‘How’s everyone doing this evening?’ Zoë Modiga asks. The reception is muted.
The vocalist, performer and songwriter from Pietermaritzburg is about to perform in front of a full house at the Moses Molelekwa stage in Cape Town.
The occasion? Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2015. Sensing that people may have misheard her, or they’re merely too fascinated at the sight of the figure wearing a gold-coloured mask, Zoë reveals herself.
Untying the straps, she lets the mask fall gently to the side. People applaud as her face is unmasked, their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ fighting for space in the room.
She takes the microphone from its stand and holds onto it using her right hand. She launches into an acapella rendition of Psalm 103 and all of a sudden, King David’s in the house preparing the mass for a funkafied soul-shakedown as the claps slowly fade away. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!’ she sings.
‘I approached a band of people that I looked up to; that I feel will be pioneers of their own projects.’
This spiritually-cleansing prayer is a warm up for the real show. Her band are getting ready, she brought along Bokani Dyer on piano; Romy Brauteseth on acoustic bass; Robin Fassie-Kock on trumpet; Keenan Ahrends on guitar; and Marlon Witbooi on drums. They’re incredible, awesome musicians, and she said as much during a press conference held earlier: ‘I approached a band of people that I looked up to; that I feel will be pioneers of their own projects.’
Several months following that performance, Zoë’s in Joburg on a two-date tour. It’s been, much like the months preceding her appearance at the jazz fest, a helluva year! She’d experienced the highest of highs when she won the Grand West Open Mic Jazz series; the competition led to her being offered a slot at the jazz festival. Her show was on the Friday.
‘I’d spent a lot of time just working on the craft classically with singing and songwriting.’
She’d also been excluded from university over circumstances that are still unclear, a low she’d only just begun coming to terms with. In-between the two events, she won SAMRO’s Overseas Scholarships Winner (Jazz) with her rendition of Nina Simone’s Four Women. The award is a big deal for any self-respecting musician.
‘I’d spent a lot of time just working on the craft classically with singing and songwriting and looking at perfecting things like my clarinet and my piano skills,’ says Zoë of the years spent studying at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein. ‘I’d left that space to look into jazz. So [the Jozi show] was like a debut performance, to just enjoy being there and showing all the things that I’ve learnt thus far. It was a vibe.’
Of people’s reception and general attitude, Zoë says that people have received her music ‘quite well.’ She adds: ‘It kind of translates things that are a genuine experience for everyone. At this point in my life, a lot of my songs are centred around people that live beyond their potential. As Zoë, what does it mean to me and am I living that out?’ she sounds out.
Her knack for collaboration across multiples styles of music makes it unfair to assign her one genre. Besides a debut album, which she teases will reflect her nomadic approach to music by using different band set-ups, she’s performed with the Frank Paco Art Ensemble and features on Nigerian musician Lanre Kunnuji’s forthcoming album.
Some songs in Zoë’s repertoire speak to her spirituality. Her writing is a pathway to communicate with a greater being; a creator. How does she manage the spiritual aspect of her life?
She questions things all the time. ‘I find that when things get shaky, I realise that my relationship with God is not a brownie-point system where it’s like all these things that I do make for the relationship. It’s all the things that He’s done, the fact that I’m completely loved by something much bigger than me, I think, is more important than anything I could ever do or achieve both career-wise and personally. I struggle a lot with things and I question Him about those things… a lot! More probably than I’d like to admit,’ she shares.
A question directed at her during the CTJIF press conference concerned sexual representations of women in the mainstream. ‘I find it very interesting because sometimes it gets horribly blatant, and it becomes quite horrible in fact. Look at Beyoncé, she’s not a young woman anymore [but] look at what she was forced to do by her record label. It doesn’t make sense to me, it’s what’s inside of that voice that is important,’ a male commentator remarked.
‘I should be able to say that “actually, this is how I want to come across”.’
‘It’s not the artists themselves when they start out, it’s the record label. It’s the suits that run the label, they wanna make money, so they find any method of exploiting that artist. Case in point is Rihanna [who] was taken sole advantage of when she was younger by the large record labels that she worked for,’ he added after having his views challenged.
So what’s her take on it all? ‘Right now, I realise that there is a talent that I have. Yes it’s God-given, but by the mere fact that I’m the vessel for that talent, I know how I want to be perceived and I should therefore be able to make the rules,’ she responds. ‘I should be able to say “Actually, this is how I want to come across. This is what I want to wear, this is how I feel when I’m in this, and I feel that you’re gonna see it in a particular way!”’
Zoë’s magnificence can crack and expose you.
Zoë’s aware that people have a right to offer their opinion, but reiterates that as the person who’s responsible for all that she puts out, ‘I should be able to make the rules as to what I should be, and how I should be considered.’
Live, Zoë’s magnificence can crack and expose you, reducing you to a tearful, soppy softie in the process. Performing at The Orbit, a jazz club located in Braamfontein which has been bringing the toughest, phattest jazz-leaning musicians over the past three years, is testament at least to her ability to lead a band. This time around she’s flanked by Thandi Ntuli on piano, Benjamin Jephta on bass, Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums and Lwanda Gogwana on trumpet. Her control of her audience is incredible. She slams on the crowd ‘em, takes ‘em to places unimagined, brings them back and questions ‘em how the trip was.
At Winnie’s, another jazz joint located to the north of Jozi, she’s freer, exercising the gist of her youthful zest to the delight of an equally youthful audience. Throughout both showcases you’re left with one resonating thought about Modiga: She’s got this!
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