Acapella is often viewed in Africa as music by posh performers who endure years of voice tinkling and training in elite Western symphonies and academies. But this South African outfit made of one migrant and snarky students is rewriting the script – wooing 15000 crowds in Europe; fiddling with global icon Manu Dibango and blowing cheeks as far as Uzbekistan. And they haven’t uttered a single word or coma in Russian!
Their name is “Voices of Africa / Izwi Le Africa.” They were assembled out of idle passion 72 months ago in Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s sleepy Atlantic coast, not glitzy Johannesburg as many a band are. This rag tag band of six, shuns modern implements like guitars, pianos, electronic drum sets – and is shunned by South Africa’s commercial radio stations and their hippy audiences too!
Not even one of “Voices of Africa” signature lyrics has been heard on local stations. The band’s leader and head vocalist – 31 year old Ms. Nomandla Hallam – knows exactly why.
“We stuck to our music, to our African traditional roots as we see it. For us modern music genres are troublesome with their excessive technology and demand for expensive technical knowledge.”
In an astonishing contrast, “Voices of Africa / Izwi Le Africa” music has found a niche and love in far away Europe.
“Well, they say a prophet is never welcome in their home town,” giggles Ms Hallam.
She describes their band’s style as “African Acapella” – deep, soulful, jivey and minus contemporary electrical guitars, drums, bass wheels or clinky drums. Their traditional instruments of choice are simply “iphondo” a horn harvested from a slain kudu animal, “Djembe” and “djun djun.” These, amusing tools, have bewitched and bemused European audiences.
Ms Hallam puffs an “iphondo horn” with a flourish of breadth – as if blowing into a mystical unending universe.
“These instruments incite our spirits; tickles your emotions and soothes our nerves before we jingle on stage be it in Switzerland or Central Asia,” she says.
Sibusiso Kili a dancer in the band knows the need for endurance: “Performing to massive foreign audiences you need massive emotions. Cans of energy drinks won’t give you that”. She laughs.
So far their band has had a roller coaster of a music journey. Unknown at home in South Africa they have hopped straight to performing in the carnival scene of Western Europe and Central Asia. Their biggest break came in 2013 when they graced the Tambour Battant Festival in Geneva, Switzerland.
“It was a novelty; a shock, flying from small town Port Elizabeth in South Africa to Geneva, heart of Europe,” admits Mr. Resistance Maziwisa, a backup vocalist and instrumentalist in the band who migrated from Zimbabwe to settle in South Africa.
His mere presence and leadership role in a band made of five South Africans is a lovely spectacle of diverse nationalities united under the pull of music. Race relations can be problematic to handle in South Africa, he knows.
“The music scene in Europe is eye opening. The Swiss pronouncement of English words is almost comic and delightful,” says Mr. Maziwisa.
“Immediately, on arrival, I was swept in a sea of amusement. You know…hiking onto Geneva speed trains for the first time, slipping into hotels and soaking in the free Wi-Fi. I repeat: free WiFi in Swiss hotels is a marvel.”
He laughs, “Of course I wasn’t tempted to sneak into hotel garden’s flowerbeds to lurch onto free Wi-Fi.”
He peels a paper in his ribs. “Ooh l can’t forget the food. I was astonished – the Swiss adore food. They can ensure 8 meals a day!”
Strolling the cobbled streets of Geneva in traditional Xhosa garb and fluffy dance shirt tassels was bliss too. “Heads turned,” brags Mr. Maziwisa, “crowds were amused to see our feather and cow hide Zulu head banters.”
During one energetic stage performance Mr. Maziwisa his “gauche moment.” He reveals: “a tipsy member of the audience bared himself to the wind and gave me a brand new shirt, bought in Italy.”
“Some, out of the blue, rolled their wallets and insisted on giving us money gifts when the show was already laid up.”
Siyabonga Zethu a backing vocalist in the group agrees. “I think that’s a tip, isn’t it?”
Their European performances have seen their stock gradually grow from 2012 to 2015. Their Europe based agent scours gigs for them. But opportunities can appear on the spot, without any planning.
“One theatre manager in Geneva, part of the crowd, loved our performance. Straight away he booked us to return later this year. He doubled our usual fee,” continues Ms. Hallam.
If working crowds in Western Europe was a phenomenon, a performance in Islamist Uzbekistan, Central Asia, in July this year, iced the cake. The occasion the 10th Edition Sharq Taronalari International Festival organized under the auspices of the Uzbek government.
“Without doubt this was our biggest crowd ever – 15000,” says Ms. Hallam with a flourish of shy eyes. “Flying direct from Europe to Uzbekistan was a lurch into the unknown. I get, we were the only African band invited.”
Sonwabo Ndawuni another dance instrumentalist is hysterical. “We were asked to mutter a few words on Russian language, straight on arrival, live on Uzbek TV! Such a dliemma after jet lag.”
Resistance Maziwisa as usual was taken back by the outpouring of fascination and souvenir gifts from the crowd.
“There were a dozen Uzbek news channels crowding on us. For some it was literally their first time to see Africans. I loved the mashed appearance of public hotel, airport, roads signs in Russian lettering.”
A festival English translator was present but not always. “To chat with locals, we spoke slowly and deliberately used improper English. For the first time in my life I revelled in sign language on occasions.”
Fans in the deeply Islamic country, despite language mishaps, were keen on the African Acapella. “We performed in various districts in the city of Samarkand. To our surprise, crowds from outlying regions pursued us as we rotated among venues. Perhaps the media buzz was helpful after all.”
Coming from a liberal country like South Africa where alcohol is tolerated, Uzbekistan with its strict Islamic protocol ban on alcohol was a little awkward at first. “It’s not a big fuss; we have our own zero alcohol tolerance rules when on tour.”
Riding on this marvellous wave of foreign success it’s a puzzle because “Voices of Africa” music is virtually unknown in South Africa. Apart from performing for the Port Elizabeth town tourist board and a handful local restaurants, the band has not appeared elsewhere at home.
“We look on the positive side of this,” says Mr. Maziwisa. He jokes – “at least we don’t get to print expensive CDs. And our music is proofed from digital piracy.”
Ms. Hallam bemoans an absence of serious funding from government agencies in Port Elizabeth. “Without belittling anyone, it’s clear to see pop, hip hop and electric house music genres are seen as more glittering and less boring by local audiences. We, are satisfied by our reception abroad though.”
Some members in the group are students, others are mums. On how they balance this conflict of priorities, Siphesihle Makinana, a student and vocalist help in the band explains with pride: “our parents intervene with childcare assistance whenever we are away, abroad.”