REVIEW

From the Art to the Throne

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Brenda Yalezo’s penwomanship unlocks her as a versatile songwriter and worshipper who has died to herself for the gospel to be sung through her, notes Ace Moloi.

It’s Saturday afternoon. The sun is now receding into retirement. It has tanned too many skins for a day’s shift. This long weekend itself has an unusual temperament. It seems like the spirit of heritage got the sun revisiting its roots as a naked ball of fire. I know the temperature is too high because when I was in the gym earlier, my flesh desired the cooling waters of the pool as I watched white teens backstroking and freestyling the pinching heat away. Needless to say: I can’t swim to save a rhino.

I’m at the Civic Theatre now, comfortably minimalist in my outfit, with no back-up jersey even. My skinny jeans, faded blue in colour, are the kind which rugby players love: slashed across the knees, so that the dimpled edges of the Vs in the players’ thighs show. I look like I’m auditioning to be a youth pastor in New York. But I didn’t come here for “So You Think You Can Dress Like Steven Furtick?” Today is the 25th of September, the date for Brenda Yalezo’s FROM THE HEART TO THE THRONE. As people trickle in, they stop first at the foyer to buy or show their tickets, scented in sweet expectation as they file in to fill the auditorium to the brim until it looks like it has bitten more than it can chew. This should be the most attended show in recent times (and with the passing of several hours, the plot twists to it being the longest show I’ve ever been to).

The production features some of the finest singers in the land: Prince Mohato, Anathi Mnyakeni, Keletso Mofokeng, Biki Mafabatho and Brenda Yalezo. Musically directed by Tintswalo Ndlovu, the band additionally comprises Thoriso Mosikidi, Sihle Zulu and OnPoint’s Tebogo Dibeco. On backing vocals, it has Mpho Moreng, Mosa Barendse, S’nazo, Tebello Mphulenyane and Makaziwe Ntlola.  CUT FM’s Divine Intervention presenters, the lanky Tebogo Thapong and the sassy Kekeletso Spyker are intertwining performances with links as our MCs, putting their steadily growing on-air chemistry to a public test.

When Mpho Moreng is done warming the stage tent style, Anathi Mnyakeni starts speaking to us “with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit (Eph. 5:19)”. Motherly, she stabilizes our pandemicked faith with the encouraging words, “Kuyahambeka endleleni.” Anathi’s role in the line-up is of a pathfinder who has the credible spiritual mileage to point the way. Her ministry for the night is to illustrate that breakthroughs present themselves to those who knock relentlessly. This at least is what I am taking from her second song, which comforts us, “Tsohle di nakong le thatong ya Modimo.”

Indeed, the Lord is in an inviolable covenant of restoration with those who love Him.

Anathi’s outfit – denim suit and an unbuckled wild animal printed blouse – depicts a bold woman who has found a balancing formula for modernity and maturity, converging the often-divergent generations of millennials and those who thought Millennium meant the world was ending. Campus ministry makes her understand ma2000 better, and in her they have privileged access to the unadulterated ‘old time religion’ that teaches confidence in consecration and wholeness in holiness.

Those millennials who haven’t left the church have reimagined hymns as they write themselves into independence with a new sound. Among their icons is Prince Mohato with his irresistibly engaging music. It is known for turning the theatre into an echo chamber of sing-alongs. His stage presence is not loud; Mohato barely steps out of the centre stage. But you’ll never stop chanting his songs. “Rona re bopuwe ka setshwano sa Ntate,” you will lift yourself into body positivity when your bulging belly thrusts you into the abyss of self-body shaming.

Prince Mohato offers a new,funkier,sound.

It’s marvellous how someone with such a powerful voice can have so much control over it. There’s a subtle funkiness to his music, tinged in a bit of Nigerian vibe. Something about it refuses to be consumed passively. “When I am on stage, it is a reflection and reminder of my identity in Christ,” Mohato has told Bloemfontein Courant. He seems to have brought himself unfiltered at the foot of the cross. What’s left now is for him to bring his music online, because it’s a sin to not find it on digital platforms. This is a concern I also register with Biki Mafabatho, who cannot mask his scepticism about streams as he tries to sell me his physical CDs. “Ke tlo di bapala kae?” I ask my friend rhetorically.

Biki’s first song is Psalmist Sefako’s Wongamele. It’s a simple composition that circles around one place like most SA ‘traditional’ gospel songs that often have you wondering where the rest of the song is. They seem to work, though. The two-liner songs. No need to stare at the screen, lost in Hillsong’s poetry and prose like it’s your first time at my church. The repetition can be so hypnotizing, you’ll pick yourself up from the church floor covered in a cloth. When I first heard E! O Lokile originally sung by Israel Mosikidi at EMI’s #FreeStateInWorship concert, it knocked me out shamelessly into tears. Even now as Biki makes a medley of it, it still slaps one’s (self-imposed) respectability hard. Biki’s people pull through for him. They form a line to the front for the first time since the show started, which indicates that the many years of experience he has in the industry have not been in vain.

All writers have bias, hidden or stated, and the final featured artist enjoys mine. But Keletso Mofokeng’s work ethic makes it impossible to not like him either way. He’s a fighter you can field any time to stand in the gap of any width. With his signature ravings on songs, stirring the thin air with his hand like he is pulling out mysteries entangled in the spiritual ecosystems, while taking short leaps across the stage as though he’s chasing the devil. Absolutely someone Brenda would want to occupy the stage before her.

But first, a refreshment break. But they’re selling pedestrian food here. Hot dogs that are cold. And we can’t even swipe or tap. Local organisers shouldn’t only focus on what happens on the stage, but augment the whole customer experience with good food, exciting drinks and proper lighting for pics (PACOFS for one has very bad lighting for an institution of its importance).

Anyway, we’re now back inside for the main course of the evening: Brenda Yalezo. The curtain opens and our BVs hit it off with a revamped version of Ha Le Mpotsa Tshepo Ya Ka, before she walks in barefoot (she was gonna take the shoes off anyway) to loud applause from her loyal fans, family, church folks and those like my lawyer friend and my little sister, who are seeing her for the first time.

Anathi Mnyakeni is an experienced musician and mentor.

Brenda locates herself in ministry as a warrior who frequently dies to herself for the gospel to be sung through her. She tells us, “This gospel is for those who are ready to die for it.” Something has to break. And for her, it’s the rock of her Geology studies that had to break into pieces for her to find peace in her calling. No wonder she writes dangerous music. The type that makes you mumble along instead of belting out their lyrics ‘cause you aren’t sure if you really mean that. Like her song, We Are Ready. They’re also the kinds of songs that neutralize one’s self-consciousness, so that, in the words of CRC Music, “full surrender is the only response”. So, it’s not surprising that on my right, by the stairs, one woman is pressing her face against the wall, weeping as the atmosphere of worship thickens.

My favourite song in Brenda’s musical presentation is Lerumo. It’s a beautifully written war cry you need in your war room (not to bind your husband from cheating, though). Brenda’s penwomanship unlocks her as a versatile artist who writes multilingually. Her songbook consists of praise and worship in Sesotho, isiXhosa, English and some isiZulu. The only hindrance to enjoying these cuties is my diminished attention libido. We’ve now crossed the fourth hour since the show started. My lawyer friend, named Mamello, is ironically becoming impatient. She has moved from crying and praying in tongues as the tangible breath of God was brushing her soul into stillness, to now regretting being here. But the people are rejoicing, even stretching some songs at the end, too drunk in the spirit to be frustrated by the fleshly construct of time.

When Brenda sings Ufanelwe, it reignites the fire. She gangs up on it with Mosa and S’nazo. Mosa has a graceful demeanour, but when she sings the lion in her roars. Her voice is delicately thunderous. It pulls down strongholds by first soothing them. And S’nazo: she pipes with a riveting sense of authoritativeness and anointing, accompanied by a pleasant stage personality. The crowd doesn’t recover from her verse, the woman at the stairs with the issue of tears weeps some more, and Brenda doesn’t want the mic back yet. It’s a profound scene of sisterhood in the Lord, where one woman’s gift is not a threat to another.

On Uyikho Konke, Brenda teams up with the petitely built but vocally weighted Tebello, who sings in a conservative voice that barks only when necessary. Like in these times when there’s an urgent need for imvuselelo and our art must intercede for us with groanings words cannot articulate, to borrow wisdom from Romans 8:26. Art is a spiritual enterprise. I once heard these words at a Christian poetry show: “Excellence in the art will bring people to the heart of God.” So, there are times when to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) means to do so artfully. And Brenda Yalezo epitomizes this brand of worship that rises from the art to the throne.

“They’re trying to silence us, saying we pray too much in tongues during our shows,” she says. “You can’t take God out of the gospel,” she declares her mission statement.

Formerly with SABC News as Lesedi FM’s current affairs presenter, Ace Moloi is a content business developer at Careers Magazine and Careers TV.

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