Artist Stories, Stories

Kajama: The Sister Duo Carving Out Space and Finessing Plurality

Kajama Polarity Prism Subterranean Wavelength
Courtesy of the artist / by Xannthe Cupido

Space immediately comes to mind, thinking of Kajama, who have just released their debut EP, Polarity Prism, on Subterranean Wavelength.

The music they make, expansive in its imagination and refusal to exist inside externally imposed constraints, speaks of everything that is the dictionary definition of the word ‘space’ – ‘free, available or unoccupied’. Whether speaking of the territory that they occupy as women in the industry, the way they have positioned themselves as artists, or the euphoria they produce in live performances, to speak of Kajama seems to be to speak of space: wide-open, unapologetic and seemingly intergalactic.

The title of their first EP, Polarity Prism, invokes these spatial elements – speaking to the position of two sisters who stand both inextricably connected and at a distance from one another. Yet this very tension between remoteness and intimacy collides to produce the dreamy soundscape that has become their signature.

Nongoma is classically trained.
Nandi is self-taught.

Nongoma is an introvert.
Nandi is an extrovert.

Nongoma speaks in measured tones.
Nandi ranges across a spectrum of pitch and delivery.

Kajama reveal themselves through different ways of seeing, being, performing, creating, living and expressing. These differences simultaneously present themselves on the surface and are buried beneath, awaiting discovery both in their music and in person. Collectively, these divergences create the magic that breathes through the plurality of their personalities and their work.

Through a busy soundcheck, Nongoma and Nandi sat down with me to discuss the release of their EP, just hours ahead of their launch at Kitcheners. Joburg-based arts writer Lwandile Fikeni gloriously identified and captured the sensibility of this Braamfontein club space in a 2015 article for the Sunday Times. He wrote, “What one finds in Braam’s youth culture is an unpredictable, yet refined cool – black cool…” which exists somewhere between something rehearsed, performed, mandated by the space, effortless, effort-ful and nonchalant all at once. A complexity that is mirrored in Kajama.

When Kajama arrive at the venue, they slot straight into Fikeni’s aesthetic descriptors: the way the space seems to thrive off the sense that everyone in the bar is consciously or unconsciously curating a sartorial sensibility that expresses their individuality and personality – even as their styles connect to a collective look.

A conscious striving for uniqueness is at the heart of their clothing brand, Kajama Clothing, which was started by their late mother and creates what they describe as “future-afro street wear”, made using “rare fabrics and prints” and often dealing in “one-off pieces”, as Jessica Hunkin described in a feature in 2015.

Their creative decisions in both music and fashion speak to their commitment to own every aspect of their sound and image.
From producing and writing most of their own material (with some notable collaborations), the Ndlovu sisters control all the elements of their performance, including directing the technical. They are aware that it is a rarity in the male-dominated industry that they frequently make reference to, which physically and psychologically confines women and femmes to microphones, and rarely acknowledges their positions behind the sound-desks or on the instruments they master.
Such invisibility can leave you breathless.  

Nongoma acknowledges the insecurities that accompany this, saying: “It’s just one of those things that never really leaves you…can I do this? Am I good enough?” Imposter syndrome is a haunting anxiety that many other black women – and others who are intimately familiar with systematic exclusion – know intimately. It attempts to lock itself in our bones and define the spaces we occupy, imaginatively or otherwise.

The exclusion of (and lack of recognition for) women and femmes from many avenues of the music business is systematic, and has been noted by many artists (see: Bjork, Dope Saint Jude and Missy Elliot). When Thandiswa Mazwai made the decision to form an all-woman band, she noted that it was informed by the desire to create “spaces and opportunities for female musicians, with the aim of slowly bringing about gender equality within the music industry”. Space, again, determinedly asserts its presence. Both sisters repeatedly speak to this point often, versed in its grammar and reality. Nandi reveals a fascination with women producers who are so frequently erased like Brenda Russell, Sheila E, Patrice Rushen and Patti Austen – noting their influence on her psyche.

Cohesively, Kajama’s projects feel like their family’s collective legacy. Here, space speaks of intimacy. While it might seem as if the duo is ‘new’, they maintain that ‘we’ve been doing this for so long’. This year marks sixteen years since they first started performing, even though Kajama has only existed as a musical project for a shorter time. Along with their third sister, who performs under the creative moniker Baculile, Nandi and Nongoma form a triad born of musical roots: their parents Themba and the late Bajabulile Ndlovu were collectively the Southern African soul & traditional folk music group, Children of Nandi, formed in 1983 in Germany. The family moved between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Switzerland as the sisters grew up, and while space and place and time might have shifted, music connects them to their parents and to each other like an intergenerational love letter.

I first heard Kajama at Good Luck Bar, where they shared opening act status with the incredible Xhosa folk musician Bongeziwe Mabandla for the headliner on the night, Berlin-based Cape Tonian chanteuse Alice Phoebe Lou. Their set read as a reminder to always arrive early enough to catch the opening acts, who are often disregarded as just a warm-up while all spotlight and attention is given to the main act.

In the warehouse-like space that suffers from chaotically echoing acoustics, I couldn’t help drawing trans-Atlantic lines between Kajama and another sister duo, Chloe & Halle, signed with Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment management company. Something about their hazy and electronic soulful sound, layered harmonies and commitment to creating their music themselves, made the mental connection near-instantaneous.

There are hints of Nonku Phiri and Moonchild Sanelly’s musical ambitions in Kajama’s vocals and sonic choices, with all three acts creating different variants on music underscored by experimental use of vocals that’s unafraid to work off tensions with the beats they are laid over. These artists claim their space within local and global currents of music that are redefining traditional black modes, bending boundaries and imagining the future outside of constraints that would seek to position them within certain musical forms, styles and genres that feed off stereotype. Nongoma knows this, as she states: ‘Our generation is the future, I feel like our generation is that generation that is going to change the game on so many levels.’

Last year Beyonce and Solange made history, as the first sisters to create and release American number-one albums in the same calendar year. Slaying siblings have always been a part of culture, but in the wake of that announcement, I started to notice them everywhere.

The cross-continental musical twins Ibeyi, the fashionable facebeat killers the Mqoko sisters on Instagram , the Mazwai performers and musicians, the avant-garde Ribane siblings, Willow and Jaden Smith, the photographer Gxekwa twins. Siblings seem everywhere. Social media has certainly amplified this perception, with joint Instagram accounts and projects abounding and reportage on these serving to amplify their familial connections. Perhaps we struggle to believe talent exists so acutely within families, in one space and the acute proximity it affords. Perhaps, in millennial vernacular, it can seem like ‘tew much’.

I ask if Kajama’s sisterhood serves the music and they answer in uncanny simultaneity, weaving in and out of each other’s sentences so much so that it’s difficult to separate their voices as I listen back to the recorded interview. They collectively answer that being sisters allows them to “understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses”, which “makes it easier to have a harmonious relationship”. “It holds us. It grounds us”, Nandi says, as their duologue concludes.

This synchronicity extends to their music creation and production, with Nandi usually starting a song with the beat, and Nongoma simultaneously working on the writing and melody. Nongoma turns to Nandi and says: “For some weird reason, sometimes, we end up writing about [the same thing]…I won’t even know what you are thinking with that beat, and then I write my thing, and you write your thing and somehow it just works. How?” Nandi’s eyes light up and she responds with “It’s happening so much, it’s so weird”. It’s a gorgeous intimacy to observe. Nongoma looks at me and says, “I feel like she hears what the beat is about”. That must be the musical equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences.

On the title track of her second album, Unstoppable, the Brit Lianne La Havas sings:
“Our polarity shifted around
There is nothing else left holding us down
But it’s just gravitational
We are unstoppable”

It is the first musical connection that appears when I consider the title of Kajama’s EP, and perhaps one that speaks to their seemingly boundless trajectory. Following the launch, I remain haunted by the sounds I heard layered beneath Thursday’s interview, that seem to collide with La Havas’ sentiments.  As I spoke to Nongoma, Nandi was in the background checking vocal levels. Beneath our conversation she can be heard singing: “I want you to serve me something that I have never heard before, never heard before, never heard before”.

It sounds like a mantra, a prophesy and an assurance: Kajama are pulling us into their own future, whether we’re ready or not.
They are pulling us, it seems, into their own space.

KAJAMA’s debut EP, Polarity Prism, was released on beats label Subterranean Wavelength in March and is available to stream and buy below:

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[…] Nandi and Nongoma first decided to pursue their project) and so far they have met much success. Comparisons to Moonchild Sanellly  and Nonku Phiri have already been made, and I have it in my mind that a […]