Croatian-born Ziza Muftic stepped into an ambitious musical journey in South Africa when her parents migrated from a war-torn Croatia in 1992. It was terribly cold in Johannesburg that August, as she left her teenage sandals behind in the summery North. Her academic and professional success as a jazz vocalist confirms her gutsy approach to creativity, as she explored what she felt was still missing in her own Balkan musicality: a South African musical expression. Subsequently, she has performed with some of South Africa’s top Jazz musicians like Johnny Fourie, Reza Khota, and Marcus Wyatt. She was also asked to sing a finalist piece at the SAMRO 2018 composer’s finals, where the composition won in category.
Muftic is now feeling her shining hour. Shining Hour (2019) is her second album, entitled from songwriter, Jonny Mercer’s ‘My Shining Hour’ song of hope and high expectations, and follows on her first album, Silver Moonbeams (2015), with its Balkan rhythms, lyrics, and melodies. Her stories shine in delightfully pleasing and thoughtful ways as she handpicks from known songs and her own compositions.
She adds the spoken word to such standards as Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Homeboyz’ and the Beattles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ which continues in a sullen mood started by the opening Mseleku piece. Her low voice register breathes a kind of soft whimsical lullaby sound with inflections from her able band members that make this jazz album enticing and moving. She says on her album cover: “Music and thoughts collected on a journey from Bosnia and Croatia to South Africa. These tunes found this band and have become a part of our standard repertoire.”
Muftic searches with questions put to English lyrics: in the moody, sometimes sassy ‘what’s the colour of my Heart’, and in how ‘Love is the Drug’ tells about something familiar and is skilfully supported by Sydney Mnisi’s wailing tenor saxophone and pianist Roland Moses’s runs. Then, inventive mixes of Croatian lyrics and Balkan-style vocals with a South African context in ‘Kwela/Gontsana (Milena)’ reveals hints about the next song, ‘Unfinished Story’, where drummer Peter Auret holds a steady fast beat while Muftic scats her unfinished story. It seems clear how Muftic’s interest and research into Balkan styles are transposed with South African ethnomusicality, a theme she is pursuing presently.
Her skills in arranging come through interpretations of the Latin swing, as in the popular Corea/Jobim ‘Chega de Saudade’, and in her own composition, ‘Blue’, influenced by Pat Metheny, which has Mnisi’s flute solo querying Muftic’s unending searching and wondering.
The album ends with an inventive taster for what’s to come in the future: ‘Bosnian Flute Jam’ is just that, Balkan dance mixed with South African marabi rhythms. With a cross over voice the likes of a Carmen McCrea and Balkan mixes which would excite the Bombshelter Beast’s mixed bag, Shining Hour guarantees to hold the listener ‘s heart and ears in a tight embrace.
An interview with Muftic explains herself:
CM: You have absorbed so much of the South African experience, from being a teenage immigrant who quickly adapted to the local artistry back in the 1990s.
ZM: As I grew in this country, I realized that I had much more similarity with the way of living of Black people in townships than the squeaky clean middle class –both black and white – that live in the suburbs of JoBurg . This thing of community living, of not locking your door, and going next door to your neighbour if you needed some salt – we used to live like that in Croatia. There, we lived in flats with only one key, and my neighbour was always in my lounge. But now in JHB, we have several keys which we are always having to sort out which is for what……and there’s an alarm button, and a code for a lock, just to get into your own house! It’s like phases, you know…..
CM: You came to South Africa after your matric in Croatia, right? And was able to study music right away here. How did you manage with English?
FM: I had music credentials from my Croatian high school and a respected music school in Zagreb called Vatroslav Lisinski, and studied under one of Croatia’s well known divas, Lidija Horvat. It was then that I won a third place at a singing competition amongst young singers from all over Croatia. So when I arrived in JoBurg, I could enter university here right away. It was hard as I had to learn English just from living, so I just learned as I went along. I completed my BA in Music in 1996 focusing on Classical Vocal studies, and my Masters in Music in 2013, both degrees from Wits University. My Masters was in Performance and Research. My two recitals were late classical to contemporary, a program which covered music from Stravinsky to Django.
CM: You seem to enjoy mixing your Balkan musical heritage with the South African sounds. Can you tell me more? Particularly about that last song ‘Bosnian Flute Jam’ on your album.
FM: FM: I started the ‘mixing’ during my Masters studies. It was then that I picked up a well known Bosnian folk tune, ‘Ne klepeci nanulama’. Everybody knows that song in the ex- Yugoslav countries and everyone in my family sings it well. I added to it a standard South African jazz progression, and you know, long before I performed that song, I would just sit and cry in my studio. Because there was this soul thing I found with South African jazz, it filled something in me that I was missing from my Croatian side. So I put the Bosnian flute jam at the end of this album as a signal of what was brewing inside me and what will come next in future albums.
CM: You wrote your Masters thesis about Balkan music in South African music. Explain more.
FM: I used to go to Balkanology parties in JoBurg ages ago, where I heard this music that sounded like something from home. I was completely bewildered hearing this in Newtown in JoBurg , and found two DJs from Capetown!! So I chatted to the people that I was trying to find a theme for my research, so I just went back to that. There was no ‘soul’ connection as such, but there was definitely something like a ‘fun’ thing in these parties, and their dance was fun. It reminded me of these raucous weddings you’d see in the villages back home in Bosnia and Serbia with that familiar um pah n pah n pah. So going to these parties helped me decide about what I could write for my thesis.
CM: So how did you conduct this research from the parties?
FM: My Professors were so keen to do research on this because there is so little written about Popular music in South Africa (academic writing in particular). So I focused my ethnographic research on these parties. I took two different parties where you dress up in costumes and then dance to this crazy music of that period around the time of the war. The whole thing was actually a movement. So right about the time of the war, there were a lot of immigrants to – it started in Germany, I think. They displayed this nostalgia thing where they started playing a Romani music and a kind of Serbian cheezy pop that you would hear at 4 o’clock in the morning from people who were drunk-drunk from the wedding parties. So it became like a trend, you know. And then ‘Borat’ came out – you know with that Sacha Baron Cohen actor and his character from Eastern Europe who is a bit naïve. So I had these influences growing up. Then there was the film, The Underground , that turned the eyes of the world towards our country and culture, some of it ridiculing how naïve people from the village seemed as they carried themselves awkwardly into the city or whatever. You know how it is when people from the Western world will always look for something new to spice up this doof doof doof they have in clubs.
CM: What do you mean? You mean how the Bombshelter Beast emerged as a popular band…..
FM: What Marcus [Wyatt] has done is genius because that sound is Joburg right now, if you had the energy and it wasn’t so dangerous to walk around , like in Braamfontein, to absorb all the sounds . I enjoyed going to the Bombshelter beast gigs because of the experience …I mean every time I go to his gig [Bombshelter Beast] and hear that guy that raps in Sisotho and isiXhosa and other languages, and the girls that rap, and then there’s the umpah umpah umpah that comes out of the songs, and the band all running around in those onesies…..
CM: Yes, they are quite entertaining. So what was your thesis title?
MF: It is entitled, “Hopa!: Exploring Balkanology in South African Popular music culture”.
CM: Let’s talk about your voice. You’ve got a pleasing timber and register in your voice. Who has influenced you in your voice production?
ZM: I don’t listen to vocalists that much, but when I do, I examine things like sound and breath, and how they blend into music and how they phrase. Often, I get disappointed because the singers tend to over-sing those things, you know, instead of really interpreting the phrasing that is what the music is about. I find beautiful voices that aren’t doing enough with the music, and then I get a little bit bored. Today, take someone like Cecile McLorin Salvant, and the technique and the colour she has and the attention to the music – you don’t always get these details today in musicians. So when I listen to my own recordings, and I see there’s a little too much there, too much excitement, then …. But I would say people like Billy Holiday, Joni Mitchell , Janis Joplin, and Carmen McCrea are some of my favourites.
Ziza has performed with some of South Africa’s top Jazz musicians like Johnny Fourie, Reza Khota, and Marcus Wyatt. She was also asked to sing a finalist piece at the SAMRO 2018 composer’s finals, where the composition won in category. See the YouTube promotion of Shining Hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud0QSNZkdW4&feature=share
The album features: Sydney Mnisi on tenor saxophone and flutes; Roland Moses on piano; Peter Sklair on electric bass; and Peter Auret on drums