Adult Contemporary

After a tumultuous year, which saw the tragic death of Tebogo Madingoane, Mafikizolo return in the closing months of 2004 with an album that once again raises the bar on the South African music scene.

Now fronted by remaining members Nhlanhla Sibongile Mafu (now Nciza) and Theo Kgosinkwe, the latest release from this bona fide South African phenomenon is titled Van Toeka Af and once again sees the group team up with the Dangerous Crew Combination.

The latter production team is made up of four of the country’s most inventive and consistently excellent producers - Mandla "Spikiri" Mofokeng, Zynne "Mahoota" Sibika, Oscar "Oskido" Mdlongwa and Bruce "Dope" Sebitlo - and there’s never any doubting that it’s the inspired combination of Nciza and Kgosinkwe (themselves no slouch in the songwriting department) with the DCC that has turned Mafikizolo into the outstanding act that it is.

You may be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon an ethereal, world music group when you hear the opening moments of Van Toek Af’s lead song - the utterly exquisite “The Journey”. It’s a startling song for those well used to Mafikizolo’s trademark marabi-influenced music, but with lyrics by Nciza and Kgosinkwe and music by Oskido and Sebitlo (including a delicate and quite beautiful live flute performance, courtesy of Kelly Petlane) “The Journey” gives notice of the broad musical delights that Mafikizolo is capable of producing.

From there on it, it’s straight back into the heart of the music that Mafikizolo have brought into the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans over the past few years (we’re not kidding – Sibongile sold over 300 000 units in the country) with tracks like “Makhwapheni” and “Nisixoshelani”. The latter is surely a standout on an album that’s full of strong, radio-friendly tracks - using as it does a sample of the song “Tarzan Boy” that adds immeasurably to the song’s appeal and might just ensure it turns into one of 2004’s biggest hits.

Longtime Mafikizolo supporter and creative cohort, Don Laka turns up on “Mas’thokoze”, a slow-grooving number that draws the listener ever inward, on a track that’s so reminiscent of the heyday of divas like Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuku, it’s uncanny, revealing along the way Mciza’s beautiful voice.

And speaking of divas, it’s fabulous to see two of the country’s best turn up on Van Toeka Af. We’re talking Dorothy Masuka on the upbeat, and fabulously retro “Sebenza” and the always energetic Busi Mhlongo on the great “Ziphi Nkomo?”.

Throughout the album, interesting and unusual production touches lift the songs even higher - the imaginative use of percussion on “Na Tshelwa Ngubami”, and the evocative violin on “Banxoshile” are just two examples of how skilled the DCC and Mafikizolo are at importing the unusual into the musical mix.

That, combined with a devotion to evoking the era of Marabi music that dominated the likes of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown in the 1950s, has earned the group a devoted following over the years.

Mafikizolo’s first release came in 1997 with a self-titled album that earned the trio some attention and was followed by Music Revolution in 1999. But it was the 2000 album, Gate Crashers that put Mafikizolo in the spotlight, with hits like “Majika” and “Loot” securing the group plenty of homegrown fans as well as the attention of American dance masters, Masters at Work, who remixed several tracks off the album and released them internationally.

A horrific car accident in 2001 took the group out of the scene for an extended period, but the Mafikizolo returned with Sibongile in 2002 - along the way creating a new sound that combined kwaito with Marabi, honing a visual aesthetic that’s unique (the sleeve to Van Toeka Af is simply sublime) and setting new records at every turn. The group’s 2003 release Kwela was just as successful as the 300 000-plus selling Sibongile, and proved that Mafikizolo are no one-hit-wonder but a musical powerhouse that keeps on delivering the goods.

As Nciza said in an interview some time back: “We are trying to dispel the stereotype that kwaito is strictly about booze, partying and gangsterism. There is more to kwaito. Our music deals with pertinent social issues such as women and children abuse, poverty, the importance of education and the dangers of casual sex." Added Kgosinkwe: "People have responded to the fact that kwaito can be entertaining and truthful. It can be emotionally powerful without being sentimental, and it can educate without being didactic."

And it’s earned Mafikizolo enough awards to fill many mantelpieces. Among the group’s accolades have been the Best Duo or Group and Best Afro Pop Album awards at the South African Music Awards in April 2003, several Metro Music Awards and in 2003, Nciza was named Most Stylish Artist in a music video at the Sunday Times-ELLE Style awards.

Mafikizolo have survived tragedies and have stuck it out through a career that is now entering its ninth year – and all the while, the group has stayed true to a musical vision that is unique and utterly compelling.

Diane Coetzer