Bongeziwe Mabandla released the third studio album of his illustrious career towards the end of March. iimini, which translates to “Days” in his mother tongue, isiXhosa, proved to be an a reflective journey into all matters of the heart.
The title fits, too. iimini feels as if it was conceptualised over a lengthy series of days in isolation (ironically, before the whole world was forced into isolation by Covid-19).
It’s not a farfetched image either. In an interview with Okay Africa, Bongeziwe spoke about how he drew inspiration from Bon Iver’s music. The indie band, fronted by Justin Vernon, has gained fame for disappearing into remote cabins in the wilderness for months on end, and emerging with heart-tugging music. Their breakout album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the product of such a process and it’s no surprise that iimini bears some of its resemblance in small moments.
You can hear some of this influence on the chorus of the beautifully written salanabani (13.8.18) – where Bongeziwe’s voice nestles itself in a very Bon Iver-esque instrumental. By the time you reach the brass/acoustic bridge of the song, you might be forgiven for thinking that Justin Vernon had learned isiXhosa and included the song on one of his own albums.
In fact, there are several nods to his biggest inspirations (Ideas and themes that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Lauryn Hill album; melodies and rhythms which Busi Mhlongo would have been proud of) but this doesn’t take away from the amount of originality and authenticity on display.
iimini is an album which feels as if it has evolved over the course of multiple drafts. This is hinted by some of the track titles, whose original names (such as #001, #untitled and dates such as 13.8.18) hint at their growth from mere ideas into the full testimonies we hear on this record. The final product feels all the more polished, further embellished by production from longtime collaborator Tiago Correia-Paul.
While creating iimini, Bongeziwe spent his days (no pun intended) in Johannesburg and Maputo and each city’s energy is on display at several intersections on the record. The sounds of Maputo’s bustling streets, Johannesburg’s relentless hustle, along with the solitude one can feel in such big cities was reminiscent. This is in no small part due to the excellent production by Tiago, which was always going to be crucial in giving a singer and storyteller as gifted as Bongeziwe the perfect platform.
Their chemistry has only grown with time and the end result is an album that, in simple terms, is extremely well put together. Both musically and otherwise sonically.
On the former: where harmonies are beautifully layered and simple instrumentals, cleverly arranged.
One of the album’s most enjoyable musical moments comes when, what sounds like an idea on a guitar at the end of Ndanele, transitions into the boppy and vibey, zange. The song, performed in the key of A-Major concludes by blending into 9.2.17- a piano rendition of the melody in the same key which serves as an interlude. Transitions are a key theme in love, life and storytelling – and fittingly, they enhance the listener’s experience when the album is played in order.
However, the audio experience doesn’t end with the music. The story is made to feel even more real thanks to the foley, which provides an almost cinematic experience into our hero’s journey.
We hear this on several occasions: from moments when the tingling of a faint wind chimes on ukuhlukana, to the almost haunting sounds of a door opening and closing on the album closer, ndiyakuthanda (12.4.19), we feel transported to every location Bongeziwe’s path takes him.
While the production and performance are equally impressive, it is the story’s key, which takes center stage
He muses at one stage in the story, “There’s no formula for how to love someone, there’s no formula for how to love yourself”…
When a relationship ends, the best thing to do is reflect – not only on what our former partners may have done, but on what we have could have done better – what we may (or may not) have learnt. Once you’ve taken stock and taken accountability, it is important to heal.
Bongeziwe admits that his healing process did not end with the completion of this album, but the creation of iimini certainly helped. He expressed in that same interview with Okay Africa:
“this album has also made me think a lot about my own self love. My own relationship with myself. While the album is really about somebody else, it’s also made me fix some of the wounds that love has left.”
Bongeziwe, who has toured the globe and gained international acclaim, is as worldly as they come. However, the real conclusion, after conquering and traveling so far and wide is that, ironically, you have had the answer all along. In order to truly love, as he continues on __, you must first love yourself.
The epiphany had finally arrived.
The 26-year-old has vowed that:
“Everything I do is measured against how artistic and interesting it is – both for me and my audience and I intend on taking that into 2020 with renewed energy,”
In testament to his own high standards, iimini was every bit as artistic and interesting as his loyal fans would have hoped – and then some. The lesson is a simple one, but can take many years, months and days. The journey to true love always, always begins within.