By Ano Shumba
Zoë Modiga draws inspiration from her upbringing. The South African musician was raised by her grandparents in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal; she does not shy away from speaking about her identity and roots. The cover art of her latest album shows her wearing a white fleece. There are also cattle in the background.
- Zoë Modiga. Photo: Tatenda Chidora
Modiga’s career took centre stage when she won the 2015 SAMRO Overseas Scholarships Competition for jazz. She became a recording artist in 2017, after plying her trade as a performing artists for more than a decade. In 2018, she released her 23-track debut album Yellow: The Novel, which earned her two SAMA nominations for Best African Artist Album and Best Jazz Album. What followed was a series of performances at Aardklop Festival, Artscape Youth Jazz Festival, UCT Jazz Festival, Joy of Jazz, and Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
She recently released Inganekwane, an album that is a melting pot of West African rhythms, Southern African sensibilities and heartfelt Zulu storytelling.
On July 9, she released the video for ‘Umdali’, a highly emotional, bass-driven track that sees a tearful Modiga deliver the song in a simple, unadulterated way for the viewer.
“Inganekwane is a love letter to black people all over the world,” Modiga tells Music In Africa. “It’s for us to celebrate and fall deeper into a love for ourselves. The title is inspired by my song ‘Inganekwane’, from the previous album. That record received such an endearing response that it inspired me to dig deeper into ideas around identity as a black, young African storyteller.”
She alludes that she wants the songs on the album to speak to Africans and the diaspora, and asserts her desire to see African people loving themselves despite the trauma they carry within.
“The album’s title means ‘fairy tale’ or ‘folklore’ in Zulu and I hope to tell our stories with it. Being black from my perspective is what I sing of in this record. Spirituality, healing and remembering who we are are just some of the stories told.”
Inganekwane was written in early 2019 and recorded in March 2020. Modiga believes the album represents the stories that many Africans wish to tell.
“With this album I feel the urgency of our stories being told at the forefront of our minds. The ideologies from many before us such as Busi Mhlongo, Oumou Sangaré, Rokia Traoré, to name a few, were a safe net for this work. Seeing and hearing storytellers from all over the continent was inspiring and it became important to create a modern narrative. Banda Banda and myself teamed up to craft the soundscape of this album, as he gladly availed himself to produce it.”
She is also happy with the success of the offering. “The album reached No 1 on the World Chart on Apple Music on the weekend of its release and music lovers everywhere are moved by the record. There is a lot of conversations around the record and around the things that the record speaks of, and it’s truly beautiful to have that engagement.”
Asked about her concerns with the jazz scene in South Africa, Modiga said: “My concerns are aligned with African storytelling and preserving it as it continues to evolve. We can create spaces for each other to present ourselves forward as art practitioners and have conversations with each other. I’d love to see our leaders enforce laws that make us consume more African or African diaspora content, like music, film and media, so that we can become more familiar with one another as a people. I’d like young Africans to be inspired by each other and to benefit from the beauty of who we are.”
Modiga believes music plays a significant role in the welfare of people. This is why she sought music as a profession.
“I fell in love with the impact music has on people’s lives and felt I had a message to share,” she says. “I then started my journey as a recording artist in 2017 after being a professional performer for 11 years. I credit my creator and the gift of human life and experience for all that I am and all the people I came across. I credit all the incredible stories and all the heroes before us who paved the way selflessly.
The artist says the most challenging aspect of her career has been the need to create visibility for her messages. “I’ve been working at creating more content and conversations to make space for these messages,” she says. “There are so many beautiful artists I love whom I’d be honoured to collaborate with. Bongeziwe Mabandla, Nakhane, Desire Marea, Tony Gum, Justice Mukheli, Khadja Nin … I love how beautiful they make the world by existing.”
Like most musicians, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Modiga’s work, but she doesn’t want the negativity of what is happening to dampen her spirits.
“I prefer not to dwell on the dark hole. COVID-19 has plenty heartbreaking disadvantages but I’m grateful that in the midst of everything I confronted some personal realities and was able to share this body of work.”