Inkabi Zezwe Make a Case for Cultural Values, Love & Community on their latest album ‘Ukhamba’

Sakhile Ntshangase
6 min readMay 16, 2023
Big Zulu (left) and Sjava (right) also known as Inkabi Zezwe Credit: Warner Music Africa

When you first hear the term Inkabi Zezwe, you may immediately think of violence, angst, or aggression. However, that’s not the message you’ll hear from ‘Ukhamba,’ the highly anticipated new album by two of South Africa’s most influential musical minds, Big Zulu and Sjava, or Inkabi Zezwe.

At the onset, ‘Ukhamba’ presents itself as a cultural call for community that extends beyond the physical meanings of ukhamba — a traditionally crafted earthenware vessel for brewing, storing, and serving beer. It is a community indictment and conversation that urges a return to cultural values, love, and community, as Big Zulu explained at an exclusive album launch in Sandton on May 11, 2023. “We chose that the album be named ‘Ukhamba’ because ukhamba is for all men; it necessitates sharing a drink from the same opening,” the Inkabi Records co-founder said. “Unlike a champagne or beer bottle, ukhamba necessitates community.”

Inkabi Zezwe holding ukhamba dressed in traditional male Zulu apparel. Credit: Warner Music Africa

Inkabi Zezwe is a collaboration before its time. Collaboration albums between two major artists are a rare sight in the South African music scene. All too often you will see rappers in a single featured song, trading diss tracks, or in a boxing ring. The record label owners Sjava (1020 Cartel ) and Big Zulu (Inkabi Records) are platinum-selling and have enjoyed notable success in the music industry. Frankly, they have nothing to prove.

Despite or because of these factors, bringing the two “giants” together musically would be a challenge to harmonize. “Things didn’t immediately fall into place,” admitted Temi Adeniji, Warner Music Africa’s MD, at the duo’s media launch at World of Yamaha in Johannesburg on 17 March 2023. “There were a lot of meetings, putting all the pieces together; and coming up with a structure that worked for everyone was important.”

If you’re familiar with Big Zulu and Sjava’s music, the collaboration also feels organic. They are both from rural Bergville, KwaZulu Natal — the duo’s hometown where they also recorded the album — whose music draws influences from Maskandi, RnB, and Hip Hop. As 1020 Cartell Co-Director, Nothando Migogo, points out about the duo, “As much as it may seem like an unexpected collaboration, it also feels so natural.” She said. “It [also] makes sense considering who, what, and where both artists represent. An unsurprising surprise.”

Furthermore, the timing of the project also seems ideal as the duo finds themselves at the peak of their careers, broadening their audience pool. As Leroy Khoza, Inkabi Records co-founder reflects, “When our ancestors speak, it’s our duty to listen and respond,” he said. “This collaboration was created in the spiritual realm.”

Unsurprisingly, when “Umbayimbayi” (tank) dropped, it became a national treasure and instant favourite. With a simple poetic narrative — a man vowing to buy umbayimbayi for a lover to shoot down mountains that separate them — the song’s upbeat rhythm, poetic lyricism, and uproarious traditional sounds percolated into the hearts and mouths of millions of South Africans, rallying millions to streaming platforms. In less than 2 months of release, the single went double platinum, after enjoying #1 spots for consecutive weeks on major streaming platforms.

Big Zulu and Sjava presented with platinum plaques for “Umbayimbayi” at Spitz in Sandton during the launch of ‘Ukhamba.’ Credit: Warner Music Africa

The preponderance of themes within Zulu culture and traditions is palpable throughout ‘Ukhamba.’ The first track, “Intro (Inkabi Zezwe),” uses a centuries-old Zulu Ngoma substyle of song and dance (or ‘umzansi’) which combines choreographed and improvised dances; and a call-and-response, singing and clapping to a marching bass drum formation called i-folo. “While other places are known for isishameni, others amaBhaca, in Bergville we are known for umzansi,” explained Sjava during the album launch. The track features outbreaks of ecstatic clapping and ululating common in Zulu celebrations. Sjava also took some to acknowledge Maskandi musicians such as “Abafana Basemawosi, oSadamu, and obhut’ Vilakazi, amaGoso abiz’ ingoma,” he said.

Beyond reinforcing traditional themes and narratives, ‘Ukhamba’ also accepts a semantic challenge to reclaim the meaning of words, expressions, or experiences from their definers. It is an invitation to a cultural experience, a world of the Bergville natives as they know it, whose meaning isn’t left to anyone else but themselves to define.

Ukhamba is an extension of the duo’s world; one where meaning is neither a universal prerogative left to definers to define nor a linguistic imposition to be passively borne.

Although inkabi is often used censoriously, the duo emphasize how their use of the word is different. “Inkabi Zezwe has nothing to do with violence,” explained Big Zulu during the album launch. “It means “inkabi yam; my brother, my companion.” ‘Ukhamba’ is an extension of the duo’s world; one where meaning is neither a universal prerogative left to definers to define nor a linguistic imposition to be passively borne. It is a reappropriation, reclamation, and resignification of meanings often used disparagingly. Inkabi is also a yoke used to herd cows, an instrument that plays a part in cultivating a harvest for the whole nation. “We are farmers, we are Inkabi Zezwe,” expands Sjava, “and we’re ready to serve the nation with what we’ve cooked up as a duo,” he added.

Songs like “Khaya Lam,” and “Slow Jam Sase Bergville” are continued homages to the duo’s hometown, Bergville. In “Khaya Lam,” Sjava proclaims, “Begaz (Bergville,) home sweet home, 3350,” referencing the duo’s postal code which is preceded by background vocals declaring, “That’s where I grew up, that’s my home.” The song is an appreciation for the hometown that raised them and an indictment for people to be proud of their origins. “I love my home, even though there are mud houses, and although we sleep on empty stomachs, but this is home,” sings Big Zulu. “Slow Jam Sase Bergville,” blends traditional African sounds with contemporary production modeled after Bergville classics, adding a jazz feel to the album.

Drakensburg Mountains, KwaZulu Natal (Intaba Zokhahlamba). Credit: Park Publishing

“We’d rather make songs about love than violence. We are proud of love” - Sjava.

Following on the footprints of its lead single, ‘Ukhamba’ is a love album. “We’d rather make songs about love than violence. We are proud of love,” commented Sjava on the various love songs on the album. Just like “Umbayimbayi,” songs like “Omunye” could be used as a literal script for courting a love interest, (pro tip: you don’t need to drive a BMW 3 series). ‘Ukhamba’ travels through the ins and outs of love — aspirational love (Emaphusheni), broken love(Slow Jam Sase Bergville), jealousy (Iskhwele), regret (Sayona), and navigating problems, (Ilanga), the message is clear: love wins. Other than romantic love, the album also urges Black love (Thando Lunye), family love, (“Siyabonga”), and self-love (“Impumelelo).

The album, which is in IsiZulu from start to finish, is produced by Mfanafuthi Nkosi (Ruff) and Xolani Shabalala (Xowla), who is its only feature. The duo will embark on a four-city tour across South Africa including Pretoria (Sun Bet Arena at Times Square Casino) on 24 June 2023, Cape Town (Grandwest Casino and Entertainment World) on 29 July 2023, Johannesburg (Big Top Arena Carnival City) on 26 August 2023; and Durban (Hollywoodbets Kings Park Stadium) on 3 September 2023.

…times might never again so completely require the gifts that these men possess.

Inkabi Zezwe in Bergville, KwaZulu Natal. Credit: Warner Music Africa

Whether you’re a fan of the duo or not, this collaboration will remain a critical and crucial cultural contribution and case study with an indelible mark on contemporary music. The collaboration could also inspire a wave of future collaboration albums. Whichever way you see it, ‘Ukhamba’ has uniquely brought together two of the most refreshing voices of our time with an important message we all could learn from. The forthcoming results of this project could confirm that time might never again so completely require the gifts that these men possess. Whether you listen to this style of music or not, we could all drink from a wealth of wisdom that Inkabi Zezwe are serving in ‘Ukhamba.’ Ifuqe!!!!!!!!!!

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Sakhile Ntshangase

Mildly seasoned thoughts that might get you smiling, thinking, inspired, or even completely unmoved.