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Orah & the Kites’ Ntokozo Mzimela chats being terrified of music, making friends in a new city, and the power of words.

“Do I go to James Blake’s show or do I go to Orah & the Kites’ show?” Ntokozo Mzimela, front woman, keyboardist, and lead vocalist for Orah & the Kites asks me sarcastically. 

“Of course I’m gonna go to James Blake’s show. Are you kidding me? James Blake’s one is free, and then you have like poor local artists begging you for money with these BUSQR codes in the corner —  It’s just not sustainable,” she half laughs, half shrugs about the current state of the music industry and how impossible it is as a small-ish local band to exist, much less compete, right now. 

Mzimela and I have known each other for just under three years, and I’ve always appreciated her for her refreshing honesty — the sort of person who’ll point out the popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth, for your own good. 

From headlining 2017’s Walking the Daisies alongside Cape Town-hailing lo-fi house producer (and genius) Bakai, to opening for Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn at Garden State festival, playing Kirstenbosch and Up the Creek as one of Bam Bam Brown’s Wild Professors (read: singers) to 2019’s Endless Daze festival, she’s been working Cape Town’s music scene for the last four years, hard. 

I’m shocked that it’s only been four years, and ask her to take me back a couple more, to where her love for music began. We laugh and talk about how she ditched her cassette collection for CDs at the age of six — Pink’s Missundaztood and Destiny’s Child’s Survivor among her first prized musical possessions — and how she’s been a diva since day 1. “In school they always said I was gonna be like Beyoncé ‘cause I was this fiery, attitude-y, person who loved to sing all the time,” she laughs as she recalls. 

It wasn’t until she joined a choir that she really found her bliss. “Choir was my sanctuary — that’s when I realised like harmony, also just like the power that you feel when so many people come together as a single voice, it’s just so, like… there’s no way to explain it. It’s such an incredible feeling to be part of a choir. I miss it in my adult life,” she confesses.  

In 2013, Mzimela moved down to Cape Town, deciding three years later to finally take on the Mother City’s music scene, without a real plan. “I was still playing guitar, but I didn’t have the confidence to do anything musical. I didn’t have the connections, I didn’t have the confidence, I didn’t know where to begin,” she shakes her head in disbelief. 

But she had to start somewhere, so in true do-or-die fashion, she asked best friends Teagyn Gracey (vocals and saxophone) and Jaimie de Klerk (vocals and keyboard) to start a band with her. “I said to them, ‘You guys keen to come sing with me? I’m too scared to stand on stage by myself,’” she starts. “They had also never performed anything, ever, so we just got together… It was a slow build for all of us, definitely our first thing collectively, and then it just started to pick up traction, you know, people were interested in this harmonic situation.” 

They have come an incredibly far way from the shy, trembling trio that they were when they first took to stage, and have transformed into a powerful collective of women who have a sound unlike anything I’ve experienced locally before.  With their 3-piece now a 7-piece — FACE’s Tristan de Beer joining them on guitar, Bam Bam Brown’s Kieron Brown on bass, MJ Breytenbach on guitar, and The Rudimentals’ Giovanni Serci on drums — their sound has evolved into beautifully blended, melancholic indie-folk choral arrangements with a thumping heartbeat and screaming soul. 

Last week Orah & the Kites released their third single, “Inkwell”, a masterpiece they were lucky enough to track a week before lockdown. I comment that the energy of the live band was captured beautifully in studio and Mzimela agrees, giving credit to Eldon Quirk of Versed Sounds. 

Written by Jaimie and stemming from a heartbreak she endured, the lyrics particularly hit home, sending me in two very clear but very different directions: romantic heartbreak, and the hurt that you can only experience from a friend, so I ask her where it takes her. 

She pauses to choose her words carefully as she concludes, “I think we underestimate the power of what we say and I’ve experienced that as an adult, looking back at like things that people have said that have affected me and how I view myself, quite personal things, people don’t understand that, when you say things to people, you are creating a world within them that they have to deal with, so I think we have to think more about what we say before we say it.”

Watch the stunning animated lyric video below, directed and animated by Thea De Klerk, and let it take you where you need to go.