“Her relationship with jazz is not something that began recently.  She first performed music as an extramural activity.  The first CD that she purchased was Genius of Modern Music Volume 1 by Thelonious Monk when she was just 16.  By obtaining a B A Degree in Geography, she thought that would make her forget about pursuing music as a career but this saxophonist from the East Rand is making a name for herself”

Liziwe Fihlani started learning about music at the age of 16 while doing Grade 9.  The alto saxophonist who is now 27 was born in the Barkley East, spent a few years in the Free State before permanently settling in Daveyton.  She is the second born of 4 children, 3 girls and a boy.  The healer, composer, teacher and jazz lover is a mother to a 4-year-old son and is staying her parents and siblings.  Her parents are fond of Zion music with her dad being a jazz lover as well.

As a young girl, she was very shy and kept to herself most of the time.  The artist who is popularly known as Ziwe, her stage name, had love for reading.  “My dad used to have a camera. He took lots of pictures of me.  I guess my love for pictures comes from here”, recalling her early childhood. One of the primary schools she attended was Bronville Primary School in Welkom where she earned a reputation for being a bookworm. Until further in high school, music was nothing but an extramural activity.

Her first music theory and practical lessons were with Khulanathi Jazz Ensemble in 2008. Ziwe was a protégé of Bernet Mamabolo who initially tried to convince the young and inexperienced musician to play the trumpet but failed as she had already decided on the saxophone as her instrument. “Actually, I started with the recorder then moved to the saxophone.  I am currently taking piano lessons with the hope of being proficient in keys one day”, she told Jazz It Out. 

Saxophonist Liziwe “Ziwe” Fihlani

Mamabolo was always strict with his students and pushed them to give their best.  She credits Khulanathi for grooming her to be the musician she is today. “The essence of my playing, work ethic, being grounded and focused comes from Mr Mamabolo”, she said.  This is where she also made friends with student trombonist Nokulunga Mncwabe.  The duo would also play together at the East Rand Youth Orchestra where they were under the tutelage of Pienaar Fourie and later with Ekurhuleni Jazz Ensemble.  “Mr Fourie was strict, kept to time and wanted things done by the book.  But he was also generous and understanding”, she added.

While she was taking music lessons seriously, Ziwe was listening to Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masekela, Stimela and Zim Ngqawana on the radio. Looking back to those days, she now realizes that listeners and viewers had limited choices with radio and TV.  There were no smart phones to stream and download content.  After her music lessons began at Khulanathi, she went to buy her very first jazz CD which was “Genius of Modern Music Volume 1” by Thelonious Monk.  She found herself a very young music student listening to bebop entering a new chapter in her life.

Being part of the East Rand Youth Orchestra saw her travelling to the provinces of Free State and Limpopo where their performances were well received.  One of her favourite performances she participated in was the annual Orchestra Festival which was held at Wits University’s Linder Auditorium.  She enjoyed meeting and sharing ideas with fellow musicians from all over South Africa.  Her years at the orchestra also taught her sight reading, discipline and time management. Ziwe was grateful for the overall exposure to classical music.

Playing her favourite instrument. Picture by Dumisani Radebe

While playing with the orchestra, Ziwe was a BA Geography student at the University of Johannesburg and in her third year she decided to leave the orchestra to focus on completing her degree which she did.  To this day, she still recalls a meeting with the review board of her bursars.  “I asked them if I could change my course and do music.  They flatly refused. I got emotional and started crying”, now with a chuckle years later.  Despite losing the argument, Liziwe completed her degree and graduated in 2015. Because of her love for music, she joined Ekurhuleni Jazz Ensemble, a band that was formed by local Daveyton musicians.

The saxophonist who believes in hard work and constant practicing is currently working with an organization Jazz Camp for Female Instrumentalists (JCFI) which was co-founded by Sibongile Buda and Daisy Mangwato.  JCFI organizes annual camps, exchange programmes for female instrumentalists, vocalists and artists.  The aim of the organization is to inspire, motivate and grow female potential not only in the jazz music scene, but in the arts as a whole.  Her old trombonist friend Nokulunga Mncwabe is also a member of the organization.

Ziwe is a team member of a music project at Hardware Lounge.  The venue focusses on hosting jam sessions, live music, meeting and connecting with other musicians.  It also plans to provide music lessons for the youth of Daveyton.  She has no regrets for quitting a job in the retail sector to focus on music and things began to make sense.  “I noticed that every time before I fell asleep, I would hear melodies, dream of songs only to realize that those were my compositions and they needed me to be in a different kind of space in my life, mentally, spiritually and physically in order to connect with them”, she explained.

She has worked with so many amazing musicians who taught her to think out of the box, helped her to improve her sound, gave her techniques on practicing and showed tremendous support in what she does. Ziwe wants to reciprocate. She admires artists like Lebohang Lamola who is a guitarist, pianist and bassist.  “We call him the Quincy Jones of Daveyton. He is a very good songwriter”, she told Jazz It Out.  Ziwe has played with CAFCA founded by Jazzman Mohale where she was given her first opportunity to teach saxophone.   They have played a lot of his original compositions as well as Moss Mogale’s music with the students.

Qula Kwedini – Liziwe “Ziwe” Fihlani

One of her favourite performances was with Tshele Tsoerenyane and friends at the World Sound Concert in August 2018 which is one of the moments she will forever cherish.  She has her own band called The Phoneless Band which is formed out of respect, understanding and appreciation of music.  Ziwe is also a member of Avant-Garde Trio, an all-female made up of herself, Linda. Tshabalala and MoAfrika wa Mokgathi.Another band she admires and had a chance of playing with at a jam session is 251Afrika.  She loved the fact that as a band they are able to complement each other well and show discipline in their playing.

When asked what are the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 to the arts and entertainment industry, she took a deep sigh and said: “I relate to jazz more spiritually than anything and I believe that kind of power is able to reach a wider audience, regardless of the circumstances one might find themselves in”.  Ziwe acknowledges that this is a difficult period where there are no gigs and no income but the digital world will make work things easier for artists to sustain their career beyond the pandemic.  Artists must learn to adapt to the changes and remain relevant to the audiences they want to reach.

Her favourite saxophonists are Max Grunhard, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Khaya Mahlangu, Linda Sikhakhane, Mthunzi Mvubu, Linda Tshabalala and Karabo Mohlala. Besides jazz, Ziwe is a huge rock fanatic and she loves how it interlinks with classic music.  She also listens to deep house, neo-soul, hip hop and a bit of gospel. “I do my own hair, braiding and plaiting.  She recently taught herself how to make earrings with beads”.  Ziwe has also designed a few wood earrings and is hoping that will result in generating revenue.  The lockdown has given her a chance to read a lot of books.  Her Facebook Account is Liziwe Mamgcina Fihlani. Subscribe to her YouTube Channel Liziwe Fihlani.  Follow her on Instagram @liziwefihlani and Twitter @FihlaniLiziwe