20 November 2007
Fresh from a two-month tour of Europe, Simphiwe Dana enthuses about the response to the international release of her album Zandisile. “It’s been amazing,” the singer says. “If I wasn’t an Aquarian I would have flown away now from all the excitement.”
At the core of this triumph is her belief in music that speaks to the heart and transcends the barriers of language.
Dana’s music is a warm multi-layered mix that is at once spiritual and sophisticated. It overlays the rich harmonies of traditional choral music and gospel with a slick urban jazz groove. The vocals take centre stage in her compositions. She works out the melody a capella and then adds layer after layer of harmonies and simple instrumentation to achieve the resonance and depth of sound.
Born in rural Gcuwa and raised in Lusikisiki, Dana completed her schooling at the Vela Private School in Mthatha. She went on to study graphic design and received her national diploma in information technology. “From my music you can tell I’m a graphic designer,” Dana says. Style and structure are central to everything she does – from her songs to her renowned fashion sense.
In her biography on the Gallo Records site, Simphiwe paints an idyllic picture of her childhood in Lusikisiki. “Sunrays glittered over the hills of Lusikisiki village, Transkei, Eastern Cape, barefoot and with a bucket of water drawn from the nearest river on my head; I would chant ceremonial circumcision and wedding songs,” she says. It was here that her decision always to have music in her life was made.
However, in an e-mail interview with Madiba Action, she also acknowledges the hardships of her early years. She and her sister, Siphokazi, were sent to live with her grandparents while her mother was a student nurse.
“My earliest memory is eMgagasi, a place around Butterworth. We did not really see life as difficult there; almost everyone around us lived the same. Almost everyone made a fire to cook and thus needed firewood … or they used the primus stove when they could afford the paraffin. Almost everyone ate from their gardens and thus had to keep them well maintained. Almost no one had new clothes or good clothes, and shoes were a luxury a very few could afford.”
By the age of four or five, she and her sister were already part of the family’s struggle to survive.
“As children we accepted our environment and found a way to weave our playtime into the time for chores. So when we went to fetch water, we went in groups of at least five, and we’d sing, tell stories and jokes, and chase each other on our way there.
“When we went to gather wood, we made sure we explored the river and forest for wild fruit and just wild encounters with nature. When the chores were done, the games still continued until sunset.”
‘I missed my mother’
Dana admits that pain of separation from her mother was what she suffered most. I “missed my mother a great deal. I missed her until I felt I could not miss her any more, and then I missed her even more.”
However, she remains philosophical about the experience. “So I learnt from an early age how to go at it on my own. I learnt to appreciate what I had because it was all I felt I had in the world in the end. I vowed that I would take seriously the talents that the Divine gave me and give life a serious go.
“Maybe not necessarily a fair lesson for a child,” she concedes, “but one that would help me shape my life.”
Despite this temporary separation, Simphiwe’s mother continued to be a powerful influence on her life. She describes her as a strong woman, with a beautiful natural singing voice and a firm belief in God. “The only way to move closer to God is through music,” Simphiwe maintains.
The difficulties she has overcome have undeniably added a depth and maturity to her music that took the critics by surprise when the young musician’s first album, Zandisile, was released in 2004.
The title track was written for her own daughter, Zazi, but as she told CLASSICfeel Online, it is “a message for all the black youth of our country. If I ever was not there to help them and they felt confused and uncertain about life, they can listen to the words of my songs and hopefully get encouragement and inspiration.”
Mending through music
Another turning point in her life happened in September 2005 en route to a performance in Vereeniging. Eight months pregnant at the time with her son Phalo, Simphiwe was seriously injured in a car accident.
Her unborn child was unharmed but Simphiwe had glass removed from both her eyes and today still bears a jagged scar on her right cheek. From the time of the accident until the birth of her son, she was forced to wrestle with and face her fears and insecurities.
Of this time, she says simply, “I have scars internally and externally that I need to mend through my music – it is my rebirth.”
Indeed, the evidence is in the album The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street, which was released the year after the accident. It won Simphiwe industry acclaim in the form of four more SAMA awards, in addition to the two she’d already received for her debut album.
The title of her latest album speaks about the essence of Steve Biko’s message -that you must first love and respect yourself in order to love others.
On Bantu Biko Street
“Steve Biko was basically saying that the mind is the oppressor’s tool against the oppressed. The oppressor, just by changing the way you see yourself, has won the war. He was saying the mind is the stage for the last battle for our humanness, and if we win this one, we will win all the other ones.
“Knowing yourself and having faith in your capabilities comes from an intense love for life, for the Divine in you. When you start seeing the Divine in you, you cannot help seeing the Divine in others.”
In the context of South Africa’s apartheid past, she agrees that this is a message which resonates particularly strongly in Biko’s home province of the Eastern Cape. “Now imagine how you would feel if someone insults that . We were not created to fight each other, but to work together for a bigger realisation of life.”
Her intense spiritual awareness, big successes and personal struggles have brought the divine Ms Dana to a balanced perspective on life.
“I find that the things that are most important stand out like stars in the dark. Being with and loving your family and friends being one of them,” she says and reiterates quickly, “Giving life your best shot still another one – one way to glorify the Divine.”
2004 – Zandisile
2005 SAMA Awards:
- Best Vocal Jazz Album
- Best Newcomer
2006 – The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street
2007 SAMA Awards:
- Best Female Artist
- Album of the Year
- Best Contemporary Jazz Album
- Best Vocal Jazz Album
This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action. Republished here with kind permission.