• Joel Dwek

SOUTH AFRICA: Ibokwe - Thandiswa

Updated: Jan 21

Thandiswa treads the line between tradition and innovation in this enjoyably eclectic album

When scouring the world for albums from every country, we have found that there are, broadly speaking, two types of musician, and then there’s the grey zone in between them where a third category lies. The first type is the folk musician of that country, the sort of musician or band, like the previously profiled Susana Baca, Fanfare Ciocarlia or Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective, where the focus is on the traditional music of their area. Whether it is Baca’s beautiful renditions of Afro-Peruvian music, Fanfare Ciocarlia’s frenetic Romanian gypsy music, or Palacio documenting the cultural heritage of his unique people, these albums all are located within a specific time and place, and the discovery of these genres and the histories attached to them can be a fascinating thing to uncover. There might be some inflections from Western pop music, but overall, it’s fully faithful to tradition.

“Its sheer level of musical borrowing and the incorporation of Western styles alongside South African ones that make it a fascinating listen.”

Then we have the other extreme, where a musician from Egypt, like Ramy Essam, can wholeheartedly adopt a classically Western genre like hard rock and perfectly adapt it to his own cultural sphere. Other artists in this vein that we have looked at would include the Central African singer Laetitia Zonzambé who creates brilliant soul music, the Bavarian band Poets of Rhythm who made an excellent funk album, and the Afghan rockers Kabul Dreams. All of the above, and more, have taken from the West and moulded it in their image, often adding in elements of the traditional music of where they’re from. When these two styles are done well, they’re great, and I love them, but there’s something to be said for the third category, the fusion category, one that is neither fully traditional to the country of the artist, and neither fully understandable as Western popular music. We might include works such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s masterful album Mustt Mustt in this category, as well as Majid Bekkas’s African Gnaoua Blues and the late, great Rachid Taha’s mix of rock with Arabic music in Je Suis Africain. Thandiswa’s sophomore effort, Ibokwe, falls into this category.

Ibokwe is a fascinating mix of funk, soul, pop, alongside Zulu and Xhosa beats and melodies, which are combined seamlessly. Ingoma, one of my favourites on the album, has a R&B, almost reggae style beat to it, culminating in a symphony of beautiful singing and a smooth saxophone solo. When listening, it is these flourishes that make the album stand out. In a way, it’s similar to some African pop we have come across but are yet to review, but in others, its sheer level of musical borrowing and the incorporation of Western styles alongside South African ones that make it a fascinating listen. I’ve listened to so much music in the past few months that I had actually completely forgotten everything about this album before I came to review it, and it has been a joy to rediscover in the past few days, because despite all this going on about how smart it is, the real brilliance is that you don’t feel that when you’re listening. I didn’t listen to the album and stroke my chin at how cleverly everything is integrated, I just had a great time.

In terms of its lyrical content, I had little idea what she was singing about as it is mostly in her native language and not in English, with the notable exception of Vana Vevhu, where she sings in English about the rape, murder, and “black on black violence” that afflicts modern South Africa. “How long will this nation be crying, dying, bleeding” is one of the lyrics in that section. It makes sense that this song was in English, considering how important the message is. The rest of the album I have since discovered touches on themes that are often both personal and political, reflecting on her own life, and also on social issues in South Africa, such as political apathy and the role of tradition in society. In this regard, she follows in the footsteps of other South African singers, like Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba, and Vusi Mahlasela, all of whom used the power of their words to protest the various evils and problems within South African society at the time they were releasing albums. Thus, in some ways she follows tradition, and in others, she breaks from it, forging her own sound that is somewhat distinct from what has come before. It is this rebelliousness and inventiveness that impressed me the most on my first listen, and continues to do so now.