Zabalaza is an R&B album. You can call it kwaito, or the voice of South African youth today, or whatever else you like, but it’s awash with that distinctive humming, crooning American breathiness, the same accent that people around the globe adopt when they sing in this style. South African rhythms run through the songs, and there’s also a smidgen of reggae and plenty of pop-gospel. “I’m so glad, so glad, His revelation is here!” Thandiswa sings in “Revelation,” and the chorus backs her up. “So glad! So glad!”
The Lord shares space in the lyrics with other subjects: love (“Ndilinde”), feelings of post-love defiance (“Ndizakulibala”), and pro-African sorrow and independence. (“Lahl’Umlenze” and the title song, “Zabalaza”, which is translated as “Rebellion.” “Come and see what I see every day / Ooh! Babies going to bed hungry. / Ooh! My peers are dying of AIDS.”) She alternates between English and Xhosa, starting off the CD with a short recording called “Mkhankatho Interlude”, a chant with shaken percussion which tells us deliberately that no matter what foreign influences we might hear later on, we’re to remember that this is always a South African album.
The second track, “Nizalwa Ngobani?” begins with English-language R&B and then brings in one of those Southern African guitar rhythms that turn in circles and seem capable of going on forever. The singer switches languages. By the end of the song she’s working with English and Xhosa and R&B and the circling guitar all at once, and the marriage of these different things is so smooth that the first time I listened to it I didn’t even notice. I just thought, “Hm, smooth song.”
Zabalaza has a stateliness that sets it apart from the albums Thandiswa makes with Bongo Maffin, the popular kwaito group that she’s been singing with for almost a decade now. Shades of her album turn up on the group’s 2001 release, Bongolution, but on Bongolution her crooning was accompanied by a clubby backbeat and synth effects which pushed it along quickly—there’s none of that pushing on Zabalaza. She collaborates with Bongo Maffin’s producer, Mandla Spikiri, on track eleven, “Kwanele” and the old backbeats try to creep in again, but this time her voice has got the upper hand and the beats relax.
After “Kwanele” she gets still more laid-back with “Ndizakulibala” and then the album finishes with “Transkei Moon”, a cool-toned tribute to the Transkei, a predominantly Xhosa-speaking region on South Africa’s eastern coast. The liner notes suggest that Thandiswa brushed up on her rural roots by spending some time there, both in her mother’s birthplace and in the home village of Madosini, a celebrated Xhosa musician who is getting her dues after being ripped off… I was going to write ‘ripped off earlier in her career,’ but she didn’t really have a career back then thanks to the whole getting ripped off thing, so make it ‘earlier in her life’ instead.
Madosini gets a ‘Thank You’ at the back of the inlay. So do Thandiswa’s mentors, Hugh Masekela, the jazz trumpeter, and Sibongile Khumalo, whose voice is a little like that of her protégé though deeper and with a more formal phrasing. Her CDs are a reminder of just how richly Thandiswa’s album has been produced. Khumalo has the superior voice, but those thin-sounding keyboards they like to put behind her? Horrible. Lend her some of Zabalaza‘s violins and plump her up with that multi-layered sound and then watch her fly.
In summary, this is an accomplished solo debut, well-sung, well-played, well-composed, well done overall. If I don’t love it that’s only because I’ve always liked aural grit more than aural honey, and Zabalaza is honey. People who enjoy their music sultry and urban should take to it with pleasure.