The Voice of South African Kwaito: Zola South African musician Zola's work is featured in Tsotsi, this year's Oscar winner for best foreign film. He is the country's leading kwaito artist. The genre is a mixture of South African pop, house music and Western hip-hop. Zola talks about his music.
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The Voice of South African Kwaito: Zola

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The Voice of South African Kwaito: Zola

The Voice of South African Kwaito: Zola

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Kwaito is the music of the new South Africa. A mix of South African pop, and house music, and Western hip-hop, kwaito has come to define the generation that came of age after apartheid. One of the artists who has defined it is Zola. His music is featured in the film, Tsotsi, which won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much for being with us today.

ZOLA (Musician): Sambora. Hello.

CONAN: Congratulations.

ZOLA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tsotsi is the best South African film to win Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. You co-starred as well as providing some of the music for the soundtrack.

ZOLA: Yes, indeed.

CONAN: Tell us, do you think Tsotsi accurately reflects life in townships like Soweto?

ZOLA: To a certain degree. It's a certain percentage of how life may be with certain individuals. You know, there's also pride stories, but we also needed to concentrate on something that maybe overlooked by the world, or whatever, the preconceived ideas of what we may be. So Tsotsi was our best bet.

CONAN: You took your name from, what I understand, is part of Soweto.

ZOLA: Yes. Soweto is a conglomerate of many neighborhoods, and there's a place called Zola, which at some point was considered the most violent neighborhood, for God knows whatever the reason. So, I felt since I was coming from that place and I had a different vision of life, I would love to about exactly where I come from and see how much controversy it may create. And it made sales.

CONAN: It made some wonderful music, too. And we want to listen to some. I want to tell listeners that you brought two vocalists with you as well. They're also with us here in Studio 3A. They are Zolani(ph) and Vucani(ph). Tell us about the song you're going to perform. It's from the soundtrack of the movie?

ZOLA: Yes. It's called Zingo(ph) Seven. It's boys speak.

Unidentified Speaker: The way we create. The way we do things.

ZOLA: It's basically, it's more of a fun song that reflects more on the life of the streets, going to parties and stuff. Because even though we hang in a lot of controversial, hardcore issues, sometimes we want to do songs that are fun. You need to balance the album. Put a bit of fun energy in it so that, you know, everything doesn't go one way only.

CONAN: Well, we're going to hear this song in a just a moment. But if you'd like to join this conversation, give us a call, 800-989-825, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us emails if you have questions for Zola at And now, let's hear the song.

(Soundbite of Zingo Seven by Zola)

CONAN: You guys are tight. The music of Zola, with additional vocals by Zolani and Vucani. We were playing the instrumentals off his CD, but they were singing live here with us in the studio.

ZOLA: And we cut all the nasty words out.

CONAN: Oh, that's nice of you. We appreciate that. Tell us a little bit about Kwaito. What does that mean?

ZOLA: Kwaito comes from an Afrikaans word ontokwai(ph), and Afrikaans is a more, it's a white people's language, but completely unique to South Africa. Because when they had their wars, like, you know, the French Revolution kind of wars, and a couple of rebels got into the site from all forms of European countries and they joined in and then they fought the then government, that of the a (unintelligible). So their language is sort of like mixed up, and then they ended up with Afrikaans. Nowhere else in the world is this language spoken except in South Africa. So they have words like ontokwai, meaning very rough, very hard core. Because in the olden days, the music that we did was actually perceived as music of being a rebel. The misunderstood and not to be listened to black youth, hence, people were fighting for things that they felt were relevant.So we sort of like picked up that word, also as an ironic way of saying we know what you called us, and that's why we're going to adopt this word and we're going to use it.

CONAN: Use it against them. Yes.

ZOLA: Yeah, it's like a black person calling themselves nigger.

CONAN: Mm. Hip hop...

ZOLA: Yes.

CONAN: Obviously, influences there. But hip hop is more than music, it's a culture.

ZOLA: yeah.

CONAN: Is Kwaito a culture as well?

ZOLA: Kwaito is a way of life. It's a culture of, recently we have a lot of clothing, I have more clothing arranged now coming with the music.

CONAN: And I see the seven.

ZOLA: Yeah. Oh, yeah, seven, it's a way of us expressing, of course democracy and freedom is very new to us. There's still, we're still trying to get our foot right with it, and therefore we as the young people of that country have issues that may concern specifically our country, how it's run, and also may concern how the rest of the world may contribute maybe to South African success or South African problems that we may come across. So, it's a voice from the streets that says, here we are, we need to speak now, and listen to us.

And you know, most of the time when young people start singing music like we do, we get a lot of old people saying, maybe we should just come talk to their lawyers and engineers...

CONAN: In your country too? Yes...

ZOLA: Yes! But we are here now and we have our own views about life and of course you know what? You old folks should know that there's nothing about us without us.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. This is Vosavela (ph). Vosavela calling us from Washington, D.C. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.

VOSAVELA (Caller): Hi Neal, thank you very much for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

VOSALVEA: Zola, hey there my brother, how are you?

ZOLA: That's a definite South African there.

ZOLA: (speaks Afrikaans)

VOSAVELA: (speaks Afrikaans)

ZOLA: Grand, man.

VOSAVELA: Very good. I must say, Neal, I must congratulate you for having Kwaito on NPR. It's quite revolutionary.

CONAN: Yeah, well.

ZOLA: (speaks Afrikaans)

CONAN: We're not trying to overthrow the network quite yet, but go ahead.

VOSAVELA: Well I just wanted to call and congratulate Zola and the rest of the cast of Tsotsi. It's fantastic, and thank you much for the music, and also for, you know, bringing Kwaito to the U.S. audience.

ZOLA: Well, it's about time. But then again, this thing wasn't going to be possible if you South Africans didn't support us internationally.

VOSAVELA: Excellent, excellent.

ZOLA: So, you get a little piece of the Oscars. Just a piece. Hmm.

VOSAVELA: Yeah, I just wanted to, you, Zola, to please speak about the role of Kwaito. I know you did intimate, you know, you did speak about it shortly, the role of Kwaito in college and politics and stuff at the moment.

ZOLA: (Speaks Afrikaans)

VOSAVELA: Because you know we've always had music as part of our protest, as part of our resistance politics.

ZOLA: Mm-hmm.

VOSAVELA: And music has always been a mirror or at times a hammer that we smashed society with.

ZOLA: Yes.

VOSAVELA: So, I just wanted to speak to that tradition. How does Kwaito relate to, you know, to that old tradition of a bit of music being part of expressing our political identity and political dissent as well, when it comes to things like crime in the country, things like HIV and AIDS, and other things.

ZOLA: Yeah. Well, my brother, possibly, if you reverse back, and look into even before we got colonized, that there were warrior music, there were music that came with a certain hierarchy of tribes that lived in South Africa. Most of them had their own songs, classes had their own songs and stuff. And then you come back to being colonized, there were songs that talked specifically about the struggle and being oppressed. If you remember the likes of (unintelligible) and stuff, those songs are, sort of like made history and they bonded and that. And then we go to the struggle songs, these are (unintelligible), every song belonged to a certain period. And then at the same time we had (unintelligible), we had the likes of Branda(ph) Fasi(ph) and all of, that music, I feel, up to now that it was sort of like brewing and changing to become what would be Kwaito.

But then I can, the older generation was thirsty for freedom and they were talking about freedom and they're trying to paint a picture of how nice freedom can be, should affect when we get freedom. The songs are more pushing the people to be more freedom fighters. And then we got the freedom and freedom has come in with now Kwaito in. Kwaito for me defines something different. For one, we were trying to find out who we are and where do we fit in this role of the democratic South Africa as young people. Another term, there's no more fighting, people have to go back to school, you know? We got rid of that whole apartheid mentality a long time ago, we have to go to school.

And it also introduces something different. People are being allowed now to start their own record labels, meaning there is more finance coming to them. That played an important role because, remember the olden days, people had to go down to downtown studios where everybody had to record. Now you could buy something small digitally and work it in your own bedroom, and then you could start your own record label, meaning you had more rights, and more shares, and more royalties when the sales come back in.

So, it also introduced a very important thing which is economic wealth among the South African musicians, which they were denied in the past. As for me, for example, I come from a place where I have a single mom, I've got two siblings, and things were really bad. And I am where I am now because somehow I loved being a lyricist, and because I said things and issues pertaining to HIV and AIDS, pertaining to crime, pertaining to poverty in the street, pertaining to rape and child abuse, all forms of things, and pertaining to all the pride things as well that South Africa is made of, in terms of us growing economically, I had so many people relating to my music that eventually they bought into it and that's why I'm here. So that's what Kwaito represents. It's nothing more than a mirror that reflects the South African society as it is.

CONAN: Vosavela, thank you very much for the call.

VOSAVELA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And we're talking with Zola today on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

ZOLA: You pronounce it nice.

CONAN: Thank you.

ZOLA: Kind of rhymes with a dollar. There's hope.

CONAN: Let's talk now with M'bala(ph), and M'bala's calling from Hartville, South Carolina.

M'BALA (Caller): Hello.


M'BALA: (Speaks foreign language)

ZOLA: (Speaks foreign language)

M'BALA: (Speaks foreign language)

ZOLA: (Speaks foreign language). That's the second language I'm speaking now.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

M'BALA: Still haven't seen Tsotsi, but I'm looking forward to seeing it. I just thought I should call in to say how wonderful it is to hear fellow South Africans being acknowledged for our culture and being proud of things that we create. For so long, South African musicians have been following overseas trends and taking their lead from America, and I think in the country right now that South Africans are becoming proud of our identity and setting trends for ourselves. So, excellent. Congratulations on your work, and I hope this will continue.

ZOLA: I'm on a mission, my love. We get so much of American music back home, you know this, we get so much of American clothing, we get so much of American movies back home. I feel that it's our turn now.

M'BALA: But hopefully that trend will change so that we...

ZOLA: It's definitely changing my darling, that's why we have the Oscar on our side.

M'BALA: Well, it's not quite as much as a sub-culture, but in general, I feel I'm proud of being South Africans.

ZOLA: Thank you my love.

M'BALA: Okay. Great. (Speaks foreign language)

ZOLA: (Speaks foreign language)

M'BALA: Bye bye.

ZOLA: Thank ye.

CONAN: Thank you for the call. Let me ask you, you're a man of many talents. I understand you had a reality television show?

ZOLA: Yes, it's called Zola Seven. People write to me and tell me what their ideas are in life, is whatever the dream that you may want, and we organize finances and we sort you out. Somebody wants a hundred grand because they want to continue with their studies, somebody wants to build a library, somebody wants to build a house, somebody wants 2,000 books for a kiddie's library, somebody wants 25 computers for a school, that's what I do.

CONAN: So you make peoples' dreams come true.

ZOLA: Yes.

CONAN: Has your dream come true?

ZOLA: Well. I have a list of them.

CONAN: Well, tell us a few of the ones you can talk about on the radio.

ZOLA: Okay, because I'm a musician and I love music so much and I'm an actor and I'm so into acting I'm hoping to grow internationally in those two departments. And I would do a lot of things back home. I want to do a few collaborations with American artists and European artists. I want to get myself into a movie or two. And I want to, somehow I grew up in a place whereby it was impossible to even, you know, get to America when we were young. If somebody even got into a plane, it was an amazing thing. But I was in a room with Samuel L. Jackson, Ludacris and stuff, and I saw human beings, I think I can convince them to get into the studio with me and do something. I think I can star next to Samuel L. Jackson if I was given a chance. And only this things to grow, that is my dream, I want my art to grow internationally. Because, with so many charities and family and friends that we have to look at back home, we have to get some internationally. But the most important thing is just like Tsotsi, we get to tell the story of our people. And we also get to prove that in terms of productivity, in term of acting, in terms of music and quality, we have those things.

CONAN: Zola, thank you very much for being with us today.

ZOLA: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks to your singers as well. We appreciate their efforts as well. We've been talking with South African Kwaito star Zola. His music is the soundtrack to the film Tsotsi which just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He performed for us along with Zolani and Vucani, and we thank them again for joining us today on a very long day in Washington D.C. This is TALK OF THE NATIONfrom NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

(Soundbite of Zola singing)

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