Thandiswa, a New South African Music Idol

South African singer
Thandiswa has a new solo album,
, available in North America. Originally released in South Africa on
the Gallo label, it is now out on Escondida Records in the United States.
combines social
commentary and catchy music. The CD fuses various musical
genres, from traditional Xhosa rhythms, upbeat Mbaqanga (a Zulu music style made
popular by groups like the Soul Brothers), and the thumping beats of kwaito, to
gospel, R&B, hip-hop, ragga, and soul. The sound is resonating in wider
and wider circles, as she has already picked up numerous awards, including a
South African Music Award and a Kora Award (the African equivalent of a GRAMMY)
for “Best Female Artist.”

Thandiswa’s musical emancipation, representing not only her
personal freedom, but an opportunity for her fellow hopefuls. As a veritable
veteran in the South African music industry,
Thandiswa could have had her pick
of the most sought-after collaborators for
. Instead, she held open
auditions for over 400 aspiring stars over the course of 3 days, both as a way
to revisit her own tough start and to create a fresh sound, representative of
South Africa’s dynamic cultural landscape.

I decided to create a band from a completely fresh crop of musicians
Thandiswa explains. “There’s so much talent out there, just waiting to be discovered. I’m
living my dreams through my work, and I’m able to do that partly because certain
people gave me a chance. So I want to be able to give other young talents the
same opportunity, and allow them to live their dreams. We can travel the world
together, making music

The journey
Thandiswa took in creating this sound was as much inward as it was
global. Reconnecting with her roots, she embarked on a pilgrimage to the
Transkei, a rural area treated by the apartheid regime as a black ‘homeland’
(similar to Native American ‘reservations’). Visiting both her mother’s village
and that of traditional vocalist Madosini, she was exposed to the original
sounds of Xhosa traditional melodies, and was introduced to the Uhadi, a
traditional Xhosa one-string harp. Madosini imparted cultural wisdoms,
explaining the philosophies inherent in the creation of Xhosa music—respect for
others and self, recognizing the spiritual realm as the true source of the
music, and the key role of nature in the creation of music. These influences are
clearly present throughout
, and communicate a powerful message from one
of South Africa’s primary cultural constituents.

Music has played a vital role in South Africa’s social history. From the 1960’s
through the ’90’s, anti-apartheid activists, rallying for the due political
representation and integration of the country’s 85% non-white population into
government and social institutions, rallied against oppression through freedom
songs; South Africans in exile raised awareness and support for the plight of
the people of their homeland. Under the firm grip of the apartheid regime, music
was the site for popular voice, for social participation, for inclusion, and
expressing the dream of freedom which was realized with the country’s first
democratic elections in 1994

In many ways, Bongo Maffin—the band in which
Thandiswa first made her mark, and
of which she is still a member—was the sound of the “new South Africa,” a
country charged with remaking its image to reflect its racial, cultural and
ethnic diversity, history of struggle and political victory over oppression, and
vision for a democratic society. At its best, kwaito marries elements of hip-hop
and house-dance beats with thought-provoking and socially conscious lyrics about
life in the townships, being a young African, and living in a country finding
its identity.
Thandiswa is often cited as a driving force behind Bongo Maffin’s
slant toward engaging social and spiritual issues through popular music. Perhaps
because of this, Bongo Maffin bridged the racial divide, by drawing people in
from across the spectrum through the feel-good sound, spiritual lyrics and
crossover appeal.

Thandiswa has big things in mind, and takes her job as a performer seriously.
To me,” she says, “recording this album also represents my being able to give
young Africans in the 21st century an authentic voice