Abathandwa on making gospel cool again
The Abathandwa crew tell DRUM how they went from small-town gigs to making gospel cool again
AS FAR as their many fans are concerned, they’re the guys who’ve made gospel cool again. They’re young, fit and charming and with their angelic voices completing the package, it’s no wonder they’ve become a national sensation.
Their hit, Ehhe Moya Wami, can be heard blasting from speakers at churches across the country, but it isn’t only in places of worship that their music is being celebrated. Go to chill-out spots such as Eyadini Lounge in their hometown of Umlazi, Durban, and you’ll hear it there too – the catchy tune inspiring patrons to sing and dance along.
And the 13 guys who make up a cappella gospel group Abathandwa are basking in their newfound fame.
The band members aren’t just fellow musicians, they tell us when they arrive at our Auckland Park offices for a chat – they’re more like brothers.
Lead singer Percy Nyoka (23) tells us how it all started. The group was first formed in 2009 by one of the members, Minenhle Ngubane, and a friend as they wanted to enter a singing competition at their Manzolwandle Primary School.
More people kept joining after they moved to King Shaka High School and they started performing at local schools and churches in Durban.
Back then they were called Abafana Boxolo ( Young Men of Peace), then Injabulo ( Joy) – until they learnt another group had the same name.
“One day when we were all sitting together and someone suggested we call
ourselves Abathandwa,” Percy says. “To this day we still don’t know who said it, but we loved the name.
“It was prophetic. We knew we were going to be loved by people because Abathandwa means ‘those who are loved’. God has been with us since our inception and will continue to be with us.”
Their hit song, which has also been made into various memes – a sure sign of popularity – was composed by Percy.
“The songs just come to me. I believe music is a feeling first. I feel like I need to let it out and until I write it down and produce the song, it occupies my mind.”
Once he’d given life to Ehhe Moya Wami and the group translated it into the a cappella masterpiece, it hit the airwaves like a tornado, earning the guys followers across southern Africa.
Percy says he and the group are humbled by the attention.
“But it’s scary too,” he adds. “It puts pressure on us to come up with something even better. The standard is high, but it’s all a blessing. God is blessing us.” T HE group consists of a fourpart harmony with three bass singers – Nhlanhla Mdima ( 22), Thabani Zikalala ( 23) and Sfiso Ncube ( 23); two tenors – Zakhele Zungu (26) and Mfundo Mthethwa (24); three altos – Manqoba Ngubane (23), Msizi Dladla (24) and Bongani Nembula ( 25); three sopranos – Menzi Nyandeni (24), Mhlengi Stainbank (23) and Minenhle Ngubane (22); as well as lead singer Percy, and percussion vocalist Cebile Shonge (23).
The group was quite low- key until they met late gospel singer Sfiso Ncwane, also from Durban, in Cape Town in 2016.
A friend of theirs was launching an album there and they were asked to perform one or two songs. When they saw that Sfiso would also be there they were even more determined to impress.
“He was so surprised to see us there,” Minenhle says. “He was like, ‘ Wow, guys, how did you get here?’ He obviously liked what he saw and decided to work with us.”
“Even though he passed away not long afterwards, Sfiso will always be the artist who speaks to us most,” Nhlanhla says. “We were inspired by him even before we met him – the way he dresses, his music and his whole journey just speaks to us as a group.”
And now his widow, Ayanda, has taken the boys under her wing and is their manager. Mention her name and they light up as one, calling her their “mother” and a source of endless support.
She’s played an important role in their growth and development, Percy says. “She welcomed us with warmth into her life and her home. She’s the perfect person to manage us.”
Their journey with Ayanda hasn’t been without controversy. The widow was accused of giving away one of Sfiso’s trackpants to Percy after he was spotted wearing a blue Adidas pair on Instagram – similar to those the gospel singer once posted.
She had given him her pants, Ay a n d a said in respons e . “Al l my husband’s important clothes are kept for my children only,” she added. T HEY don’t see themselves as special or different to other gospel groups, Sfiso says. He’s the resident chatterbox, his mates are quick to point out. They also have the joker, Thabani, the quiet one, Mhlengi, and Mr Popularity, Percy. Sfiso tells us they’re just an ordinary group of guys who happen to love God.
“We aren’t exceptional or anything like that, it’s just that God has always been with us. We connect with young and old because of our story and our genuine praise. And the way we dress also helps,” he adds with a laugh.
“I agree with Sfiso,” Nhlanhla says. “I saw an Instagram post where someone was thanking us for making gospel music cool again. And I suppose that’s because we do it the only way we know how – dancing and clothes included!”
Abathandwa has been known to vosho, do the shake-shake and add many contemporary dance styles to their gospel performances. They’ve been performing all over the country, as well as in Botswana and Swaziland, and their fame shows no sign of waning. In October they’ll launch a new single at the Du rb a n Christian Centre, in
‘The songs just come to me and I introduce them to the guys. I believe music is a feeling first’
the city where it all started.
The young men are so close they hope to buy an Abathandwa house together, “to be our home and headquarters, where we will arrive when coming back from gigs and travels,” Percy says.
A whole house filled with music and laughter and love . . . sounds pretty close to perfect.
With their dashing good looks, smart outfits and angelic voices, these 13 guys from a capella gospel group Abathandwa know how to get people praising and dancing.
TOP LEFT: The cover for their smash-hit single, Ehhe Moya Wami (Yes My Soul). ABOVE: The guys have nothing but praise for their manager, Ayanda (RIGHT), widow of late gospel great Sfiso Ncwane.