Interview

Indaba Is Pt 2: Siyabonga Mthembu shares the journeys that led to him participating in a collaboration of SA’s finest musicians and what the project means to him

Passed on from previous generations, storytelling through song teaches lessons, preserves memories, and helps us make sense of the world around us. Deeply entrenched in South African culture, it is as much the responsibility of the elders to teach as it is on the younger generation to learn.

Understanding and accepting his responsibility as an elder of sorts to the next generation of South African musicians, creative activist, performer, and curator Siyabonga Mthembu (The Brother Moves On), co-led and co-curated by multi award-winning jazz pianist and vocalist Thandi Ntuli, invites some of the country’s finest musical talents, their contemporaries, to participate on Indaba Is – a compilation of stories told through contemporary South African improvised music and jazz.

No sooner had I wrapped up my interview with Thandi Ntuli when Siyabonga Mthembu appeared in my Zoom waiting room, ready to share their story.

Over the years, seeing Mthembu on and off stage, I’ve always known him to speak exactly to the way things are and, in response to my “How are you?”, he wastes no time in fulfilling that role. “I don’t know, Al. Shit’s weird, people are dying. We’re gonna be a whole other world by the time this thing is over,” his voice hanging heavy with pain.

He explains that music he’d performed many years ago with The Brother Moves On, “Eternal Dove of Peace” (written by Zizwe Mthembu) didn’t feel right at the time, but that mourning times call for mourning tunes.

Mthembu takes me back to where music began for him. His mother, the daughter of a bishop, led both school and church choirs. His father’s side of the family owned a soccer club, but three of the brothers were intellectuals who had a deep history of playing music with some of the South African greats like the late vocalist, jazz guitarist, and band leader Philip Tabane. “Very much of the stuff I find myself in and around now was my dad’s influence,” he says proudly.

His and Thandi Ntuli’s collaboration began in 2015, but he makes a point of making me understand that, “Before I even met Thandi I was really into her music, like I was and am a superfan.” He tells me about their first collaboration, inviting her to play with The Brother Moves On on some of their songs, and playing on her song, “Umthandazo”.

“We used to call it ‘The Thandi Song’, and for years I had it in my head that we were gonna put the Thandi song on an album. It’s the Thandi song ‘cause Thandi has to be there, we can’t play it without her,” he laughs as he recalls their memories, “So when this project came about, it was just a shoe in to work with Thandi. We had worked together many times before and it was just easy.”

Mthembu tells me about being on tour in London and having dinner with the fine folks at Brownswood Recordings. He’d heard Kokoroko’s “Abusey Junction” and wasn’t even aware that Shabaka Hutchings of Brownswood Recordings, was the producer on their album, We Out Here. A fated coincidence sparked the conversation that eventually led to the label agreeing to fund Indaba Is under Mthembu’s and Ntuli’s co-curatorship.

Mthembu beams with pride when he talks about Indaba Is, explaining that the title isn’t an open-ended idea, but an affirmation, and that during these times of mourning, it was the salve to soothe his sore soul. “It’s so weird, I’ve been listening to [the album] for six months, and healing my own hurt for six months, and the coolest part about it is like, I’d put in a proposal in late 2018, and it was like 10% of what came out. The 90% of what made it what it is, is the collective of human beings involved,” he says with appreciation, “And close to 60 people were involved.”

Aligned with a recurring theme in the album, I ask Mthembu who we are. “I think the answer for me, like in this album, we’re a multiplicity of a really great intentions of love and light, our biggest issue is that we try and make this homogenous understanding of it, instead of celebrating the true diversity of how mixed we really are as a people, and how we share so much commonality across regions that make us such global citizens.”

As smoothly as any one song on Indaba Is leads into the next, I take the segue and ask: where are we going, and in conclusion Mthembu responds thoughtfully, “It was so interesting to hear my contemporaries talk about the very dreams and ideas that I already had in my head about where I wish we would all go together. We’ve hit that elder space, like when we were complaining about people not helping us out, we’re now in those positions. We’re now able to give that kinda information and that kinda guidance. We have to pass on our stories.”