Cool does its thang

2009-09-10 14:54

LESLEY MOFOKENG gets a look behind closed studio doors as Malaika record their lastest album.

It’s not everyday one gets to witness the genesis of a hit album. Normally the gestation of a music album is shrouded in mystery as a band works their magic.
It’s an arduous process which involves extra long hours, sometimes working through the night and going without a bath for days. So when the Jazzworx studio doors in Randburg were flung open for me in the throes of Malaika’s recording session as a fly on the wall, I didn’t think twice.

I get welcomed into a kitchen where I find an apron-clad Godfrey “Guffy” Pilane cutting pattypans, Brussel sprouts and preparing shrimps. You see, Guffy is not only a hitmaker in the studio, he proves to be a master chef too. Later, Tshedi Mholo and Bongani Nchang join us in the kitchen to sample what maestro Guffy has put together ... and what a scrumptious meal it turned out to be.

There isn’t a stitch of make-up or a rehearsed script in sight. They are wearing tracksuits and snacking on maskopas (sweetened popcorn) and the mood is generally jovial and highly charged with the excitement of recording.

Then we’re off to the studio a few feet away where at full blast they play a song they finished the previous night, a re-arranged traditional gospel standard, Ntate Roma Nna. It inspires a sing-along frenzy as the loud voices compete. It’s a song that the two members grew up on at church and at school and brings a whole lot of nostalgia to the album.

The song has just been mixed and completed so they cannot stop playing it as the excitement continues to mount and the tapping of the feet gets fiercer and the bobbing of heads go into overdrive.

With one of their members, Jabu Ndaba, recently deceased, I anticipated that it would be hard for Mholo and Nchang to pull it off. But they don’t let their “one man down” status get to them. Like true professionals they get the show under way and do their thang.

However, they do admit to feeling Ndaba’s absence. Ndaba sang tenor, Mholo soprano while Nchang tackled alto. Amazingly they have managed to keep the sound the same.

“It’s a huge emotional patch to go through. We started nicely together and we would much rather have him around, but we’re doing well for now,” says Mholo.

Before hitting the Jazzworx studio the band had a “no kids, no wives” retreat at Mount Grace in the Magaliesberg for a week where they had 25 songs in the bag and were armed with a keyboard. They then brainstormed ideas and “cut and paste” to create solid songs. This, they say, helps them when they start the recording process in earnest as they are able to stick to an agreed template. The duo reveals that they write songs almost every day or record tunes and melodies on their cellphones and then they sit and negotiate the direction of a song, often resulting in robust debate.

The final product is a 14-track release that is sure to wreak havoc over the festive season as has become tradition every two years since 2003 when Malaika came on the scene.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album is Then Came You, a bona fide rock track that will fit right into the playlist of 5FM, Highveld and Jacaranda. After hearing it I christened them Springbok Nude Malaika. “This is a result of requests from our white fans,” Mholo offers. “Also, after living in Lichtenburg and Klerksdorp we were bound to reflect the sound that you hear in these towns. We aim to cater for a diverse crowd as our fanbase continues to expand, you know.”

Their traditional sound is still intact as you can hear on Kwanele. Mmatswale is their tried, tested and trusted formula of a wedding song which has the potential to provide a wedding soundtrack this summer.

Since their last album in 2007 the band has been hard at work researching what people want. “People know what they want and we take this into consideration hence that rock song,” says Nchang. Their sound is diverse and spans rock, gospel and Afro-pop.

Malaika became a summer sensation when their single Destiny became a crossover hit and stayed on the charts for months and it’s still a definite club hit four years later. They also had a good run with songs such as 2Bob, Nguwe and Mhlawuphel’amandla.

One thing that makes their newest release special is that they have reunited with Guffy their founding producer. He is the man that helped them score a multiple platinum-seller with their debut and follow-up album. For their third album they roped in a couple of producers and it proved costly as their sales nosedived, so pressure is on to restore their former glory and going back to Poppa Guffy as the sole producer might just be what they need.

Their label manager, Hloni Modise, waxes lyrical about the new look she helped conceptualise for the band. They hired Déjàvu stylists to create what they call an urban royal glam look and they are now in charge of the Malaika look.

Releasing an album in a tough year such as this one has not left the band fazed. A steadfast Mholo maintains: “Recession is not a new thing it has always been there. We’ve grown up with recession and we’ve had to learn ways of survival such as having your own vegetable garden and always saving the little that we have. I am convinced that people will still go out and buy our music, it is good music and they will recognise that.”

Mholo still drops hints of recording a solo project to show off her individual identity while Bongani maintains that his place is with knobs and buttons in the production suite of a studio.

My time in the studio was scheduled for two hours, but when I look at the clock I realise that we’ve been messing around in for just over five hours.

What an incredible bunch of creatives, with no pretence or airs, Malaika does have their heart in the right place. What rock stars!

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