“Balele/ balele/ balele omakhelwane” intones Zoë Modiga with a syrupy vibrato on the opening track of her debut album, Yellow: The Novel. The reverberation of Modiga’s voice paints a simple picture: the neighbours are nestled in deep sleep as she summons the melodies that will colour her introspective aural autobiography.
But then an upbeat, jazzy track punctures the silence, and Modiga’s mellifluous vocals float atop the bass rhythms foregrounded in her second song, Abounding Within.
I know that there’s a place
Inside of all of us
A place that’s made of love
Where peace and truth abound
It’s lying there away in its dormant state
Waiting for our souls it sits and sighs aloud
Draped in a Nao Serati bricolage-style two-piece and an elaborate yellow hat, Modiga repeats these lyrics as she descends a flight of stairs at Afrobru in Maboneng, Johannesburg, to a host of roaring fans.
Modiga’s 23-track-album struck a chord with the crowd at her performance in late October. The audience echoed her lyrics as she crooned her way through a selection of her eclectic repertoire.
Born Palesa Nomthandazo Phumelele Modiga, the 24-year-old musical virtuoso has developed a committed following in Johannesburg since the release of her album in March 2017. She refers to these fans as her “yellow family”.
“It’s not about me, it’s about you and your experience here tonight,” Modiga says to the audience clearly enamoured of her talent.
“I am interested in music that lives with people, music that colours people’s lives, music that makes it into people’s memories,” says Modiga. The artist was nominated for best jazz album and best African artist at this year’s South African Music Awards. She has settled well into her role as consummate performer and independent artist.
“There are certain aspects of it that have definitely been challenging. For the longest time, I was working single-handedly with a lot of things, so navigating through all of that was not the easiest thing,” she reflects. “I obviously have certain skills, and there were things that I didn’t have in terms of being equipped to handle the whole business side of things, but it also gave me time to understand the ins and outs of the industry.
“I feel like I’m a lot more informed about who I am now as a brand outside of performing, which I have found empowering … in the sense that I feel like no one would be able to override me without me knowing.”
Modiga’s onstage persona is as bold as it is vulnerable, as playful as it is serious, which is perhaps what makes her a compelling storyteller. “What has been liberating for me is making mistakes publicly, learning what works in performance and what doesn’t,” she says as her finger circles the rim of her coffee mug.
Returning to Nina Simone
“My stories at this point are not always packaged in the most orthodox manner. Practically, they just aren’t verse, chorus, etc … To be able to exist in a space where everything is as it comes out of me is liberating,” she says. This is most apparent in her interpretation of Nina Simone’s Four Women.
Set against the deep timbre of Simone’s voice, Four Women is sociopolitical commentary on the different ways in which black women of differing colour gradations are treated in American society. Four women tell their stories in four different voices, in four verses.
In an article titled The Quadruple Consciousness of Nina Simone, artist Malik Gaines writes that “Simone used African-American musical, textual and theatrical strategies, elaborating a history in which blacks have transformed the locations of marginality and exclusion into improvised positions from which to speak”. Modiga covers Simone’s 1966 song with a similar performative sensibility.
Modiga seems to embody each woman. She balances her depiction of Aunt Sarah’s deep, chesty voice with a more delicate depiction of Saffronia. Sweet Thing’s verse is accompanied with a delicious set of runs, and then Modiga wails over the backbeat, mimicking the licks of the accompanying bass and summoning the spirit of Peaches.
My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
My life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
What do they call me?
And then, thunderously, she roars defiantly, with her fist in air: “My name is Winnie!”
With Sthembiso Bhengu on trumpet, Banda Banda on bass, Curt Petrus on piano and Xivo Manzini on drums, Modiga riffs and runs into pure sonic bliss as she goes on to perform Shake the World and her interpretation of Winston Mankunku’s jazz standard Yakhal’Inkomo. Later, she is joined by long-time friends and collaborators Langa Mavuso and Ndumiso Manana.
For her next song, Modiga strums the opening chords of Alone with a quiet reverence. A motif of call and response has been established between her and the audience. Before she even opens her mouth, the crowd starts:
I’m not alone
Alone’s not my home
This is the thing
I let it sink in/ though I’m on the brink
I believe in what I think/ but don’t want to think
So many faces
But the whole wide world feels fast asleep
While my little paper cut burns skin deep
As Modiga’s honeyed vocals unite the crowd, singing in adulation, her eyes well up. She persists:
I’m not alone
The lie is a nuisance plucking at my feelings
Taking its chance and having a blast at my expense
I’m not alone/ the lie is a nuisance plucking at my feelings
I’m not alone/ It’s not my home/ I’m just home on my own
Through a stream of tears, Modiga repeats the hook, “I’m not alone” Over and over, in falsetto cracking ever so slightly, she repeats this line to herself as much as she does to the crowd. She transforms the refrain into a lifeline. In unified chorus, the audience acknowledges and responds, “We’re not alone”.