With his fourth album, amaXesha, South Africa’s Bongeziwe Mabandla takes up his position as a leader of an Afro Indie sound that’s finding an audience right across the world and staking its claim as one of the most singular music forms around.
Already a multiple award-winner in his home country, with two South African Music Awards (SAMA) for Best Alternative Album, and a fixture on the European touring circuit for the past five years, Mabandla’s new album is an encapsulation of how the universal beauty of music can be summoned in new ways and from new places for new audiences.
Meaning “The Times”, amaXesha is also the sound of the enigmatic spirit of African soul – as Mabandla is known – distilling the themes of time and compatibility within the vast fields of love. Written during South Africa’s stringent pandemic lockdown, Mabandla found the time in that isolation to introspect on the importance of connection, especially how this impulse can keep us going back to the same kind of experiences and outcomes in our love relationships. “The loops of our lives,” he calls it.
In this, the 14 songs that make up amaXesha are an exceptional, soul-baring contribution to the age-old canon of love songs that tell the stories of this most essential of human experience.
Whether the raw emotion of being freshly and unexpectedly spurned by a lover on the earthy “ndikhale” or being imperfect and in love and loving an imperfect person on first single “noba bangathini” or love’s dark side on the charged and atmospheric ‘ukuthanda wena’, we journey with Mabandla as he moves, his heart on his sleeve, through the contours of love. Going back to fix things. Second chances. Believing in each other again. Rebuilding, together, no matter what those around you are saying. These make up the lyrical matter of amaXesha. And, in Mabandla’s hands, the words feel like actual matter: weighty, worthy of slow examination and deep consideration, animated by the surging emotions that ignited his songwriting this time around.
amaXesha is once again produced within the intimate collaboration that Mabandla has forged with composer, instrumentalist and producer Tiago Correia-Paulo. In creating the album’s music, Mabandla and Correia-Paulo made a conscious move away from the central creative pulse of the artist’s previous three records, which was located in the simplicity of Mabandla’s vocals and his acoustic guitar, with scant need for amplification.
In what Correia-Paulo calls a “reversal of this aspect of songwriting”, the two sought to create songs out of a synth or a drum loop, with vocals only coming later. The outcome is a set of songs that remain intrinsically rooted in the traditional Xhosa folk music that Mabandla heard in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape where he grew up singing in church, at school and at home but that are imprinted with multiple flavours – among them soul, R&B, jazz, pop and a significant amount of electronica – to create a unique sound that can be described as Afro-Indie. On “hlala”, for instance, a repeated appeal for a lover to stay is carried by a keys and drum-fueled musical bedrock to create perhaps the most pop song of Mabandla’s career so far, while “libali” sparkles and shimmers with hypnotic layers of near-hymn like backing vocals and jazz-inflected keys before dissolving into the simplicity of birdsong.
Among those who worked on amaXesha is Grammy-nominated mix engineer Stephen Sedgwick (Gorillaz, Blur, Fatoumata Diawara, Lana Del Ray, Benjamin Clementine). “Bongeziwe has such a beautiful voice, full of character and emotion, and I love the way it is complemented on the album by the atmospheric textures and organic percussive sounds of the production,” says Sedgwick. “My main focus with the mix was to give the songs a sense of space and clarity for all the details to shine through, whilst also preserving the natural character and warmth of the original recordings. It’s a beautiful album and I’m glad I could be a part of it.”
Mabandla studied drama at Johannesburg’s AFDA school and, in 2022, affirmed his wide-ranging talents when he joined the cast of a film being shot in Kinshasa by musician and filmmaker Baloji. Like the Belgian-based multi-hyphenate and others (Moses Sumney, Petite Noir), Mabandla stands at a crossroads that takes in the heritage of those who came before but is also unafraid of the experimentation that can create a cultural shift and make something fresh for the world. As such, amaXesha makes good on the promise of the artist’s previous albums Umlilo (2012), Mangaliso (2017) and iimini (2020), the latter a number one on iTunes and Apple Music, a soundtrack to the pandemic and, in many ways, a lyrical companion piece to his latest release.
The months surrounding amaXesha’s release will see Mabandla take the album to audiences globally, once again demonstrating the role of music as a universal connector, in spite of language or cultural differences. Among his upcoming appearances are shows in Switzerland, the Netherlands and a June 1st show at The 100 Club in London that is already sold out, with another being added to accommodate demand. These follow Mabandla’s sold-out tours of South Africa and Europe over the past two years.
As he releases amaXesha, Mabandla is excited about continuing – and expanding to new listeners – the intimate journey with his audience that he has built on his previous trio of albums. “I’m seeking those true feelings – those human moments that allow for a deep and lasting connection with the listener,” he concludes.