Poet Lebo Mashile, chuckles as she and musician, Majola, take a seat on the stage. “A table full of books and alcohol,” she says mid-chuckle. “That’s my life!” Around the pair on stage, are books scattered on the floor.
There’s a black-and-white television and the table in front of them is covered by a Masai cloth. On it are glasses of Martell liquor from a tasting that took place before Mashile and Majola’s listening session for their collaboration album, Moya, started.
The whole setup is layered with meaning. I sit amongst poets, musicians and other invited guests in this intimate setting at the former Bassline performance venue in Johannesburg. And here is what I take from the setup.
The books are strewn about and the television is off because it’s time to lift our heads from their spines and turn our gaze from the images that distract us to sit at the table and have honest conversations about ourselves and our country.
“Moya means spirit. It means wind,” Majola starts with an explanation of the name of the album. “Moya is also Lebo’s first-born son’s name. But the thing that moved me the most about the word is that in the Bible, in the book of Genesis it says there that the raging ocean was engulfed in total darkness and the spirit of God or the Lord moved above the ocean.
“And the spirit commanded, ‘Let there be light.’ I think, in our country, we’re sitting in a very dark and uncomfortable space right now. I think the reason why this album needs to be out is to speak to that spirit. For us to command for light to emerge in our country again.”
Through the 12 tracks on the album, Moya takes a look at the self that seeks pleasure (on Love Will Find Me) and the self that is in turmoil (on Sabela, which sees Mashile perform almost entirely in SeSotho). The album tackles image issues on Body, land and the societal ills of South Africa on Mayibuye, and there is plenty of political commentary throughout.
Moya was produced by South African-based American drummer Joseph Williams and Mashile and Majola were joined by a five-piece live band in recordings at various important places, including Don Laka’s home.
So how did this album, which took eight months in total to complete, even though the pair met a long time ago, even come about?
Mashile explains: “We begged and borrowed and stole and put our cents together and asked everybody who is talented who we know, who would come on board this project. It was a labour of love, to be very honest.
“When we started working together, we didn’t imagine that we were going to make an album. We did a show and we decided that documenting that show was important. So we documented it as an EP.”
She continues: “That led to us being booked for an event and putting together an hour-long show. We rehearsed for weeks and weeks and put together this show and at the last minute that show fell through. So we were despondent and depressed for a while and decided we’ve got all this material, we need to make something out of it.”
The dozen diverse songs were drawn from bits of Majola’s 2014 debut album, Boet/Sissy as well as new pieces of his own music. Those were combined with Mashile’s unpublished poems that she often performs, two poems from her anthology, Flying Above the Sky, and even a pair from her collaboration with Moving Into Dance.
There is also the Sandy Denny-penned cover of Who Knows Where the Time Goes that Majola sings with such melancholy and is a tribute to another powerful singer and activist, Nina Simone. But the moment that shines most on the album is probably the one that was most moving at the listening session.
Woza Moya, sung in our national anthem melody, sees Mashile perform a poem about our land and our political landscape. “Telling the truth will be our biggest test,” she says on Woza Moya. On this song, Majola’s voice soars.
At the session, Mashile’s face is downcast, and the room itself carries a chilling atmosphere as the song plays. Majola’s voice rings through the speakers. “Makubenjalo,” someone starts to sing. Slowly, pockets of the room start singing along. More people join in.
Then lauded singer, Sibongile Khumalo, who is seated as part of the audience, stands up. So more people stand up until literally everyone is on their feet. It’s patriotic, sure, but more than that, this feels like a stance. A commitment. To what action, we’ll have to see. But in explaining the title of the album, Majola gives clues.
“I think if we’re going to effect change in our society, we need to move activism into the private spaces we live in,” he says.
“That thing that you are confident and courageous to go sit on Morning Live and talk about, you must say it when you’re sitting at the table and having a meal with (your family) and see how much change you can bring about then.
“I think this project is armour for people who are committed to seeing a transformed society. I hope Moya is able to reach those innermost spaces that we’ve clogged with inner hurt, external hurt, structural hurt, hurts that have been caused for centuries. I hope it is able to break into those spaces and allow us to do healing work.”