[Odwa Bongo performs with his uHadi at The Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Cape Town on 12 October. PHOTO: James Browning]

Odwa Bongo is a vocalist and uHadi player based in Cape Town. He has been performing full-time since 2015, playing deeply emotive sets of both contemporary and traditional isiXhosa music.

Odwa prefers smaller, intimate venues that create room for close interaction with an audience. He leaves no corner untouched by an incredibly powerful vocal performance and the resonating rhythm of his uHadi.

Odwa’s sets are an exercise in emotional exploration — at times playful, then defiant, infectiously exultant, then wrenchingly sorrowful.

We sat down with Odwa on 12 November before his show at the upstairs lounge of Club 169 on Long Street, where he was accompanied by a keyboard. We spoke about the cathartic spaces he hopes to create with his music, celebrating his culture and traditional music, and his hopes for a revival of the uHadi.

Pouring out hearts together

Odwa’s performances are raw and emotional — music interwoven with conversation and confessionals. “But I’m going to try not to talk a lot, because I’m going to cry if I talk a lot,” he says to a small crowd in the intimate upstairs room of Club 169. Despite this, a small tear has already fallen onto his cheek as he speaks about finally returning to live performance.

Odwa Bongo playing the uHadi
[“The one big thing about me is I like wearing a doek. Why I do it, I do not know,” Odwa Bongo tells us. PHOTO: James Browning]

“My music is about healing, and about me having to unleash whatever I feel, whatever struggles that I go through,” Odwa tells us. But there’s plenty of humour to that healing process too. Some of his songs are unabashedly funny, and a sharp sense of wit sparkles across the surface of his performance’s emotional tides.

“We are not broken, we just have seriously heavy loads, and there is no space to unload. So for me, my stage is that platform,” Odwa says. He aims to create a place for people to pour out their hearts and unburden themselves from the kinds of weights we all bear. “Sometimes the only place I can vent, where I can cry, and laugh, and share, is on stage,” he says.

Feelings are viscerally embodied on stage — from emphatic gestures to moments of serene calm, from hips thrust in cheeky defiance to a finger pointed in an angry retort. Odwa brings a breadth of emotion to life with unshy authenticity — and not to mention a depth of closet showcased by multiple costume changes.

Odwa hopes for the chance to have a show where the roles are reversed, and people can tell him about their own stories, struggles, and problems. “I feel that there’s so much power in that — in knowing that I am not alone in this situation I am in, that there’s a whole bunch of us that are also facing a similar situation. And that all we need is a space to unleash,” he says.

Audience participation is inevitable at Odwa’s shows — you had best come ready to get involved.

Odwa Bongo playing the uHadi
[Odwa Bongo poses for a promotional photoshoot. PHOTO: Supplied/Odwa Bongo]

Rediscovering his audience

Odwa is coming off an eight-month break, before which he had been playing music full-time. He says he regrets having to take the break because it sapped his drive and energy for performance. But, as he explains during his show, sometimes we do things to make others happy, and then we need to make a return to ourselves.

When Odwa returned, he discovered that the scene had changed. Lockdowns have left many venues permanently closed, and others no longer have the same vibe or customer base that they used to. He tells us that people now seem very specific about the places they want to go to, and very aware of whether or not they would fit in that space.

It seems to Odwa that many in his intended audience have separated themselves and are no longer in the mix with everyone else. “I’m one of those people who have separated themselves, I totally understand. For me, it’s just very difficult to get to people, or get my message across to the people who need to hear it.”

But now that he’s back to playing full-time, Odwa hopes to reconnect with audiences looking for safe, intimate spaces of musical self-expression.

Cultural activist

“I’m a cultural activist — if you want to put it that way. I love my culture. I’m constantly looking to find out about the things that happen in my culture, and why we do things the way we do them,” Odwa explains.

Odwa Bongo playing the uHadi
[Odwa Bongo is unexpectedly joined on stage by a dancer from another act. PHOTO: James Browning]

The uHadi is a musical bow that resonates through a gourd and is played by percussion. Odwa uses its penetrating sound to create deeply hypnotic rhythms. His vocals are beautiful and impressive, but the beat of Odwa’s bow compels your body to move with an irresistible force that the Pied Piper would be jealous of.

Odwa aims for his music to contribute to a revival of the uHadi musical bow. He hopes to see the instrument at the forefront of South Africa’s music scene, being played more commonly and taking a prominent place next to western string instruments like the violin and cello.

“I always knew that I wanted to perform, because I enjoyed expressing how I feel. But when I found [the uHadi], I just fell in love with it — with the sound that it has, and what it did to me. I can’t explain what it did to me, but it did something quite incredible. And that thing — I can only express it on stage,” he explains.

Traditional and contemporary

Odwa incorporates traditional isiXhosa music into his work to keep it alive and escape the often imperfect attempts to write down songs that have always been transferred orally. “In a lot of our ceremonies, there’s always music — beautiful music that gets lost because it’s not recorded or written down properly,” he explains.

Odwa Bongo playing the uHadi
[“A lot of things I do I don’t know why I do them, I just do because my spirit tells me to,” Odwa Bongo tells us. PHOTO: James Browning]

However, culture encompasses more than just ceremony. Odwa talks to us about ‘Nomathemba’, a piece he plans to release a studio recording of in January 2023. “It’s a song we used to do in pre-primary,” he tells us. In it, the titular Nomathemba is asked who has beaten her up, but brushes off attempts to identify the man responsible.

“There’s a lot of people who can relate to it who are also scared of pointing out their abusers, because they may be scared of the outcome,” Odwa says.

In terms of influences, Odwa cites contemporary artists Zolani Mahola and Cama Gwini, but says a major force behind his work is South African singer-songwriter, Simphiwe Dana. His reverence for Dana is made clear not just in our interview, but also in his slowed-down and breathtakingly powerful performance of Dana’s ‘Ndiredi’.

It’s about feeling it

[Odwa Bongo performs at the previous ‘uHadi Experience’ in February 2022. PHOTO: Supplied/Odwa Bongo]

Odwa Bongo’s music is to be experienced and shared. You can watch him perform live alongside a classical string ensemble on 1 December at Selective Live in Cape Town’s city centre. The name of the show is “uHadi Experience,”  where Odwa aims to foreground the uHadi while showcasing it alongside string instruments more familiar to most audiences.

Odwa explains that it takes time for people to understand his music, though we’d say it certainly makes an immediate impact on the listener. “It’s not pop, it’s also not really jazz. It’s more about you feeling it,” he says.

“I just wish I can get to those people who feel, more than anything. That’s the people I’m preaching to, and the kind of community I want as a performer. But I don’t know where to find them. But I guess the universe will attract them to me,” Odwa says.

Author

​​I write about the tech sector in hopes we can find human-centred alternatives to the mess we’ve made for ourselves. I get involved in the music scene because leaving passion unpursued is a sin. When my feet aren’t busy on the sokkie floor, you can find me chasing silver linings.

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