Music fans in Nairobi enjoyed a taste of rich South African township vocal harmonies in a thrilling performance by acapella group The Soil last Saturday night.
The only instruments on stage were the voices of this group of singers, which pierced though the atmosphere for more than an hour.
“I am going to lose weight, there’s a lot of dancing tonight” said singer Buhlebendalo “Soil Sister” Mda as the crowd that braved the chilly night moved along to their sweet harmonies.
The trio from Johannesburg arrived in Nairobi just hours to the concert after a performance the previous day at the Bayimba Festival in Uganda, Kampala.
“There is something special about performing in Africa that fills you with energy,” said Buhlebendalo clearly excited at their first show in Kenya. She, along with brothers, Ntsika “Fana-tastic” Ngxanga and Lupindo “Master P” Ngxanga learnt harmony as part of a choir in secondary school in the 1990s.
“Our music is very basic and raw just like the soil and we want to cover the whole world just like the soil,” says Lupindo explaining the name of the group.
They attended schools, which didn’t have music instruments and had to rely on their voices to express themselves musically
The Soil has developed a style described as “Kasi Soul” which uses acapella to recreate percussive sounds, flavoured with gospel stirrings and elements of hip-hop like beatboxing (using the voice to mimic drum machines). The word ‘kasi’ is a popular slang among South Africans for ‘neighbourhood’, hence soul music with a unique identity.
When they started singing professionally more than two decades ago, the dominant music in South Africa was kwaito and it took a very daring move to sing rather than follow the trend of rapping.
“We started singing to show that we were coming from a heritage of singers,” says Ntsika.
Their self-titled debut album was released in 2009 and followed three years later by “Nostalgic Moments”. Their third album “Echoes of Kofifi” released in 2016 has received wide appeal across people of different generations.
The 11-track album is a tribute to Sophiatown, the hub of music and political struggle in Johannesburg. It is a salute to South African musical icons like Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, Dorothy Masuka and Dolly Rathebe.
The concert by The Soil at the J’s Fresh Bar and Kitchen in Westlands in Nairobi was a showcase of songs from their three albums spiced up with renditions of songs by their idols like Makeba.
“We always fix our repertoire to go from the first to the latest album so that the audience gets a touch of the songs we have recorded on each album,” says Buhlebendalo.
The crowd favourites of the night included the infectious “Kofifi” that filled up the dance floor, “Sunday” and “Susan” which came towards the end of their set.
South Africa’s most popular acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been a source of inspiration to The Soil and their founder Joseph Shabalala who has now retired was a special guest during the recording of their latest album. They eventually recorded the collaboration “Hamba Huyosebenza”.
“Working with Ladysmith Black Mambazo was a blessing because it taught us that the sky is not the limit, you can skyrocket,” says Ntsika.
Their performance of “Asante Sana” was an opportunity to share the story of the so-called Frontline states in the fight against apartheid. The song was written after the group’s trip to Tanzania, which was their first journey outside South Africa within the continent.
“We were moved by how much Tanzania contributed to the freedom struggle against apartheid and it just hit us that we have to say thank you to everyone who gave a home to our comrades” says Lupindo.
The uplifting vibes of “Joy (We are family)” created a positive atmosphere on the night of their show as singer Buhlebendalo urged everyone in the audience to hug a stranger.
“Spread some love, it costs nothing,” she said.
This much-travelled group says it has always been their dream to perform in as many African cities as possible because of the ‘warmth’ of audiences in the continent.
“We have become global citizens because you experience people’s cultures and their music and unconsciously you find yourself inspired by these rhythms,” says Ntsika.