Spiritual Afro Soul
She embodies a young, urbane South Africa, full of pride and charisma. She draws her heritage from gospel music and her inspiration from soul and jazz, and treats a house beat with the same respect as the traditional rhythms of her people, the Xhosa. Never before has the newly free yet still so vulnerable South Africa been captured in such confident tones. It is safe to say that this woman is the future of Afro soul.
Simphiwe Dana grew up in the rural region of Butterworth, in the former Republic of Transkei. “We had neither electricity nor running water and we used to fetch firewood from the forests to cook with. I remember the wild animals and how they used to tell us children tales of black magic. It was a peaceful and carefree childhood. I encountered music mostly through our traditional village feasts and ceremonies. My grandfather had a radio but batteries were expensive and he would only switch it on for the news. My mother made us go to church, whether we wanted to or not,” she reminisces.
But it was in church that she discovered her love of song. She says she felt the Creator’s energy through the music. “But I was so shy in the choir that I mimed for three years before, one day, I literally broke out in song. I preferred to sing alone, because even then I realized that music, like the principle of God, cannot be confined within the walls of the church. I would go up the mountains, with only my dog for company, wander around and sing my own first compositions.” And that was how she worked on fulfilling the dream of becoming a singer.
There were many obstacles on the way: As the eldest of four daughters, she was obliged to help her mother at home. She began to study IT and graphic design in Johannesburg. In the evenings, she would record her songs on a cheap mixer. But she did not dare take her songs to a record company. Then, through a friend, she met a promoter who recognized her potential and gave her time to develop her music with a band. Gradually, her first album, “Zandizile,” began to take shape. In many regards, it revolutionized modern South African music.
It is not a sound that aims for quick effect: the dramaturgy of her pieces develops with a soulful patience and gentle heartbeat. She states her case thoughtfully, singing with a deep, tumescent timbre, leaving plenty of room for backing choirs to bear their own testimony. She is a master of the art of building up tension without acrobatics, in a setting of gentle piano, melodic bass riffs and fine guitar licks. All this only serves to add to the effect when she suddenly unleashes her vocal power, full of zeal and spirit. Stylistically, it is difficult to categorize Simphiwe Dana’s songs and most comparisons don’t quite work:
“I have been described as a new Miriam Makeba, and my musical nature has been compared to that of Marvin Gaye and Erykah Badu. It is an honor for me to me mentioned in the same breath as these people, but my style does not fit in with any of them,” is how she sees herself. “I don’t feel any great affinity with the current South African pop music style, Kwaito. I see myself more in the tradition of my people, the Xhosa, and I work with elements of gospel and jazz, but at the end of the day it is my very own language.” This language is articulated in lyrics in her mother tongue, which is regarded as extremely expressive, even among the other peoples of South Africa. For she is light years away from harmless platitudes:
Dana castigates the government, which has failed to tackle the grotesque chasm between rich and poor that has become so obvious since 1994 and she addresses the wounds inflicted during the Apartheid era. Most blacks, she believes, still regards themselves as losers, as nobodies, unable to love themselves and hence prone to violence. And the politicians have failed to show them the way out of the past: “The ANC has betrayed us. It has got to the stage that we need another revolution. Nothing has improved for us blacks. We must remember that we have heroes: courageous, strong-willed people, who sacrificed their lives for their convictions, people like Bantu Biko.” Her second album is dedicated to the brave freedom fighter.
Yet, despite the bitter tone of her interview, her latest music is anything but angry. On the contrary: Simphiwe Dana’s third album features many gentle, ballad-esque tones, based on a pan-African sound. Afro-beat from Nigeria is woven in, musicians from Mozambique enrich the arrangements. “Kulture Noir” is the title of the CD, which addresses anglophone and francophone aspects of Africa with a view to repairing colonial damage. Her lyrics have become slightly more spiritual, speaking of an inner light and unconditional love.
Simphiwe Dana is a quiet star, who does not quite fit in to the hectic business of the soccer World Cup, in which the record companies want to get a share of the action, too. “Kulture Noir” is not being released until the event is almost over. Nevertheless, her latest work features sporting references which have caused great surprise. Soon, she will be making her acting debut in the film “Themba.” It’s a story about a football-crazy, HIV positive boy. She plays the boy’s mother, Mandisa – alongside none less than the former Germany goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann.
“I had no idea about the world of film, I did not even know what “cut“ means. But the director, Stefanie Sycholt, knew exactly how to tap my acting potential and in the end, I felt very comfortable on the set.” But there was something else that moved her to take on the role: the way the mother figure Mandisa lives, in these simple, rural surroundings, brought her back to her own childhood in Butterworth. This proud woman has come a long way from there.
From an interview of the author with Simphiwe Dana.
7 South Africa Music Awards (SAMA);
AVO Session Arising Star Award (2006);
Nominated for the 2008 BBC Radio 3 Awards for Best Artist in the category World Music - Africa
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Public Viewing, Pop and Poetry
(11 June 10 - 11 June 11)