Over the past decade, South Africa’s Bongeziwe Mabandla has steadily built a career that has seen him become known as the enigmatic spirit of African Soul whose fanbase extends across the world. For this award-winning artist, the impulse to create has propelled him to create a trio of critically acclaimed albums, perform on an array of homegrown and international stages, become a sought-after creative collaborator and, in April 2022, join the set of a film being shot in Kinshasa by musician and filmmaker BALOJI. “Everything I do is measured against how artistic and interesting it is – both for me and my audience,” says Mabandla, and each meticulously calibrated step in his journey is evidence of how seriously he takes that. Most recently it has been sharing his third album, iimini (“days”) with the world – through the album’s release in March 2020 via London-based Platoon (Princess Nokia, Victoria Monet, Maleek Berry, Samthing Soweto, Sun-El Musician), a series of wonderful remixes and record-setting live shows that take his music into a gratifying communal realm.
Recorded with producer Tiago Correia-Paulo, iimini is a 12-song cycle that untethers Mabandla from the Afro-Folk of his early music and takes his music into a realm of experimentation and creativity that simultaneously roots itself in the deep and fertile soil of his folk instincts and Correia-Paulo’s roving eye for electronic music’s loveliest aspects. Singles like “zange”, “masiziyekelele” and “jikeleza” led the way for music lovers to discover iimini’s beauty and the album earned unstinting critical praise. Writing in New Frame, Rofhiwa Maneta described iimini as an “exploration of love, its animating power, limitations and its inevitable end” while Butchie Seroto called the album “captivating” in a glowing review for Music in Africa.
Mabandla won his second South African Music Award (SAMA) when iimini was named Best Alternative Album in July 2021 and there were further exploration of his creative boundaries with a series of wonderful remixes including Dwson’s “Ndanele (Dwson Dub Remix)” (nominated for a 2021 SAMA in the category Remix of the Year), Muzi’s wonderful take on “Mini Esadibana Ngayo”, DJ Lag’s propulsive remix of “ndiyakuthanda (12.4.19)” and a lovely remix of “zange” by Guatemalan artist Mose.
On its release in 2020 Iimini joined 2012’s Umlilo and 2017’s Mangaliso as the recorded output of an artist who has been described as a “modern miracle” by Radio France Internationale (RFI) and has been profiled in prestigious UK music magazine, Songlines, among other publications.
Indeed, Mabandla first came to the attention of audiences outside South Africa when he was named one of 10 finalists in the 2011 Radio France Internationale Discoveries Awards. That was on the cusp of the release of Umlilo (“fire”) when Mabandla was refining his performing skills and songwriting – the latter then a gorgeous, understated mix of Xhosa lyrics with traditional music and folk stylings.
Mabandla’s early musical influences had come from his childhood in the rural town of Tsolo in the Eastern Cape where he grew up singing in church, at school and at home. A move to Johannesburg to study drama at AFDA saw him continue exploring expressions of musical storytelling through a range of artists including Tracy Chapman, The Fugees, Jabu Khanyile, Bongo Maffin and Busi Mhlongo.
On its release in 2017, Mangaliso, (meaning “marvel” or “miracle”) signalled Mabandla’s extraordinary musical reach. A significant amount of the album’s success came from his collaboration with producer Correia-Paulo, a Mozambican living in Johannesburg who had established himself as a masterful musician, songwriter and producer through his work with Tumi and the Volume and 340ml.
Mabandla and Correia-Paulo’s working relationship quickly evolved into a true creative collaboration – and it was no surprise when Mangaliso earned unstinting critical praise and won Mabandla the 2018 South African Music Award for Best Alternative Music Album. Among the tracks that resonated with devotees was single “Ndokhulandela”, which is Mabandla’s most streamed songs on Spotify (well over three million streams) as well as “Bawo Wam” a collaboration with Spoek Mathambo that has won two awards – Best Music Video at the Capital City Black Film Awards and at the Jozi Film Fest.
Live, Mabandla is mesmerising – whether solo or with his band – and is every bit the enigmatic spirit of African soul. “To watch Bongeziwe Mabandla step onto stage is to witness the transmutation of the abstract into the physical,” wrote Maneta in New Frame.
In 2022 he’s playing Safiko Festival in Reunion for the sixth time – a measure of his sustained, and growing, appeal for audiences. Before the pandemic, in 2019 alone Mabandla played the Reeperbahn Festival (Germany), Lake of Stars (Malawi), five dates at Afrovibes Festival (Netherlands), Womex (Finland),and the Oslo World Festival (Norway). In November of that year, he performed to a sold-out audience at London’s 100 Club along with eight more dates in France (including sold-out shows in Paris and Strasbourg), and his first sold out show in Zurich, Switzerland.
In spite of pandemic constraints, the past two years have seen Mabandla continue to build his domestic and international live career with the sold out sign put up at shows in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland in 2021 while his November 2021 SA tour became the among the fastest selling of a solo contemporary South African artist. A highlight of 2020 was a moving performance for the ColorsxStudios’ HOME/BRED series during the global lockdown that was later featured in the Best Of edition of this global platform.
As 2022 gathers pace, Mabandla is shooting Augure, playing the character of Ezra in a film directed by BALOJI, a Congolese-Belgian rapper, artist and filmmaker. He’s also working on music for a new album – all part of the continuing, and singular, expression of the artistic passions of one of Africa’s most important artists.