This is a story, a collage of charming impressions about Miriam Makeba’s own life in song and politics-in-exile which have resonated with the young singer and song writer Simangele Mashazi’s own life journey, particularly after 1994 when Makeba could return to South Africa.
‘Sima’, raised in Newcastle, KZN, learned her vocals and groomed her talents firstly during her church choir years with strong gospel roots. She followed up with private classical vocal training sessions, but only studied music in a Ministry school when she moved to Stellenbosch. After experience on stage providing backing vocals to South African and European artists during European tours, her breakthrough came when casted to play the then late Miriam Makeba in the popular musical Mama Africa, a collaboration between the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Missouri (USA). A stage career was developing.
The bug had bitten her: Sima became inspired, if not spellbound, by the wealth of talents and history Makeba passed down, and in particular, how Makeba spoke truth through her lyrics. However, in 2017, Sima chose to leave the cast to pursue teaching and further studies at Stellenbosch University in Linguistics. But this hasn’t stopped her musicality. She delved into replicating that truth-through-lyrics by starting to compose My Story which introduces her as a songwriter and storyteller. It also enabled her to write her own songs which are performed in the show: ‘Bashadile ‘ (Zulu for “They are married”) and ‘Still Miss You’, along with other known gems like ‘Phatha Phatha’, to lesser known popular songs, like ‘Suliram’, an Indonesian lullaby. For ‘Bashadile’, Sima says she was inspired by a childhood game where children would all stand in a circle, and then children in the centre would pick a partner to “marry”. “The ones left in the circle would then sing ‘Kusele mina ngedwa nje’, which means ‘I am the only one left, “Bonke bashadile” – they are all married.” The song wants to take you on a journey and let you fall in love with life.
Her backing band excels as one of the Cape’s most popular jazz bands, made up of Ramon Alexander on piano, Annemie Nel on drums, Bradley Prince on guitars, Chadleigh Gower on bass, and Muneeb Hermans on trumpet. Some might query why she chose a Cape jazz band, even though highly successful on the local scene, but which is ethnically removed from the type of music Makeba wrote.
Sima had known the band-leader and pianist, composer, and producer Ramon Alexander, also living in Stellenbosch, for some ten years, and experienced not only mentorship from him, but the band’s versatility with genres of music. Together with Ramon, Sima could comfortably mastermind her next passion: to produce her own show, ‘My Miriam Makeba Story’, about Makeba but from her own perspective. It worked. Both she and Alexander received the award for Best Music Production at the recent 2019 Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK).
Preparing the show became essentially a learning journey for this stage-seasoned singer about an icon’s struggle with politics and life, in general. As a student of Linguistics, Sima had learned in Mama Africa how language is a symbol of power, and how Makeba in exile spoke truth to power. In this regard, Sima’s humour and engagement with the audience started early in her performance, when she asked what was the name of the song she had just sung (the ‘click song’). Soft clucking sounds buzzed around the Artscape’s sound-perfect auditorium, imitating click sounds found particularly in isiXhosa. It seemed so natural; this was an African audience who understood these linguistic dynamics, at least functionally, and why Makeba sung the ‘click song’ to European audiences while she was in exile. Sima’s background in Linguistics enabled her to point out the differences between her isiZulu clicks and isiXhosa ones, making this aspect of her presentation quite entertaining. The music became a background to her story, however.
“We must re-imagine a multi language society and view multi-lingualism as a norm in South Africa,” Sima emphatically stated in our interview. ”Ideologies are attached to language which is why I’m eager to study Linguistics and understand the power of language for social change. This is why I liked the way Makeba spoke her truth. I can do also. She used her voice to instigate social change.”
For example, during her performance, Sima did not shy away from the pain of loss which Makeba had experienced, the latter unable to visit her dying mother because apartheid barriers would not allow Makeba to return to South Africa from exile. Sima had also suffered loss, of her two sisters, and was inspired to sing her own tribute song to that, honestly and reflectively. Also, in keeping with the themes of carrying the South African ‘sound’ to world corners, she honoured the renowned Capetownian musician, Tony Cedras, (who had sculptured and arranged Paul Simon’s songs before and during their Gracelands album tour) and his efforts to spread the Cape musical histories far and wide.
Sima says she’s not a social activist per se, or a jazz artist, but she believes in the power of the message and entertaining through musical stories. Audiences won’t find intricate musicality and technique in My Story, but a melodic voice well controlled, at times spicy, and one that can emote and engage feeling about her sonic journey. Be prepared to have an intimate evening of relaxing moods tainted with a storytelling charm.
On 11 June, 2019, the show will run at the Fynarts Festival in Hermanus http://www.hermanusfynarts.co.za; in Pretoria at the Pierneef Teater on 13 July and in Johannesburg at the Foxwood House & Theatre) on 14 July. In September, the show will run at the Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom.