interview and Igoli album review
Jessica Mbangeni performing with the Mzansi Music Ensemble in the Tribute to Victor Ntoni
Interview conducted at Cats Pyjamas 25/08/14.
I did not know about jazz when I was growing up. I knew about gospel, afro-pop, Brenda Fassie and the Michael Jackson's, I was not exposed to jazz. When I was working with aboSophie Mgcina and aboSibongile Khumalo, I developed the interest in jazz because actually my tone is jazz. It is very important for me to know so I can find it right and hone it, so it can be unique and fitting to the expressions that would be relevant to the stories I want to tell and tell them with confidence, even with the ballad standards. When I was working with Bra Vic that is where I learnt how to arrange because Bra Vic worked with aboQuincy Jones, and he is the best arranger of the times and that helped me to understand the formula's of jazz, and to be able to plot my scenes in a certain song; this is the chorus, this is the song and when I arrange, this is what I am hearing. I am hearing saxophone and all that…
I am from the background of being a gospel artist. Gospel is not a genre, it is a religion. You can sing gospel in jazz, you can sing gospel in traditional, but in our society we think gospel is a genre. I began to be informed when I started to work with a whole lot of musicians here in Johannesburg who are experienced and were willing to take me through.
I discovered praise poetry later during the times that I gave birth to my son. I was working as a domestic worker because the times were difficult here in Johannesburg. I did not have a job. This music was taking long. I thought I would wake up and be a star just like other people. Xhosa musicians in Johannesburg just rise like this. I thought I would just take off.
I realized if I settled for less, people would want to give me a recording deal by sleeping around. I found they were trying to destroy my confidence to demote my high sense of esteem. I said okay, because I am not coming from a poor home in the Eastern Cape, it is just that I want to pursue this musical career and I feel that there is something that needs to be fulfilled within me, more than being a superstar, but a purpose that needs to be lived.
So, here in Joburg I worked as a domestic worker, trying to make ends meet and I got pregnant. And I said okay, I wont go into Hillbrow and resort to any other thing, I would rather have a reference that I would be able to talk about when I have broken through. Even when I was giving birth, social workers were encouraging me to give my child away. A doctor who was a trainee from UK was talking to me. I asked him where he was coming from. He said he was coming from London. I said OK, one day I will be there, and he said, ‘imagine your son will be a doctor and you will be travelling the world. If you didn't know each other you would have a void.' So, he was impressed with my ambition and determination. And that motivated me more to keep my child. I used to tell them that this is temporal. They were discouraging me, they said, ‘they always say it is temporal, and by the look of things it seems as though you are hallucinating.' I was mad because even in hospital I was singing for the patients. And then I would go and breast-feed my child because they were not letting me hold my child in those wards. They thought I don't even have a child because I was rising above that situation, trying to make proper decisions, saying I am going to be successful one day and a singer that will be gracing stages. But, where will my child be?
I have a home in the Eastern Cape but I didn't want to go and bother my grandparents and the community and give them the perception about Joburg because Joburg is also full of other real stories that are happening. When you come here you become something that you were not brought up to be. And we abort children and all sorts. At that time I found a connection between me and my son; a connection between my soul and my son because the ambition I have for music is in the soul. It is within the purpose. So, I connected my son within the purpose so that I will be able to live. I believed I was breaking through in my career. I had to connect with my child so that we could be one.
After three months from giving birth, I asked my madam to keep me for sometime. And my mum gave birth to my younger sister who is now 14 years old, same as my son. My madam said, ‘Jessica I can not keep you if you are going to stay with your child in my house, you better go'. So, I went, I looked for a place. I was being in touch with my son and spending time with him because I was not working. That's when he was crying a lot and something came to me. My grandmother advised me, ‘when you are not married and you get a child out of wedlock you are supposed to give your child your clan names'. There is no way other than reciting your clan names. Most fortunately I knew a lot of my clan names and if I came across a friend I would ask. We have lots of clan names. We call it ”Itakazela”. We are Amaduma …
It is not easy to capture that when you are a child. You need other people to tell you. Actually, Amaduma is also this clan name. It rings that beautiful rhythm that resonates with the soul and gives that sense of pride about you and self-knowledge. So I did that. I went on and on reciting and reciting to my son. I felt like it was fire gushing through me, rumbling words.
I went on drugs. Fortunately my mum was there when I came slowly down, calming down. She said you have the gift of praise poetry. And it is something I didn't expect from her because she is a born again Christian and I expected her to say, ‘you need to have hands laid on you. We need to take you to senior pastors,' because also I had a background. When I was growing up and in my church when I was singing, they would say I had demonic spirits. When I sung, I ended up not singing and talking and people would fall down, elders of the church. They would say it is not Holy Spirit; it is evil spirit. I am a Satanist and sometimes I would be rebuked and hit by the elders as I was influencing other people with evil spirits. I thought my mum would agree with that because my voice was roaring, husky like a demonic person. I heard myself as much as my mind was not in control. She affirmed that I was a praise poet. Praise poets are rude people and uncivilized. They talk in the midst of the programme and the programme director must wait to here from this person with a sort of vulgar strong language. That is not me. Yet this voice carried on, even when I was singing walking along the road. It was telling me to plan a recording and that these are the songs. Let me work on the songs. I would work on the song and the rest of the song would be a poem. It wouldn't have a verse, it wouldn't have a chorus. I would be frustrated, but inside of me there would be something that was getting fulfilled. My soul was getting complete in each and every song. In my mind I was thinking how am I going to start, even when I am working with a band, what am I going to say about this song.
That is when I started working with the Soweto Gospel Choir. After the first tour in Australia I had a little bit of money and I was able to have some confidence and to walk around and go to Bassline, Market Theatre and see aboBusi Mhlongo rehearsing, aboSibongile Khumalo, aboHugh Masakela, I would just sit there quietly and check how they construct their music. I found that even Sibongile Khumalo doesn't know her song sometimes. So, we work here as a team. Even if you are the composer of your song you need a musical director, a person who is an expert of your craft. It is an ongoing project, this music. I have realized music needs a business plan. This is business. It needs a broad mind. After meeting aboSibongile Khumalo, she introduced me to Sophie Mgcina because she had time in Dorkay House to train me, although Dorkay House was not functioning. Sophie Mgcina came on board. She gave me her rates and I paid her rates because I was working with the Soweto Gospel Choir. She hired me a pianist and taught me how to work with a pianist before I built the actual band. Within a twinkle of an eye, after two weeks of working with her, already I got a job, a corporate gig. After the first corporate gig, she came to see my work and was impressed. I realized people must be responsible and not beg because if you beg not knowing the division of labour and the personal management, human resources...
Those things I learnt at school before I dropped out became relevant. When you deal with people these are the things, they don't only come to you as a singer and they get glued to you. There is a whole lot of production. I gained the confidence to meet with late Glen Mafoko, bassist who was playing with uLetta Mbuli and mamSibongile Khumalo. He introduced me to Victor Ntoni. Victor Ntoni introduced me to his production company, The Music Lab with Lawrence Matshiza and Linda Ntoni. Although at first the rest of the team didn't see the potential, they listened to my demo which was done by Themba Mkhize. They said, ‘what is new'. Victor Ntoni said, ‘you will see, allow me to work with this child. We started. Even before I worked with him I worked with uGibson Kente. With Gibson Kente and my praise poetry, he would say to me, ‘you are not hearing yourself'. That is something that Bra Vic continued to tell me, ‘Jessica you are not hearing yourself. You need to hear yourself, this praise poetry is the profound voice within you that defines your talent that makes you unique amongst all the musicians who you will be sharing the stage with and living among. You need to take your time finding your own tone. I will take you there.' He would give me the exercises; lying down, breathing, standing on top of the pool, waking up, discipline, being in charge and control of the thoughts. He was breaking me, molding me. At the end he said to me, ‘you are going to be something big but take your own time, learn the business'. We started recording my album, 2004 and I just released it last year (2013) October, so ten years working on that album. When I was working with him and Lawrence Matshiza I realized there was no progress because each one had their own perspective and creativity that they wanted to add to the song. As much as it was expensive to break down the project, I had to do that. I started with uLawrence, two songs, eGoli and Amagontsi and I did two songs with Bra Vic. I did one of his songs, amaXhosa because after doing the assessments and trainings he said, ‘you can do one of my songs, amaXhosa,' and also that gave me the courage and confidence. I am relevant. I sing. I thought that that praise poetry would be my brand and the only thing that I do. We did that song and we did Africa, the praise poetry song. That was the first poem that I wrote, giving the tribute to the African heroines and uNelson Mandela for maintaining peace and harmony and trying for us to reach the unifying decisions. I wrote that poem and now it is in schools, grade 8's and also it is the poem I am raising funds for the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital. They are playing it on radios and also it is on TV. The rest of the seven songs on my album are produced by uGabriel Stuurman who has also worked with Bra Vic, so, under the umbrella of Bra Vic. Sometimes uGabriel would feel intimidated but the most important thing for this project is to go out to the public and serve the purpose that they will be able to relate their story with the music, even though it is not the actual story of the things that they have gone through, but the soul of the music. Bra Vic is experienced, he needs no credits at the time. He passed away one week after we finished the album. He got his credit from his song that I did on my album and he is nurturing us for the future, for us to be better people, so we must be able to tolerate those teachings and influences because we want to be the best. We go and do cultural exchanges with universities, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists who will definitely know how to work with people, who will be broad minded and will be amazing, who wont just be solo musicians who are on stage and then backstage and off.
We need to serve the purpose of telling the stories in the African perspective and as we are telling the stories musically, what is it that we are trying to achieve? We are trying to achieve the regional integration. Finding commonalities within ourselves, not as the African people only but as the globe at large. Because we have an indigenous sense that is within us. We have got indigenous traditions, we have got indigenous languages, we have got indigenous souls, even if we can be called British, French or whatsoever; Xhosa, Zulu … there is this indigenousness that is in the core of our souls, that connects us with one another. You will find that as much as there are international trade policies that separate us, they are destroying all of us because we feel like connecting. We even call each other tourists, flocking to each other's part, we feel we are not one. But, we are one. We are this mighty Gondwanaland. We don't know how the world has broken into continents. Maybe it is earthquakes and volcanoes. We are trying to find that. Our soul is telling us that we are one soul that has got no color, that has got no name. We are trying to find humanity. We are trying to find names for it, but the name is in how we feel deep down in the core of our souls where we connect and where our mind is telling us actually hello, you connect here. Because you see how this is happening. European artists are being appreciated in Africa and African artists are being appreciated abroad. We don't see that because of the policies that are being put out by our leaders. We see it as slavery. But when they come here we see them as royalty because of the policies. So, if we can find a common ground of working together as activists to try to mend things and break the war. Instead of the war, joyous celebrations. Instead of the splitting of the blood, giving birth to more and more beautiful people, beautiful souls, beautiful us, through music.
Working with aboMcCoy Mrubata and aboSydney Mavundla on this project, I am working with people and I think they will understand what I am talking about. They have got academic backgrounds. You know sometimes when you do not have an academic knowledge you feel you are still not yet there. But, when you have achieved, you feel like rotating the wheel and coming back to reality because you know the formula's because you are the masters of the formula, but the soul it needs a formula that will connect to the academic formula.
Given an opportunity as I have been in the Soweto Gospel Choir conducting cultural exchange programs, I feel I have failed those faculties because I was not confident enough and I was not in a team that was confident enough to tell our African stories and tell them as they are with pride. I resigned from the Soweto Gospel Choir in 2005 after the American tour because I thought I was exposed. I met Chris Gardner, the writer of Pursuit of Happiness. Chris is a multi-billionaire and when he tells his story it is unlike my story. In my story, I had a home. A home or a shelter is the most important thing because it is something you will go to. A home will not be there if there is no shelter. He had no shelter, and that means he had no home. He says he was homeless. I had a shelter at home and I had a place that I called home. Why would I not be able to define my purpose and live my purpose and be successful? I said I am leaving. And being exposed to people who live on Google and when they get to me they say they want authenticity and don't find it. I found that I am failing my African people. I am failing the African image. I am failing the African continent. I said let me go back home and research. I came back home and I researched about the African tribes. I said, ‘ok let me do a calendar'. It is not yet printed that calendar because I want to give it to the right audience. I did it in 2006 and then I thought let me adapt it into so many other things, clothing, authentic dolls, and I would get opportunities that would broaden my understanding in terms of the clothing.
Even when I compose an Ndebele song, I would know what would be educational, what kind of story would preserve the heritage of the Ndebele, the BaTswana, because I know their signatures… why they wear the skirt they wear, why they wear the apron they wear, why men are not supposed to touch such stick or such headgear of a woman, what kind of a man is supposed to touch that. We have got a lot of African narratives that are preserving our heritage, stories that can sustain. You know when you tell an interesting story, someone wants to listen, but when you have nothing to say, someone wants to fight because you are frustrating them. But, actually you are together with frustration because you have nothing to say to each other. |t is very important for us to know and to dig deep. It is our duty as singers and artists to dig deep into the hive of prestigious wisdom and give the stories to the world. I see a peaceful world one day where there are no wars but joyous celebrations. We are eager to do that as musicians. Musicians are not politicians. Musicians are human beings. They are the voice of reason. Musicians are there to convey messages, profound messages. It takes a matured musician to be able to do that, not with controversy but to be constructive. A bubblegum musician will come to the studios today and have the pressure of producing 12 songs within a month. That is bubblegum. I am glad that I have stepped onto the jazz stage because most of the jazz musicians are thinkers, they connect to divinity, they connect to God. They do not actually affiliate to any kind of a religion: they associate themselves; they don't affiliate. They associate themselves because we are living in a society. What comes out of their soul, is soulful. It is divine. If there is something that is called God, it is Godly. If there is not then it is something that is humane, that lives. I feel some interpretations from Jimmy's notes; he is saying something. In my tours that I am doing I would like him to be part of my ensemble. I call my band an all-star jazz band. I am working with aboBheki Khoza, aboSydney, aboMcCoy Mrubata. Great musicians like Khanya Kheza. He is not yet a recording artist but he has written music for Gloria Bosman, Louis Mhlangu and McCoy Mrubata. He is a vocalist, he is beautiful. He worked with Manhattans. He is good. He is the musical director in the band.
What is your background?
Namaqua is a very dusty small village. It has got a lot of rural areas around it. We call them districts. It has got a famous high school called Blightwood Institution where many Xhosa intellectuals are coming from. Namaqua is actually where Mbeki is born. It is his home. Our villages are full of culture and tradition. We have diluted it with religion, mostly Christian influences. In my home I am brought up by very straightforward realistic people who don't go with the masses. They go with the vision that lives within them. Some of my grandmothers are from the polygamy. Some of my grandmothers are Christian and the other ones are born again Christians, the other ones are sangomas, the other ones are traditional people who use this and that. So, I am brought up from those influences. These people live together and embrace each other. My great grandfather is a traditional healer. He knew the medicines. He would sometimes with his friends play around with the thunder. They were powerful people. My great grandfather didn't want my grandmother to be educated because he felt that she had so many spiritual gifts that she should use. The spirituality that is driven through me they say it is coming from there because she has never accepted to be a sangoma. They say that I am a sangoma. They called me last week and said, ‘you must come and finish the rights of passage, because when you are doing this job, we can see that it is going further you must talk to your ancestors'. I say ‘listen, the ancestors must talk to me'. I don't want confusion in my life. I am afraid of the road that I have never gone through. At least I must hear the voice that is leading me towards that. I am coming from that kind of a background. My mum is a born again Christian. She is coming back from Cape Town. She also heard that I was gun pointed in my bedroom two weeks ago, and they shot my brothers those guys and she said, ‘you know what Jesus Christ is going to burn those people, they are going to burn in hell.' So, I am coming from those kinds of influences. My dad is also a sangoma as well. He also went to the river and did the rights of passage. In my community it is mixed, but Christianity mostly influences my community, so Gospel is the food of every day. At home I would get those traditional songs when I go to the traditional ceremonies and we would be released at home to go and visit and that is where we would sing those songs. That has molded a unique voice within me because now I am profound I know exactly what is wrong and right and I know what is supposed to be said. It brings out the morals and values that kind of a broad influential community. The broad spiritual influence brings out a solid moral and value to someone and you are able to adapt. I am having a shop at Oriental plaza where you get my CD's and clothing. At Oriental plaza I have to dress like this because it is a Muslim community. With morals and values you are able to adapt without having a thought that you are going out of your way. Those influences have helped me to adapt to the jazz music. I am able to say Halleluiah within the jazz standards. Jazz is influential but it needs a variety of formulas. We are not developing jazz. It is very rare to find there is a new book of jazz music. Why not? We produce books every day but where are the jazz books, even for universities. Times change, we need to bring forth new formulas and we can only formulate by telling stories from the honest note. I tell my stories from the honest point of view. My honest point of view is not the same as yours. You don't need to predict me when I tell my story, oh there she goes to the river, oh there she brings back the water.'
It is the friction of my experience, the journey I am taking myself so I must tell the honest story. I don't expect me to take down the Billycan or the bucket. Expect me to slip and fall with the water and that is another turning point. What was that child bringing? That is working in your mind, so that is an orchestra now bringing some soulful influence. We need challenging assignments. I wish I could be in the university and sit down and study and influence the growth. I feel we are stagnant.
How did you overcome the accusation of being called demonic?
We need to break the tradition and the religion. If you associate tradition and religion, go back to the same Bible. Why did Abraham make the sacrifice? What was his tribe, where was he coming from? Now we can't make sacrifices. When are we going to hear the voice that was heard by Abraham? Which God was he serving with the sacrifice? That tribe is a tradition of Abrahams' connecting to the religion because after he has done the sacrifices according to his tribe, he connects to God. If you are breaking down the tradition how are you going to hear the voice of God? When is your purpose going to be revealed to you because you say the tradition is the evil? You see all the ones who are being under-seated by the Pope are the ones that are washing off the tradition, because that is a religion as well. And that means you don't have your own God, you have a God that depends on other people. You don't have a voice, so your wings are cut off. You will always cry. I don't go to churches that cry. I don't want to be a beggar. I want a church that says you have power within you and realize the divinity within you and when you cry in pain, you are going to have stress, you are going to have nervous breakdowns, you are going to have delusion, you are going to have depression. As the musicians we need to be traditionally connected and do traditions and be ourselves.
How do you overcome the music industry which sometimes suppresses people?
I always acquire knowledge. When I go to SAMRO and go to workshops, I would not only listen to what someone is saying but I always had questions and I would always use those questions because I had answers within me. They are talking about publishing today and there are companies that are linked with SAMRO who are collecting publishing. Why are they allowing publishing companies? Why aren't they verifying with publishing companies to bring the contracts they have signed with the musicians, so we can see if it suits the musician. If they are doing your distribution, they want to do your publishing. For some of them it is compulsory. That means for the two or three years of the contract they own my work, even if they haven't paid me.
How did you overcome that?
Through the courage of marketing. I am using my marketing avenues. I asked musicians how much they are getting within six months, and I find it is the same money I can get when I sell my CD's by myself in my shows. I had to draft a business plan in my mind and calculate the projections. How much do I want within a certain period of time and have my music rights for the rest of my life for my children. You find these musicians who are making a hellova lot of money, more especially those who have ignored their publishing, they die very soon, they are on drugs. Who is giving them drugs I do not know. They will just die. You find that their music is played, used in the movies, stories are told, documentaries are coming out. Excuse me. Who is benefitting? Their children are not benefitting. If the publishing was with those people, those musicians would rot over there and buy bread and walk with taxi's. Even if I die, my children will have something to tell about my life. They will have my music. Those musicians have got wills. Now, I even have a financial advisor, so I know where to keep my works. And now there is even an online distribution. I am on iTunes. I fiddle around. I have invested in my work, half a million in recording studios, different musicians, making one song or two songs at a time in this ten years. That investment cannot go in vain. I cannot rush for a quick R60 000 that I can do with three gigs just because it comes from SAMRO, from publishing. It makes no difference, because I am going to chow it and then what next? I have no control over my work. We totally forget to terminate those contracts. We like to sign the contracts, but have you ever heard of someone say I am terminating my contract, I am signing out of the record label. If they sign out of the record label that would be a struggle because they would know they are loosing that musician to another vulture. Because, a musician that is signed is very difficult to stand on his or her own because of the societies pressures. All those things that you were temporarily given, they will return or they will go down the drain because you wont be accumulating any money to sustain the material things, the clothes, the cars and the houses. We tend to ignore those things. We tend to ignore the validity, just because I am hip and the friends see what we want them to see, forgetting about the future. Contentment is helping me to stand even though it is hard. If I like my song to be in a movie, I sell my song because I am running a casting agency. I meet directors every day, advertising agencies. I network and I pitch. I talk about my work within a twinkle of an eye. Hey Mr Shamamam, I have got this song. I will email it to you. Give me your email address. It is my every day life to market my work towards the publishing.
Is Izimbongi path to an ultimate calling of Sangoma?
It is not at all. People are mistaking it. In order for you to have healing authorities in our culture, they believe you have to go through some ritual passage. For me, the knowledge that I have gone through, I have graduated. Working with aboGibson Kente, being broken and molded. Working with all the greats who have been realistic towards my mind and my soul, cutting me down so I can talk to visionaries, to great people, to stand in front of great leaders. That was an initiation. There is a friend of mine who is going through that, uZama who is going through the waters. It is also the knowledge that he is going to get there. There is nothing magnificent that someone is going to find. Something that is magnificent is within us. There, they make you to understand, to be obedient to the inner being. That is why others run away, it is tough there. I would have run away. It is not easy to sleep at Gibson's house and he wakes you up in the wee hours of the morning and says, ‘go and do the vowels next to the garage outside'. He would say through the window, ‘I cannot hear you Jessica'. That was a meditation process, killing the ego, killing the fear of the mind. Now, I know exactly what is relevant and what is not relevant. I speak from the soul and mind. That has opened platforms for me. I go around now and tell my story as an inspirational story. When I talk to them, I talk to them with contentment, authority, confidence that heals, that delivers, that touches them, that inspires them. It is the same when I will be following the calling of the sangoma. The initiation that I have gone through is the same sangoma initiation.