In Conversation with Brenda Mtambo

Life is a wave, which in no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.

John Tyndall

We are evolving beings living through moments that shape us. We fall, we learn, and at times we give up altogether, but somehow we always find the strength to pursue an alternate route. We derive lessons from the lows of our experiences and use them to catalyze our highs.

From the humble beginnings of Brenda Mtambo‘s music career to a now mind blowing ten-year tenure as a solo vocalist, we have had the privilege of journeying beside her. We have created and lived through moments and memories in our lives that had her music as the backdrop. We have loved; we have lost; we have laughed; we have cried; we have celebrated; we have grieved; and most importantly we have grown – with Brenda’s sound marking every milestone. Her career is a testament of growth and evolution. Her life story is one of rising up, loving deeply, and caring greatly.

We got to speak to Brenda on her journey with music up to this point, we looked back at her recent Decade Experience show in Joburg, touched on Africanism as a concept, and of course we spoke on the music from her latest album Sane.

Read our conversation below…

The Jo’burg leg of the Decade Experience was exquisite, your vocals were unbelievable and the audience loved every minute of it. How do you feel about the success of your show?

After the show, I had to go home and think about the show and actually let it sink in. When it happened I was in the moment and solely focused on delivering a quality show. I wanted the audience to feel the experience. I wanted them to feel all the emotions, thoughts and experiences that I have gone through over the past ten years in that one show, and I did just that. It felt surreal to see something that I had conceptualized and crafted to the very last detail come to life. The energy in the room was amazing. The audience and I connected so deeply and it was so beautiful. I feel great about that show! I’m filled with joy and gratitude because my dream became a reality.

There’s this new depth and radiance in Brenda Mtambo that we haven’t seen before. It’s almost like you have been reborn – what shifted in you within the past six years?

I always say that you need to allow yourself to evolve, to transform, and to get to know yourself better. You need to know and understand who you are, what you stand for and what you represent. And I say this because I have lived through my own evolution, and I have seen the power of digging deeper into myself. That’s what shifted for me. When I recorded my first album, Inspired, I had just come out of Joyous Celebration, and I still had that shadow of being part of a choir and being at the back as a backing vocalist.

Then I realized that I needed to move away from that shadow and find things that define me as a person. As and when I found those things, I worked on them until I was able to define who I am, what I stand for and what I represent. I am a sophisticated African woman and that’s what I wanted to showcase through my music. It is what I aim to showcase even through my live shows. I want you, as the audience, to feel the essence of being truly African but also understand that we live in a modern age; and the two worlds can coexist in harmony.

That’s what shifted in me. I sat down and thought about myself and what I want to leave behind. And that vision I have of myself, and my legacy is what I strive for every day.

Taking into consideration how broad the essence of Africanism and the understanding of self is, do you think that the concept of genres can be limiting to firstly your creative output as an artist and secondly our ability to consume music as an audience?

Definitely, I do. From the onset I’ve never wanted to be boxed into a specific genre. I’m an artist, but unfortunately, we are a genre-based nation which can limit our artistry as we do not get to explore our artistic talents to the max because we are bound by the specs of a specific genre. Whereas a Whitney Houston could sing a love song cross over to a dance song, and then end off with gospel song, and leave the audience in awe, simple because of her artistry; we can’t always do the same. Yet that freedom to sing anything and everything that speaks to you in a particular moment is the core of artistry. And I think that as a musician, I embody the artistry of being a creator and that’s what I want to be known for.

I have been criticized a lot over the years for not being a “genre-specific” musician. And the truth is I don’t think I can stick to one genre. I’m an artist, a creator, and I create music that best expresses the story I want to tell. There’s a way that I present a jazz song that is different from the way I present an afro-soul song or gospel song, etc., and that presentation is a big part of my artistry. My audiences look forward to all these different presentations at my shows because that’s what they know me for and it adds colour to the experience.

Having been a solo vocalist for a decade now, what would you say is your career highlight to date?

Wow, that’s a difficult question (laughs). I have been invited to many countries to perform on numerous stages, but my highlight definitely has to be the people who are touched by my music. People come up to me or DM me their stories of how a particular song gave them hope or strength to carry on. Those stories tell me that I was in their hearts during their time of brokenness and that makes me feel like I am living a purposeful life. It affirms my call to music. I write music from my own experiences with the hope that my words will meet the need of someone somewhere, and I sing from my heart with the same hope. Songs like Themba Njalo that I wrote long before I was a soloist still gives people hope today and that excites me so much. I get excited when I hear such stories and testimonies from people who listen to my music because that’s the purpose of my music. So yes, without a doubt my career highlight is the lives of people who have been touched by my music.

With Sane being such a personal album, how has the feedback made you feel?

It has humbled me so much. It makes what I went through worth it. I did not expect this album to get such great reviews and the kind of reception it has received, but I am utterly grateful for it. It is beautiful to know that what was once in my spirit is out there and it is something that people can love and go back to as often as they need and want to.

Earlier you mentioned Themba Njalo which is a song you wrote over ten years ago to encourage yourself. At the time, you only had a vision of who Brenda would become when she took center stage and now here you are now presenting an awe-inspiring show in various cities; is this the Brenda Mtambo you had envisioned back then?

That is a Brenda I still hope for and that’s because there are many layers of her that haven’t been exposed yet. There’s so much to her and I think I’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much more in my heart that I want to share, and I know that with time all the layers will be revealed. I wrote Themba Njalo to encourage myself and to this day something happens in me every time I hear or sing the song. I am proud of the Brenda I am now and equally excited about the layers of me that will be revealed to me. I think life is layered in general and as you uncover one layer you discover that it is the base for the next layer or level and I think I’m in that space of unveiling a new layer of myself and that excites me.

Why is it important for you to take the Decade Experience across the country?

I have been carried by the people. I have been supported by the people. And so, I found it important to go back to those people and say thank you in the best way I know how. I need to go to them and show them how far we have come, together. I need to give them the best of me to show my gratitude for their unwavering support. My supporters are the reason I have a fanbase and they are the ones who grow it by bringing their family and friends who don’t know about me to the shows. My story is different from my peers who get a lot of airplay with every release. I have been carried by the people and that’s why I saw it fit to celebrate this milestone with all of them.

My supporters and I have a deep connection. You know sometimes I’ll be feeling down, and I will get a DM from a fan just checking up on me like we are old friends, and we’ll have a conversation. That’s the kind of connection my music has afforded me with people, and I don’t take it for granted.

There was a special moment during your JHB show where pictures of your departed friends were shown as you sang Longs for You. Sadly, you lost a couple of loved ones between the release of So Much More and Sane, how was the journey of healing been for you?

I wrote the song for my mom. I lost my mother during the covid-19 pandemic and that almost killed me because during the time of her passing I was also going through a divorce. Everything was happening all at once. I was also losing money because of the lockdown as no work was coming in; it was a lot. I have lost a lot of things and I have lost a lot of loved ones.

Death is part of life; we are all going to face at some point in our lives. But while we are still living we carry our departed loved ones in our hearts. And that is why when I wrote Longs for You, I didn’t want to write it as a song just about my mother even though it was for her. I wanted to write it in a poetic way that would reflect the memories I have of my mom and my friends whom I’ve lost. I also wanted it to be relatable to anyone who has experienced grief.

Grief can drive you crazy and I don’t think we ever heal completely from it but with time we learn to live with it. We learn to carry the memories of our loved ones in our hearts in a way that doesn’t paralyze us. We speak about them every now and then and remember the dreams we had together; and that’s the atmosphere I wanted to create through the presentation of this song in the show. But I asked my team not to put up a picture of my mom there because I wouldn’t have been able to sing, I would have just cried. I’m still grieving my mom, the wound of losing her is still raw but I could have my friends’ pictures up because I have had about five years to work through that grief, and I can now honour their memory.

Let’s wrap up on a lighter note…one could mistake your music shows for a fashion parade. You look ravishing at every show and often I lose count of your outfit changes after your third outfit, what’s the story behind the high fashion statements?

My team will tell you that I am very fussy when it comes to the outfits. The reason behind it is that I’m a showbiz girl. Everything has to work together and make sense. The outfit must make sense with the song, just like the lighting has to complement the mood of the song. All the elements on stage must complement and enhance the story that is being told. That’s showbiz and that’s what I want. I conceptualize the outfits myself and work with several designers to get the outfits made for me. As the audience I want you to watch the show and feel that you have gotten value for your money; in fact, I want you to feel like you didn’t pay enough (laughs).

If you missed Brenda Mtambo’s Decade Experience in JHB, be sure to catch it either in Durban on 11 November 2023 or in Cape Town on 16 December 2023. Click on the links below for more information.

Durban – 11 November 2023

Cape Town – 16 December 2023