Sho is more than a fashion statement

Sho Madjozi at the Kirstenbosch Summer Concert series. Picture: Courtney Africa/ANA

Sho Madjozi has been an instant shapeshifter since she came into the entertainment industry in 2016 when she was featured in Okmalumkoolkat’s Gqi music video.

She is known for her colourful hair, funky dance moves, energetic stage presence and most importantly, her vibrant and ever-changing traditional Tsonga skirt known as the xibelani.

The 27-year-old South African Music Awards award-winning artist opened the Design Indaba 2020 Conference, at the Artscape last month, with a performance followed by a talk regarding the evolution of the xibelani.

She said she hopes to pave the way in terms of how people perceive culture and the xibelani in particular.

She said the xibelani is essential to her visual identity, because the very first time she appeared as Sho Madjozi she was wearing one.

Her first appearance caused a “hullabaloo,” because people were not used to seeing a xibelani as short as hers or a person who wore one as a fashion statement, however, she hoped to create a platform where people came to learn and understand the history of her heritage.

She said when Tsonga people were colonised in the early 1800s, they were stripped of their culture, tradition and identities. They were forbidden from wearing their traditional attire, however, some men and women rebelled by making “what appeared as a xibelani“ out of material they had access to.

That was when the first xibelani during the time was brought to life. This type of xibelani dates back to the late 1800s and it was called tingivu, which she said meant clothes.

She said fabric was used to make a skirt which was tied around their waists, using a form of a string and it was often paired with a top or none in some instances.

However, if you did not have the material required to make such a garment, one had to resort to wearing their dobane, the underwear of the xibelani.

She said that women and girls regularly wore the underwear in the house if the xibelani wasn’t worn, However, there were instances where “naughty girls” wore the piece of clothing outside of the house.

“It was mainly covered with a cloth, which posed as a skirt.

“Some of you might be wondering why women wore it if you were going to cover it with a cloth in any case

“The main purpose of a dobane, was to create a curvaceous shape on women. It was something people weren’t supposed to see, particularly men, hence classified as an undergarment.

“Because it was something that was put together by women who didn’t have the means to buy a ready-made xibelani, they opted for alternative sources.

“Women who did not have access to excess cloth lying around used maize meal sacks, which were unravelled and turned into a xibelani.

“Women never seemed to stop making some out of basically everything.”

“My first xibelani was made out of wool by my grandmother, don’t feel sorry for me, I can now afford an expensive xibelani,” she said.

In addition, she said that there is a particular xibelani that is more of a status symbol and it commonly referred to as tinguvu.

“It has been around for many years and it is beaded, hence the heavy weight and it is also made out of woven cloth.”

She said that it has been around from as early as the 1900s and is usually made of a dark woven cloth and decorated with heavy white beads which makes it expensive. Depending on one’s social background, this is a gift girls would get after their initiation or on their wedding day.

“It was something quite special to have.”

Another thing, she said, which made this particular xibelani expensive, was the amount of time that went into making it.

She said the wool xibelani emerged after the end of apartheid.

Wool was cheaper, lighter in weight, brighter in colour and it was “more in your face.”

Soon after the wool era, the xilemba came to light. “This is the xibelani today, this is what you’ll see most of the women wear and it is the modern-day xibelani.”

This type of xibelani takes up to 10 metres of fabric to make, it is pleated and it usually comes with a gold trim at the ends.”

“The xilemeba is usually worn at makwaya which is a street bash/ competition which takes place every week in certain townships where teams are judged based
on their outfits and choreography.”

“Now that I have told you about the history, but what is the future?”

She said that if there is anything anyone takes away from her talk, it is to acknowledge how culture has evolved.

She said that she wants to propose a Xibelani Carnival to her people in Limpopo, similar to what the Brazilians have but more Tsonga-influenced.

“Imagine xibelani taken to the extreme. We haven’t really done it so now should be the time.”