Our Burning Planet


‘The One Who Sings’ dives deep into the ocean and strikes a chord with nature’s songs

‘The One Who Sings’ dives deep into the ocean and strikes a chord with nature’s songs
Zolani Mahola performs at the Sandton Convention Centre on 26 July 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Ahead of her performance at The Gathering: Earth Edition, the artist formerly known as Zolani Mahola explains how she became an advocate for the protection and preservation of the environment.

A deep dive in Cape Town’s frigid ocean helped douse a roaring wave of searching for self, The One Who Sings (previous stage name Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground) says of her journey into discovering her place in and connection to the environment. 

“Besides seeing the incredible aquatic life, I began to hear all of these melodies. And there’s this incredible process called being ‘cold-drunk’… being immersed in cold water for so long that your endorphins kick in and you become high,” says Mahola.

“I came out of the water feeling euphoric! It was amazing to feel that … being completely in a designated natural space. And that just really opened me up to understanding my journey of respect and reverence for natural spaces,” she adds.

Mahola was seven years old when her mother passed away at the age of 38. Thinking about this, before she turned 38 and with her eldest son almost seven, triggered thoughts and questions about her life, her journey through the world and her sense of belonging. This led to her staging a play with the same title as her creative name, The One Who Sings, at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre at the end of 2019. 

While staging the play, she received a call from documentary filmmaker Craig Foster of My Octopus Teacher fame, asking her to produce a sea forest anthem with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The method used was “song-catching”. 

“Craig taught this method of really deeply listening; going into the natural space, listening to the song of the wild and almost entering a trance-like state, and listening beyond your ears, with your whole being. 

“I was very intrigued by song-catching … going to the mountain, for example, and capturing the song of the mountain.” 

To connect with her inner self and immerse herself in natural spaces, the artist engaged in practices that she had left behind on becoming an adult – such as praising her ancestors before entering water. She says she discovered links between her ancestry and water that she had not been aware of before.

“That first immersion really opened up my connection to Xhosa traditional practices and my ancestry, and the gateway was the natural world.

“African people have always been connected to nature. We’ve always had a respectful and reverential and reciprocal relationship with nature. And in our country, because of colonialism and apartheid, we’ve been more and more separated from natural landscapes and I think that has done a lot of damage to the connection to ourselves.” 

Reconnecting with herself and her ancestry through nature’s gateway led The One Who Sings to become an advocate for the protection and preservation of nature.

Mahola has since become an ambassador for the Sea Change Project, which was co-founded by Foster. Here, she places a spotlight on the state of our oceans. Her work also extends to an ambassadorial role with the Earthchild Project. 

“The other part of my work is elevating the sanctity of the time of childhood,” she says of her work with the Earthchild Project. 

“A big part of that is making them aware of the environment … of cultivating a relationship with the environment.

“I love seeing young people from all over the world stepping up and saying, ‘You had your chance and you f*cked it up, and you don’t seem to be getting how dire it is and how you’re messing with my future.’

“And so, in all of the work that I do, talking to kids at schools and bringing in this idea that kids have agency, is this principle that they are connected to their natural world. It’s a very important part of me using my voice – an important part of my work,” says The One Who Sings. 

As far as music is concerned, the music released under her new stage name has been inspired by time spent in nature.

Her album, Thetha Mama, features soundscapes of the natural world through elements such as wind and water.

“I tried to let nature be a voice,” says Mahola. She shot the video of her song “Wawundithembisileentirely in wilderness areas.

“I’m letting nature be an integral voice in my work. My aim is to increase the reverence for natural spaces. There is no separation between us and nature.

“My activism is actively being reverent and having nature inform my voice,” she says.

“The work I’ve done brought home how intertwined with the world we are – how much nature is part of our heritage; how much we are not separate from nature … that we are nature.” DM

For tickets to Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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