Sankofa: Therapeutic Melodies from King Tha

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Thandiswa Mazwai, also known as King Tha, released her 4th studio album ‘Sankofa’ on May 10th, 2024, two decades after the launch of her award-winning debut solo album, ‘Zabalaza’ which inspired many of her fans to explore and reconnect with their cultural roots. 

Before she began her career as a solo artist, Mazwai rose to fame as one of the members of a multi-award-winning, Southern African band, Bongo Maffin, which formed in 1996. Together the group members, Appleseed, Stoan and Mazwai popularised the kwaito genre locally with hits like Thatisgubhu and The Way Kungakhona.

Mazwai continues to surprise us with her limitless innovation and creativity. Her music and style are always guaranteed to go against the grain. Her long-standing career serves as an undeniable confirmation of her matchless ability to fuse sounds from contrasting genres: African folk, cool jazz, and rhythmic Xhosa sounds to create avant-garde melodies that speak to the values and beliefs of many South Africans.

With her raw and captivating vocals, Mazwai reemerges onto the African stage with an album that is all about healing and inner peace. The album gets its name from the Akan term which translates to, “go back and get it.” which could be understood as a call to revisit, learn, and heal from our past experiences so that we can acknowledge who and why we are the way we are and lay the foundations for a great future. 

‘Sankofa’ kicks off with the track ‘Sabela’ which urges the listener to stand up for themselves and who they are as seen in the lyrics, “Ulwela isiqu sakho / Uyandiva na… Phendula Phendula / Masingalahlekelwa bubuntu bethu /Ho indlela zethu” which translates to “You fight for yourself / Can you hear me… Answer, Answer / Let us not lose our humanity / O our ways”. The words encourage those who are listening to begin the journey of healing from past traumas, become determined to stay true to their identity, and to hold on to the spirit of ubuntu which means “I am because you are”. It is the belief that we are all connected as humans and should therefore strive for community, harmony, compassion, and selflessness amongst ourselves. It is similar to the notion of sankofa because of the idea that no one can truly understand themselves without knowing their origins.

‘Biko Speaks’ is the album's Black Consciousness anthem that intends to incite Black pride and self-worth. In ‘Biko speaks’, Mazwai sings, “Kukhon’isithembiso Owazalwa naso… / Elilizwe ngelakho… / Uzakhale ikamva elihle, Makubenjalo”. This is a promise that Africans will once again lay claim to the soil on which they were born. Mazwai sings this song as though she is a higher power or spiritual being who has heard the cries of her people and is ready to answer their prayers. Her remarkable voice, in unison with the choir in the background, adds to the celestial quality of the song. ‘Biko Speaks’ also encompasses archival recordings of a speech delivered by Steve Biko - who is regarded as the father of Black Consciousness in South Africa - where he asserts that Africans cannot reach greatness as long as they try to operate in a system made by their oppressors. Rather, the system should be deconstructed and reorganised in a way that would benefit everyone. 

‘Emini’ and ‘Kunzima: Dark Side of the Rainbow’ reflect on South Africa’s political landscape post-apartheid. It reveals the accuracy of Biko’s prophecy in ‘Biko Speaks’.  Africans are still struggling under democracy because there are corrupt thieves elected into parliament, and as the lyrics state, the system only accepts “Fools for leaders / Their minds [are] left destitute by greed”. These two songs reflect the disappointment of being so close yet so far to the promise of freedom and the end of oppression. 

‘Dogon’ is a simple plea to the owners of heaven, perhaps the ancestors or a higher power, for guidance and relief from the pain and trauma caused by the brutality Africans have faced through colonialism.

It is at this point in the album that there is a positive switch and the remaining tracks become more hopeful. Mazwai gets more personal in ‘Kulungile’ where she sings about healing the emotional wounds from her childhood. “Bandishiya, Ndicel’ukulungisa / Ela nxeba lakudala / Ndicela ubulungisa” translates to “They left me / I'm trying to fix it, That old wound / I am asking for justice”. She then repeats the word kulungile which means “it’s alright” or “it is well” suggesting that she will prevail despite her tumultuous upbringing.

With an extensive, decades-long career, it is not surprising that ‘Sankofa’ is nothing but breathtaking. Mazwai displays her lyrical flair and soulful vocals in this album, which reflects her pursuit of restoration and wellness.