Interview: Q&A with Pilani Bubu – Songs of Xhosa Identity and Belonging (December 2023)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Carlos Frazao

Every note Pilani Bubu sings tells a story, a narrative deeply rooted in the rich soil of South African heritage, yet reaching out to touch the universal themes of identity and belonging. With Folklore Chapter 2: Ekuseni, the Eastern Cape-born singer/songwriter captures the essence of Xhosa heritage, transforming folktales of her land into songs. As a South African songstress, Pilani skillfully intertwines ancient narratives with modern rhythms.

We recently had the opportunity to engage in a Q&A interview with Pilani, where she opened up about the profound impact of her upbringing in the Eastern Cape, a land rich in history and complexity, forever scarred by the legacy of apartheid. She guided us through her journey as an artist, illustrating how her experiences are seamlessly embedded in her work, making it both impactful and universal, also discussing the future of her Folklore album series, hinting at the exciting new directions her musical narrative is set to explore, continuing to bridge the past with the present.

Our discussion also delved into the diverse musical landscape of Folklore Chapter 2: Ekuseni, where traditional rhythms blend with contemporary harmonies, creating a sonic celebration that honours heritage while embracing the future. Finally, Pilani shared insights into her Folklore Festival, a platform she created to further celebrate and preserve African cultural heritage.

Let’s delve into recent news – Folklore: Chapter Two has been out for less than three months. How do you feel about the album, and if you were introducing its thematic elements to someone new to it, how would you go about it?

I’m happy about the result of the sonic journey and the resonance of the work with my community and my global audience. It seems it has given people a reflection on their own alignment with their sense of home and the things we are all healing about who we are, our identity, and how we are all searching for a sense of purpose.

The album explores how an African child navigates their purpose and calling in communion and consent with their ancestors, both living and dead, in African spirituality through divination. It shares a personal yet universal story of our culture and the various rites of passages we undertake as Xhosa people to ensure our paths are aligned in lineage and draws parallels with anyone who seeks alignment on their own journey. I hope the project gives people a compass home, no matter what that might be for them.

Moving through the Folklore cycle, especially with Chapter Two focusing more on personal narratives, how do you foresee your storytelling evolving?

I always write from a personal place and a lived experience. I intuit the music and download key messages that I am heeding, and I translate that for others who may be going through the same journey. African Spirituality and the return to its call is our new age exodus. There are so many young South Africans with the same sense of urgency, going through initiation to either become traditional healers, Sangomas, or reclaiming their rituals in order to restore, so as to truly progress forward. My story is not so unique, but the power of art is to articulate that which needs to be understood in order to shift consciousness or to give others the confidence through expression to find ways to voice their own story within the story.

Chapter 3: Emini, Chapter 4: Ebusuku, and Chapter 5: Ekufeni continue to look at my life’s journey and lessons through the lens of my heritage, culture, and South African Folklore. Without giving away too much, the next chapter is an exploration of traditional ceremonies in the daytime, and the fourth chapter delves into the sacred night ceremonies and how, through colonial times, the secrets of our culture were hidden in the church or from the church, at the demonisation of African Spirituality. We explore the sounds and roots hidden in Apostolic and Zionist movements and make parallels to imigidi yengoma. The last chapter is about the concept of death in the process of initiation and becoming but closes off our relationship with the divine and ancestry.

These themes are all observed and being lived in my walk as we speak. The music is constantly unveiling itself to me. It’s a beautiful process of obedience, observation, and the divine practice of intuition and divination.

Your musical journey seamlessly blends jazz, folk, soul, RnB, and electronic sounds. Can you paint a picture of the sonic landscape of Folklore Chapter 2: Ekuseni, both in terms of musical fusion and storytelling?

I would like to clarify a misleading line in my own bio. The albums take on their unique journeys to deliver distinct narratives. So, in Folklore, there is hardly any rnb as it is fully inspired by traditional folk music, some indigenous, and the writing styles of my people. In projects like ‘Lockdown Lovestory‘, an ode to rnb, and in ‘Konke‘ and others, you will find this fusion of electronics, afrobeats, rnb, and soul.

In Folklore, the promise of the sonic journey is to stay inspired by my roots. In my use of language, call and response, time signatures, and my choice of instrumentation in telling these stories. It’s fully a celebration of my culture and heritage. The storytelling is both ancient and modern, offering a contemporary way of looking at my understanding of my culture today, bringing it forward and evolving it with greater meaning and understanding.

In Folklore Chapter 2, you’ll hear the use of instruments like the marimba, the mbira, and a celebration of the percussive and onomatopoeic use of the Xhosa language. You’ll encounter time signatures uncommon to the ear, but if you have that African groove and swag, only complete freedom in this community-based music will sway you in the right direction.

With a deep connection to the Eastern Cape, are there specific stories, themes, or cultural elements from this region that you feel compelled to highlight in your music and creative endeavours?

Wow, SO MANY. It is the one and only reason the project Folklore exists. There is a wealth of history and indigenous knowledge still to be documented.

I am using a) music as a technology to fulfil my part in it, b) community and the age-old knowledge-sharing with my festival platform to make sure those who hold more of these systems and modes bring them to light, to spread the word and inspire the younger generation to also become treasure points and keepers of our inheritances. This is what we call lineage.

I encourage the same for all cultures in South Africa and the entire African Continent; hence, the festival hones in on being Pan African.

Growing up in the Eastern Cape during the final decade of apartheid, how has your upbringing influenced your perspective on cultural identity, activism, and storytelling in your music?

A lot. It is the very place that I write from.

I think growing up in a time when the country was so vocal and in an aggressive stage of our struggle for freedom has probably been very liberating for my voice and a big part of me finding my own voice and my tone.

I am unafraid. I feel a great sense of boldness in the way I move in the world.

I also believe that being in the homeland stage under black leadership also gave me the confidence I have. I have come from great men and women. Who themselves were impactful entrepreneurs and politicians in their time. My grandfather, who named me, to whom I dedicate the song “Umthombo” in Ékuseni, was a very successful businessperson who became the Minister of Education in the Transkei (as it was called then). His chosen wife, my grandmother, was of royal blood. So, I jumped off the shoulder of giants. I came into this life to continue with the same sense of leadership and purpose.

Growing up in the Transkei, in proximity to the village, exposed me to something city kids may not have been exposed to: Tradition and ceremonies and the unapologetic way we practice our African Spirituality. I am grateful for that duality. I had a choice and no two sides of myself as a suburban kid or village kid over the holidays, wherever greater than the other. My African value system was deeply ingrained in me. That same sense of community is probably what has given me the sense of empathy and humanity I approach social justice and cultural identity in my storytelling.

As mentioned, your music often incorporates traditional South African elements. How important is it for you to preserve and showcase the rich cultural heritage of South Africa, and how do you strike a balance between tradition and innovation in your sound?

The importance and impact, as highlighted earlier, are that the richness and accessibility of indigenous knowledge systems and cultural knowledge correlate with the confidence that future generations will have in themselves. Identity and knowing who we are are everything. And preservation of ancient sounds is a way in which we keep a portal for intuiting future pathways for the next generation. Honestly, I believe this has always been the way; now we are doing it beyond the oral tradition of Folklore. Folklore has to evolve into documentation for it to survive this rapidly evolving world.

I do believe I strike a balance in my sound by bringing in some of the contemporary influences I have in my ear to the music. It is unmistakable the soul and jazz that also envelops my music. A lot of African music is fuelled by improvisation, and it is no wonder South Africans, in general, are lovers of Jazz.

At the same time, collaborating with artists like Muneyi and Leomile adds regional diversity to Folklore Chapter 2. How do these collaborations contribute to the broader narrative of South African and African cultural interconnectedness within the album?

In the Folklore project, I try to extend the conversation, as I know that the subject matter is bigger than me. The collaborative invitations were based on other singer-songwriters and instrumentalists who hold the same folkloric ideas in the way they tell stories, deepen in their instruments. Like Lerato Lichaba [founder of Urban Village] guitars on ‘Vusumuzi’, Bheka Mthethwa’s bass on ‘Abantwana’ and ‘Nkathazo’, Lwanda Gogwana’s trumpets on ‘Umthombo’ and Luyanda Madope’s keys on ‘Ekuseni’. We are documenting the station of our views on how the music has shaped us from our roots and through history together. I see the perspective, but on the canvas, there are specific characters that make up that full picture, and I am simply unable to play all of those roles. It’s impossible. The festival also holds space for the conversation starters that I create in my music to be continued with others in the community.

Also, having spent time both in South Africa and abroad, notably in New Orleans, how has exposure to diverse cultural environments shaped your artistic approach, and how do you see global and local aspects influencing each other in your music?

I wish someone else could answer this for me and how they experience it and see it.

I would say this, that traveling and being exposed to genres eminent in other spaces has made me appreciate more and more the unique and distinct elements that Southern Africa brings to the musical spectrums of the world. It was only until I was exposed enough to see this and experience this for myself that I was able to sift through all my influences and find an even greater calling in more indigenous ways of communicating and expressing myself in the music.

As the founder and director of the Folklore Festival, how does the festival align with the themes explored in your Folklore series, and how has it evolved since its inception?

Overall, the festival is about building a community of folklorists through collaboration. As the themes of the music drive conversation starters and understanding for the festival. Through the music, I give the festival a reason for being and welcome other musicians with the same cause to have a platform to express themselves, as Indigenous folk or contemporary folk music with intentional African storytelling is still very niche in the industry compared to pop or dance genres.

We have been mostly focused on awareness and brand building in year 1 and 2, keeping our line-up honest and true to the essence of the work we are trying to achieve. Knowing that people may not know the artists on the line-up and that doesn’t particularly put a focus on ticket sales. We want people to learn how to accept an offering that is there to teach them as a fundamental versus making them cool by association. Slow and steady, we’ll be able to impact the music industry as far as folk music is concerned.

Introducing your music to someone who has never listened to it before can be a unique experience. How would you describe your sound to a newcomer, and is there a particular song you’d recommend as a starting point for them to fully grasp the essence of your artistic journey?

I still would call it jazzy folk soul. Meaningful and intentionally interlaced with poetry and spoken word for the keen ear that seeks to understand beyond enjoyment something moving and transformative.

Come here if you are looking for a shifting consciousness. I would say start by listening to ‘Miss Understood’ (from Journey of a Heart), connect with ‘Heaven’ and ‘Free’ (from Warrior of Light), then migrate to my journey into the Folklore repertoire from there.



Folklore Chapter 2: Ekuseni, the latest album by Pilani Bubu, is out now and available on major audio platforms.
You can listen to it and get your copy HERE




Photo ©: Carlos Frazao