Singing about a revolution

2010-08-06 10:30

We rendezvous with Simphiwe Dana at Gallo Records in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, to talk about her latest album, Kulture Noir.

The mood should be celebratory, for as she puts it: “I’m glad to have survived the recession without compromising the quality of my sound ... my company didn’t have to cut our budgets.”

But when she finally sits down for our chat, the 30 year-old confesses to being drained and hungry.

She had been fasting for a cause; Dana joined about 4 500 people who were part of the lobby group, Equal Education’s 24-hour Fast for School Libraries.

She is stylish in a grey longline vest, leggings and a pair of black knee-length boots.

Dana casts her gaze low and caresses the charcoal coloured couch that is her throne.

“It’s the least we can do to put it out into the universe … our government has really failed us when it comes to education and basic health care,” she says by way of explaining the fast.

Assuming a more political theme she adds that “just two months ago more than 181 new born babies had died in public hospitals because of lack of equipment in a country that just hosted the World Cup.”

Her voice grows firmer as she laments that, “the condition of a black person in South Africa hasn’t changed since 1994, in fact it has deteriorated. We are the most unequal society in the world.

“I feel that the revolution is ­coming in this country … it has really been waylaid”.

But we are here to talk about her music.

Dana has just released a new ­album, a twelve track offering titled Kulture Noir.

It’s her third studio album, following the success of Zandisile in 2004 and The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street in 2006.

She won seven South African ­Music Awards (SAMA) for the two.

The generic pigeon holing of music into genres does not sit well with Dana, hence her dislike of her sound being described as World Music.

“It’s very derogative; in New York they put that in a dark corner at the back of the stores where people hardly go,” she says.

But then, her music has also been described as jazz.

She warms up to this one.

“There’s jazz in my music,” she argues.

“But what is jazz in Africa? That is what I do, perhaps in America jazz is something else.”

However, Dana’s music is perhaps closer to blues than it is to jazz, though a blues basis is an important ingredient in the jazz idiom.

Her songs are structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, which is an element of the blues fashioned from African traditional sounds of the slave’s heritage.

To define Dana’s repetoire as jazz would need it to encompass more sustained improvisations and space for more imaginative solos.

This outing offers very little, if any, on that score.

However it must be said, the band does flirt with some swinging rhythms on some of the tracks on the new ­album, like Ndim Iqhawe Part 2 for ­instance.

But most admirably, this woman sings with the whole Transkei in her throat. Her music is after all rooted in that part of the African experience.

Dana was schooled at the Vela Private School in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, where she matriculated in 1997 before trying her hand at graphic design, which could notsustain her interest for long.

Music proved a stronger calling.

“My music is like a prayer – sizo thandaza (we’ve come to pray),” she says when quizzed about complaints from fans who bemoan that she does little to entertain them during her live performances.

She giggles and explains: “I don’t boogie.”

As we wait to see how the new album is received by the fans, Dana says she is scared.

“I want the people to love what I do, though I can’t be what they want.

“I can only be me.”

Things are looking up for her though, having made her acting debut in the movie, Themba: A Boy Called Hope.

It’s based on a book by Lutz van Dijk which looks at the lives of orphaned children who are looked after by Hokisa - Homes for Kids in South Africa – an NGO that counts Dana as one of its ambassadors.

The film is directed by Stefanie Sycholt.

Dana has been described as a young Miriam Makeba and sometimes critically compared to the Makeba generation’s struggle imperative, even accused of having failed to connect to the pain of the masses.

She doesn’t mince her words when responding to that.

“Lyrically we are better than that generation, because we’ve learned from them.”

But Dana is not fazed by those questioning her commitment to the masses.

Stretching her hand out as if to clasp on to a floating object in the room, she makes her declaration: “I don’t mind carrying people’s aspirations, as long as we are there together.”

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