Zahara: strumming to greatness

2011-09-18 10:00 ‘Every weed smoker in East London knows Spinach. Zahara was known as Spinach when she used to perform regularly at Talamanca,” screamed a tweet on Tuesday.

For the past two weeks, the nation has oohed and aahed over the guitar-strumming genius of Zahara.

This wholesale jubilation just confirmed what those weed smokers in East London knew all along – that this young Xhosa woman is in a league of her own.

Her dexterity on the guitar and raw sincere voice resonated with East London’s cool cats, quasi-intellectuals, pot-smoking rastafarians and the bohemian crowds of the quiet seaside town.

For a while, she was a must-see, must-hear feature at Talamanca lounge, the epicentre of the Zahara tsunami, especially on Thursday nights when the town’s thinkers gathered for their weekly conference.

Now the rest of the country finally got to witness East London’s finest export at the beginning of this month with the release of Zahara’s debut album, Loliwe, sparking off a flurry of compliments and comparisons on Twitter and Facebook.

Fuelled by her carefully managed and orchestrated TV appearances and radio spots, the viral hype spread uncontrollably.

As music lovers scrambled for clues to the metaphysical Zahara, tweets flew thick and fast.

Much like when in 1982 (sans Twitter of course) a young girl from Langa in Cape Town with a gap-tooth smile told the nation that she was no Weekend Special.

Her powerful voice rippled through the radio waves and, for a moment, the world of music stopped and asked “who is she?”. Of course, Brenda Fassie’s name was etched on our music landscape for eternity.

Other musicians came and saw, but never conquered the way MaBrr did.

Today we ask “who is Zahara?”.

We spoke exclusively over coffee at our Auckland Park offices, where she introduced herself.

“I am Zahara, also known as Bulelwa Mkutukana. I am from a village called Phumlani in East London. I live with my parents, who have been married for 35 years. There’s six of us at home and I am the fifth born. I will be turning 24 on November 9. I am a homely person and I love cooking. I am a vocalist, guitarist, composer and songwriter.”

At the age of six, Zahara found her voice in church singing with the choir and later became a worship leader for the youth.

At 14, she became a regular at the East London Guild Theatre, starring in Snow White and the 25 Dwarfs, and Cinderella.

Zahara’s curious nickname of Spinach came about because of her love for the vegetable, which her mother cultivated in their family garden.

The story goes that friends caught on to her obsession with the leaves when she would clean up their leftover spinach after meals.

In the beginning, she hated the name because it reminded her of the cartoon character Popeye. But it stuck, and eventually she decided to use it as her stage name.

When Zahara came to Joburg last year, she realised that the name was not going to work since there was a famous TV character from the drama Zone 14 known as Spinach.

Besides, in Afro-soul and jazz circles, a name like Spinach would just be ridiculous. It’s more suited to kwaito stars, house DJs and even comedians.

She turned to Google in search of a new identity and looked for a name that would encapsulate what she loves – flowers and all things beautiful. She stumbled on Zahara, which is Arabic for “a blooming flower”.

And now everyone wants a piece of that flower. No amount of careful planning and strategising could prepare the soft-spoken-yet-confident singer for the rapidly blooming career that awaited her.

“I am surprised because I never knew South Africa would appreciate my songs like this. When I was working on my music, I hoped to touch four or five lives and it looks a little more than that.”

This meteoric rise is a rare sighting. A few elements have to be in place for it to happen – a good product, perfect timing, well-planned marketing and PR.

She is a newcomer with a different sound, a phenomenal voice and is properly packaged (except for the truly awful CD sleeve and Mr Price styling). The folks at TS Records seem to have aced it.

Zahara’s music has earned her a crossover following, which ranges from President Jacob Zuma, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to the Twittering classes and Facebookers.

She provides a common ground for all in search of appealing, quality music.

The honesty in her voice on songs such as Ndize and Umthwalo prove that she is a rare gem, rivalling the iconic vocals of Fassie in her earlier years.

If you still have doubts about the Brenda effect, listen to Incwad’encane featuring Georgy.

She picks Loliwe as the song dearest to her because it inspired the whole album and set the tone when she was writing and recording.

And her sublime guitar-playing sets her apart from the normal brood that rely just on their vocals, which are for most part mediocre.

The comparisons to Miriam Makeba, Fassie, Simphiwe Dana, Siphokazi and India Arie may be the death of her, but she is not worried.

“My voice has always been big so that’s what I have naturally. I never listened to much music growing up because I come from a Christian family and my parents played a lot of Rebecca Malope, and Miriam Makeba from time to time. I loved Mama Miriam so much because of her revolutionary songs. Personally, I have come to admire India Arie, Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading. I am humbled to be compared to such big names.”

Her song Lengoma has been included on DJ Sbu’s album and this has led to criticism that her Afro-soul qualities will be compromised as she becomes “house-fied”, but she is not fazed.

“Working with DJ Sbu had a huge impact. I find that fans have managed to separate the two versions of Lengoma. Even though DJ Sbu’s is house, you will still find me and my vocals in there somewhere. It’s a great experience working with him.”

It’s her story with the guitar that is awe-inspiring.

“In 2005, when I was in matric, my father bought my elder sister a guitar. Months passed without her picking up the instrument. So in 2006, I took a gap year because there were no funds for me to go to university and I spent the whole year teaching myself how to play. I made up sounds from listening to music and watched DVDs of live concerts, and closely watched how the guitarist placed his hand and fingers to elicit a sound. It was only when I came to Joburg last year that I was told that I play chord G. It all sounded foreign to me. I am learning.”

A press release from EMI Records, which distributes the CD, announced that she has sold gold – that’s 20?000 copies – in two weeks.

“I think it’s God’s plan. People see me as me and they can sense that I sing what I am. I never wanted to impersonate anyone.”

On the small shoulders of this humble musician rests a whole industry’s hope. She’s been the saving grace of TS Records, which recently suffered an exodus of big-name artists.

And because Zahara’s wildfire popularity was so unexpected, the industry was caught with its pants down.

For a week, Zahara’s album could not be found anywhere in South Africa. All the major outlets were sitting with long waiting lists and impatient callers looking for copies.

It is a rare feat that demand exceeds supply in these days of dwindling music sales. It has become the norm that distributors order conservative figures, especially with new unknown musicians. It is little wonder that the bestselling album at the last Samas sold a measly 60 000 copies.

Already Zahara is rumoured to be sitting pretty at over 32 000 copies and quickly closing in on platinum – 40 000.

Projections are that if this streak continues, she will hit the 200 000 mark by December.

But the lapse in supply may come back to haunt her because in the absence of supply, music piracy thrives.

No one can say for sure how much she has lost because of fans copying and burning CDs for instant gratification.

Since she moved to Joburg, Zahara has been living with the Ncizas. While husband TK Nciza’s TS Records takes care of her music, wife Nhlanhla Nciza’s NN Vintage handles her look and image.

“Nhlanhla and I have a sisterly relationship. She has been mentoring me and I look up to her. She tried her best to make me feel welcome and it took me more than three weeks to be free.”

Zahara’s life now involves living out of a suitcase, signing autographs (a skill she is still practising) and dealing with overzealous fans.

No longer a guilty pleasure reserved for the weed smokers of East London, Zahara has got us all on a high as the most watched music treasure in the country.

Let the awards roll in...