Yonelisa to strum his way to singing glory

Up-and-coming artist Yonelisa Wambi with Rachel Mallett.

Up-and-coming artist Yonelisa Wambi said the city centre opened up a world of opportunities for his singing career.

“The Cape Town CBD introduced me to what music could be for me. People in the city centre have been good to me. They showed me that it isn’t hard to make it once you believe in yourself. They also believed in me.”

Yonelisa grew up in Port Elizabeth, and then moved to Gugulethu as a young boy.

Growing up, he listened to a lot of RnB, and was influenced by the genre.

Sure about his career in music, Yonelisa attended Ntonga Music School, also in Gugulethu. There, he also learnt to play the guitar. “My mom bought me my first guitar. I learnt to play at the school, and also people around me who could play. I’ve been singing since I was in primary school, and then sang well throughout my high school career too. I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career. I loved singing.”

About eight years ago, a friend suggested they go to town to “jam”.

“We came to the Company’s Garden and I started playing the guitar and singing, and people loved me. I thought ‘I can take this on as a career’.”

He and a group of friends from Ntonga Music School then formed a band called Big Brain Academy, and performed at various events in the CBD. “We once performed at the Cape Town Festival in the Company’s Garden and shared the stage with famous local artists such as Judith Sephuma. I was honoured.”

Things didn’t work out with the band, and the members eventually decided to go their own way. “We had different visions of music and our careers. Also, at the time, I hadn’t found my personal style yet. So I went solo and started seriously busking on the trains and in the Gardens.”

As a result of busking, Yonelisa landed many gigs in the city centre, from business events to people’s birthday parties and live music gigs.

“I developed a deep love for soul music, and I called my style just that. I told the story of where I came from, and the transition to the times we are in now, through my sound.”

At this point, Yonelisa met Rachel Mallett, his partner and manager. “I was busking at Open Streets in Bree Street, and Rachel sat next to me to listen to me, and never left.”

She introduced Yonelisa to technologies such as Sound Cloud and YouTube, and helped him get his music onto those platforms.

“We compiled all my music and put it onto a CD, which I called Raw. From there we went to Namibia and I played there, and sold some of my CDs. It worked out well for me.”

Now, Yonelisa is back in Cape Town, playing at various venues in the city centre such as Sergeant Pepper and House of Machines, and in the Company’s Garden.

“I still busk, because I don’t want to forget where I came from. If it wasn’t for busking, I wouldn’t have been where I am today, and meeting all the necessary people that made it happen for me.”

He said the city is a place of opportunity and colour. “People here are very accepting. They come here from all over the city and the world, and they just go with the flow.”

He said he had a large following on social media from the CBD community, and bars and restaurants are always open to giving up-and-coming artists a platform.

“Everyone is very supportive. Even when I walk around in the city, everyone greets me and asks about my music. They are on the journey with me.”

However, he said the City of Cape Town could do more for buskers. “We are a tourist attraction, so we have a role to play. It took ages for me to get my permit to busk. I feel that a space should be opened up for buskers to do their thing.”

He said there is also little information about what buskers can and can’t do, and the City should also make the information more accessible. “It’s not easy on the streets. People have mixed emotions to my music. Sometimes they say ‘why are you busking? You need to be somewhere else. Your talent is being wasted’, and sometimes they just sit back and enjoy – it’s therapeutic for some people. One day I would like to stop busking, but I don’t want to stop playing in the streets. It’s powerful. You can change someone’s mood, day or life.”