In this exclusive interview ahead of Friday’s release of their new album, Mafikizolo takes Helen Herimbi through the past and looks to the future

“I remember,” Theo Kgosinkwe says, smiling at Nhlanhla Nciza. She giggles. I’m sitting with the beloved, multi award-winning duo known as Mafikizolo in a posh boardroom at Universal Studios.

The chairs have Ndebele-esque patterns on them and the walls are lined with plaques by artists from Bon Jovi to Zakes Bantwini. On the eve of releasing their ninth album, 20, on Friday, Mafikizolo met with me to reflect on the 20 years they spent thriving in the music industry.

But first, I ask them to take me back to the beginning. To how two young, aspiring singers from Kagiso in Gauteng’s West Rand became part of one of the most established and treasured groups in Africa.

“We lived on the the same street and I used to see her all the time,” Kgosinkwe recalls. “She had to walk past my house anyway, on her way home. We weren’t close, but what brought us together was music. We would see each other at talent search competitions. There would be dancing and miming songs. We had a youth club and I was always with the boys. She was always doing her solo thing as Toni Braxton or Whitney Houston.”

Which Toni Braxton song was her go-to, I asked Nciza. “I sang Another Sad Love Song, but I used to do a lot of her songs,” she laughed. “We wanted to expand our youth club crew and asked her to join us,” Kgosinkwe said.

“But as we grew up people started falling out of love with that. Some people just moved away from the youth club and the only people who remained were about three of us. I told her: ‘We’ve been winning competitions for a long time, how about we do a demo and try this music thing for real instead of for fun?’”

“But because we had been miming all along, I didn’t know if she could really sing. It was Lip Sync Battle all the way back then,” he said. “So I said: ‘There’s a song I like by Aaliyah called At Your Best. Can you sing it just once?’ And she sang and afterwards I was happy, because I knew we were going somewhere.”

They recorded a demo on a TDK cassette and a friend introduced them to Oscar “Oskido” Mdlongwa. He introduced the pair to Tebogo Madingoane and as Mafikizolo they became the rookies on the all-star Kalawa Jazmee team. Madingoane passed away in 2004 and 20 ends with reprise of Sgruva Njalo as an ode to him.

Mafikizolo’s self-titled debut album came out in 1997 and was followed by Music Revolution in 1998. It was only on their third album, Gate Crashers (1999) that they, er, hit the lottery. Called Lotto, this smash single, remixed by a producer-DJ who was then known as Little Louie Vega, catapulted them to nationwide acclaim.

“I remember I hated that song,” Nciza says as she folds her arms and slumps into the backrest. She scowls like she’s back in the 90s all over again. “I was; ‘like, what are we singing?’ And everybody else was going crazy about the song. To me it didn’t make sense that all we were going to say was ‘eh-heh-eh, utsweri lotto’,” she said.

“Meanwhile, other people were singing and making proper records and here we were just singing this one line throughout the song. I didn’t like the song at all until, when we would travel with the bigger bands, we’d perform first and this song got popular and that became the very first time we sang a song on stage and people would sing back to us. I was; ‘like, this is what it’s like to have people know your songs.’”

This feeling became a familiar one for Mafikizolo. Ndihambanawe, from the Sibongile album (2001) is still played at weddings today. Kwela (2002), Van Toeka Af (2003), Six Mabone (2004), a few solo albums and their 2012 album, Reunited, have kept Mafikizolo in the public consciousness.

On Friday Mafikizolo releases 20 – named after the number of years they’ve been together. Unlike their other albums – which ordinarily took about a month to record – 20 was recorded over four months.

Twelve of the 16 tracks are produced by super producer DJ Maphorisa, with the likes of DJ Ganyani, Gemini Major and Ralph Gum also lending their talents. Some of the featured artists include Syleena Johnson singing in Xhosa on Ndifunukwazi, Yemi Alade on Ofananawe, Monique Bingham bringing her signature style to the infectious Umama, Wizkid aptly featured on a song called Around the World and more.

This album is part afro-pop, part afrobeat and part tribal house. Nciza’s favourite jam on 20 is Don’t Go, featuring Tanzania’s Harmonize. The melody interpolates the late, great Joe Mafela’s Congo Mama (Shebeleza).

“It’s a mixture of what I love – which is afro-pop – and what is current,” she said. “The song takes me back to the days when you have to leave your kids and go to work. We are musicians, we travel all over the world to work. And the Joe Mafela song was quite big on the rest of the continent.”

Some of the songs on 20 treat listeners to a nostalgic ride. Whether it’s interpolating Mafela or Marvin Gaye or, most interestingly, themselves, Mafikizolo bridges a gap between the oldies but goodies and the new wave. The album opens with Love Potion, which is a nod to Mafikizolo’s slept-on Ungenzantoni from their Six Mabone album.

“That song wasn’t planned,” Nciza says.

Kgosinkwe adds: “There was a single Nhlanhla wanted to go with and I felt like the album wasn’t yet done. I said, ‘I’m going to do something and afterwards, tell me what you think’. What Nhlanhla and I had spoken about was that we didn’t want to lose who we are as Mafikizolo. So I thought: What is a song that’s still afro-pop that I can bring back?”

Kgosinkwe concludes: “One thing I was sure this song was going to do is it was going to bring our old fans back to us. This song was going to give us an opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to a younger audience and above all, the African audience.” It sounds like 20 has hit the mark.