Across Africa, a capella is often viewed as a posh musical genre performed by singers who have endured years of voice tinkering and training at elite Western musical institutions. But one youthful South African outfit, made up of a migrant from Zimbabwe and his South African colleagues, is rewriting the script: They have wooed crowds in Europe; joined forces with global icon Manu Dibango and blown cheeks with as many as 15 000 people in Uzbekistan, Central Asia – without uttering a single word in Russian!
Their name is “Voices of Africa”, or “Izwi Le Africa” in the Xhosa language. They came together six years ago, driven by a fierce passion, in the city of Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s sleepy Atlantic coast, far away from glitzy Johannesburg, where many a band starts out.
This band of six shuns modern instruments and gadgets, like guitars, pianos or electronic drum sets – and is sometimes shunned by South Africa’s commercial radio stations and their hip audiences too.
Voices of Africa and the band’s signature lyrics have barely been heard on local stations. The band’s leader and head vocalist, 31-year-old Nomandla Hallam, knows exactly why. “We stuck to our music and 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 turn of events, the music of Voices of Africa has found a niche and gathered a following in faraway Europe. “Well, they say a prophet is never welcome in their home town,” says Hallam with a smile.
She describes the band’s style as “African a capella” that is deep, soulful and jivey without featuring contemporary electrical guitars, drums or bass wheels. Their traditional instruments of choice are simply the “iphondo“, a horn harvested from a slain kudu antelope, with djembe and djun djun drums. These indigenous instruments delivers the sound that has bewitched European audiences.
“These instruments incite our spirits, tickles your emotions and soothes our nerves before we jingle on stage, be it in Harare, Switzerland or Central Asia,” Hallam says.
Sibusiso Kili, a dancer in the band, knows the need for endurance: “In order to perform to massive foreign audiences you need massive emotion. No amount of energy drinks will give you that.”
So far the band has had a roller coaster of a musical journey. Unknown at home in South Africa, they have hopped straight into the festival scene of Western Europe and Central Asia. Their biggest break came when they graced the Tambour Battant Festival in Geneva, Switzerland.
“It was a novelty, a shock, to fly from small–town Port Elizabeth in South Africa to Geneva, the cultural heart of Europe,” admits 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 consisting of five South Africans is a lovely spectacle of diverse nationalities united by the pull of music. Race relations and xenophobia can be problematic to negotiate in South Africa.
“African music gave us a peek into Swiss culture and into the music scene of Europe. Immediately, on arrival, I was swept along by my curiosity and found the trip to be an eye–opening experience. I even enjoyed the comic and delightful Swiss pronunciation of English words,” Maziwisa recalls with a laugh. “I also did not know that the Swiss sometimes eat eight meals a day!”
Strolling the cobbled streets of Geneva, wearing traditional African garb and fluffy dance tassels, turned out to be fun too. “We made heads turn,” brags Maziwisa. “Crowds were amused to see our feather and cow–hide Zulu headwear in their part of the world.”
Maziwisa tells of how, during one particularly energetic stage performance, a rather tipsy member of the audience bared himself to the wind and gave Maziwisa his brand–new shirt, bought in Italy.
Siyabonga Zethu, a backing vocalist in the group, laughs, “I think that’s a tip, isn’t it?”
Their European performances has seen their stock increase gradually. They now have a Europe–based agent who scours gigs for them. But opportunities can appear on the spot, with no time for forward planning.
“A theatre manager in Geneva, who had been part of the crowd, loved our performance and booked us straight away to return later this year. He doubled our usual fee,” says Hallam.
“A theatre manager in Geneva, who had been part of the crowd, loved our performance and booked us straight away to return later this year.” – Nomandla Hallam, lead singer, Voices of Africa
If working the crowds in Western Europe was a phenomenon, then a performance in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, iced the cake. The occasion was the 10th Sharq Taronalari International Festival, organised under the auspices of the Uzbek government. “This was our biggest crowd ever, without a doubt – 15 000 people,” says Hallam. “Flying direct from Europe to Uzbekistan was a step into the unknown. We were the only African band invited.”
Sonwabo Ndawuni, another dance instrumentalist, recalls their somewhat awkward arrival: “We were asked to utter a few words in Russian language, straight on our arrival, live on Uzbek TV! That was a bit of a dilemma when you have jetlag.”
Maziwisa was again taken aback by the outpouring of fascination and souvenir gifts from the crowd. “There were a dozen Uzbek news channels crowding us. For some people it was literally their first time seeing Africans. In turn, I loved the Russian lettering that appears on signs everywhere.”
The festival provided an English translator, but the person was not always with them. “To chat with locals, we often had to resort to sign language.”
People of this deeply Islamic country soon proved to be fans of African a capella. “We performed in various districts in the city of Samarkand. To our surprise, crowds from outlying regions followed 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. “But it is not really a big fuss because we have our own zero alcohol rule when on tour.”
Despite the fact that Voices of Africa is riding this wave of foreign success, their music is virtually unknown in South Africa.
Despite the fact that Voices of Africa is riding this wave of foreign success, their music is virtually unknown in South Africa. Apart from performing for the Port Elizabeth’s Tourist Board and in a handful of local restaurants, the band has not appeared elsewhere at home. “We try to look on the positive side of this,” says Maziwisa.
Hallam bemoans the absence of serious funding from government agencies in Port Elizabeth in particular and South Africa in general. “Without belittling anyone, it is clear that pop, hip hop and electric house music genres are seen as more glamourous and less ‘boring’ by local audiences. We are more than satisfied with our reception abroad, though!”