New singing sensation Zahara takes S.Africa by storm

Waitress Lusanda Nogwente was on duty at Africa's biggest jazz festival but could not resist sneaking away -- silver serving tray still in hand -- to see its newest singing sensation.

On-stage, with her trademark guitar and giant Afro hairstyle, newcomer Zahara was playing to an adoring capacity crowd who had chosen her show over the big names performing in the main hall a few metres from her outside stage.

"Every time she sings, she touches our hearts," said Nogwente, 21, amid the crush of fans who were belting out her catchy songs at the sold-out Cape Town International Jazz Festival at the weekend.

"The way she sings, she sings African, it's the background of our mothers and fathers."

The 24-year-old, big-voiced, soulful Afro-pop singer with humble roots only burst onto the scene last year but was billed alongside Hugh Masekela, James Ingram and Lauryn Hill and starred on the festival's magazine cover.

The recognition is part of her extraordinary rise with her debut album Loliwe selling out in 72 hours.

"The past six months, I'd say it's a blessing in my life. It's exciting, it's overwhelming at the same time," she told AFP.

Born Bulelwa Mkutukana in a poor Eastern Cape village, her lyrics tell of heavy burdens to new hope, themes that resonate deeply. Her voice has drawn comparisons to Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading and India Arie. Even Adele.

"They can't really place me in one place," said Zahara whose name means "budding flower" in Arabic.

"People will always want to try and listen who do you sound like. I don't know why they do that, so that means I've got this unique music that maybe it entails all those people."

Asked to sing for South Africa's beloved icon Nelson Mandela, who has not been seen in public since 2010, she found him late last year at his rural Eastern Cape home reading a newspaper that had her picture on the front page.

Footage on Youtube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYkrXDISLus) shows the young singer wiping away tears away after the frail 93-year-old former president, resting under a blanket, claps for her.

"That was emotional for me. I remember I cried when I started singing to the finish and I even messed up my song," she recalled.

"Instead of starting with the first verse, I started with the second because I've never seen Tata (father) in my life and the first time I get to see Tata Mandela, I get to perform for him and I'm sitting right at his feet. So you can imagine."

Mkutukana grew up on the outskirts of East London where she taught herself the guitar and whose formal chords she is still coming to grips with.

"My mom's a domestic worker and at home we're six and I'm the fifth born so it was quite a struggle for us, but we had each other," she said.

"Even if some nights we'd sleep without food or go to school without shoes, but my mom always kept us together by prayer."

Rolling Stone's newly launched South African magazine profiled her on the cover of its second edition in January, saying her "music should be relabelled: All Purpose Spirituality for the soul-impoverished, tweet, shorthand age".

"The key thing is she's from a poor family and it's really surprising what she is doing," said Andile Matshikiza, 48, who watched her for the first time on Saturday.

"It has got a message of the history, her own history when she grew up. That is how we grew up. I mean, it touches."

With nearly a dozen music award nominations, she has a busy gig schedule and recently returned from Zimbabwe and Botswana and plans a live DVD, national tour and visits to Europe and the United States.

Her Cape Town jazz festival show was the first time that such a newcomer had been invited to play in the event's 13-year history, and director Rashid Lombard advised scouts from international jazz festivals to keep an eye out.

"I just said look out for her," he told AFP.

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