba and Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukhudzi.
HO LOKILE BY TSEPO TSHOLA
I have heard that this song was written when Tsepo lost his wife. The lyrics translate to, “If this is your will then it is well”. This song touched me so much as a child. It’s a song about eternal love and acceptance of a difficult situation. Tsepo established himself as an activist artist and was also known as the Village Pope during the height of apartheid, performing at a lot of ANC gigs in Europe. Born in Lesotho and former member of Sankomota, this song is a favourite among songs like Stop The War and Open Up The Doors.
NIZALWA NGOBANI? BY THANDISWA
The Queen of South Africa and probably my favourite artist. One of the first post-colonial artists to bring the traditional elements back to the mainstream. This artist, known as “King Tha” and a former member of Bongo Maffin, has remained successful for so long. The lyrics of this song are so profound and poetic, reminding this generation of the sacrifice that was made in our country to free black children. I think this is a song that will be relevant forever and in the future, there will be a lot of remakes.
YEHLISAN’UMOYA MA AFRICA BY BUSI MHLONGO
The queen of Maskandi and considered one of the best musicians in Africa, with a tragic and difficult life under apartheid – living in exile for many years away from family. She was also initiated as a sangoma [healer]. Busi Mhlongo has brought some of the most emotive yet very powerful sounds in the country. Most known for her hit album Urban Zulu, which is one of the best South African albums of all time.
NDO MU WANA BY MUNEYI
Born in Limpopo and sings in Tshivenda, his songs are inspired by the world around him. This song is an ode to love and loss. It’s a song about finding love and making memories and then losing it all. Gracing the South African stages like Afropunk and making a name for himself, this incredible voice is definitely one to watch out for.
MBUBE BY SOLOMONE LINDA
One of the most re-recorded songs in the world and one of the most exploited artists, which reflects the struggle of the black artist in South Africa. Solomon Linda died a poor artist unaware of the huge contribution he had made in music. This song was featured in The Lion King and rumoured to be the reason behind Beyoncé’s involvement in Black Is King. The song is also known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
In February 2006, Linda’s estate attained a legal settlement with Abilene Music, which had the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney. This settlement applies to worldwide rights, not just South African, since 1987.
SPHETUKANO BY MADOSINI
Queen of Xhosa music born in Umtata in a village Mqhekezweni and known for playing indigenous instruments like uHadi and umrhubhe. Making music that is passed on from generation to generation, she has toured and is admired around the globe
UBOMBO BY MADALA KUNENE
Born in KwaZulu-Natal with a unique style unlike anyone, with a mixture of influences and one of the most underrated South African gems. Very little is known about him but his sounds transcend the South African sound. Drawing inspiration from many different styles he has managed to create his own signature style. This very emotive song is his most known, drawing inspiration from the accent sounds of South African sounds
WANKOLOTA BY JABU KHANYILE
This is another favourite South African artist and this song specifically talks about the exploitation that colonialism had on us as people. The songs translate to, “You Owe Me” and talks about what was taken from us. Families. Jabu Khanyile’s sound was always influenced by where he came from and his love for culture and heritage is evident in his songs.
BANTU BIKO STREET BY SIMPHIWE DANA
One of the best voices in South Africa, what I love about this artist is her sense of purpose in her music. Her music has an element of activism that seems so important, this song talks about having black pride and celebrating it. She talks about walking down Bantu Biko street and what it means to live in a society that celebrates who you are. It’s taken from the album The One Love Movement On Bantu Biko Street.