Mafikizolo’s epic return

2014-06-02 10:00

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Mafikizolo, along with Nigeria’s Davido, are the top ­nominees at MTV’s Africa Music Awards next week. It’s no coincidence that they’ve just released a track together. The Nigerian market is huge and Mafikizolo is poised to conquer it. Phiona Okumu has lunch with them afro-pop stars

On a lunch break while filming for high-end lifestyle TV show Top Billing, Nhlanhla Nciza explains the healthy eating option awaiting her and fellow member of Mafikizolo, Theo Kgosinkwe.

“We’re playing catch-up because when we are on the road we just have to eat what is available and most of the time it’s not as healthy as this.” She waves her fork in the direction of their green salads.

It’s a nice problem to have for the music duo, who is arguably the rest of the continent’s most in-demand performing artists from South Africa right now. They’ve made regular tour stops in Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria.

The most recent was a visit to Lagos to unveil the video for the fittingly titled Tchelete (Good Life), with Nigerian artist Davido. It is the latest in a series of hit singles that includes Khona, Happiness (featuring May D) and Nakupenda (featuring Uhuru), sung in Kiswahili and Xitsonga lyrics.

Having delivered a performance for a crowd of about 10?000 in Kenya, Nhlanhla says that the country has given them their most rousing reception yet.

But Mafikizolo are capturing a corner of the notoriously competitive market in Nigeria, even though their repeated invitations there have so far been for smaller-scale occasions, often for exclusive guests.

Khona was huge in Lagos and Nigeria is still Nhlanhla’s favourite destination, for the sheer speed of transaction.

“I love the way the Nigerian music market works. Over here [in SA] it will take at least six months for your label to okay your collaboration with another artist. I think that’s why you don’t see as many collaborations here as you would in Nigeria.

“The record companies here have too much of a say, if you ask me, when it comes to creativity. What I like about Nigeria is that they’re in the now. They don’t even wait for the album to be completed, they just put out singles as they go along, which I believe is how the music industry is going globally.”

There is certainly a kind of the Wild West aspect to Nigeria’s mammoth music enterprise, untethered by the red tape that the presence of major record labels (all huddled south of the continent) brings.

Cellphone service providers, if anything, play the middleman role that the traditional record label would over there.

In the past two years, MTN alone is said to have poured R100?million to R150?million a year into the market. A big track can rake in R1?million from downloads with the artist taking 60%.

Similar models of endorsement are duplicated across the continent, but none match the figures in Nigeria.

So yes, Mafikizolo would like a presence there. In fact, it was an MTN executive who?– in a matter of weeks?–?engineered Tchelete, their song with MTN-endorsed Davido, a move that was as prophetic as it was shrewd.

Both artists have scored the most number of nominations in the MTV Africa Music Awards (Mamas)?–?four apiece, including song of the year, artist of the year and best collaboration.

Theo eventually joins us at the table as Nhlanhla throws him a scathing side-eye for his tardiness. He’s the less chatty of the pair, taking his fellow band member’s scolding with a timid grin.

It’s almost hard to believe their unit was all his idea. They share a brother-sister rapport that dates back to their teenage years when they first met.

“I was just a little girl who loved music. I would get called on to entertain our parents with Brenda Fassie songs. That’s all I wanted to do. We were raised in Kagiso. It was nothing like Soweto, which was where all the big stars came from,” recalls Nhlanhla.

Theo and Nhlanhla’s paths crossed as they frequented their local talent show circuit. At first they got together to mime R&B hits at the time?–?he was the R Kelly to her Aaliyah.

“We got tired of doing the same thing over and over so I was ready to go back to school ’cos my dad was quite strict. But Theo insisted that we cut a demo.

He put me together with other girls trying to make us a girl band, but none of them lasted, so I eventually convinced him to take his place as part of the group,” says Nhlanhla.

And then there were two

Earlier on, the man who gave Theo and Nhlanhla their music industry break waltzed through the doors to add weight to their TV interview.

The demo they gave to Oscar “Oskido” Mdlongwa landed a recording deal with his expanding Kalawa Jazmee record label empire in 1996 and they were named Mafikizolo (meaning new kids on the block) after the track Theo had written that had clinched their deal.

Oskido says of his decision to sign them: “It was different. The way they sang, their melodies were different. Their content was so rich.

Remember, we were doing harder tracks at the time. Tracks like Traffic Cop which was more about chanting and tough beats. But them, they were singing sweet melodies. That contrast was what made me notice them.”

Back then most kwaito groups with female lead singers had two or three male members, so Oskido drafted in Tebogo Madingoane to make the group more on trend.

But it was only three albums into their relationship with Kalawa that Mafikizolo began to enjoy real success. Their marabi- and kwela-inspired sound paired with a corresponding 1950s vintage fashion sense made them distinct.

Sibongile and Kwela, their 2002 and 2003 albums ushered Mafikizolo into the limelight, as well as adding another dimension to kwaito.

A road rage incident cost Mafikizolo their third member, Tebogo, who was fatally shot in 2004. And so 2005’s Van Toeka Af and 2006’s Six Mabone were their last albums as a duo before they took up solo projects between 2008 and 2010.

For Theo, the reluctant performer, this was a much-needed time to reconfigure and literally find his voice. “The Afro-pop sound we had started wasn’t new any more, we needed to come up with something fresh.

It was also an opportunity to learn other things. I took this time to set up a record label, learn how to produce music, to write for others like Busi Mhlongo and Kelly Khumalo.

“I also got the opportunity to trust myself. I had always wanted to write, never to be a front man. Now there was no one to hide behind. I found myself having to do things like vocal coaching. It was boring. But it gave me the confidence I needed. I think that time really prepared us for what is happening to us now. We had to be ready.”

Don’t call it a comeback

Two of these three things are guaranteed to be heard at a typical wedding in East Africa where I’m from?–?Kenny G, Shania Twain and Ndihamba Nawe, the Afro-pop smash hit which Mafikizolo’s album Sibongile produced.

So in that part of the world, Mafikizolo have always been current. Even though it’s been two years since their lead song for the current album, Reunited, dropped, it’s almost understandable that on these shores they are still referred to often and affectionately as the comeback kids.

Mafikizolo’s reunited return has been epic in size and reach, and multitiered in geographical impact. It’s impossible to miss the stomping, more primal, Afro-House-leaning Khona on the radio and in clubs just about everywhere across Africa.

Almost 13 years ago, House music luminary Louie Vega remixed and reissued their song, Loot. Launching it at the mecca for House music that is the Miami Winter Music Conference, Loot brought South Africa?–?today an inescapable House music magnet?–?to a whole new level of renown in the West. So the trajectory was between here and there, but not so much on the African continent.

Now that is starting to change and a certain African pop unity is emerging?–?one that includes a notoriously insular South Africa.

“Technology is the reason this is happening,” Nhlanhla explains. “When we travelled to Miami and went to a record store, we found out that our sound fell under ‘world music’. Now with the internet we are able to put our music out there and define it ourselves.”

Follow the leader

The signs are there that right here on the continent there is ample opportunity to build a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem of urban music.

When two of the most visible pop artists from two of Africa’s economic and music giants are seen pairing up there’s no question that there will be more high-profile collaborations to follow.

Ever ahead of the trends, Oskido was in the Democratic Republic of Congo a year ago for a talent show, the result of which had him record a song with Congolese pop star Fally Ipupa.

To him this cross-regional music pollination is the most natural of progressions.

Nigerian singer May D appearing on Mafikizolo’s previous single Happiness was his doing. When Oskido met him for the first time the song had been recorded but felt unfinished to him.

After hearing May D at a Nigerian club night in Sandton he set the wheels in motion for his verse to be recorded.

Says Oskido: “I’ve been in the industry for quite a long time. Everyone wants to hit overseas but I’ve been deejaying all around the world and there’s a need for a new young African sound.

“People like Bra Hugh and Mama Miriam opened a door for us, but ever since then there has been nothing. Now is the right time and I think it’s better if we start in our continent and then we can explore.”

After designing the quintessential sound of a generation, and impressively remaining at the helm of its every reinvention, this is a man who likely knows what he’s talking about.

And we will do well to take heed of this.

»?Okumu is the editor of Afripopmag and the director of content for the Mamas’ music artist workshops

»?The Mamas take place in Durban on June 7.

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