Afro-folk singer Bongeziwe Mabandla on stage in Amsterdam was a visceral experience
To see Bongeziwe Mabandla at Amsterdam’s Bitterzoet this past Saturday was to be part of witnessing an African artist on the global ascendance.
The show was sold out, maybe even over capacity. People jostled for space and a better view of Mabandla on the small stage, watched over by ruby-red stained-glass windows of naked men and women in different configurations of erotic embrace.
It was a fitting backdrop for an artist whose cover of his just-released album, amaXesha, is a libidinous black-and-white Travys Owen photograph. The image is as many miles away from the fresh-faced young artist in a striped T-shirt on the cover of his 2012 debut, Umlilo, as Amsterdam is from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape where Mabandla grew up.
Back then Mabandla had stepped into the local spotlight as a purveyor of Afro-folk, his acoustic guitar up-front, his voice angelic and easy to fall in love with. Threads of this foundational music remain on amaXesha, and sway their way into his developing sound which these days is excavating an altogether different and, it must be said, singular sonic terrain.
It is easy to feel that Mabandla is on the cusp of bigger things – professionally of course, but more so creatively, and the lasting feeling after his show in Amsterdam is that the treat of catching him in so intimate a venue will probably (and rightly) not be repeated. His connection with the audience is visceral, the captivation experienced by the crowd a simple, thrilling product of the musical captivation of the performer on stage. And, given how much his art is still in a nascent stage, there is still so much to explore, to hone, to play with and to discover. Few artists today seem as equipped (or bound) for glory.
Mabandla had had a trying week. There was the shower door that shattered in his French hotel room, the glass slicing the palm of his left hand such that he needed emergency surgery in a Cannes hospital. At the time, he’d been freshening up for the premiere of Augure, a film in the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection directed by Belgian musician Baloji, in which he has a role. He’d also been prevented from boarding a flight to the UK because of a visa-processing error and so was forced to postpone the first of his two sold-out dates at London’s 100 Club.
Another day, another distressing story from the lived experience of African artists who tour outside the continent. But you would never have guessed any of this from the triumphant show that an exhilarated Mabandla put on in Amsterdam.
The signs that it was going to be a great night out were already there: As if the gods were gay, the first day of perfect weather in 2023 was reserved for the Pride parade in Utrecht, the ideal backdrop for rainbow revellers cheering from the sides of the canals at the fabulous floats; and in Amsterdam it was full sunshine and blue skies that the Mabandla crowd stepped out of and into the cavern of the Bitterzoet club, the smaller, sweatier cousin of the famed Paradiso.
As evidenced on his three past recordings – Mangaliso (2017), iimini (2020) and now amaXesha – the full-throated creativity of Mabandla’s music comes from his relationship with Tiago Correia-Paulo. The producer and musician was also at Bitterzoet – himself battling flu – an industrious, inscrutable presence responsible for all the noise from the stage, apart from Mabandla’s acoustic guitar glimmer and soaring vocal.
The power duo arrangement in which a charismatic frontman is accompanied by one sidekick who provides the entire music backdrop is a juicy and only occasionally entirely successful vehicle – its origins are in the post-punk electronic outfits (Erasure, Soft Cell) and rapper and DJ teams of the Eighties and Nineties and today is perhaps exemplified by the work of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. In our dream double bill, the Global South’s mystical richness, as embodied by Mabandla and Correia-Paulo, would be perfectly balanced by the demonic churning and soul-gnawing spectacle of the UK’s Sleaford Mods.
Unlike the other venues in the Paradiso stable, Bitterzoet comes off like a dive – of the kind that you might have encountered in London as punk was getting under way, or maybe Cape Town’s Rita’s in the late Eighties. It provides a cocoon for the set of songs off amaXesha. “sisahleleleni (i)”, “sisahleleleni (ii), “ukuthanda wena”, “noba bangathini”, “soze” and “ndikhale” fill up the space as Mabandla performs while Correia-Paulo moves with grace and consummate skill between his instruments (drums, Fender, drum pad and more).
A trio of songs off previous records close this show – “zange” off iimini,
“Ndokulandela” off Mangaliso and “jikeleza”, also off the South African Music Award-winning iimini. Already in a state of dizzy delight, the crowd are jumping out of their skins at these being included in the set. When the lights came up there was barely a face that was not lit up by a smile of bliss, of shared, sated delight, and the queue for vinyl was long and patient, with Mabandla remaining behind to sign each copy purchased.
On the way home, at the station near the Ziggo Dome, our train suddenly filled up with young people, fizzing with excitement.
“Who’d you see,” we asked. “SZA,” came the reply.
We’d almost booked to see the American, a colossal talent currently in her first arena show. In her omnivorous musical taste and defiantly individual sound, the singer from St Louis with the ability to translate innermost feelings into unforgettable communal moments is not far from the musical impulse, the unquantifiable spirit that moves Mabandla to perform. DM