26 October 2013, WINDHOEK, Hage Geingob rugby stadium.
Amazing night of brilliant music. If you have ever heard South Africa’s Zahara, I don’t need to tell you that there is a global star in the making. Her sound seems to flow straight from a good heart and out through one of the best voices ever have heard. It filled the giant rugby stadium and floated to the stars glistening against velvet night.
As you may know, Zahara is Bulelwa Mkutukana, a 26-year-old from South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who started singing in school choirs at age 6 and later as a worship leader. Apparently an early nickname was “Spinach”, because she loved to eat it.
She is a poet and songwriter and sings in IsiXhosa and English and performs on acoustic guitar. Her first album Loliwe (“train” in isiXhosa, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RV22ISkVDWA) was released in September 2011 and went double platinum selling 400,000 copies in South Africa and South Africa’s second fastest-selling album after Brenda Fassie’s Memeza in 1997. According to Wikipedia: “The track titled “Loliwe” refers to the trains that brought workers back home after many years away working in Johannesburg where they often had other families. According to Zahara, “For me it is a metaphor. It’s like … just pick yourself up. No matter who’s your father or who’s your mother … I believe that you’re not a mistake.”
In May 2012 she won 8 awards at the South African Music Awards, including “Best Female Artist” and “Album of the Year”. Commenting on a DVD issued, she said: “I feel that God has favoured me, this is just a blessing. It shows that if you remain true to who you are people will support you and remain faithful to you.” Her new album, released September 2013 is called Phendula, featuring some great guest appearances, and she has also released a tribute to Nelson Mandela song which she performed to him.
Since then she has only got better. Her music is simple and full of integrity, African beats and giant African soul. As one reviewer said (Claire Martens) better than I could: “This is going back to the nuts and bolts of music and creating something of substance from the rawness.”
The audience in Windhoek knew, loved and sang along to Zahara’s own songs, and she in turn delighted them with some well-loved Brenda Fassie* numbers in English and IsiXhosa.
Zahara is unforgettable and her music heals all. If you see her listed to play anywhere on your continent, GO LISTEN or regret forever!
Of course, the headliner that night was Hugh Masekela, and if you think the 74-year-old might be slowing down, you’re wrong. His first trumpet was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and the Huddleston Jazz Band was South Africa’s first youth orchestra. Wikipedia lists 43 recordings between 1963 and 2012. Masekela has been a pillar of the anti-apartheid music and his sounds bring so many bitter-sweet memories of exile nights in southern Africa and around the world. According to Wikipedia “He was an artist who in his music vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country. His music protested about apartheid, slavery, government; the hardships individuals were living.” In Windhoek, Masekela blew, he danced, he had the audience get down low, he played deep into the night and the early morning.
After Loliwe, Hugh had to play and sing the much-loved Stimela, also about the train that winds across the flatlands, taking workers to the hellhole hostels and mines in Johannesburg. Like the train, the song wound through the warm night and the steep hilltops that surround Windhoek on most sides. Some of the audience had tears in their eyes as they remembered so many previous occasions of hearing this song and sharing it with comrades lost on the way, as well as the knowledge that independence was a huge gain, but the struggle for truth, freedom and against injustice always continues.
(* Diminutive megastar Brenda, the queen of African pop, used to come regularly to Windhoek and I even had the privilege of interviewing her one day, she radiated charisma. Her songs lit up township clubs all across struggling southern Africa as she opposed apartheid, racism and oppression. She was a huge loss when she passed in 2004, aged 39.
Zahara and musicians were still on good form on the Air Namibia flight back to Joburg the next morning at 8:30, I wished we had got another song from her, it would have shown the guys returning from the Windhoek Oktoberfest, clutching their steins, what they had missed the night before).