By Gerald Imray, The Associated Press on December 12, 2023.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) – South African singer Zahara, who rose from an impoverished rural background to find rapid fame with multi-platinum selling albums and delivered her unique version of wistful Afro-soul in her country’s isiXhosa language and in English, has died, her family said Tuesday. She was 36.
Zahara, whose real name was Bulelwa Mkutukana, died Monday, her family said in a statement posted on her official page on X, formerly Twitter. It gave no cause of death. The family said last month that Zahara had been admitted to a hospital with an undisclosed issue and had asked for privacy.
“She was a pure light, and an even purer heart, in this world,” her family said in Tuesday’s statement.
Zahara’s debut 2011 album “Loliwe” – meaning “The Train” — was certified double platinum and became South Africa’s second-fastest selling album after the 1997 record “Memeza” by Brenda Fassie, an icon of South African music.
Just 23 when “Loliwe” was released, Zahara was a sensation and immediately compared with Fassie, who also died young at 39.
Zahara won 17 South African music awards, was also recognized in Nigeria and was included on a list of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2020 by the BBC. She released four more albums — one of them triple platinum and one platinum.
Zahara’s death prompted reaction from across South Africa, including all major political parties and South Africa’s Parliament, which said in a statement “it was difficult to accept the news of Zahara’s passing” at such a young age.
Zahara became known as South Africa’s “Country Girl,” a testament to her upbringing in the rural Eastern Cape province, but also how her award-winning music came with a highly-effective simplicity; through her voice and an acoustic guitar. Her songs were marked with references to her Christian religion but also to South Africa’s painful history of apartheid, even if she was only a young child when it ended.
In the single “Loliwe” – from the same album – “Loliwe” was the train that carried fathers, brothers and sons to the big city of Johannesburg to find work during the time of racial segregation. Many didn’t return and their families were left to wonder what had happened to them. The song was about “lingering hope,” Zahara said in 2012. But the lyrics also included the phrase “wipe your tears,” which she said urged those left behind to “pick yourself up and look forward.”
It resonated with a new generation of post-apartheid South Africans.
“She inspired us with Loliwe,” South African Music Awards spokesperson and former music journalist Lesley Mofokeng told TV channel Newzroom Afrika. “You could not ignore Loliwe. Her voice could reach the heavens.”
In an interview published by her record label after Loliwe’s release, Zahara said she began playing guitar on her own and wrote the songs for her first album without knowing what the chords were called.
“All along I was just using my ears,” she said.
AP Africa news: https://apnews.com/hub/africa