Abathandwa on mak­ing gospel cool again

The Abathandwa crew tell DRUM how they went from small-town gigs to mak­ing gospel cool again

DRUM - - Contents - BY NKOSAZANA NGWADLA PIC­TURES: LUBABALO LESOLLE

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.

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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.

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