The Interview – Zakes Bantwini: The scars we carry

2013-11-10 14:01

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Four years since he exploded onto the music scene, Zakes Bantwini tells Lesley Mofokeng that he really wants to make South Africa a better place.

It is admirable that while at the height of his music career, Zakes Bantwini (born Zakhele Madida) continues to study. I meet him at Sony Music’s Sade Room, named after the legendary British superstar.

The smart, casually dressed musician tells me that he is three assignments away from completing his social entrepreneurship programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs).

“I want to make South Africa better. It’s not PR spin, it really is to make this country better,” he says seriously.

“I finance my own studies and someone might say I should not be studying because of whereI am now. But a lot of people who are in the programme come from [NGOs], community organisations and some are corporate social investment managers. They recognise how important it is for them to understand how they can survive in the social space while they do good for others.”

He adds: “For me, music is a capital business, and I have been fortunate that I have been doing okay in this space that I am in. It’s not about the bottom line. I am studying because, for me, it’s about the social line, change and cohesion, moving towards a social direction rather than a capital direction.”

Bantwini says he has always been writing his own rules.

At university, he was the first student representative council member to come from the music department.

The seats were dominated by politics students.

At age 32, Bantwini already has a National Certificate in Light Music from Natal Technikon and a Diploma in Jazz and Music Performance from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and now the Gibs certificate to his credit.

Not that he has walked away from the music industry?...?far from it.

Our chat is spurred by the release of his second studio album – The Fake Book & Real Book: My Music Bible.

“When studying jazz, the theory books that you refer to are called the Real Book and Fake Book, so while completing both my degrees, they became my musical bibles. This [the album] is such a great opportunity for me to give thanks to all the music legends, including my lecturers,” he says.

Having studied jazz and finding himself as a dance/House music artist, Bantwini argues that House music has always been influenced by jazz.

“You will remember that House music used to be called ‘international’ back in the 90s. It was very musical, jazzy. And then it got diluted,” he says.

“Because I’ve been fortunate to listen to all that stuff and study jazz, it’s easier for me to fuse the two. The difficult part is people relating. I think I don’t worry about that, though.

“At the end of the day, I concern myself with music for the ear. Musicians tend to respond to what people want to hear, instead of making music for people and saying, ‘Hey, listen, I am a musician and this is what you have to listen to.’ Doctors tell you what is good for you. I am in that space, I don’t respond to what’s going on right now. I will tell you that you will enjoy jazz in a House song.”

So, is the new album just dance and all that jazz? Hardly.

One of the songs on the album is called Ghetto: My Story. It’s a tribute to KwaMashu, a township north of Durban that gave him life.

“I grew up during the times of unrest, IFP vs ANC, so it was tough. I was from the ANC section and 5km from my school was the IFP section. So we had kids from that side too. And there was a time when the two factions would clash at the school. I saw terrible stuff as a child. People being shot dead in my view,” he recalls.

“I appreciate the fact that humans forget. I needed to forget what I saw. I have scars from growing up in KwaMashu, I have been knifed and shot at.

“But things have changed so much. It is a totally different place now. It’s beautiful and people can chill. I am there every week because my family is still there.”

He adds: “I had to sing about the ghetto and the life of someone coming from the ghetto. If there’s one thing that the apartheid government didn’t understand is how much they destroyed people’s lives and how they [now] think.

“You see that result when you go to the township. So you’d ask me now why people think South Africans are lazy and have foreigners take their jobs and open shops. In a country where you were told time and again that you are good for nothing and you don’t get opportunities, how can you reverse the damage in 20 years?

“How do people get an entrepreneurial mind coming from that kind of background? People expect a lot. Even the concept of a born-free [generation]?...?what is the content of a born-free? I understand born-free to [mean to be able to] vote, but how can you be born free in a shack surrounded by poverty and hopelessness?

“We’re far from singing about waking up in a new Bugatti [a French car manufacturer of high-performance automobiles]. We can’t sing about Bugattis. We can’t flaunt our lives, not now.

“I recorded the song [Ghetto: My Story] to tell my story in the township and the trials I have gone through to be where I am. I have been robbed, I’ve been through some hardships.

“We live in a world where there are no role models, because as soon as we make it we move [out] because the township was not meant for a black person. It was designed by people who wanted to ‘deal’ with us. You cannot then rejoice and say you are keeping it real. When you keep it real is when you live where you want to live.”

Karolina, his career-defining hit from his debut album, has been given new life and Bantwini recalls how it came about. “I was listening to a lot of Fela [Kuti], Femi [Kuti] and Youssou N’dour when I did the song, and I wanted to do a call and respond. I even asked the backing vocalists to not mould their voices because I wanted the rawness and authentic sound.

“If you have enjoyed music from Salif Keita, Femi and Fela, you will want to listen to the modern sound of that and Karolina is that.”

He also recorded Spain with jazz legend Themba Mkhize.

“If Spain was a political figure, it would be Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo. I needed a legend to authorise me. I needed to hear what Mkhize thought of the song and working with me would put me in the right direction.”

Bantwini becomes animated as he remembers the studio time with Mkhize. “I was like a kid in that studio, I was excited. I even recorded an Instagram video. It was a special moment for House music and the younger generation. [The] legendary Themba Mkhize agreed to contribute to House music. We should be thankful.”

He suddenly switches to protest as he bemoans the fact that Mkhize has not received any honorary degrees for his contribution to the arts. “When we were studying music, our lecturers told us about Themba Mkhize. The fact that it is 2013 and he hasn’t been honoured is a shame. I don’t think it’s a mistake, it’s deliberate.”

The song, Marikana, is his effort at being a “conscious” artist. The song is of the ilk of Brenda Fassie’s Boipatong.

“We have to ask questions, we can’t always be bottom-line artists and worry about whether we are number one on iTunes, am I happening [or] how many copies I have sold. We should not be scared to raise issues because of the fear of losing out on bookings.

“I don’t want to be that kind of a musician. If being conscious about our country will result in losing out on business, then let it be,” he says.

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