Singing for all nations

Even some children in Windhoek’s Katutura suburb sing along to the song as if they grew up speaking Shona, which is one of Zimbabwe’s main languages. Listening to them one is bound to say: this is music for all nations and that the South African-based group Bongo Maffin ‘ Jahseed, Stoan and Thandiswa Mazwai ‘ is making music for Southern Africa and beyond.

The song that has taken the region by storm has the catchy chorus: Dai ndiri shiri ndaibhururuka/ndaibhururuka kuna mai vangu/dai ndine makumbo mana/ ndaimhanya ndoenda kuna mai vangu.

This song was popular with children growing up in Zimbabwean villages before 1980 and for us who sang it, the song brings back sweet memories.

There is no doubt that when Southern Africa sings along to the song, it identifies with it and even though the language could not be accessible to the majority of the children and some adults, the tune tells a lot about the joy and delight the song brings.

Bongo Maffin is proving that it is possible for music to touch people even when the language used is beyond their understanding. This is not the group’s first time to fuse Shona, Xhosa and Zulu in its music. And needless to say, it worked well because it reached out to many people across the borders.

In one of its songs, the group uses lyrics borrowed from Thomas Mapfumo’s song Africa that spoke about the desire of a man working outside Africa to return home where there is everything ‘ money, beautiful women and all the joys one can think of.

Although Mapfumo’s version done during Zimbabwe’s war of liberation comes with warnings (if you want to go/ be warned that those who went there left babies/ they ran away from war/ they got injured etc), Bongo Maffin’s encourages people to make the best of Africa.

Formed in 1996 as South African DJ Oscar Mdlongwa’s concept, the group now plays with the backing of a band and has won three Kora awards ‘ the Best Kwaito Artiste in 1999 and the Best African Group in 2000 and 2001.

The group derived its name from bongo, which means an African drum; and muffin, derived from raggamuffin which, according to Stoan, shows that they are heavily influenced by ragga music.

Jahseed (real name Anopa Mupemhi) is a Zimbabwean with a dee-jaying background while Stoan (Zulu) was once a backing vocalist for the kwaito group Thebe, and Thandiswa (Xhosa) joined the pair as a session vocalist in 1997.

When Bongo Maffin was put together, Speedy, who has since left the group, filled in the R&B slot while Jahseed stood for reggae and Stoan was the poet.

This background gives the group a pan-African feel and the use of languages do not real matter. During their tour of Germany a few years back, Jahseed said Southern African languages connect the region’s peoples.

“Yeah! See, the most surprising thing is that the Southern African languages, the Nguni-speaking peoples, are so much connected, even the cultures, their way of life, it’s all one people. You must know that Shona is so close to Zulu, closer then maybe any other language. So the message of the music is just a matter of telling. There are so many words in the Zulu language, which you can find as far as Tanzania. That’s why we connect so easily and so fast,” he said.

Stoan said Bongo Maffin’s approach of using different languages is meant to destroy the master plan in Africa from the colonisation era.

“The master plan in Africa from the colonisation was always to divide and to rule the people and to make them, through not understanding each other, eventually dislike each other. With Bongo Maffin singing in different languages, it is practised in a micro kind of form. I think that the fact that we sing in so many different languages is kind of a unifying factor. Because you’ll find many who understand my lyrics and also trying to understand her (Thandi) Xhosa lyrics and his (Jahseed) Shona lyrics and like that learning more about other cultures. Also the rhythm of the language is hard to be mistaken. I don’t think we would get any of the melodies that we get, if we were singing in English only.

“Most of the people in the audience probably didn’t understand much of the lyrics in Shona, Xhosa and Zulu, but the message that was exalted were the words of one of the songs: ‘I am African! You are African!’,” he explained.

And Thandiswa believes the group’s music is a celebration of African culture.

“A lot of our music is about the celebration of being an African, the celebration of the beauty of Africa because we grew up in a time when being an African was something that wasn’t celebrated. We were told that black is not beautiful, our music is not beautiful. Through the release of Nelson Mandela and our freedom as South Africans, we decided to make music that celebrates being an African. Kind of a counter-argument to what TV is telling us. TV is telling us, that if you wanna be cool, then you’ll have to become a little more European or a little more American. And we’re saying: ‘Forget that! The only way that we can be interesting to anyone is that we’re ourselves.’ So our music is about that. It’s about being South African, being an African and being proud of it,” she said.

After a four-year break, the group came back with a new album, New Construction, on which is the song that has taken Southern Africa by storm.

In yet another interview with a South African paper soon after the release of the album, Jahseed said the group played an ambassadorial role for Afro-pop.

“We are the ambassadors of the Afro-pop sound. Our sound speaks on a social level. We can communicate with most people. We are global artistes.”

During the four-year hiatus, the members tried their hands on solo careers with Stoan, who has a child with Thandiswa, releasing an album in 2004 after forming his own record company Stoan-Aig.

Thandiswa’s solo career was the most successful as she scooped awards. Today considered one of South Africa’s most talented artistes.

With a number of South African groups that came and went, for Bongo Muffin to last this far is a miracle, but the members are not just bandmates, but also genuine friends.

November 2006
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