The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
THREE years ago, as his career was on the rise in South Africa, Otis Ngwabi’s foes were human.
The people that were seemingly against the Bulawayo-bred crooner could be seen, heard and touched.
Nothing is ever straightforward in the music industry and back then, three years ago, Ngwabi was under threat from players in the music industry that wanted to take their “beef” with him from beyond the booth all the way to the streets. Due to a dispute over a song, these foes were even threatening the erstwhile crooner’s life.
Life in the notoriously wild streets of Joburg is always precarious, but it can be dangerously so when it is being threatened by faceless men. Three years later, the noise from that potentially fatal dispute has died down and Ngwabi has moved on with his life and career.
His enemy however, has changed form. His foe now cannot be seen or heard. It does not send messages of threats or even a word of warning. At home or abroad it just strikes and when it does, the consequences are dire.
Targeting both leaders and followers in whatever field, this enemy has been merciless as it cuts down people around the globe. For a musician like Ngwabi, making a living from stages far from home, Covid-19 has made life difficult, with the current third wave wreaking havoc in his adopted country and elsewhere putting songbirds back in the cages that they thought they had escaped.
“Over the past year I have been working tirelessly to expand my brand in music and other areas,” Ngwabi told Sunday Life in an interview.
“I used these constant lockdowns that we have been subjected to, to learn more about the business side of music and how it operates in order to get my music and brand on top rather than allowing myself to drown in the mid of these challenges that we are currently facing.
“It hasn’t been easy but it has also come with its own challenges because from the beginning of the lockdown, most people have been indoors and they have been hungry for entertainment since they can’t go to the clubs and entertainment hotspots as normally, they would do.”
The constant lockdowns, which come and go with every wave of the global Covid-19 tsunami, have taught him the importance of other streams of income as money from music and entertainment now comes in drips.
“Apart from music I’m working for a beverage distribution company as a sales representative. That is what I’m surviving on at the moment. I also have a side events business that I run but at as of now it’s on standby due to the Covid-19 situation that have affecting us in the country right now.
“As much as this lockdown has brought a lot of problems for us as artistes, for me it has brought a lot of advantages.
One thing that I’m praying for is that a solution is found for this disease because it has caused a lot of deaths. We have lost lots of friends, family colleagues to this disease especially in the entertainment industry.”
Lockdowns, for Ngwabi at least, have meant more time to work on his music. In studios, big and small, artistes have been picking up microphones and singing their hearts out in a world that has suddenly grown hostile towards a line of work that demands the gathering of crowds than any other.
“Radio and TV have been the only platforms for artistes to showcase their work and it has also been good because it has given us a platform to showcase our work on mainstream media. A lot of unknown young artistes have taken advantage of this and they have succeeded into the mainstream market.
“I myself have managed to take advantage of this and I have managed to secure strong relationships with big music producers and record companies as they are scouting for new talent as they are also under pressure to release more music and new hits now and then as the demand for entertainment with people stuck indoors under lockdown is getting higher and higher,” he said.
As he jots down lyrics every day away from the clubs where he had grown accustomed to, Ngwabi has found himself revisiting a topic that has turned up in his music over the last two decades — love.
“Every song that I write has an inspirational background behind it. I write about things that I have experienced and see happening around me. I write about love, happiness or the sad scenarios I see and experience. Those are the things that inspire me daily to write the songs that I do,” he said.
Working with some of Mzansi’s top producers, including Touch the Malac and Zulu Naja of Mangdakiwe fame, Ngwabi believes he is on the way to the top again despite the South African music industry being in limbo.
“Currently I am working on a lot of music projects with other producers, DJs and musicians. People should look out for the song titled Nqo Nqo. It was produced by one of the biggest DJs here in South Africa, Touch the Malac. I have also been working with DJ Zwesta on a song titled Somandla and I’m also working with another DJ and producer but we will announce when we are ready and done with it. That’s when we will make the necessary noise. As an independent artiste I’m still working my way up until I find a solid and good recording deal,” he said.
Through his new extended play (EP, which is shorter than an album) titled Amalobolo, Ngwabi said he would relive his own life and those of the people around him. Like many things, the release of the EP has been delayed by another Covid-19 inspired lockdown.
“The songs I have done recently, especially Lobola, talks about the importance of men being able to marry their chosen spouses and paying the bride price as per our tradition. Nowadays a lot of us men don’t attach a lot of importance to paying lobola and doing things the proper way and that is why things sometimes don’t go well in our marriages because the ancestors, for those who believe in ancestors, would not be happy with the way that we have done things,” he said.
Love and tradition, Ngwabi said, would be the mainstay of a new effort that he is releasing in unprecedented times for performers. After two decades in the music industry, Ngwabi has known love and loss, hardship and triumph, and as Covid-19 continues to pummel the music industry, he is penning songs he believes has precious messages for other artistes and people in general.
“We have a song titled Lengane and it touches on the same topic but in a slightly different way. I’m speaking about the influence that parents have on their children’s choice of a partner based on the character of whoever their children would have chosen. Another song that I included on the EP is Nomzamo, which is a tale of two lovebirds that have grown up together from the time they were. They’re narrating their love story to each other, how far they have come and the obstacles that they would have faced.
“On the song Nqo Nqo I talk about the importance of being humble and knowing how to carry yourself because should opportunities knock on your door yet you’re a person that rubs people the wrong way, people tend to shut down some of these opportunities for you because of your bad character,” he said.