Thembekile Tshabalala is a widely exposed worship personality with a uniquely powerful and richly anointed voice. She sings from the depth of her soul, and from her belly flow rivers of living waters, writes Ace Moloi
She waits for me with a chill difficult to locate in our land. As I come in, I find her calm. A cup of tea warms her small space. It’s the only occupied table in the restaurant: CooBah Bloemgate.
“How long have you been here?” I ask apologetically as I make myself comfortable. She indicates duration with a smile only she can flash at someone. It tones my worries down, and I accept that it’s not much of a sin for a writer to arrive later than the artist he seeks to celebrate, especially in this case of an artist who is as faithful as her name suggests: Thembekile.
Seconds roll over into minutes and I start picking up voices in my rear. A couple of people have filed in to take advantage of the vacancy in this restaurant that is otherwise a Bree Taxi Rank of Mangaung entertainment. On a random weekend night, the waitress who just came to ask if I’m having anything to drink would be too busy to even notice us.
“Ke kopa metsi. With lemon and ice,” I answer her with a friendly sense of urgency, already activating my recorder and positioning it right under my interlocutor’s voice. Its audibility is low, her voice. It must be the rehearsals for what has brought us together on this Wednesday morning. But we will get there.
In the meantime, Thembekile Tshabalala is as relaxed as someone who doesn’t have a major show lined up. I’m not a total stranger in her eyes, but they are not as used to my frame as to make her this welcoming. It must be something she has in her: the ability to melt unfamiliarity with the warmth of her presence. Something about how she was raised. But she has now told me that her mother passed away shortly after graduating as a teacher in 2009. So, I prefer to not overwhelm her with her memories.
Thembekile was born in Qwa-Qwa as a twin to Thembisile. When she was five, her father – a police officer – was transferred to Warden and took his family along, until the year 2006 when they moved back to mountain-enveloped former Bantustan.
Upon finishing her matric at Bluegumbosch Secondary School, she failed at convincing her parents to take a gap year, and thus ended up at the Central University of Technology (CUT) to study towards a National Diploma in Electrical Engineering.
Though she has always been a worshipper at her home church, it would seem that it is at varsity where she cut her spiritual teeth and was introduced to people who are divinely chosen for her destiny.
One of them is her pastor, Sipho Mnyakeni, who leads the CUT-based Residence Church, where Thembekile is a worship leader. Pastor Mnyakeni’s impact on her is so deep and vast that as she tells me about it, she switches into a profound preaching mode that makes our meeting place a perfect paradox.
“Preach, sister. God is everywhere,” I almost say.
Of Ps. Mnyakeni, she says emotively: “I discovered myself through him. He brought so much out of me! He made me believe in myself.”
Bishop T.D Jakes preaches elsewhere that the fault in our attitude is to think we’re only supposed to work during seed time, whereas, actually, harvest time is as much (if not more) demanding. It’s a season that, as Pastor Dharius Daniels takes it further in his own way, tests the validity of relationships.
For Thembekile, this too is a moment that reminds her of both the physical labour and human resources of harvest time. When she couldn’t tame the flame to host her own praise and worship show, it was Pule Maloleka, her project manager, and a Cape Town based friend, Tebello Maleeme, including her family and fellow believers, who set her up to win.
“Behind me I have pillars of people who are always praying for me. At times the journey gets difficult. You can’t do it on your own. You can’t pray for yourself. But these are people that God has placed in my life to push me, to care for me, to inspire me.”
This is not a show
“We’re all looking for different things from God: breakthrough, healing, assurance. God will deliver that whole package to meet the needs of everyone who will be at the Civic Theatre on 24 September,” she boasts with unhidden joy as we begin to talk about her upcoming show, HARVEST Live in Concert.
“I’m more of a worshipper. For me it’s not just singing, but it’s a ministry. When it comes to worship I don’t compromise,” she declares her calling.
I decide to go check things out for myself at her rehearsal session later in the evening and upon arrival I find that her voice has deteriorated. Earlier when I interviewed her it was just tired. Nothing serious to write home about. But now it is so inaudibly strained I wonder if the rehearsal will even take off.
It does; amazingly even, as if earth is colliding with heaven to compose psalms to the Lord!
One thing becomes clear: this is no practice. This is a relentless pursuit of perfection; of God, the ultimate perfection. Gospel music is first gospel before it is music, and this comes out sharply in the rehearsals. Her team of backing vocalists is not just picked on talent, but content too—young people who are ministers of song in their own right: Kaygee, Mmangaliso Gumbi, Keitumetse Mofokeng and Aneline Silaule, with OnPoint Music on the instruments.
Thembekile: the faithful steward
Thembekile Tshabalala is a widely exposed worship machine who has worked with recording artists such as Keke Phoofolo, Tebello Sukwene, Xolani Mdlalose, Lebo Sekgobela and many more.
Her voice is uniquely powerful and richly anointed. She sings from the belly of her soul. You cannot encounter her ministry and remain untransformed. In an era that values a profile over purpose, she tells me that it’s not every invitation that she entertains. She surveys every call spiritually to see how it fits into her purpose, so that she keeps her worship pure and living.
From her days of Sound Voices, which she co-founded with her friends, she has been planting a seed for her own ministry. As she served other worship ministers and fed the children of God with her gift in church, she was laying the foundation for her own season. Her participation in Clash of the Choirs, under the mentorship of the now no more S’fiso Ncwane, was her opportunity to multiply her master’s talents.
Now the seed has prospered and the faithful servant is ready to harvest. What is more, she is inviting everyone to come and witness her HARVEST Live in Concert.
Ace Moloi is the Editor of ART STATE. Follow him on Twitter: @Ace_Moloi