Zethu Mashika is one of the youngest film composers in South Africa. A self-taught musician, Mashika’s sounds prompt listeners to meet him halfway and interpret the message in their own way. (Image: Shamin Chibba)
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Zethu Mashika looks like any young man walking around Melville in Johannesburg. He wears faded jeans, an old T-shirt and Converse All Star sneakers. And on a cold winter’s morning, he covers his head with an oversized beanie. The only thing that gives away his age is the beard that trails his jawline; without it, he would look like a boy just out of school.
Judging by his attire, no-one would guess the 30-year-old is a film composer with an ear for all sounds from classical music to hip-hop. Mashika follows in the footsteps of black composers from the past including Jonas Gwangwa, Mbongeni Ngema, Joseph Shabalala and Caiphus Semenya and he is quickly becoming a regular in the country’s film industry. His music has been the emotional pivot for South African films such as Zama Zama and Skyf.
The self-taught artist has won the best score award two years in a row in the 48 Hours Film Project, a festival that challenges filmmakers to create a film in just two days. And currently, he is working on two major films, a sex comedy called Working for Willy and South Africa’s first dance flick, Hear Me Move, which promises to be a blockbuster.
For Mashika, music is his entire being. It determines his mood and directs his life. “Sometimes when I’m really upset I need to listen to music to calm down. It really has that effect on everything I do. I can’t function without it,” he explains.
Success, however, did not come overnight. It took Mashika almost 10 years before he got the recognition he needed to break into the industry.
Watch the ‘Zama Zama’ trailer, in which Mashika’s music features
It all started with an old piano
As a schoolboy at Benoni High, Mashika had always found pleasure in singing, rapping and beat boxing. But he only really discovered his love for music when he came across an old piano inside the school’s gym. Whenever he had the chance – between classes, during break and even after school – he would go to the gym and play. “Even though I couldn’t play I would just carry on and teach myself certain songs.”
He has received no formal music training apart from bits of advice from other pianists. “I would ask them ‘how do you play this?’ They would show me and I would repetitively do that over and over.”
His love of harmony, which features so regularly in his compositions, came from his time in the school’s choir. “I joined the choir in matric just to keep my voice in check and I got a little bit more than that. Right now I harmonise everything.”
After matriculating he went on to study electro-mechanical engineering at Tshwane University of Technology in 2003. It was here that he got access to a friend’s computer and a sequencing programme called Fruity Loops. He started making about 25 songs a week. “I was a machine. I was exploring all these ideas I had and it was exploding.”
At first, he wanted to produce commercial music and become famous. But, he says, he grew up and wanted something more challenging. Then, in 2009, he found his calling when he met Mfundo Mkhize, a film director who became a good friend. It was a Friday night when a friend asked Mashika to score a student film. He jumped at the chance. He was collected and taken to the studio where he met Mkhize, the student trying to make the film. Mashika scored it in one night. He realised film composing was the challenge for which he was looking. “It was at that very moment that I decided I was a film composer.”
But when Mashika started hunting for work he did not expect it to be as tough as it was. He was staying on his own, broke and desperate. Going back to his parents’ home, however, was not an option. He kept at it for two years until his big break came.
He was sitting in a coffee shop on Melville’s Seventh Avenue when he overheard two men at the next table talking about shooting a film. “In my head I was thinking, I could be polite and keep minding my own business, which wouldn’t get me anywhere. Or I could just speak to them and ask them politely. The worst that could happen would be that they would tell me to butt out of their conversation. Or I could get my first feature film.”
He introduced himself as a film composer and asked to pitch to their director. It was a gutsy move that paid off because two days later, filmmaker Vickus Strijdom called him and set up a meeting. Mashika gathered all the material he had for his presentation. “I went into the meeting with a crappy laptop, and crappy earphones. I told him I hadn’t scored a feature before but I was studying it by myself.”
Mashika asked for a chance and Strijdom gave it to him. “He said ‘I want you to create something organic. A sound the way you’ll see it.’ He gave me two weeks.”
And so he started writing the music for Strijdom’s Zama Zama, a film set in the gold mines of Gauteng. The night before he began composing the music, Mashika lost his voice while out partying. “It turned out to be perfect for the song I was doing. The texture of my voice came out coarse.”
He invited Strydom to a friend’s garage studio where he could listen to the sample. After hearing it, the director said: “Welcome to the project; we are taking you in.”
Watch the ‘Skyf’ trailer, which features Mashika’s music
Music a spiritual endeavour
The first thing one sees when entering Mashika’s Melville flat is the studio on the right. With three computer monitors, two mounted speakers, a keyboard and electronic drum set all placed on the table, it is clear that he is most comfortable exploring his ideas at home.
He says film scoring forces him to feel the music, and at times he is so overcome by emotion, he tears up. The score he wrote for Zama Zama was particularly painful. “The emotion takes over me while I’m composing. I have to feel it before I can make anyone else feel it too.”
This is the sort of sensation he looks to project to audiences through his music. He also adds vocals to some of his compositions, often using his own singing voice. In the process he creates his own language, one that does not exist, he says. “I want you to hear a human voice that you can connect to. And once you connect to it, I don’t want you to understand what I’m saying but feel what I’m saying.”
Words, he believes, are a weaker form of communication as people remember what they feel more than what they hear or read. “Nothing works better than music, or something visual. Once you remove words [from] the equation, you rely on spiritual communication.”
Being a young black composer a blessing and curse
It took a lot for him to break through that wall, but judging by his success, he has managed to tear it down.
Mashika is one of the few South African film composers working in the country. There are not enough of them to render the art form an industry. He speaks of Philip Miller, for example, who scored the film The Bang Bang Club and the television series Yizo Yizo.
As for black South African musicians who have worked in film, Mashika can only think of Lebo Morake. He arranged and performed the music for Disney’s The Lion King. Even then, Mashika points out, Morake did not score the film. That was left up to Hans Zimmer. With this in mind, Mashika opted out of this year’s 48 Hour Film Project. He says if he won the best film score award again, it would mean there had been no growth in South African film composition.
Always looking to improve
He is constantly striving to improve himself, taking on projects that push his creativity to the limit. Dance movie Hear Me Move was one of those that saw him go beyond himself. “After seeing the first cut I knew the music was going to make or break it. That is awesome for me because I don’t want to stay at the same place. I want to have something that will push me to become better.”
In the coming year he will be scoring Working for Willy as well as a television series. And again, he will be using the small studio in his flat to create the big sounds that move audiences. He says composing music electronically makes more financial sense to him and that it is the quickest way to get a song from his head to reality. “It’s only recently [that I have been] hiring software, otherwise I always had to use the cheapest and the best ways. It doesn’t matter what you use. It just matters that you have an idea and how you execute it.”
Mashika believes that he has found his life’s path in film composing, and he has a bit of advice for those who wish to find their own way. “Whatever you choose to do for the rest of your life shouldn’t be done just to express yourself. It should be a way of life. Then it means more to the person who is going to receive it.”
Being a film composer is his core and is an essential part of his existence. “I’m a film composer on a spiritual basis. I know I’m never going to retire. I know I’m going to be in the middle of a score when I pass out.”
– This article was updated on 1 August 2014.