fbpx → Skip to main content
The Pan African Music Magazine
©2024 PAM Magazine - Design by Trafik - Site by Moonshine - All rights reserved. IDOL MEDIA, a division of IDOL Group.
Link successfully copied
Could not copy link
IzangoMa's Southern African spiritual funk
© Blunt Moya

IzangoMa's Southern African spiritual funk

PAM spoke with the members of IzangoMa about their ecstatic debut, Ngo Ma, a testament to the divine feminine, a reimagining of heritage in a new era of digital creation and a symbol of the explosive creativity of Pretoria’s new jazz scene.

A Meal, A Home

I first encountered Ashley Kgabo at his home recording studio located on the outskirts of Pretoria during the tougher moments of COVID lockdown. From the entrance, I could hear the entrancing guitar loop and steady beat of a four-four drum. Among the few people present were his mother, who was in the house, and the vocalist and songwriter Fakazile Nkosi. She was hanging out with a poet acquaintance of theirs while all waited upon Sibusile Xaba to return from grocery shopping at the supermarket. 

When he finally did arrive, apples and water bottles and all manner of fresh produce in tow, he suggested that the session start. The loop had stopped playing and Ashley, who’s also a deejay and collector extraordinaire, had been selecting rarities from his extensive vinyl collection to nice up the mood. By evening, there was a whole song done, and a wholesome meal cooked and served up courtesy of Sibusile. The song became “Umdali” off of Brownswood RecordingsIndaba Is (2021) release. It marked the maiden voyage for the duo on a recording made widely available to the general public, and featured Fakazile and Sibusile’s long-time song sparring partner, Naftali.

Further encounters took place in the months that followed, such as the monthly music concerts facilitated by Sibusile which featured artists such as Madala Kunene and Msaki

Transcendental Moments

By February 2021, the duo had grown into a sizable collective consisting of musicians from the vibrant community of artists based in Pretoria. They were part of an engrossing programme at the PDX Jazz Festival’s Joburg Weekender held at Joburg Theatre alongside The Brother Moves On and Thandi Ntuli. The bill had Sibusile Xaba written on it, but what we were met with was an outer-planetary exploration that made the folk musician we’d become accustomed to look tame in comparison. Gone was the guitar. In its stead was a keyboard, synthesizers, two backing vocalists – Naftali and Fakazile – as well as two drummers. Watching the music come alive during soundcheck felt like an ancestral assault, but the enjoyable kind – the type that leaves one thoroughly fulfilled, thoroughly questioning, and very much ready to join the next revolutionary warfare. 

The music was hauntingly beautiful, accentuated by transcendental moments and accelerated towards its eventual destination by Sibusile’s uneasy stance. He was bouncing excitedly, grunting menacingly, treating the keyboard as mere accompaniment as opposed to a main outlet. The socially distanced audience was in awe. Something had changed. A return to normality seemed, and felt, unlikely. By December that year, IzangoMa were ready to record their experiments. They decamped for a full week to KwaZulu-Natal, where Sibusile’s Mozambique band joined them. A few more members had come; the collective had grown into a fifteen-piece orchestra.

Awakening the Mother-Mind

We know each other from way back, maybe 2015/2016, as brothers around the same circle of friends. Gradually, life had its own plans. We found ourselves doing small projects inside Ashley’s studio,” says Sibusile. “There was no actual plan for us. It just happened this way, and we just listened. Sibusile [was the one who] actually set up this whole setup. It just went this way. And here we are, we are signed,” says Ashley. 

I’m speaking to the duo via a Zoom connection, and listening as they outline their connection in chronological order. One thing that immediately stands out is that there is no method to the format, and that freestyle is as part of their genetic make-up as IzangoMa, a name that can be interpreted in many ways. “We just went into it with an approach of being a pure open vessel – no intention, no idea of ‘this is what we gonna bring out’. We’re kids, in a way,” says Sibusile, to which Ashley adds that the element of play, of discovery, is dear to them, and key to the music that results. Play is evident in Sibusile’s guitar-based music as well; he plays in a way that makes complex chord changes and song structures seem like anyone can play them. Their music feels human.

“City Lights”, the single which accompanied the announcement of their Brownswood Recordings debut album out this May, was but a sample of this exploratory mindstate. It sounds like a cross between Funana and Shangaan Electro and Electro Chaabi, and carries enough sweat in it to leave the dancefloor drenched. It’s carefree, not careless. It’s at once loose and controlled, the result of what happens when a musician has fully immersed themselves in their calling, and cares less how what eventually comes out is presented. They don’t care, not because they’re disinterested, but because they know that they can never go wrong. 

Responding to a question about the importance of production to their song-making, they respond: “[It] goes without saying [that it’s important], otherwise there is no track or there is, but it sounds cringe worthy!” Their eleven-track debut offering, Ngo Ma, never misses a step. The songs are Fela-esque in that large portions are dedicated to elaborate instrumental flourishes before anything vocally-inclined happens. It’s homage – the likes of Johnny Dyani, the influential bassist from The Bluenotes/Brotherhood of Breath, get a shout. It’s victory. It’s hope. It’s elation. 

The album is also an interesting amalgamation of analogue and digital influences. It falls as far outside of the domain of what one would consider traditional jazz, yet employs the same ethos. Even some of the members, like Abraham Menen who forms part of the horn section, are respected improvisers in the scene. 

As we wrap up, I ask what their name means, a question to which Ashley responds: “It’s a celebration of feminine energy – Iza-Ngo-Ma. We’re celebrating women and empathising with their struggles. It’s that time.” Sibusile adds, “We’re going back in time and re-evaluating the role that women have played throughout, and giving a shoutout to that energy that they carry. Even the planet that we live on, it is said by our elders that it’s a woman. We’re just embracing feminine energy, as Ashley said. Awakening the mother-mind.

IzangoMa are elevated sophistry. They pull, cull, and carve out from vast sonic environments to map an equitable future. They are township and suburban, rural and urban, future and past. They are everything and nothing at the same time – the result of too much greatness served up at once. They explore Creation, reject form, and spearhead creative possibilities. This is only the beginning. We eagerly await for what the next chapters shall reveal.