She took us to church – at The Nest, the newly opened venue for all things art, in the Cape Town CBD. This was Zoë Modiga, the new jazz priestess. The Cape Town-based singer’s multidimensional voice reduced the group of about 150 cool kids and music lovers in attendance to an acquiescent congregation, singing along to some covers and her own compositions. Her voice was cushioned by a two-piece band consisting of a keyboardist and a bassist, who she met at UCT, she tells me a few days after the performance.
Zoë was light on her feet. She gyrated, squatted and knelt, while still coherent in song. She was in her element. She even invited a few rappers from the crowd to drop some 16s on stage. This was in late February, when she was headlining Jam That Session – a monthly series of music events that has, in past instalments, hosted the likes of Nakhane Touré, Youngsta and Claire Phillips, just to mention a few.
What makes Zoë special is the ease with which she sings. High notes aren’t a struggle. She’s natural, she sings with her speaking voice.
It was when she added her own personality to Nina Simone’s “Four Women” that hands in the crowd were raised, faces facing the floor, eyes closed. “Sing it, girl” interjections came from random spots of the venue.
An overseas trip deferred
The same Nina Simone song got Zoë a R200 000 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship towards the end of 2015. She won against eight other singers, for a chance to study overseas. But she’s put that on hold, as she’s trying to raise funds that will allow her to stay longer abroad.
It’s been interesting watching Zoë go from just another singer looking for a platform to showcase her craft to a promising star. She has proven her versatility and star power on a lot of reputable platforms, most notably the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2015. Her performance there, just like the aforementioned one, brought the Holy Ghost out of its hiding place, and it crept through the venue sedating us all, like in a dignified missionary church service.
Zoë’s not a pro by accident; she studied jazz and vocal performance at the South African College of Music at UCT between 2013 and 2015, she’s currently on a sabbatical, with just one year until she graduates. In high school, she took classical music. That was at the National School of the Arts in Joburg, where she learned classical piano and the clarinet. She later taught herself to play guitar.
Coming to Cape Town
Zoë moved from Pietemeritzburg, where she grew up to Cape Town in 2013, to study in UCT. “I started going around with my guitar looking for places to perform, even if it was for free,” she says, smiling from nostalgia. Jam That Session was one of the first platforms that allowed her to share her greatness in 2013.
Spotting a blue knee-length dress, during her 2013 Jam That Session performance, strapped with a guitar she showcased the dynamics of her voice as she interpreted a range of songs her own way. Among the few covers she performed was Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi’s monumental “Yakhal’inkomo”.
SoundCloud and evolution
At around the same time, the singer was posting amazing cover songs on her SoundCloud page, which she’d record in her room. “I was living in a digs, sharing with six people who were okay with me singing. [When I was recording], I would put my phone at a certain angle because the acoustics were better there, and just uploaded it and hoped for the best.”
She says she cringes a bit when she listens to the clips now. “(But) I’m okay with it being there because you get to see the growth over the years.” These days her SoundCloud has mostly live recordings. She has only released a few studio recordings. Two of those are “Pushin’ On” (which got played on several national radio stations) and “Dream”, both collaborations with Cape Town electro duo The Kiffness. The songs, which are from the duo’s 2014 album The Kiff, displayed another facet of Zoë’s singing, that of a regular popstar and a go-to house hook killer.
On collaboration, house and jazz
Zoë wants to do more cross-genre collaborations. “I’d love to do house music. There’s a lot of DJs that I’ve been talking to, actually. I look up to Nakhane Touré. He has his own vibe, but he collaborates with different people.” She wants to do music that appeals. “I want to be on a hip-hop record, a kwaito one, I wanna do jazz, I want to do R n B, it’s all music.”
Zoë creates most of her own music. “The power of having learned music is that I can notate it and then it gets played and interpreted by the other musicians. So I spend most of my time coming up with chords and writing lyrics or writing lyrics and thinking of bassline and notating it.”
She’s an indie artist who has to do it all, including admin: “I do every single thing; posters, send invites, talk to clients, manage my page. I want to, when I have a team, understand exactly what I want them to do.” She makes it no secret that it’s not always easy: “I have to live through those struggles so when I’m telling you ‘phanda, boss,’ it’s not because I’ve got gigs. I starve sometimes, I eat noodles sometimes. But s’yaphanda, we are still getting our ideas out and making the world a nice spot to chill in.”
With a voice and stage game like hers, the world is indeed a nice spot to chill in.
Zoë recently entered The Voice SA, impressing all three judges. She’s being mentored by Lira as part of the competition.
Images: Sabelo Mkhabela