Egypt has always been in a unique socio-political, geographic position. Situated at the very north of the African continent, and bordering the Middle East; it is regarded as both an African nation as well as a Middle Eastern one.
Egyptians are firmly rooted in the Arab world, and few have any conception of an African identity. Egyptians do not perceive their country as African, nor themselves as Africans; they are Arabs in an Arab country.
Despite Egypt winning the African Cup of Nations football tournament a record seven times, there remains an absence of African pride, and almost an implicit rejection of the idea of an African identity. It took a South African musician and her band to instill a new sense of belonging.
Multiple award winner Thandiswa Mazwai was the closing performance for this year’s Spring Festival organized by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (Cultural Resource). From May 6 to 22, artists and authors from 15 countries entertained and enlightened audiences in Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut. Last Saturday, Mazwai, together with her band members, literally had the mixed Egyptian and expatriate crowd dancing to an African beat.
Dressed in a traditional African dress made of shweshwe fabric, and with her hair braided into a Mohawk, decorated with coins; Thandiswa is a modern African sensation. Her Converse clad feet stomped the ground, while her tongue ululated the joys and sorrows of this continent.
Born in Transkei, a Bantustan created by the apartheid government for Xhosa speaking people, Thandiswa grew up in Soweto in the 1980s. It was Soweto which bore painful witness to the brutal killing of schoolchildren protesting against being taught in Afrikaans instead of English in 1976, the year she was born. Soweto became the heart of the resistance movement, and Thandiswa was a child of the struggle.
She started her career as lead vocalist for kwaito band Bongo Maffin in 1997. In 2004, she released her first solo album “Zabalaza,” a mix of kwaito, gospel and jazz sounds. It took her five years to produce her second album, “Ibokwe,” which blends traditional Zulu and Xhosa melodies with contemporary pop and jazz tunes.
In her song "Nizalwa Ngobani" (Who Has Given Us Life?) she pleads with young South Africans to remember that struggle, and the leaders who led South Africa to freedom: “The world changes, revolutionaries die, and the children forget. The ghetto is our first love and our dreams are drenched in gold. We don’t even cry. Have you forgotten where you come from?”
Hailed as the Miriam Makeba of this generation, she paid tribute to the late Mama Afrika, by singing Makeba’s signature tune, "Qongqothwane" (the click song), sung when a girl is married. She endeared herself to the audience, encouraging them to sing along. The crowd was eager, merrily stumbling over the myriad of clicks in the Xhosa language, which appear deceptively easy to pronounce.
From the struggle to marriage to the bittersweet drink of love in “Ingoma”. The catchy repetitive chorus “Ngoma we Ngoma we” with its fast rhythm fading to a beating of the drums had the audience up and dancing by their seats.
The South Africans at Geneina Theater could not resist the call of the music of their homeland, and made their way to the area in front of the stage. Whilst the Geneina staff tried keeping people off stage, Thandiswa welcomed them. The rest of the crowd danced their way down too, and then it was a concert to write home about.
Mazwai’s daughter, Malaika, made a brief appearance on stage, dancing with her mum. The backup singers Nogwazi and Slindile performed a traditional Xhosa dance, exciting the crowd with their twisting of waists, shaking of hips, and raising of legs.
There was palpable disappointment when the final song was announced, and the band was called back by a thunderous encore.
“I am an African” was a magical potion wafting through the air. “I want to be South African!,” proclaimed Egyptian-Australian Heba.
Mazwai is aware she has chosen the less popular route to fame. She sings in a language few are familiar with. “The world is interested in the political situation in South Africa. I’m interested in freedom,” she told Daily News Egypt. “My subject material may not be popular, but music makes it easier to deal with serious issues.”
Although the words may not be understood, music does not require language, and Mazwai represents an authentic view of South Africa. Her outlook is simple, “I want the audience to have a spiritual experience. Music is meant to create magic between us and the audience. Music is divine.”