Forty-two kilometres from Umthatha, the former capital of Transkei in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, is kuTsolo. It’s a small town with a name which means pointed, referring to the shape of the hills characterising the rural landscape. It is far from the scintillating big city lights, and it is home to the young and undeniably talented musician Bongeziwe Mabandla. As is often the case with many a budding artist in South Africa, Bongeziwe now lives in Melville — the decidedly cool and creative suburb of Johannesburg — where he is currently mixing and blending his music. With his distinct voice, Bongeziwe has begun to pique the interest of many in South Africa, and beyond. There is a certain quality in his voice, which lends itself to the exploration of raw emotion.

“I felt like there was a lot of pain beneath a song; that even an optimistic song has an underlying sadness,” Bongeziwe says, while describing the title track of his recently released album Umlilo. The name means “fire” in isiXhosa, but aside from its direct meaning, it is also a word play on isililo, meaning a cry. “I wrote the song ‘Umlilo’ and realised that this was the central theme. Tears, crying, pain and anger turned into something powerful; Fire!”

Umlilo has a deep melancholic tone and is a fusion of various elements, mixing ingredients from maskandi, dub, rock and traditional folk music tempered with a blues sensibility. Dr. Cornel West defines blues as ‘personal catastrophe lyrically expressed’. An apt description for Bongeziwe who is no stranger to pain. However, he has found a way, through the process of a kind of alchemy, to transform that pain and anger into something sublime, something powerful.

“I sometimes take a moment to think whether people really know where my songs come from,” he says. “I always have to remember why I wrote a song so I can perform it with the correct feeling.”

There is a strong storytelling element in his music, spinning tales of freedom, poverty, struggle, anger and love, all in the context of South Africa.

“I write about things that impact me a lot, I always want my music to relate to people’s lives so a lot of the lyrics are about what I go through. I am inspired by the pain, the joy, the anger, the passion but mostly the sadness.”

Bongeziwe’s list of influences is long, the most prominent being Lauryn Hill along with Tracy Chapman, Busi Mhlongo, Jabu Khanyile, Ayo and Simphiwe Dana.

In high school Bongeziwe taught himself to play the guitar from YouTube videos. It was merely for the fun of it then. During this time he also discovered that he enjoys song writing and could see himself recording. His musical journey took a more serious turn when he started playing with a group called The Fridge and this, he says, helped him shape his sound and gain the experience of playing with a band. What had started as a hobby began to turn into something more.

“The first song I worked on was ‘Isizathu’. At that time I wanted to write something clean and clear! I wanted to prove myself and I was very nervous, but ‘Isizathu’ is one of the singles in my album now!”

A few years ago Bongeziwe met producer Paulo Chibanga of the group 340ml and they started putting together some songs. Umlilo is a product of their cooperation. In June this year Bongeziwe signed a deal with a major label, Sony Music Africa. Now, a few months later the ink has dried and a few illusions have been shattered.

“I thought that it would mean I would not have to worry about anything again,” he laughingly admits and adds, “it’s really funny how one always wants to get the deal not thinking about the struggles within the deal — I thought that things would change overnight, but I have to work harder now. I have so much to do and need to do it right.”

The latest single ‘Gunuza’ is a social commentary on the behaviour and goings-on of the rich and powerful people in a country with a brutal history of oppression.

“That song was written around election time here in South Africa,” Bongeziwe stresses. “As a person I felt ignored in my society. I felt that people that mattered were people with money! So I wrote about the character Mr Gunuza. I wanted to show people that we are driven by money and that we only respect people who have it. I wanted to ask the question! What if we went deeper into a rich man and asked ourselves who is he? Would we still applaud or would we be disappointed?”

The video for ‘Gunuza’ is shot in a rural setting reminiscent of his humble beginnings in kuTsolo. It depicts an environment of relative poverty which he is familiar with, having been raised by a single mother in the village of Somavili.

“I never thought that where I grew up was important, but now I understand the beauty of growing up in rural Transkei. I am aware of the value of the lifestyle in rural areas — how we didn’t know what it was to be disrespected or devalued just because we were poor or black. I wanted to place people in an environment, like back home, and also just to tell the story as I saw it happen.”

Bongeziwe speaks very fondly of his mother saying she taught him the importance of pursuing his dreams. The song ‘Ngawe Mama’ is dedicated to her.

Bongeziwe shows obvious concern about the album sales. So far, the media and audience response have been positive, although the excitement generated hasn’t yet fully translated to sales. The process seems to be taking some time. This however hasn’t detracted him from his resolve to continue to work on his craft. He is determined to keep making the kind of music that means something to him. He’s already making plans for the next project. Perhaps the music sales will gain momentum as Umlilo spreads from place to place around South Africa, or perhaps it will create a cult following; one that does not subscribe to any particular geographical or linguistic borders. After all, it is not unheard of for African musicians with a distinct style, to receive a warm welcome internationally, while struggling to get a response from the home audiences.

As the revenue streams of the music industries are changing, the album sales are becoming less central. While money can be made out of hit singles, for a career in music one stands a better chance with powerful live performances and touring. For that there needs to be a connection between the audience and the artist. The audience has to feel the art and if there is one thing above everything else to be said about Bongeziwe Mabandla, it is that his sound will make you feel.

* Amkelwa Mbekeni is one half of the Planet Earth Planet Rap International Hip-Hop segment of And You Don’t Stop! radio show on WBAI (New York).