"Ja, I'm telling you, Comrade." The bejuiced head honcho of TS Records, Thembinkosi Nciza (aka TK) fixes me with his most searching stare yet since I came riding shotgun on the bullet-speed schedule of his new sensation, Zahara. Zahara: an acoustic axe-wielding singer-songwriter from deep in the backwoods of the 'Kei area, who's fucked with our notions of pop and defrocked some of the reigning god-figurines. Her debut album, Loliwe, has pumped over 350 000 sales in three months. Her commanding gospel voice has become as commonplace as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Her fresh-faced allure screams of rock innocence, of still believing in music as class and creed's enemy. You don't have to dig deeper. Right there, on the surface, her metaphors give way to the sermon. She doesn't say it overtly, but her voice says it all: "Come ye sinner come ye faithful, come ye harlot from the outhouse, come ye harlot's goods buyer otherwise living a middle class lie, in the penthouse. Come ye all, my chirrun. God's Kingdom is open for all you fuck-ups...."
Zahara's story is the story of "how long have you been gone, sister-soul?" A narrative that taps into a blinged-out country's discomfort and rage: nepotistic politics, tenderpreneurship, and the bum-fucking of people's dreams since Nelson Mandela's release. This is the story the country's been waiting for, impatiently, on an ol', piss-stenched, side platform of an old chug-along choo-choo train. By tossing the black canon of the last 60 years Zahara has, unwittingly, retransmitted the African pop songbook's most beguiling, most discomfiting and under-appreciated song heroes and heroines. Not since Dolly Rathebe blessed the new African speakeasies with her come-git-me whisky- soaked rasp in the late 1940s has anyone re-embraced an entire people's mourning and celebratory songbook.
Forget Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading and Judy Boucher. Forget all you know about girl-with-a-guitar folk narratives: Joni Mitchell, Eva Cassidy, Joan Baez et al. This homie is so home-brew, the iconic ghetto brews "Skoki-aan" and "Barberton" have nothing on her. Buried deep in her vocal chords are the ghosts of forgotten ladies' soul: Sophie Mgcina, Dolly Rathebe, Joyce Mogatusi and Brenda Fassie. If you dig deeper, young Vusi Mahlasela and crooner Johnny Mokhali are rearing their languid ice-cool licks somewhere in there too. Other than Mahlasela, these mutha-huggers have all ridden into the sunset. Never to return. They need not. Looking at the "ordinary" folks' reception of her, Zahara is the resurrection: the resurrection of the South African soul music art form.
This is an excerpt of the cover story from the January 2012 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. To read the rest of this story, subscribe to the magazine here.