Mantombi’s use of vocal, uhadi, istorotoro and umrhubhe instruments to interpret a range of cultural-standards coalesces into a sublime project. Her virtuosity, on all four instruments, is witnessed in the last track – a bonus offering cut from biographical ramblings – one that includes her international performance profile, which, among many career milestones (Mantombi mentions), she cites her jet setting, putting emphasis on her first class treatment. Needless to say, first class recognizes first class.
The debut album, for this artist at an unusually ripe-age for ‘new entry’, sketches its offering in the intersections of ‘prayer’, reflection and story-telling. In a manner of speaking her project is on the seeking-end of trans-religious and trans-secular marches of metaphors.
It is a creature of ungovernable poetics. One characterized by both a penchant for subversive meaning, and an insatiable appetite for ambivalence. It wouldn’t be poetic if it were less unsure; or if her aesthetics did not toy with incertitude.
For me, track 4, WenuseGoli, stands out. It’s the most infectious of the 13 tracks – short audio-bio inclusive. As such, track 4 is the most obvious victim of the ‘repeat’ playback button. I witnessed this first-hand. In the CD sleevenotes, Ncebakazi Mnukwana, a music teacher and bow-string player herself, interprets WenuseGoli to mean ‘the migrant lovers who set out for the city of gold, looking for employment, left their relations at home growing cold’. No-doubt, Ncebakazi’s is a welcome interpretation. But, as can be observed in the reproduced variations of the two lines:
‘Wen’ useGoli, uzothol’ ezbandayo’ – 1 a) ‘Wena useGoli’, directly translating to ‘you, in Johannesburg’; 1 b) uzothol’ezabandayo – you shall find cold things,
‘yhiyo hoha’ – 2 a) an exclamation of surprise and or caution; 2b) ‘iphelile madoda’ – what was, has come to a grinding halt.
Here, it becomes apparent that the second-person subject pronoun, ‘wena’, which directly translates to ‘you’, sometimes takes on a third-person subject address, ‘lo mntu’, which translates to ‘him/her’.
In the shifting sands of Mantombi’s varied sense-making, a colloquial use of the word ‘Gone’, appropriated from the English language, cannot be automatically ruled out. Though a more isiXhosa word ‘gona’, likely employed for purposeful ambiguity – a word which directly translates to ‘hug/embrace’ – may be used to advise the person left in the rural homestead to go ahead and find herself someone to ‘hug/embrace’. Gona/gone, used to open the refrain, assume that the subject who is ‘gone’ or must be ‘gona(d) is redundant, or need not be explicitly mentioned.
Possibly, the left-behind lover, is permitted by the highly esoteric message of the song to not shy away from coving up some willing broad-chested other. A feature quite liberating. And very practical. Especially for a culture that did not confer fathering rights by the mere accident of the male seed, but rather by rites of passage that ‘broke the silence of the [unlanguaged-other/male] being’ by rites.
I digress, but it may be important to highlight that, in Isizwe Esinembali, a book compiled by Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko of work by William Wellington Gqoba, mostly lifted from his contributions to Isigidimi between 1873 to 1888, the word ‘nina’ or “amanina”, the contemporary meaning of which is a ‘female’, never used to signify gender, but rather a relation of ownership to land. Its meaning approximated what Mogobe Ramose refers to as ‘sovereign title of territory’.
The pristine logic of indigenous knowledge systems privileged a ‘Mama’s baby, papa’s, maybe’ paradigm. Not only did the ‘man’ not possess any male-privileging dominion over his woman-folk counterpart, ‘man’ did not even automatically own the product of their own seed. The right of the father was radically contingent, a ‘maybe’, until the rationale that leads with incertitude lifts the perverse anonymity (of the father) by shared codes and shorthand rites of language. Mantombi’s playful dance and amorous flirtation with a possible third-party in track 4, comes from this long tradition of philosophical and existential contingency.
It’s not only consistent with the radical sovereignity of a person’s body — the ‘no thoroughfare’ curtain drawing on another, drawn by the walls or bars of another’s skin (exempt only when there is an unambiguously expressed permission) — but, the woman’s body, and its offspring, were barred access to, in other words, the woman and her offspring could not be owned by patriarchal entitlements that tended to accompany the aftermath of copulation.
Shot through a refracting prism of something similar to what Paul Feyerabend, in Beyond Method, termed “anything goes”, the message of the song opens itself to multiple axes of interpretations. When track 4 came on, my first instinct – as the song folded to silence, 4min 54sec later – was to unwind that listening experience, and start all over.
“Majola Phum’ Etilongweni”, “Umoy’ Uthethile”, and “Kubuhlung’ Ukugula”, felt like a three-step attempt at healing third-degree burns that wouldn’t heal: 1) ‘disinfect’, 2) ‘wash’ and 3) ‘apply ointment & dress with gauze’.
There are moments I longed for igubu lentlombe – the distinct drumming sound at intlombe gatherings. With that igubu diet, followed cravings for more low-register accompanying voices.
My late mother had the ancestral calling, ubungoma. Uncannily, the root-word ‘ngoma’ in ‘ubungoma’ means ‘sound’. ‘Sound’, in so far as it is cognate with ‘reason’, can be thought of here, in this project, as constituted by an ambivalent paradigm. A transphenomenal and metastable quality. The Quality of being human that Lewis Gordon speaks of. Meaning, whatever human beings are presented as, they are simultaneously aware of not being identical with their presentations/representation.
What I’m getting at is: There’s a ‘more than-ness’ in Mantombi’s discourse of ‘sound’, one that brings poet and Africana studies professor Fred Moten to mind when he says “there is more than is to say in what is being said” (2003:122).
This ambivalent paradigm of reason/sound, Lab’ou Tansi, in his foreword paratext to The Seven Solitudes of Lorsa Lopez, opens up to a kind of liminality or border crossing of fact and fiction. A cloaking of fact in fiction, and vice versa. A border-crossing appeal that necessitates no qualification other than one’s subjective truth. A fictive ambivalence worked in by design: to help ‘reality’ say things it would not have said by itself. Mantombi’s sound/reason insists on divergent “reasons for naming… [it helps reality gain] another centre for breathing ” as Tansi puts it.
Tell me what made you leave
I have left the children with mealies to eat
Ndemnkemzini kumnandi, ndishiyamathanga nombona
I leave a warm home behind, I left silos full of mealies to eat
‘Xelint’ omkengayo’, (Tell Me What Made You Leave), track 2 on the album, brought back memories of a song with a similar tune and lyrics, but adapted to an intlombe setup. Mantombi’s umngqokolo, and ukombela prowess and instrumental lyricism indeed opens the black-box of magic. To the wizard of Oz’s broom, Mantombi, the wizard of Tsolo, flies us on a bow-string.