Zolani Mahola now goes by the name of The One Who Sings. Picture: Supplied
Zolani Mahola now goes by the name of The One Who Sings. Picture: Supplied

Zolani Mahola breaks fresh ground as 'The One Who Sings'

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Oct 15, 2021

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Covid-19 has ushered in a lot of change. It’s also given many the time to do some much-needed introspection.

That’s exactly what former Freshlyground singer Zolani Mahola has done.

In a recent chat with her, she reflected on the year that was.

“I feel quite fortunate actually because I was able to take some time out and not feel pressure to work very much this year.

“I realise that that is a really high level of privilege.

“And much of that had a lot to do with the fact that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and that I was quite exhausted from coming off Freshlyground so to speak and I just needed to just take a break.”

On relaunching as The One Who Sings, she explained: “It wasn’t an easy decision to make.

“I had a lot of pushback from even within our team because there is a lot of leverage to an established name and there was a lot of having to keep coming back to what I really wanted to do.

“There are so many reasons. But the main one is that I feel like I’m in a very different place as an artist.

“I’ve had a wonderful career that has defined the bulk of my life as a musician.

“And when that cycle came to an end, I really had to re-evaluate and look to find my true voice and also, just from where I wanted to find a point of expression, and that all coincided with Covid striking us.”

She left Freshlyground at the end of 2019.

So when the pandemic struck in March 2020, she took stock of the musician she wanted to be and what her solo voice would be outside of the band.

Zolani Mahola. Picture: Supplied

“That whole mission led me to really play a lot, to playing across genres and giving myself a lot of freedom,” she said.

“And in the course of my playing, I met up with the Sea Change guys, who produced the Oscar-winning ‘My Octopus Teacher’ movie and just started diving in the sea.

“And it started to really reconnect me, not only to myself but also to my traditional roots.

“And somewhere in the process of all of that, I realised that my next is connected with highlighting our connection with nature and creating works that elevate the sacredness of the time of childhood, so that means doing work for kids or about kids.

“Just highlighting that time of when we are growing up.

“As I dug even deeper and deeper, I realised it was a new voice coming up in me and of, The One Who Sings.”

By the way, this ritual with the sea is new to her.

She explained: “I’ve never dived in my life and Craig Foster, who is the other leading character in ‘My Octopus Teacher’, took me for my first dive and being in that underwater space and realising that there was a whole world underneath there, it just changed my life.

“In February this year, I know it sounds crazy, but I started engaging with the kelp, I started engaging with the ocean and kind of listening for answers and asking.

“It took me a while to realise when I was in the water if I was addressing grandfathers and grandmothers. It’s such a crazy journey and I’m looking forward to writing the story one day.”

Interestingly, she is now an ambassador of the Sea Change Project.

Mahola added: “Now I include nature as a character in my works. Even in my upcoming album, you will hear a lot of nature sounds.”

Before delving into her debut solo album, she explained why she reinvented herself as ’The One Who Sings’.

She laughed: “So an interesting thing about the name. People have always called me ‘Lo uculayo’ in the vernacular, which means the one who sings.

“I was quite irritated by it for a number of years, like why don’t you just know my name. But I came to actually see it as quite a beautiful thing.

“It was a feeling of being part of a greater SA community, like there goes the baker or there goes the baker’s son. It gave me a feeling of being included.”

After two decades in the public eye where fame kind of separates you, this decision gave her a sense of purpose in an uncertain new world.

“Wawundithembisele”, the new single of her album Sun-El Musician, recently dropped.

She offered: “I turned 40 this year, I feel like a lot has changed in my life. It does feel special.

“I feel like I’m drawing a line in the sand. I feel like this renaming is a rebirth.

“The track, I wrote a couple of years ago and I recorded it. I thought I would love to hear another version of it.

“So I approached Sun-EL, he and I have done some things in the past, and I really love his aesthetics.

“He loved the song and he brought in one of the younger producers in his stable, a producer called, Kenza, and he was the third part of the collaboration of this track.”

She continued: “It’s a deceptively groovy song. It’s deep in a way. The singer is addressing Mother Mary in Catholicism, and ‘Wawundithembisele’ means you promised me and there is a kind of you said you would be there. Basically feeling betrayed and let down.

Zolani Mahola has become one with nature. Picture: Supplied

“For me, that is a microcosm of so much that is happening around people.

“People realising that old world structures are falling away, like patriarchy, gender roles.

“All of these things that we placed our faith in and felt the world is this, they are all being upended to the greater good.

“We are being called to question, so for me, that is the greater meaning of the song.”

Her debut solo album will drop by the second week of November.

She added: “I can’t wait to release it. My first solo album. I feel like a newbie.”

That’s what rebirths are all about as Mahola embraces a new chapter as she reconnects with her isiXhosa roots!

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