In Conversation with Digital Sangoma

Mandisi Mafu, popularly known as Digital Sangoma, is making strides in the music industry with his distinct sound that incorporates elements of Kwaito, House and Afrobeats with an undertone of electronic synths, layered with expressive vocals that hit a nerve in every listener. His discography is a lot like an art gallery, a collection of different pieces that evoke different emotions, each piece reflecting the onlooker as much as the artist/creator. I caught up with the Cape Town based music producer, whose music bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary, to unpack some of his life experiences that have now been woven into the music we have come to know and love. Through this conversation we get to know the man who throws bones digitally a bit better.

Captured by: Effie Gerritsen

Today is a special day for me because I am sitting here with you, about to unpack your journey with music. As a fan, I am delighted! Thank you for making the time to have this conversation.

Thank you for the opportunity. Every opportunity to talk about the music is a great opportunity, thank you for thinking of me.

I have come to know you as Digital Sangoma, but you were born Mandisi Mafu and I would like us to start this conversation by going back in time to your formative years. Who were you? Where were you, and what do you remember from that time that has transcended/translated into your music today?

I was born in Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape. When I was 8 months old, I was then taken to a small village eNgqushwa (Peddie) where I was raised by my aunt until I finished school. I believe Peddie influenced everything that I am and everything that I do, including my music.

I am very thankful for its influence in my life because it has grounded me. I am what I am because of the [humble] environment I grew up in. In my village there were all sorts of musical influences from gatherings and practices, such as umguyo, intlombe, and imitshotsho. At the time I did not realize that the seed of music was being planted in me at that time but now, in hindsight, I see how those influences were subtle but impactful.

After completing my matric I moved back to Port Alfred for about two to three years then I relocated to Cape Town in March 2007, where I then studied sound engineering and later specialized in electronic music programming.

Why did you decide to specialize in electronic music programming?

Simply put, electronic music is basically using a computer/software to record and produce music. At the time I couldn’t play any instruments but I wanted to be able to fully express myself artistically, and electronic music programming offered me the tools I needed to create and produce music. You see inspiration comes at any time and when you are able to translate what you feel at a particular moment sonically, without needing to explain the feeling to another person (producer), then what you put into the music will be exactly what you feel. Nothing will be lost in translation, and that’s what I wanted. Music, like feelings/emotions, exists at numerous frequencies which is why certain musical frequencies can make you feel a certain way. Similarly, feelings can be translated into music by recreating those frequencies felt into musical frequencies. To me, producing is the ability to translate feelings into something you can hear and connect with and that’s what I wanted to do, it’s what I do and probably what I will do for the rest of my life. To answer your question though, I studied electronic music programming so I could create songs that resonate with me and release them to the world.

Oh wow, so you have been a musician since 2007?

No, I have been a musician all my life. I believe being a musician/artist is something you are born with, but it is up to you as the custodian to enhance the innate gift with skill. I acquired the technical skill to be the type of artist I envisioned from 2007. Education gave me the tools to fully express myself sonically. 

How do you then become Digital Sangoma?

I know some people think my stage name was driven by some deep spiritual experience that I went through and it’s not that deep (laughs). Years ago I was pushing my craft under my name, Mandisi Mafu, but I hadn’t figured out how to package and present the music at the time. A friend of mine then tweeted something with the hashtag Digital Sangoma and that name instantly stood out for me and I asked if we could do a project together under the alias Digital Sangoma but that never happened. Nonetheless, I continued to make music and I would take to the streets of Cape Town with my gear and just play my music and dabbed these Digital Sangoma sessions. The more I played these sessions, the more I connected with the name and so did the people. I guess you could say I found my voice and stage name through these sessions.

What do you know now about your stage name that you didn’t know when you took on the name, looking at the experiences you have given audiences through your music? Are you manifesting your name?

Based on what the music does for me and what I have heard people say it does for them I think to some degree I am manifesting the name.  If I am to be very honest, I don’t know where the music comes from. It’s crazy. It just happens to me. I don’t sit down and actively write down the lyrics to my songs. I go into the studio and basically freestyle. The melody leads and the lyrics just flow, even I am amazed at some of the songs I’ve created. For many of us, English has become a first language because that’s the language we converse in the most. On any given day you’ll find me conversing in English but when it comes to music, the lyrics come through me in isiXhosa which is my mother tongue. When I listen to my songs, I’m surprised by the lyrics because they’re not words I use in everyday conversation. There’s a greater power involved in my creative process and I don’t take that for granted nor can I take credit for it. I’m grateful and humbled to be the vessel that I am to bring these songs to the world.

Captured by: Effie Gerritsen

I’m intrigued that you mentioned frequencies earlier. When you create music, are you reflecting your own frequencies or are you trying to induce a certain frequency in the listener?

When I make music, I focus purely on what I’m feeling. I don’t think about how people will receive the music or how it will make them feel. It’s always about what moves me or what I need at that point in time. I have however heard testimonies from people who have listened to my music and I still find those magical. Some tell me about how my music has healed them, others have found hope through my music and that is something I do not take for granted. I did not expect that my music would move people the way it does. It’s both magical and scary that my music has found a home in people’s hearts.

How is it scary?

Music is an outlet for me. When I am creating a certain song, I am in a certain space; and when I perform that song I go back to that space. What you hear in my music today is who I am and where I am at now, and at a later stage I will change and evolve and my music will reflect the person I will be at that point. I fear being influenced by the audience’s reactions and expectations that I create music aligned to those expectations instead of creating as organically and authentically as I do now.

Do you think you fear fame?

Maybe. I fear being idolized. I’m an ordinary person going through life that has its challenges just like everyone else. The only difference is that I have this outlet for my feelings that I can share with others and probably the reason it resonates with you is because you have had similar experiences as I have, or at least emotions that vibrate at the same frequencies as mine. As I grow and develop as a person so will my music and I hope my audiences can appreciate that and afford me the room to evolve.

What lessons has music taught you?

Self-awareness. There’s a difference between the art that I do and the man that I am. People connect with my music and that’s what they know and love; and they construct their own ideas of the type of person based on that and the few times they have seen me on stage. When they meet me they expect to get Digital Sangoma but the reality is that I am not always on the Digital Sangoma wave. Sometimes I am just an ordinary guy called Mandie who is navigating life and I have to remind myself to not neglect Mandie in pursuit of Digital Sangoma. I always want to be humane and authentic.

The other important lesson I have learnt from music is that I should never create from a place of desperation because that’s when the magic disappears. Creating solely for popularity or fame isn’t sustainable, for me at least. Music should come from an honest place. It should contain the things that matter to you as the artist and even if that packaging takes longer to tell or gain a following, it’s worth it. I have released 45 songs and there isn’t a single song I don’t like from my catalogue. Sure there are some technical elements I am much better at now than when I started out and that’s the natural progression of things, but every song represents me at a point in time. They are a reflection of me and I love each and every song I have put out there.

I’ve watched a couple of your instalments on IG live and the one thing that I have noticed is that after you have looped your beat and put on your headphones, you are going to a different world that only you can see. What does that world feel like?

It feels like freedom. It’s joyful, it’s safe, and most importantly it’s free.

Image by: Michael Holmes

Following his EP SAsitshotsha which he released late last year, Digital Sangoma has released a single titled Nyakomtsha Themba to kick start the year. His self-titled debut album and Recall, are also available on all digital streaming platforms. This is music that does more than get you on the dance floor, it uplifts your spirit. Click here to connect with Digital Sangoma.