What do you get when you cross Opera with South African township, jazz, R&B & Afrikaaner hymns?
Why, none other than the fabulous Bala Brothers. Three tenors who’ve got their groove on. Comprising three black South African brothers – Zwai, Loyiso and Phelo – with charm and talent in uber abundance.
I first met Zwai when he was 19 on a scholarship to the Royal Academy for Musica and Drama studying classical music in Glasgow. My boyfriend of only 10 weeks had been at school with Zwai in South Africa and desperately needed his best friend’s seal of approval.
My boyfriend and I sat in the upstairs cafe at St James Centre in Edinburgh and I nervously prepared to impress Zwai with my knowledge of classical music, South Africa and charming banter.
Uncomfortably late, a young, light-skinned black guy appeared at the top of the escalator looking no older than 14. Small, skinny and a little bit twitchy, Zwai was not an impressive looking type of guy.
But then he started to speak.
For 3 hours, I cried my heart out with belly-rocking laughter. Never in my life have I laughed as much, then or now. This guy had the gift of telling stories that could last 25 minutes, filling in all the important details with colour and style, while leisurely teasing his doubled-up audience towards the conclusion.
Zwai told scary, hysterical stories about his recent circumcision in the South Africa bush with tribal elders; regaled us with his dismal failures at attracting girls and the priceless high-jinks both he and my boyfriend got up to as scholarship black boys in the all-white boarding school under apartheid.
That was my first experience of the picturesque oratory and humour of South Africans. And when I think about it, that conversation on a sunny winter’s day in March 1995 made me fall in love with my future husband even more.
I had already fallen head over heels for the man, but now I was irrevocably smitten by his culture.
I didn’t see Zwai again for 8 years during which time he had carved out a meteoric career back in South Africa. He started as a gospel singer, then with 2 other school friends, founded a group called TKZee to develop a new hip-hop, township sound called Kwaito.
By 1998, TKZee had become the fastest and biggest selling recording artists in South African history. They quickly became household names not just in South Africa but across the continent.
At South Africa’s Opening Ceremony for the Fifa World Cup 2010, TKZee shared the stage with Hugh Masekela, R. Kelly and Shakira for the first global showcase of kwaito music.
Zwai’s vast repertoire of voice, piano, production and arrangement has made him one of the top producers and artists in South Africa’s music industry today. He was recently a celebrity contestant on the first season of Strictly Come Dancing and when leaving Edinburgh, was jetting back to be a judge on ‘Popstars‘ – South Africa’s hit TV show equivalent of Pop Idol.
On hearing his wee brother Phelo at 15, sing Nessun Dorma, Zwai was inspired to develop a fresh sound for a new generation. Persuading his middle brother, Loyiso, himself a Drackensberg graduate, to take time away from his high-profile R&B career, was a struggle.
But once the brothers had locked themselves into the recording studio for a few weeks, Loyiso realised there was something magical about the sounds they made.
The Bala Brothers go back to their musical roots of passionate opera, swinging South African township, sonorous Afrikaans hymns and rocking out jazz.
During the show in Edinburgh, Zwai also went back to his story telling roots and wove the Bala Brothers’ personal journey through the troubled history of South Africa in his inimical fashion.
He drew the audience closer and more intensely to the beating heart of South Africa’s magical landscape, stories and sounds with his wicked wit and charm.
Zwai does not have any problems with attracting girls any more. Quite the contrary. Now that he’s married to one of South Africa’s most beautiful TV and radio stars, Melanie Bala, he has to beat them off with a stick.
Zwai Bala is a man of great courage, humour, heart and vision. But most of all, Uncle Zwai is responsible for planting the joyful spirit and passionate soul of South Africa deep in my heart … and with the help of my husband, producing 5 beautiful children.
The Bala Brothers performed to standing ovations and a packed house at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Princes Street Gardens on 9th and 16th August 2010. And as special guests with the Soweto Gospel Choir for the first two weeks of the festival. They also sang two acapela songs in the Leith FM studio that I’ll post up in a bit.
Watch them on YouTube:
TKZee singing Dlala Mapantsula (click straight through)
Loyiso singing Dali Wami
Bala Brothers singing Khumbula
Bala Brothers singing Strome Van Seen