Lungiswa Plaatjies is a musician, singer and composer. Born and raised in Langa Township in Cape Town, she started singing at the age of eight years old before becoming the lead vocalist of Amampondo. She has toured extensively around the world and released her first solo album, Lungiswa, in 2000. After spending time digging deeper into the foundation stones of African music and Xhosa dance (Umxhentso), Lungiswa released her second solo album, Unonkala produced by Don Laka. In 2002, she was nominated for Best Newcomer and Best Female Vocalist at the SAMA awards and was also nominated for two Kora awards. Since 2015, she has been working with Bos Theatre Productions from The Netherlands on an annual musical show called South African Road Trip. Her select theatre credits include; Heart of Redness, The Tempest for the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Flower of Shembe. Lungiswa can currently be seen on stage as the featured musician in Kunene and the King at the Fugard Theatre.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It was my uncle, Dizu Plaatjies, and also Amampondo, a world famous group from Cape Town. It’s an African group where they play indigenous instruments. That’s where I got inspired that I wanted to be a musician because they used to rehearse at home when I was still young. I was nine and I used to rehearse with them. I was this kid who was curious and wanted to learn every instrument, especially indigenous instruments.
At what point did you realise that you had this musical ability?
At home, it was a family where music was an everyday thing. My late grandfather was a traditional healer, so at home, we had drums and every weekend, my grandfather would take me out to attend these African ceremonies where I’d hear healers singing. That’s where I wanted to sing. I also got exposed to West African music. Everything was at home. I was trying, by all means, to imitate whoever sings and also American music but at home, it was strictly African music. I would grab American music at school. There’s a song that I used to like when I was young called Uyandibiza which simply means, “We are called.” At that time, Amampondo was recording their first LP. I was a kid who was not into playing, especially on weekends. I used to go with the group and busk in town every weekend on Saturdays where I’d get R1. I used to sing this song and it was their first album and it was the title track of the album, Uyandibiza. What is funny, in Kunene and the King, there are prop LP’s. I saw this LP with my uncle on the front, Uyandibiza, and then I told the guys, “This is me!” I was about 10 years old at that time. Everyone fell in love with the song and they were playing it all over. That’s when I knew I could sing but I was also keen on playing an instrument. I don’t know why. Singing was there but I wanted to play each and every instrument that I saw.
When did you decide to pursue a music career professionally?
When I was young. From the time I was in school, music was my passion. You know when you grow up and everyone asks, “What do you want to be?” I was like, “I want to be a musician!” That was my dream. I’m living that dream now.
What was it that attracted you to Kunene and the King?
Neo Muyanga approached me for this. He called me and he said, “There is this play that Tata John [Kani] wrote but they need only one musician.” I said, “Only me?” He said, “Yes, only two actors and you. I’m going to do the music and then you can see what you can do.” He sent me the music and in the first song, there were lyrics. I said to him, “Can I use my own lyrics? Can I try and be me? The rhythm is fine. I just want to create my own lyrics.” In the opening song, I’m speaking, I’m playing with the clicks. Xhosa people, when we talk and when we sing, we are using a lot of clicks. I’m singing about Molweni. It’s a greeting. It’s a greeting song of, “Here we are. Feel free and be happy. In this show, you are going to laugh, you are going to cry, you are going to feel.” I’ve discovered that there is hope and faith and love in the play. That song was easy. The second song, where I’m singing Konakelephi Na?, which simply means, “What went wrong?” You can see what is happening around the world. We’ve got a problem of racism and the colour issue and power and money and politics in our leaders all over the world. It is not about only South Africa. It’s not about us. It really is a mess all over. The song is all about that. I’m pleading to god that we don’t have anyone to cry to, so please help us. That’s the meaning of the second song. Then, there is a part where I play mbira. That is my music. It’s a lullaby song. After that, it’s the storm where I am doing the sounds of the sky. The last song is me again. To tell you the honest truth, out of all the productions that I’ve managed to work with and all the musicians that I’ve worked with, I’ve never struggled but this play, I always tell people that this show is one of the best shows that I’ve ever [been part of]. I am a woman and I’m between these legends, these gurus and I’ve learned a lot with them. It’s all about women and power. I’m really happy.
How does your process change when it comes to creating something in collaboration with others as opposed to creating for your own music?
It’s a blessing. I’m blessed. Each and everything that I’m doing connects with me. I’ve never done music where I’ve been like, “This is not my style.” I don’t struggle because each and every work that comes to me, is me. I don’t choose music. I breathe music. Music is me. It’s my life.
Music is such a passion of yours but it’s also your career. How do you ensure that you still stayed inspired by it?
In the townships, when musicians go and work, they always say, “I am going to play.” For me, it’s not about playing, it’s not about work. I always say it’s a calling. It’s a gift. It’s more than talent. It’s a calling that god and your ancestors gave you. What I am doing here, is not work. It’s my calling. It’s not about money. Yes, we do need money but it’s all about love and passion and fulfilling my calling.
Your work has taken you all over the world. What are the differences that you’ve noticed between international and South African audiences and how they receive your work?
In South Africa, in terms of that, we are struggling. This morning, I had to attend a workshop in Langa about being an artist [and] musician in South Africa and in Cape Town. In South Africa, we are not there yet. I think, especially, African music per se because you will find that there are lots of kinds of music; there is jazz, there is classic, etc but internationally, you get the respect. Abroad, you get people who go out and support what you are doing. In South Africa, it’s so hard to get booked as a musician because here, in South Africa, they work the other way around. You have to be on TV 24 hours, they must know your music, they check your CD, did you sell your CD? Did you make it Gold or Platinum? All those kinds of things. It’s actually a mess because each and every artist is crying that there are no gigs, even the corporate gigs. In the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, you don’t find Capetonian musicians. You find our local artists standing there, welcoming the guests meanwhile, they were supposed to be on stage. You find out that in most of the festival, there’ll be just one. You go to a Jazzathon and also there is this separate thing of black people, coloured people and white people, which is not on. Abroad, we don’t have that. The Stratford audience was responsive and here, people are responding because of the play, because of Tony [Sher] versus Tata John and also about apartheid and all those kinds of things. I think it is not only music. Even in dance and acting, it’s the same thing. Each and every day, I say, “Thank god,” because I’m not in that mess where I’ll cry and say, “I don’t have gigs.” When I was young, my uncle was travelling all over the world. He used to say to me, “The voice is not enough. Learn these instruments and then you will come to me and say thank you.” When I’m travelling, it’s not about my voice. It’s all about me because I can play music, I’m a composer and a producer.
Touching on that and all the different instruments that you play, I was wondering if you could discuss some of the various instruments that you play as well as the discipline required behind learning and practising each one?
Most of the instruments that I play like mbira, I’m self-taught. I never went to a lesson because I’ve got a sharp ear. When I grew up, mbira was just in my house. My uncle is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town in the Department of African Music. I always go there and I’ll go on Youtube and check what the story behind the instrument is because I have to respect the background of the instrument. I discovered that mbira is the African piano. In Zimbabwe, they use that instrument when they are celebrating, when they have an African ceremony or if they are praying to their ancestors. It’s an instrument where I can’t play with it. Sometimes I don’t even want anyone to touch it. You can touch it and if you want to play it, you can play it but respect that instrument. It’s not just an instrument for fun. Another instrument that I’m playing is marimba. I’m also playing uhadi, which is a Xhosa instrument. It used to be played by old women in the olden days and it used to be played at night because you have to be naked and then you put the calabash on your breast so that you can feel the sound and hear the different kinds of tones. I also play umrhubhe. It’s a mouth bow where you control the instrument with your throat and then you get different kinds of sounds. I also play kayamba and hang, the instrument that I’m playing in the show. I bought it last year in India. In each country that I visit, I make sure that I buy an instrument. I told myself that I was going to play it. Every day, I make time for my instruments, even if I didn’t practice during the day, I make sure that I do even if it’s after 12 am. If I want to compose a song, the best time is 2 am because it’s quiet and you can hear birds and where you can relate because your mind is sharp. Sometimes during the day, you can’t compose because people are coming and there are knocks on the door. That’s why I’m travelling a lot. It’s because of my instruments.
What do you hope that people take away from your music?
First of all, to play an instrument is not a man’s world. If a woman sees another woman playing an instrument, if you are a musician, you get that thing of, “Wow! I want to learn that instrument.” That’s why I always tell musicians, especially female singers, “It’s never too late to learn an instrument.” The voice is fine but sometimes there are gigs where you want to do it on your own. It’s my second time doing the music for a show on my own. In 2017, I was in Namibia [and] they said, “We need you for 30 minutes. Can you do 30 minutes?” I was like, “Yes.” I did 30 minutes and then I said, “Can we please do 50?” That’s the only thing that I can tell you. To play an instrument is not a man’s world. We can do that. I so wish that my band could be women only.
What advice would you have for young musicians looking to enter into this profession?
You must know where you come from. Don’t forget where you come from. Learn as much as you can. People want to be superstars. I don’t believe in that world of superstars and celebrity. It’s all about work. You must work hard and you must go out and network and learn and be close to other musicians and don’t rush. When you take the stairs, it’s step by step. You can’t take your feet and go straight to the top. It doesn’t work like that. Although it’s not easy. You will bump, you will fall but you will stand up because you have that mentality of, “I want to be a musician. I don’t want to be a musician just because I want money. I’m a musician because this is my calling, my passion and my life.” I always say to people, “I don’t chase money. Money chases me.” It goes with discipline. Discipline, humbleness, respect and taking your calling seriously. Don’t be shaken. No fear. To be a musician isn’t easy. Don’t copy. Be you. You can get inspired by all different kinds of musicians but don’t say, “I want to be like that person. I want to sing like that person.” Be you and you will see.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
You can follow Lungiswa on Instagram.
Special thanks to Christine Skinner.