For the past four years, Nhlanhla Nciza has been recording and performing solo after releasing two albums, Inguquko (Change) and Lingcinga Zam (My Thoughts). Yet for many, she has remained the impeccably-dressed and sweet-voiced one half of Afropop super group, Mafikizolo.
In a revealing interview, she recalls the heartache of losing her daughter, Zinathi, in a car accident in December 2009 and tells of her delight at the Mafikizolo reunion:
This is The Truth About: Nhlanhla Nciza
Name: Nhlanhla Nciza
Born: March 15, 1978
Hometown: Born in the North West in a town called Schweizer-Reneke, but now living in Johannesburg
Relationship & Children: Married to TS Records executive Thembinkosi Nciza
When you started on this musical journey just over a decade ago, you surely could not have imagined Mafikizolo would be this global brand it is today?
I remember when we got the record deal I thought ‘this is it’. Other companies wanted to sign us like 999, but we always wanted to get into Kalawa [Jazmee], it didn’t matter how long we waited.
Finally, when we signed with Kalawa, I thought my life was gonna change immediately. I thought I’m going to have a car; I’m going to have money and people are going to recognise me. That’s what comes to your head when you get a record deal from such a big company.
It didn’t happen that way. We released out first album, then the second album and it looked bleak. There was a long break between the second album and the third album, and it got to a point where I thought it’s not gonna happen for us.
But there is a drive, you still want to do this because you are encouraged by people around you. What really made us believe at that time even though it was hard, that eventually it’s gonna happen, was the support we got from Oscar [Mdlongwa]. He was one person who was always like ‘I’m going to break you guys, one day you will be one of the greatest groups. One day’.
It’s not every day that you get a record company boss saying that because the record company business is about making money, and if you don’t make money you are out. Clearly, they were spending on us doing all of those albums but we were not bringing anything back in. For them it was taking out the money, taking out the money.
Then we did the third album ‘Gate Crashers’ and for the first time people sang along to our songs. One thing about Mafikizolo is that we have always wanted to excel in terms of performing on stage, the dance routines, we have always been strict about that. We looked at Boom Shaka, Trompies and all these other bands. We were like ‘we want to be like Boom Shaka’. They have good outfits on stage and they dance ... for us it was about ‘ok fine people don’t know our songs, but when we get on stage we want people to watch’.
For about three to four years when we did those two albums, it was about that. So imagine during that whole four years getting on stage and people not singing along. Then all of a sudden you go on stage and you like ‘Ye ye ye kitswer'iLotto’ and people are singing back ‘Ye ye ye ...’ for the first time. So around that album that’s when we felt we had potential.
In the same album there was the song ‘Majika’, and we saw the reaction also to Majika and that’s why we decided to write Afro-pop. We got that song by chance. It was done by Don Laka [the music] and given to other people and they were like ‘no, we don’t want that song’. We got the song, Theo wrote the lyrics and from there we felt that it’s gonna happen.
Many thought they had seen the last of the group when you decided to record solo. Was there ever a danger you would not get back together as many feared?
Not at all. When you’ve been together with someone [Theo Kgosinkwe] for that long, remember we were friends even before we decided to get into music, you can never shut the door on each other. So when you make such decisions, you always know that you will get back together. We were open about it, we had always spoken about it even when it wasn’t time yet. There were many conversations we had which began with the words ‘when I do my solo ...’ and that helped us become comfortable with that, we knew that eventually that’s what we’re gonna do.
We have always respected Mafikizolo, it’s a big brand. We have always known that Mafikizolo is the umbrella for other things. Yes for other people outside, with what they had seen with other bands, they thought it’s gonna be the same story again. It made it difficult for me to say to people I’m doing my solo album because people were angry, they want their Mafikizolo.
You have had a chance to rehearse and perform with Theo for the first time in over four years. Has anything changed in the dynamics of your relationship?
I think we are having more fun now actually. I think we know that we’ve grown. What I like with our relationship is that we have so much respect for each other, and what we do outside of Mafikizolo.
When we started sitting down and talking about getting back together, we got very excited about it. So getting back on stage it’s fun for us, it’s so much fun. There is no pressure, you know when you are a solo artist there is so much pressure that you have to take on your own. Now we kind of share the burden and we are having a good time.
Mafikizolo is working on a new album due for release in October. Is this with Kalawa Jazmee?
Yes it’s with Kalawa. These are the guys that believe in us when nobody did. Even when other producers felt this was not working, Oscar always said we would make it. Those are the kind of things that make us wanna stay with Kalawa, because we know what we had with them back then, it wasn’t about money, that came later on. You want to be with people like that. We have been with them for such a long time that it never occurred to us that we would want to walk away.
Also, as much as you want the growth in your music, you want to preserve your signature and the only people who will be able to preserve our sound is Kalawa.
How significantly different, musically, do you expect the new album to be, compared with your previous works?
Obviously, people have to hear that we are coming back from solos and we have grown as individuals. When I went solo, I wasn’t a song writer. Previously, Theo didn’t want to lead songs, and some songs he didn’t wanna sing at all and he would be like ‘I will just write and you sing’.
So now that we are back performing together, bringing our experiences from working solo, it’s not about ‘I’m a lead vocal’, ‘I’m a song writer’. We are all going to bring our skills into Mafikizolo. I think you will hear Theo having to sing more than in the previous albums.
Of course the sound has changed. The music has moved more to house, everything has a house influence especially in South Africa. Definitely we have to keep up with that, but it’s important not to lose our identity trying to do that. We have seen other bands trying to sound grown and be too different from what they used to be, and it doesn’t work. At the end of the day, there is a reason why people loved you, and loved your sound, so we don’t want to take that away.
When you started off those many years ago, your albums were selling for more than triple platinum. But you will agree the industry has changed tremendously with the growth of the internet and piracy. How are you adjusting to this new reality, to take advantage of the new technologies?
Definitely we have to embrace that. We can’t fight that [piracy]. I remember talking to Theo and saying there will come a time where CDs are not being sold, you just walk into a music store with a memory stick and download.
If the record companies are clever enough, I think putting music out there will go some way in cutting piracy and boosting sales. But record companies at the moment appear unprepared to spend on that, but we will get there.
You lost your only child in a tragic car accident two years ago. It must have been the toughest time of your life. Can you remember the moment you were told about her death, and your reaction?
I was home. I remember that I was feeling very tired that day and I went to bed. I remember hearing the phone ring three times and I ignored it. And then TK [husband] started calling, and I think I answered him the third time. He said I had to go to the hospital because Zinathi was involved in a car accident. He sent Sanele [TS Records manager] to come and pick me up.
We were in a different district because we stay in Jo’burg, northern Jo’burg, and the accident happened in Ekurhuleni. I remember sitting in that car and feeling like it was taking forever to get to hospital. On the way, I kept asking TK how she was doing and he couldn’t give me a straight answer because he said he was also trying to get there.
When we got to hospital, you know this thing you see in movies, we were put in a small room. When the nurses came and I was asking how she was doing, they would not give a straight answer. They would say ‘we have to wait for the doctor’ or something like that.
Finally when the doctor came in, and started speaking, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He was in front of me, and he was telling me what he was telling me but it’s like I was blocked, it was like something came out of me. I just went somewhere, because I couldn’t hear what he was saying. There was a moment where I just froze and I couldn’t move my arms or legs, it was just too much, it was overwhelming.
How much has that tragedy changed the way you live?
People always say that you need to live your life to the fullest every day, and that you need to tell people that you love them every day. But when something like that [loss of a loved one] has never happened to you, you just say it. But once it happens, you know the real meaning of saying that thing, you really know what you are talking about when you say: ‘Fine, we had an argument this morning but I love you, have a good day’. That’s important, whether it’s with your parents or your friends. Life is too precious, don’t waste any moment getting angry with someone and spending a day without talking to them.
Mafikizolo has seven albums to date. Which one is your favourite and why?
The first album was called ‘Mafikizolo’, followed by ‘Music Revolution’. Not a lot of people know those two. The third one, which had the hit ‘Lotto’, was ‘Gate Crashers’. Then came ‘Sibongile’, ‘Khwela’, ‘VanToeka Af’ and finally ‘Six Mabone’. ‘Six Mabone’ is in my opinion the best we ever did simply because of what we were writing about now, I think we got a bit deep writing about serious issues. I think it’s a beautiful album.
How much song writing do you do?
Now quite a lot. When I was with Mafikizolo, not much, but when I went solo I started writing more. I think with Mafikizolo I was comfortable, Theo is a song writer so I was like ‘ah he’s gonna write songs, I am a lead singer so I will just sing’. That’s one of the things that I have learnt that once you get out of the group, and do your own thing, you grow, you learn to become your own person.
What’s your favourite musical instrument?
The guitar. Acoustic guitar. I do play a little.
What’s the nicest thing ever said to you by a fan?
They are always nice to me, and many appreciate that they never read bad things about me.
What are your memories of going through school?
I was a kid, and I enjoyed being a kid. You know when you get to your senior years of high school, as a girl, you look cleaner and more well put together, with me it wasn’t the case. After school my friends would polish their shoes and look all put together but I was just the opposite. I would go back home barefooted sometimes, I was like that.
But one thing about me is that I always loved arts. When there was Miss High School or whatever event, I would perform, do the Boom Shaka songs. I was always in the entertainment committee.
What other career choices did you consider?
When I was young I was influenced by what my dad does. My dad was keen on education, but unfortunately he didn’t become what he wanted to become which was to be a lawyer. He tried to point me in that direction, even if I wasn’t going to be a lawyer I would have a legal job. After metric, I told him I wanted to get into music, and he said ‘you must go and study it if that’s your choice’, which is what I did.
What’s the worst job you ever had?
It was working where my mum works, at a retail store. I think that’s the worst job ever. Big up to my mum for doing that job for years! Every day I was dealing with difficult customers and missing out on a lot of things. When I finished my Metric, I didn’t go to university immediately, so I worked for a year in-between.
I worked there every day, including Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. I would stand the whole day, only getting home at around 6PM, it was terrible. Sometimes I felt like a zombie, or a robot, because of the tedious routines. Customers would come in, try on different clothes, change sizes, and I had to rearrange the clothes in their proper sizes after they are finished. I had to do that the whole day. It was just not ideal.
What's your least favourite thing about yourself?
I trust people easily. Some people are able to tell when a person comes in, that this kind of a person is up to no good. Some people are able to read people that quickly, but I’m unable to do that. People take advantage of people like that.
What are you most afraid of?
I am most afraid of losing people that I love, losing people that are close to me. I’ve been through that. If you have never been through something like that, you never think about it. But once it has happened, you are like ‘please this shouldn’t happen’. I don’t think I would be able to go through what I went through with my daughter again.
If your house caught fire, and you had a chance to retrieve one item, what would that be?
That would have to be my daughter’s pictures, my daughter’s album.
What’s your idea of a sexy man?
Basically my husband. He is very ambitious, he’s driven. He is a very sensitive person, he listens to me. And just the things he taught me also, things that I learnt in our relationship about how important communication is and things like that. I think that kind of a person, a person you feel at home with and a person who doesn’t judge you even when you have gained a little weight, they will always make you feel good about yourself. A person like him, so I have my ideal man [Laughs].
What’s the scariest thing you have ever done?
Being a mum, a first time mum.
How do you start your week?
My typical Monday involves waking up around 6AM and going to the gym, followed by breakfast. I try by all means to eat healthy which is something I have been doing for the past three months. It’s hard especially when you travel.
After breakfast, I begin a round of phone calls to my managers starting with Phiwo [Mafikizolo manager] and my [clothing] designer to plan the week ahead.
What your secret diet?
Breakfast I normally have boiled eggs and a fruit. My lunch would be chicken salad and my supper would be fish and vegetables. It changes a bit every day, but around that. In-between I drink a lot of water.
Who would you most like to meet – dead or alive?
It’s not really the person I would like to meet but more like someone I would like to sit down and have a conversation with, and that’s Winnie Madikizela Mandela. I have only just met her and that was it, but to sit down with her that would be awesome.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
Reserved. Not shy. Easy to approach.
What was the last book you read?
It’s been a while since I read a book. But I read a lot about what I do, so I read fashion magazines. There is this new one, Elle, that has been launched in South Africa, it’s like your Vogue but an African one. What’s amazing about it is it’s also touching base on how young designers are being developed, so it’s something that interests me other than music.
I launched my clothing label NN Vintage in 2007 and it’s been doing great. In September I will be doing a fashion week, the Mpumalanga Fashion Week, so I’m very excited about that as well.
What would you not travel without?
My cell phone.
If one artist was to perform at your party, who would get the call?
Right now I would say Adele. I like her music, I like her voice.
If you had the power to ban one thing in the world, what would that be?
Smoking. One reason for this is that I lost my father-in-law to lung cancer. It’s unfortunate that when it was discovered it was too late. I do think smoking is harmful to one’s health.
If you were to be 18 again, what would you do differently?
I think I would have fun more. Because of my parents, I was always at home, not going out, not going to parties. I would go to parties and have fun more, live a little. My friends had fun, I suppose at that time I was trying to protect myself and I was trying to grow up like my mother did. She used to tell me stories about how she only had one or two boyfriends before she got married. So I was kind of trying to live like my mum.
Which artist has given you the most valuable advice?
It has to be Bro Caiphas Simenya. I worked with him when I did my second [solo] album. Obviously in South Africa he is a legend. He has worked with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and other great international stars. He is amazing.
So when I worked with him, I became only the third South African to do so after his wife and Judith Sephuma. Working with him was an honour.
I remember he said, because the company was running against time to release the album and they were trying to push, he wasn’t happy with the songs he did and he wanted to redo the songs, to start from scratch. He told me ‘you must never take something out to the people that you are not sure about’. It’s not about the deadlines, he said, but the kind of quality that you want to take out to the people, so I think as a musician that’s important.
If you could be invisible for a day, what would you get up to?
Oh my God [Laughs]! I would want to spend moments with Julius Malema and see what he gets up to. I just want to get into his mind when he is alone and understand his thought process.