The Joy: “You can hear how we poured our hearts into the songs” | Songlines
Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Joy: “You can hear how we poured our hearts into the songs”

By Emma Rycroft

The Joy started their a capella singing in a small classroom in rural South Africa; now they’re set to release their eponymous full-length album

The Joy 83

The Joy

The Joy’s first single, ‘Isencane Lengane’, is a warm farewell to a bride from her family. The music video flits between footage of the group’s five members as young, skinny teenagers singing in a dark classroom to them a year older, in pastel suits, standing proudly in the valleys of Kwa-Zulu Natal, ready to take on the world. Their dancing and smiles are infectious, even as there’s a poignancy to the song’s reflections, with lyrics translating as, ‘who would marry at such a young age? / married life is not an easy journey / she is still young, however she will grow.’

One may equally ask, ‘who would go into the music industry at such a young age?’ But occasionally things just happen. Sometime in 2018 in Hammarsdale, a township in South Africa’s KZN, five boys arrived early for school choir practice. One started a song to while away the time and the others joined in. “That day,” says Duzie (Melokuhle Mkhungo) Hlophe, “we started planning rehearsals just on our own.” The a capella group – comprising Pastor (Ntokozo Bright Magcaba), Duzie, Guduza (Sphelele Hlophe), Sthombe (Phelelani Sithole) and Marcus (Sanele Ngcobo) – named themselves The Joy and practised a blend of their influences: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, US gospel group The Walls and Zulu songs heard in church and at home.

In 2019, they won the eThekwini Youth Talent Show. Soon after, Two Inch Punch (Ben Ash) flew to eThekwini (the region in which Hammarsdale is situated) to record ‘Isencane Lengane’. Since the single came out, The Joy have finished school – enough of a trial for most teenagers – and released two EPs, Amabutho (2021) and Hammarsdale (2023). They have toured all over the world, too, appearing on Jennifer Hudson’s US TV show and at Glastonbury to mention but two performances. Now they’re set to release their self-titled debut on Transgressive Records. For all this, when I speak to them, they seem remarkably down to earth, even shy. Lead vocalist Duzie, however, takes charge and tells me how excited they are about The Joy, which was recorded in a North London church studio. “We were performing the album live,” he explains, “So in the music [you] can hear how we poured our hearts into the songs.” The setting is one they’re at home with. “We [grew] up going to church, listening to our grandfathers singing shiyameni [Zulu dance] songs and isicathamiya [Zulu a capella singing].”

As well as beautifully worked traditionals drawn from this background, The Joy features original compositions. These are so rich in harmony, melody and the rhythms of Zulu song that one has to check the liner notes to be sure which is which. “When we write songs,” Duzie reflects, “I guess it just happens that we go back to our roots and take melodies of those different genres and put them together.” As for content, “it’s pretty easy, because we write about some things that are happening in our life and in our community.” I ask about ‘Amaqatha Amancane’, the bursting single in which Duzie’s pure voice cuts clear in front of deep bass and doo-wop backing; the track’s midway shift to a higher key is sublime. “That one wasn’t something we were writing seriously,” Duzie laughs, “We were just chilling [and] one of the guys was chopping small pieces of meat. We decided to freestyle and sing about how he is chopping [small pieces for everyone] as if the meat was bought by him.” Another highlight, ‘Ubaba Uthwelekanzima’, is deeper in register and more drawn out. Every now and then though, the voices reach higher, sending shivers. It sounds like the paean it is. “The song is talking about the struggle of being a father,” Duzie considers, “having to be a provider for the family, but then the job opportunities are scarce… We can all relate to the song.” [This last assertion shouldn’t surprise, with more than half of eThekwini’s population living below the upper-bound poverty line.]

Duzie’s favourite, though, is ‘Bayang’khethela’. With a grin, he shakes his head before explaining: “The song is talking about your parents choosing a girlfriend for you. Last year I had this girlfriend [and] I’m not sure [how], because my grandmother had never met her, but she didn’t like her, so she chose a different girl for me.” When asked who won in the end, Duzie chuckles and tells me, “The heart always wins.” Sthombe’s favourite is something quite different, perhaps closer in concept to the group’s roots: ‘Jesu’, a prayer. “We are begging God to protect [us] all the time,” he says.

The Joy’s faith, friendships and trust in each other, are themes that come up repeatedly. When asked how they stay grounded and keep the dynamic between all five of them positive, Duzie brings those themes together, “We have days where we just go to meet, talk. And then on different days, like before performance, we make sure that we don’t go on stage without praying.”

Their shows are noteworthy. Where a lot of a capella groups can slip live, The Joy never seem to. I ask about their smooth performance on a sunny day in Glastonbury last year. “This was quite an experience for us,” Duzie says, surprising me, “because it was our first time singing with the [earpiece]. It was difficult because during the performance the earpiece [sometimes] cut, and we couldn’t hear anything but we continued singing.” This is made even more remarkable when Duzie notes that the group’s harmonies are “different every single time we perform.” During that performance they sang ‘Isencane Lengane’, the very first single. They were clearly adults now, in bright colourful suits, and au fait with their surroundings on an astroturfed stage in the UK. But the focus, warmth and pride in their sound – as well as the smiles, dancing and improvised punctuation – perfectly matched those captured in the Natal fields and bare classrooms of the original video.

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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