Prior to any announcements about her latest release, Simphiwe Dana posts several photographs of herself posed in Bamako, the capital of Mali. A calculated guess: Dana is in Bamako recording her next album. Or perhaps she’s in the midst of some sort of collaboration; maybe something artistic, maybe something political.
In 2015, she travelled to the headquarters of the African Union to participate in the African Union Agenda 2063. This wasn’t an unlikely guess. But with every photograph posted, fans become reservedly excited. Speculative even. It had been five years since the release of Firebrand, an album that ushered in with it a somewhat "new" Simphiwe, both aesthetically - I’m careful here - and musically. Her attitude to her image became softer, more playful. Perhaps a little too playful for fans who had committed themselves to the "sister-of-the-soil" image of her first two albums, Zandisile and The One Love Movement On Bantu Biko Street.
Simphiwe Dana (Photo: Supplied)
Though her music and her interviews were never timid nor conservative, one could argue that her image was. "New" Simphiwe kicked the doors open and left what was expected of her behind: propriety, assumptions of how a woman who creates in her genre should look and behave.
"One person said to me that we should just go home and stop with this black consciousness. Simphiwe Dana has closed the book on it." She chuckles incredulously and continues: "This was just because I was wearing an Afro wig."
When I ask about her feelings after facing that kind of criticism, she says: "I think that before I had enabled it, because I had also been of the belief that people shouldn’t wear wigs. Then one day, I thought, 'wait a minute; let me also try to wear a wig and see if my beliefs as an African will change". And of course, it didn’t. Her principles, the things believed in and fought for ran deeper than contouring and an Afro wig. "I’ve never felt freer."
She’s in high spirits when I call her. "I’m good, love. Better than good. Everything is going well," she says. I imagine her smile as she speaks, she sounds at ease. That face. Her prominent cheekbones. She has every reason to be happy: by the time of our conversation, Bamako has been number 1 on the iTunes album charts for five non-consecutive days.
Simphiwe Dana (Photo: Supplied/ UMGSA)
Early into her career, international press were quick to brand Simphiwe Dana South Africa’s next Miriam Makeba. At home, comparison to American musicians reached for vocalists such as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Even then, it was apparent that these comparisons were lazy and unimaginative. Her music reflected a singular singer and songwriter. Her phrasing, her drawling elongation of vowels. Or how she breaks a word in half, resolving it much later than the ear would expect... all of these signatures were and still are her own.
She doesn’t reject the Makeba influences, claiming them to be "very big shoes" to fill. Dana was only 24 when she released her debut album Zandisile in 2004. The musical and political landscape was in flux. Kwaito as a genre was becoming even grimier and harder than it had been in its burgeoning. South African Hip-Hop was vying for attention with popular acts like Mafikizolo, whose music, though saccharine and wedding two-step-ready music, was not apolitical.
Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance and the halcyon days of the Rainbow Nation were involved in an ugly tug of war which saw a radicalisation of many people. When one looks back at that time and the arrival of a musician like Simphiwe who seemed so fully formed, it becomes no surprise that the public was so eager to receive her and deem her its spokesperson. She seemed wise beyond her years. In interviews, she spoke with authority and calm confidence. In placing her on such a high pedestal, she had no freedom to change her mind about anything she had believed in. She was our next Mama Africa and we fenced her in.
She may not reject the comparisons to Makeba, but she doesn’t wilfully inhabit them either. "People were even saying that I look like her, that my energy was similar." I run an image search of the two chanteuses. I do double takes. I’m not convinced of the facial resemblance. It doesn’t hold up in the music either.
Simphiwe Dana (Photo: Supplied/ UMGSA)
Makeba’s voice, though seductive, is also an arrow; thin, sharp-ended, whisking through air to land not unviolently in the listener’s ear. Dana’s is one of luxury and allure, not unlike a serpent or its skin, its serviceable material: at first you think it coddles you, and if you’re not paying attention you may find yourself being lulled, but cock your ears to her words (and how she sings them), and you’re caught in its constriction.
Voices like Makeba’s or Dana’s are vehicles of change. A clear and unarguable similarity is that like her musical predecessor, Simphiwe Dana is in command of how to use her voice. She has been vocal about a number of issues around black consciousness, feminism and mental health.
Speaking about her own struggles with mental health, she describes the difficulty of being raised in a community that may have meant well, but had little understanding of her depression, or the tools required to deal with it. She felt alienated.
"Growing up was so hard for me because I didn’t even know what was happening to me. I thought that something was strange with me. I only knew that I had depression in my twenties. And people would send me off to get prayed for, saying that depression was the work of the devil, all of which is not true."
For years she didn’t speak about her condition. Then in 2017, speaking with Charl Blignaut for the City Press, she opened up to the world. In that interview she describes months spent in bed, being unable to partake in activities that she previously relished like taking her children to school. She describes clashes with loved ones who misunderstood her depression and made her feel even more isolated.
"The African community is downplaying [mental illness] a lot," she says. "And people are dying. It’s part of my activism. If I speak about it more, it’s going to be more normalised, and it’s going to educate people about how to deal with it. It makes me feel more normal when I talk about it. I feel like I’m part of a community, I’m not alone. What’s happening to me is not happening to me in a vacuum. It’s like having diabetes. It’s an illness."
In a way, Bamako can be read as a fitting and appropriate culmination of her prior albums. Her debut Zandisile introduced us to the voice and the mind. On The One Love Movement On Bantu Biko Street, her sophomore release, Dana burrowed deep into the rich legacy of South African jazz and activism. Kulture Noir was avant-garde, Pan-African and genre agnostic, while Firebrand, for many, was the Afropop outlier in her catalogue.
A majority of the songs on Bamako are built around repetitive vocal harmonies. Unlike her prior albums, where backing vocalists assisted her in the harmonies and chants, she now stacks and layers her own voice, building a steady foundation, around which instrumentalists such as Vieux Farka Toure, Mamadou Sidiki Diabate and Djessou Mory Kante weave their passages.
This technique is used to dazzling effect on track 2, Kumnyama. Lamenting a love that has reached its end, the harmonies repeat the title of the song for its duration of 4 minutes and 16 seconds, as if they were the voices in her head keeping her from getting any rest. Other harmonies, interspersed in this conversation plead for light and relief. It’s an emotional feat so deft, so adroit that one could miss its intricacies if not fully engaged in the listening process. The lead vocal barely rises above the conversational. She is alone, she sings. The effect is akin to a hall of mirrors.
Her voice, languorous in speech, can be languorous in song too. On Ndizamile it sounds like a Billie Holiday croak of despair. On Bye Bye Naughty Baby, it’s breathy and playful, almost obscuring the self-deprecating and sad nature of the song. She does this throughout the album; lifting us high, then at a moment of climax, sending us plummeting down below without warning.
In earlier interviews, she shared with audiences that the songs for Zandisile were written initially acappella. On Mr I, it sounds like Dana may have revisited this approach. While writing Bamako, most of the songs found themselves first conceived as melodies on a keyboard. She kept these sounds, the synthesisers and drum programming and took them to Mali where she collaborated with Salif Keita on some of the production.
"There’s not a single party where Salif Keita’s music is not played in my house. I’ve loved him for at least twenty years now. Initially I wanted to feature him on one song and we ended up co-producing the album together. He is an amazing musician."
This isn’t Simphiwe’s first foray into the music of Mali. This influence can already be heard in Kulture Noir’s Zobuya Nin'iinkomo where the kora plays as much of a lead instrument as Simphiwe’s voice.
"I felt I did something special with this album. I was in control. And I spent so much time on this album. I told myself that if I don’t get to where I want to get with this album, I’m done." Thankfully for us she is not done.
If one didn’t know better, they would say that this is her mature album. But she has always been mature. The calendar is only catching up with her now.
*Stream Simphiwe Dana's Bamako here.
*Written by Nakhane. Nakhane is a singer-songwriter, SAFTA winning actor and author of the novel, Piggy Boy's Blues.