There is a rich tradition of story-telling in African culture. Stories are passed down from one generation to the next through speech or song, folkloric fables and proverbs that pass on knowledge to help people make sense of their world and that guide human morals.
Multi-award winning vocal virtuoso and jazz composer Zoë Modiga is a modern-day story-teller bent on preserving and celebrating the ancient art of story-telling, an art form she learnt from the best: her mother and all those who came before.
Modiga takes me on a trip down memory lane to Mvuthuza road in eMbali, Pietermaritzburg where, as a child, she was surrounded by music every day. “You’d hear every kind of thing from gospel, to kwaito, to old school R&B and maskandi,” she begins. “I enjoyed how that made me feel, that kaleidoscope of sounds. I enjoyed even more how people had different soundtracks to their lives and how they would interact with music,” she remembers fondly.
Her entire childhood a musical education in itself, Modiga began her academic musical journey when she auditioned for and subsequently joined the St Nicholas Diocesan School junior choir. “I was singing aloud at home before then but realized I had something special then as I’d be asked to lead a few of the songs we performed at school.”
From the Cape Town International Jazz Festival to Afropunk to making the Top 8 in Season 1 of The Voice SA, Modiga has performed across the best stages in the country, but I want to know more about the 2010 World Cup Opening Ceremony performance. “No one ever asks me about that!” she lights up with excitement.
A couple of students at the National School of Arts were selected for the performance, choreographed by Somizi Mhlongo — TV personality, radio presenter, choreographer and performer. She’s transported back to 2010 as she reminisces, “That moment was truly one of the most surreal moments I have ever experienced. South Africa felt like a utopia and that stadium was otherworldly. The spirit that we all summoned from the people there to those watching on their screens was pure magic. I will always be so proud to be a part of that history.”
Musicality aside, my favourite thing about Modiga’s live performance is the fashionista’s exquisite style, something that we bond on. “I take my image seriously because the performers I enjoy most create a world of expression not just through records and performance but marry it so beautifully with garments. I have been so lucky to wear some of the most trailblazing young designers we have in South Africa (Nao Serati one of her favourites), so I always look fabulous,” she says and her lips meet in a poised pout.
Modiga released her debut album, Yellow: The Novel in 2017 and broke all the first-release rules: there were 23 tracks on the album, some were 9 minutes long, others 11, so I wonder about the thinking behind the unconventional release. “I wished to establish myself as an art practitioner that doesn’t do the usual, one that sets her own bar and I’m honoured that my audience loves exactly that,” she explains. “They don’t mind me being exactly me and that creates a safe space to always create in respect and truth. They honour me with their ears and lives and I honour them with my truth and life.”
The response to “Inganekwane”, one of only three songs on her first album sung in her mother tongue, Zulu, led her deeper into a space of wanting to engage with her own identity. “Amongst many things, language was such an important way to tell our stories. It engages with a sacred part of who we are and lives in that,” she explains.
Her deep exploration of self inspired her to write her newly released sophomore album of the same name, Inganekwane, which translates to Zulu fairytale. In contrast to her debut release, the album is almost exclusively written in Zulu.
She explains that it became important for her to breathe fresh life into centuries of oral traditions. “Ultimately, we are all trying to remember who we are and I think language is an important part of that. I respect my mother tongue and I love celebrating it,” she explains thoughtfully, “I respect all those that come before and wish to add a contemporary and modern perspective to a beautiful language and way of singing.”
Modiga is deeply proud of her people and their stories as she welcomes the world into her narrative with Inganekwane. “These are real stories about us, I am telling us to each other,” she explains. “The whole idea is that our lives are not a myth, nor are they fiction. With all we have been through as people of colour, as black people, one would think we are unreal.”
Her words hang heavy as she concludes, “We carry some of the most heart-breaking generational traumas, and yet we still thrive, we still contribute so much beauty to this world. We need to remember how great we are, how incredible we are. We are real.”
All photos courtesy of Tatenda Chidora.