Phumlani S Langa meets up with the kwaito music pioneers to discuss their time away and their return to centre stage.
Kwaito is the sound of our rebellion and there are a few artists who are considered institutions of this movement. In the same breath as a Brown Dash, M’du Masilela or the indomitable TKZee, one has to mention Thandiswa Mazwai, Jah Seed, Stoan Seate and Speedy of Bongo Maffin.
A bright and magical aura surrounds the edgy quartet as they enter the main dance hall at Baseline, slowly. They’re at the Newtown Music Factory in Joburg to rehearse their new set.
It seems like just another day at the office and, other than the fact that the building is dealing with power issues, the business of making timeless music is in full effect.
Mazwai is very talkative and mindful of the aesthetic of the shoot. She makes suggestions to my esteemed colleagues and shares a few jokes.
Seate hits a few dips on a stage railing while we wait and Speedy finds a seat on the edge of the main stage.
Seate is the quiet one. He spent a fair amount of time on his phone as the interview commenced, but he’s a chilled person – they all appear to be.
The coolest clique in kwaito
Grooving at The Baeline: The final touches are being completed for the band's performance. Picture: Rosetta Msimango
Mazwai asks if I’ve heard the new album – From Bongo With Love. I tell her the song Thando Lwam was sent to me along with a fraction of the full project. It’s a winding drum beat that Mazwai hits with a chorus about puffing on “indoor” (dagga that’s grown under lights indoors), which is the coolest thing I’ve heard in a minute.
Leaning in as if to whisper, she says: “Can you believe these guys wanted me to take that out? They were like, ‘no, we can’t be singing about indoor’, but everybody sings about weed.”
The group has been together for about 21 years. Bongo Maffin’s first project, The Concerto, was released in 1998.
Seed jokes: “We were kids, man. Thandiswa still had milk on her nose when she first came to our place. We were wondering if it was a good idea to work with such a young girl. She was only 17.”
Grinning broadly, Mazwai retorts: “I was so not 17. I was maybe 20 and at university, okay?”
“Wow, maybe 20?” Seate replies.
“Man, I was like 15,” Speedy quips.
Seed adds: “And she was small, so we thought nightclubs wouldn’t let her in because they’d think she was underage.”
A chuckle engulfs the room with warm laughter. Recalling the early days, the powerhouse vocalist and local pop culture icon Mazwai pipes up.
“No, we were all in our twenties somewhere. I remember when we did our first gig. They paid me R300 and they got R500.”
“Ahh, it was just R200 more,” Speedy tries to explain the inequality.
“They were just a boy band before I came along,” Mazwai says. “I gave them the gravitas; the edge. I brought that whole thing. So they paid me R300 and I said to them: ‘If you guys think you’re going to make more money from this thing than me, you’re sorely mistaken.’ So what happened? We had to put up the fee, ne?”
There are nothing but smiles in the room and a lingering nostalgia. Speedy says she’s just joking about all that, of course.
“What happened was we did the first album,” Speedy says. “We got her to feature on the second album Final Entry. We did more than three songs with her and it was a collective decision to have her as a member of the group because she was on three songs already. It just made sense.
“She was also doing her thing with Jack-knife. When Summertime came out, she had a talk with Oscar [Oskido].”
Oskido was at the helm of the groundbreaking Kalawa Jazmee record label, which Bongo Maffin are still signed to.
“Oskido told me the song was blowing up and they were going to need me now,” Mazwai says. “So I was asked to come and perform with the guys. I wasn’t even trying to make music. I was studying African literature. So I had done this thing with Jack-knife, you know Jack-knife? The iconic kwaito group, of course. You know me, babes, I only do iconic shit.”
According to Mazwai, Oskido took her to Hyde Park and bought her an outfit just in case she wanted to perform. A bribe, she called it.
“They closed the shop doors behind us,” Mazwai says. “It was my first experience with that – I had only seen it happen on TV. So they measured me and made me an outfit. I chose a leather thing because you have to wear leather when you get famous. It doesn’t work otherwise.”
Obviously, the natural thing an outsider might think is that the break or time away from Bongo Maffin could’ve been due to artistic differences, maybe a touch of that old beef.
“Nah, I wouldn’t say the break was because of that,” Mazwai says. “It wasn’t even a hiatus, we still hung out. If anything, it’s when we’re all together that we get into it sometimes a little.”
“Yeah,” Seate says, “but even bo Mama at the church can bamba [grip] each other a little bit.”
From Bongo With Love
Surprise performance: Bong Maffin treats #Trending to a classic song of theirs. Picture: Cebile Ntuli
So how did their return and the new album From Bongo With Love come about?
“It was the music,” says Seate.
“Mostly the fans,” Mazwai adds. “Everywhere we went, people would say: ‘So when are Bongo Maffin coming back?’”
Seate agrees: “The music and the fans. “That’s really the only reason to do it. It’s both the catalyst and the reason, and we’ve been able to reach so many dreams through the music and we are the soundtrack of many young lives. We are now parents to children who are probably around the same age as us when we started. The world has gone full circle. It was good timing and it felt right.”
The deep-voiced Seed drops humour and wisdom almost at will: “Like Stoan says, ya know. We genuinely love music. It is amazing that there are some people in the world who don’t love music. We are some of those people who just love it.
“Whether we’re doing it for Bongo Maffin or hearing it on the radio, just to be part and parcel of such an energy of sound, words and power – it’s something that tickles the meaning of life and what we do in this space and realm, ya know?”
“My favourite albums were the last two,” Speedy says. “And I guess we all had to be in the same space mentally.
“We took two years to record this. We got together in 2017 to do a commercial and then had an opportunity to perform at Delicious [International Food and Music Festival]. And we liked how it felt.”
They figured the pieces still fitted and kept that energy going into recording sessions. Thando Lwam was recorded in March and was the first track they did off the reprisal tape, From Bongo With Love. The main difference they experience working with each other now is that, unlike in the past, their families have grown – they now have partners and children.
“The whole recording process was time to filter out things,” Seed says. “We are also not oblivious to what is happening in the music industry. We have one eye on the studio and the other on the streets, ya know. We are not too far away from what the youths are doing as we hear Professor or DJ Tira cutting the latest tunes in the studio,” he says.
The interview dissolves into a discussion about dance culture and how acts such as Ma Willies could quite easily be amapiano, or how some of these amapiano tracks could be kwaito. It all feels a bit like chilling with the cooler, older kids who hang out on the street way past sunset.
In an impromptu performance, they kept their new set from us, but gave us a taste of an old classic in Mari ye Phepha.
Keep an eye on #Trending for tour dates.