ESWATINI: Swazi Soul - Bholoja
A beautiful and powerful first incarnation of what can be labelled as Bholoja's somewhat unique genre
Nowadays when people ask me what kind of music I like, I genuinely don’t have the capacity to answer with a pithy response listing the three genres that once upon a time spoke to me more than the rest – funk, reggae and disco, with soul music of course being the king that sits astride them. In some respects, though this mammoth undertaking to try to discover all of the world’s different musical styles has made me more knowledgeable and has sparked an ever-burning sense of curiosity within, it has inadvertently made me more ‘wanky’ than I ever desired despite my efforts to resist this. Though I, of course, try not to be too overly self-congratulatory about the fact that I am more abreast of music scenes in other countries than I ever believed I would be, one cannot help but sometimes look in the mirror (after two hours of watching videos of a balkan-chanson fusion band’s gigs on YouTube) and momentarily think to myself that I have become a parody of a character I never wanted to become. However, what really brings be back to reality and reminds me that I haven’t lost the core of who I am is when I take a break from soukous, dubke techno and rumba and stick on an old Motown record. Despite all of what might to the outside world appear to be affectations, my love for the new genres in my life is real and authentic. Nevertheless, in the words of The Sultans of Sweat AKA Sam & Dave ‘I’m a soul man’, which is why when I was first recommended Bholoja’s debut album Swazi Soul I was excited to see what would be on offer.
“Swazi Soul in some senses isn’t just an album title but perhaps a name for Bholoja's unique subgenre of siSwati language soulful music.”
With this title in mind, what I did not receive was a traditional soul album nor even a neo-soul album. This does not, however, mean that I was in any way disappointed. Instead Swazi Soul is accurately named in the sense that it is one of the most soulful albums I’ve heard without it really stepping its toes too heavily on the feet of artists like Martin Gaye. What Bholoja has in common with many of the greats of the soul genre is the stirring fervent emotion that the album is drenched in, but he does this in a way that is almost uniquely his own style. Swazi Soul in some senses isn’t just an album title but perhaps a name for Bholoja's unique subgenre of siSwati language soulful music. One reason why I am so certain that Bholoja’s record is distinct from traditional soul music, is that I did not instinctively fall for or take against the album straight away in the way that I described that the genre typically allows me to in my review of Central African diva Laetitia Zonzambé’s Sanza Soul. Rather, though I had an early inclination that I liked the album, Swazi Soul is a record that I have grown in appreciation for over time.
The album’s mellow start with Indzawo Yami sets the tone for the record ahead. The gentle caressing of the keys on the piano complements the listeners’ first interaction with Bholoja’s voice beautifully. However, the perfect balance between vocals and instrumentation is never lost from this moment on. This song is a deeply political track and within it lies an act of rebellion and resistance. As a diarchy ruled by Ngwenyama (King) Mswati III and his mother with somewhat of an iron fist, speaking out against the leadership would be a dangerous act. Therefore, Bholoja’s covert lyrics which speak about somebody who has got authority that cannot be shifted are rather powerful, especially with his acknowledgment that the country belongs to the people. This soft criticism and reinforcement of the belief that the nation is owned by Swazi society is one that would resonate with his compatriots without causing too much of a stir to get himself into deep trouble.
Meanwhile, the subsequent track, Mbombela, probably the most famous song from the album, is a bouncy number that one can imagine as being played on a soundtrack to a video showing a fun summer road trip. It is a song that reminds me of times in my life that I have passed with friends feeling a respite from the external pressures of wider society. The album proceeds to get even more enjoyable with my favourite song Ikhonkhotsa Ilele up next – a wonderfully layered track with some of the sweetest guitar reverb I have heard in a long time. The record then transitions onto the first song that includes some English language lyrics. From Zero To Hero is a song about pride that contains some joyous harmonies that make it almost gospel-esque. What I love about the sparse use of English on the album is that when Bholoja sings in English, he makes the lyrics really count. I often find myself being moved by his phrasing from his call to his African brothers and sisters across the continent in Africa Unite, his prayers for a better eSwatini in Umkhuleko or his philosophical ponderings in Ilawonde. Umkhuleko is especially profound as the stripped back acoustic nature of the track allows the listener to engage with what he is singing about. The country suffers from the highest rate per capita of HIV/AIDS in the world with 25% of the adult population suffer with the disease. 1/6 of children have been orphaned from losing both parents to the disease and Bholoja urges for a better future of his beloved homeland.
Musically, the album remains diverse yet engaging from the most closely related to the soul genre Ngikhumbula Ngisemncane to the a capella intro of You & I. For me, perhaps the most notable introduction to a track was Iyakhalindvodza, just because of its obvious similarity to British pop-rockers The Beautiful South’s duet A Little Time. Were I to level a criticism at the album, it would have to be its length, or more specifically that it ended on the wrong track. Umhlaba Uyahlaba was the track I believe the album should have ended on. It feels like the perfect song to end any concert with. The rockiest song on the album has everything, containing a whole gamut of emotions and feels like a perfect culmination of the album as a whole. That said, one of the tracks the song is succeeded by is King Somhlolo’s Dream. The song is both impressive on an auditory level but also speaks of arguably the most revered figure in Swazi history, although Somhlolo’s time in charge was far shorter than one of his successor’s Sobhuza II’s 82 year reign. The song refers to his dream that the white people would bring books and money to his land and that the Swazis would opt for the book. This prophecy has been interpreted in many religious senses but is still relevant regardless of religious persuasion due to the implication of foresight that Bholoja’s Swazi ancestor had regarding the importance of education. With this in mind, I won’t criticise the former mechanical engineer for his final song choice too much, and will instead acknowledge the overall beauty of the entire piece. Bholoja’s next album after his debut of Swazi Soul speaks of Swaziland’s role in the liberation of South Africa and I can guarantee that after letting this album soak in, you’ll be gagging to check out the rest of his work.