In Conversation with Pilani Bubu

Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.

Frantz Fanon

The generation(s) born into the trying times of oppression had their mission delivered to them on a silver platter – either fight for freedom or die trying. And indeed, they fulfilled their mission – political freedom dawned but at what cost? The cause was great, and mission was accomplished but many things were lost in the process; one of those being the passing down of ancient wisdom through the art of storytelling within families and communities, to aid healing and guide living.

Now, the generation of the current day has the responsibility of restoring Africa’s identity to its truest form, and one person who has not only discovered her mission in this regard, but is going to great lengths to fulfill it, is Pilani Bubu. Through her Folklore project, Pilani is piecing together the missing and forgotten pieces of her lineage and digging deeper into the African lineage, bringing forth her discoveries and experiences in song.

Her latest album, Folklore Chapter 2: Ekuseni is an account of spiritual awakening and the clarity that comes with it. I had the privilege of conversing with Pilani about this body of work and the paths she has had to travel to birth it…

Folklore Chapter 2: Ekuseni is your third project this year after Lockdown Lovestory (Deluxe) and Konke. Where do you get all this material and energy to produce such high quality yet vastly different projects?

It is all very much an organic process for me. All the music I have written was written in real-time of going through and reflecting on a lived experience. Some of the projects had a sense of urgency and accelerated themselves from my mouth to masters very quickly, and others took their time to leave my archive to the world.

Lockdown Lovestory was accelerated while I was recording another project in Lockdown: ‘That Box’, which is finished and not yet out – it just needs to be mixed and mastered. It has taken me 10 years since 2014 when I first penned the songs down as poems then, recorded them in 2016, but didn’t want the production to only be electronic, so I recorded live elements and have probably re-recorded my voice 4 times on it. It’s been more about getting the sound and music right verses rewriting the music, but the story is a classic one of creative pursuit, and it never gets old. So the right time and the right place in my creative journey will serve me and it well. Lockdown Lovestory, as a love story during the pandemic, took priority because that was where I was at at the time and it’s where most of us were at, and so its resonance was very relevant then.

Konke, was a gradual organic process of singles to album, which was stirred by the time I spent in Kenya at Supersonic Studios with Afronautiq, who collaborated on As We Lay on Lockdown Lovestory. Each and every one of those songs in the album is the first and only recorded take I did. For some of the songs like Feel It  – Konke (reprise), I didn’t even write the words down, I simply improvised, downloading what I was feeling in real-time while we pressed record. 15 minutes later, we decided not to edit it down or over engineer it. It is one of the truest reflections of my process. Very organic, very authentic to me and what I’m feeling – no overthinking and no over over-writing. We released it because it was such a personal expression of my inner-world and it couldn’t go after all the other projects I had lined up: Folklore Chapter 2, Indaba (French Collaboration coming out March 2024), That Box, Folklore – Dlala Piano, Folklore Chapter 3, etc.

We are not linear beings but we live in linear time. Sometimes the clock wants to cheat our experience because the music business is what feeds us and not just simply creating and putting out music. So the delay in Folklore Chapter 2, after I had finished writing it in November of 2021, was that in 2022 the ducks I had lined up to release misaligned and I had to push it out. The project was recorded and finished in September of 2022. And we wanted to also give time post pandemic to re-release Folklore Chapter 1 in Europe in 2022.

I try not to worry about focusing too much on what is expected of me to do, but what is true to me and my obedience to the music as my purpose. Hey man, when the music is meant to find a person or a group of people, it will find them. I exercise a lot of trial and error in the business but I do not compromise on my authenticity and most importantly the story I am being asked to tell as a vessel.

It is evident that the concept of Folklore is one that is dear to you. You have the Folklore Chapters in the form of albums and you are also the founder of the Folklore Festival which has grown well over the past two years. What is your understanding of Folklore and its role in modern society?

Folklore by definition is deep and sound. It is defined as the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people, inclusive of the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth, tales, sayings, dances,  proverbs, jokes and art forms preserved among a group of people.

What I am trying to preserve and document, firstly through music as a technology, is the complex simplicity of the writing styles of various ethnic groups and tribes of South Africa. Exploring the percussive vocal, and rhythmic vocal patterns, language and the community focus of our call and response, harmonies and the complexity of our time signatures.

Through the festival platform, I am exploring the sense of community and African value system embedded in this pursuit toward re-imaging and reframing our identity. There are so many conversations and stories to be told, and I want to be part of telling these stories.  My realisation was that we all have a piece of culture shared with us through our upbringing or from our elders and if I could create a platform that could allow sharing and exchange – this is how we  begin to recover what was lost or destroyed over years of colonialism.

The role of Folklore in modern society is to restore  and redeem our identity, and this is a big part of giving confidence to the African child through a stronger sense of belonging and knowingness.

Folklore Chpater 2 starts off with the same song that closed off Folklore Chapter 1 which shows a link or interconnectedness between the two projects. How different was your headspace between the two albums?

In Folklore Chapter 1, I was an inquiring student by deepening in what I could learn, in exploring and performing traditional folk songs and sharing a broader story of culture. During the time of exploration, it felt like initiation school and it was only towards the end of the journey or at significant moments like winning the SAMA award, that I reflected and realised that I had graduated. I had accepted a call and through Folklore, I am the healer that works through music (iGqirha elithwasela emculweni). And through iNgoma, I am SaNgoma too.

The passing of my father during the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated  my need to express my sense of divinity and unpack the duality and conflicting beliefs in the sometimes dogmatic Christianity, which for centuries had demonised African spirituality. In Folklore Chapter 2, I use my learnings to write even more original music and compositions celebrating our musical styles, our traditional instruments and sounds. It is a personal yet universal story of African Spirituality that explores how we navigate purpose as African children and the urgent call to align a little deeper than what western values have afforded us.

Folklore Chapter 2 is a fight for spiritual clarity, a fight for lineage, the undoing of generational traumas and a deeper cry for true identity.

Having travelled and performed in numerous countries, what are some similarities and distinct differences you have noticed between audiences and do you have any preferences?

Traveling the world and realising the music does the same thing and garners the same response globally as it does at home, in terms of its essence being embedded in a sense of home, has been comforting. Audiences have described the music and the storytelling as healing, empowering and inspiring. That’s universal to it. In terms of the music business and audience development. I have done better in other countries than in SA. The good news has never been more powerful where the treasure was found. As they say in Luke 4:24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown”. The prophet is not always known at home until the evangelist’s work travels and it makes its way back home again. This has always been how I have seen my journey for the last 12 years of my solo music career.

The joy of performing at home is not having to over translate the story because of the language, and feeling a sense of depth in the way people hear me. I don’t mind both because I am a storyteller and a teacher at heart. Unpacking and deepening in messages is a huge part of my work. So in essence, it’s all one and the same. But what is new to someone will always peak their curiosity more than those who already think they know or might take it for granted.  And originality and niche styles of music have more spaces to perform internationally than locally due to a number of music industry reasons. These are some of the fundamental differences between my local and international career.

With the Folklore project you tend to dig deep into your personal family history and that of your people, what significant discoveries did you make this time around as you were working on Folklore Chapter 2?

Though the story is personal, it is actually quite universal. Mapping out the journey of imbeleko – the first ritual or ceremony that should pre-cede all rites of passages, is something a lot of kids are re-exploring and navigating. The importance of naming ceremonies imbedded in the idea that we are our ancestor wildest dreams, is of great meaning in a world that looks at manifestations and word being bond. I honour and respect the ones who named me, I drink from the abundant cup of their ideas.

Exploring intergenerational dialogue as the lost art of the African value system. Our parents and grandparents spent so much time fighting for freedom, that they may have lost time in sharing all that they could with as about our culture and that could result in losing the wholeness of lineage.

Exploring the truest inheritances through rituals like ukuthomba and the practice of ukuphahla – calling upon guidance, insight and intuiting in the spirit  – awake or in the dreamscape as abantwana be Thongo -is something we have not yet articulated. My expression in communion and consent with my ancestors is simply a conversation starter. We are all still to unpack further.

I am simply speaking louder and in a contemporary fashion the conversations that are muted or done in secret in colonial times and now are simply distorted. If a Saint and incense can exist in the Anglican church and black and brown child can pray to St Mary, St Christopher and St Michaels, surely sage and my clans man can guide and align in purpose and lineage with the African child.

Which song resonates with you most from Chapter 2 and why did you subtitle it Ekuseni?

The title, Ekuseni, speaks to the spiritual clarity I have in the mornings when I wake. As a child that communes in dreams with my ancestors, I wanted to speak of how my enlightenment works hardest in dreamscapes. 70% of the songs came to me in my dreams and in that early morning wake after a long conversation with those who had left this plain and to be more specific my father. The rest of the writing and unpacking was done through the spirit, in prayer and meditation  – in nature: emanzini, ethafeni, elwandle, ekuseni.

It’s very hard to say which is song is most resonant. The whole story is as its whole. I spend a lot of my days trying to figure out how to share so much with my audience at shows or at the launch. There is so much to share and so much to say.

However, I will say that the core, the turning point of the story: beginning, middle to end for me is the song Thafaelibanzi. It holds it all together in the middle. When I wrote the song it was a cry for the ritual yeMbeleko – which started before my Dad died and accelerated when he passed and finally fulfilled for me in January of 2023. It truly is the turning point in my real life. It holds the deepest emotions of the album that drives all the other emotions centering Umthombo (as an affirmation of my ancestors wildest dreams), Moya Le Badimo (as an intercession) and Vusumuzi, Makhwalo and Vulindlela (as a celebration). Thafaelibanzi is that journey home and the truest sense of belonging.

What can the listener expect to hear and feel in this album (Folklore Chapter 2)?

Shuu, I can only share a summary of what others have already said about it and I feel the same way:

“I’ve experienced so many emotions listening to this masterpiece. Tears even, because such a Powerful yet simple reminder has been woven together so beautifully… Your voice has been called across time, mountains, oceans and echoes deep in our hearts. My Goodness you are so talented Pilani. Thank you for this Gift, we love you” – Queen Grootboom, Algoa FM

“You heal our souls, our africanness and our humanity. The 20-year-old me is finally healing. Sobbing. Thank you Pilani, for this song” – Gando Balfour, Fan, Music Enthusiast

“Ÿou are a vessel. You are a gift…your gift is a portal. What you do is beyond artistry, it’s heavenly. You are a soul healer…you are divine. – Harvard Letsalo, Fan, Music Enthusiast