“It’s a risk album, you know?! I wanted to do something that was different. I didn’t want to be stagnat, and a lot of people that I was working with were like ‘are you gonna do the same kind of vibe for your new album?’,” says Bongeziwe Mabandla (Bongi henceforth), musician, singer-songwriter from his flat in Jozi.
We’re looking outside of his window, the setting sun ahead, the frantic mid-week peak hour traffic metres away. This very place, in his living room, is where he wrote the majority of his new album, Mangaliso, out now on the Mzansi division of the Universal Music Group.
I told Bongi that I didn’t like the album on first and subsequent listens. It was too much of a departure from his debut Umlilo, which introduced us to a then-27 year-old man from the Eastern Cape who’d taken a path left-of-field from his acting career to pursue a discipline whose mechanics he wasn’t well-versed in. In the wake of the fall-out with his old label, the guitarist found himself at somewhat of a dead-end, and contemplating quitting music altogether.
He addresses the aftermath, in understated excellence, on “Ndibuyile” specifically.
Five years in-between projects is a long time, and explains in part my own difficulty with getting this project.
My memories of Umlilo are a collection of a rose-tinted build-up of seeing him perform one too many solo acoustic guitar sets, and hence expecting a similar sound to carry through on the album. It took re-listening to the debut again to figure out that Mangaliso is but a continuation of the ideas on the former; that much of what I disliked with this project — the electronic-tinged soundscapes, specifically — was the germination of a seed planted earlier.
It was that, and learning that Tiago Paulo — he of 340ml and TATV renown, bands that drummer Paulo Chibanga, who produced Umlilo, was a part of — had produced this album, that I gave it another listen.
“The whole pitch was not to do something completely new, actually. We wanted to do something acoustic, that had a traditional sound, and was folk-rooted. Also, we wanted to do what the world is doing, especially because of how my first album opened me up to different countries. We wanted to interpret Xhosa folk in a fresh way,” he says.
Bongi goes on to speak about Tiago’s first impressions upon hearing the music written for the album.
“He said: ‘I’m thinking we should do something like Little Dragon-meets-Madala Kunene.’”
This description concretised the direction in his head.
Has he met the is’ginci figurehead, I ask him.
“Yeah, when I first met [uMadala], I thought I was gonna meet this very serious guy who had this very serious vibe. I was like ‘unjani baba’, and he killed that in a few seconds. He’s not as serious as the music makes him seem,” he shares.
Bongi continues with in-studio anecdotes of the album-making process.
“[This album is a result of] those pulls of where [Tiago] wanted to take it, you know?! I had my own ways. Which was [another] interesting thing about this album — I went to a place that I didn’t expect to go. I evolved musically while making this album, and I started to understand new sounds that I wasn’t open to.”
He adds: “I do think I have a specific sound, no matter what genres I do, and how I experiment.”
Bongi’s inspired many a musician. This I point out to him, and ask how he handles that responsibility, if at all, and whether he does think about it, for surely it’s something he’s not only noticed, but been told before.
“I think the reason I made this second album, it was also at a time where I could’ve not been making an album, in terms of where I was in the music scene,” he says.
He credits the messages he’d been receiving via Facebook, from regular folk, for providing the impetus for this new project. “I think Mangaliso is really for the listener. This album is very much about trying to inspire that person,” adds Bongi.
With a new album comes a new live set-up, one comprising him on guitar, Tiago on synthesizers and samplers (and some guitar and vocals), and Mike Wright on drums. Bongi tells me that he’s excited about it. The last time we spoke, he was still iffy about the live setup, which at that point consisted of him on acoustic guitar, a bassist, and a drummer.
“I think music is changing, you know?! What people wrote about when I released an album in 2012…as we grow older, people’s ideas about what the world is; about morals; about good and right, change. You can tell the liberalism of the world in the music now. Sounds are changing as well,” he says.
And with that, he touches on a point artists struggle with on their second album: To repeat themselves in an attempt to retain old fans, or pull a seventies-era Bob Dylan by risking alienation, with the hope that a new audience awaits on the other side of a sophomore effort.
Rarely spoken about is the self-proclaimed day one fans’ disavowal of anything other than what they were introduced to initially. It is human instinct , yes; but it’s also an injustice towards the artist who, through asserting themselves in spaces and exploring places, sonically, where they’re told they can’t go, attains a heightened satisfaction, artistically.
“When I say that times are moving, I’m definitely not saying that,” Bongi stops to re-arrange his thoughts — a tick of his — and continues: “How do you move on with the times but keep music very sensitive and very lyric-driven, filled with meaning in a digital, changing sound?”
* Bongeziwe Mabandla plays Smoking Dragon Festival on December 31.