The ‘Zahara Magic’ we will never get

She was born Bulelwa Mkutakana and she became Spinach during her basking days in East London. Then she bloomed and shot to a tumultuous fame as Zahara (flower in Swahili).

Popular South African Afro-pop singer and songwriter Zahara died on December 11, 2023 aged 36. 

But this week, her flame sadly flickered out. While her music will undoubtedly live on, we will never get that special ‘Zahara magic’ that she used to exude while on stage.

Zahara could probably have come up a little sooner if Kalawa Jazmee’s producer, DJ Oskido had been more hungrier. On a Podcast With MacG this year, the legendary DJ, revealed how he missed out on an opportunity to ‘discover’ Zahara.

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The world has been celebrating the life of a shy girl from a little village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa who used her gift for music and a distinct voice to win the admiration of millions of fans and become an international star.

South African musician Zahara, who died on Monday this week at age 36, was an exceptional performer with an arresting voice that charmed listeners the world over, whether singing in her native Xhosa or English. It is a measure of her influence that President Cyril Ramaphosa eulogised her as a “vibrant singer and composer whose loss was a real blow.”

Yet, just like her fellow Xhosa from an earlier generation, Brenda Fassie, who battled substance abuse, Zahara suffered the effects of alcoholism, which resulted in hospitalisation a few weeks ago to treat a liver complication. She turned her personal experience of gender-based violence into a powerful platform, the Zahara Army, supporting the education of girls “to grow up strong”.

“I give them guitars, but I don’t give them guitars so that they can be other Zaharas, but a guitar for me is a symbol of hope,” she told the BBC in 2020.

Born Bulelwa Mkutukana on November 9, 1987, in the village of Phumlani in Eastern Cape, South Africa, in a family of six children, she started singing at the age of six as leader of her Sunday School group and by nine had moved up to the senior choir. At age 13, Spinach, as she was then known because of her love of the vegetables from her mother’s farm, became the leader of her worship team in school.

Her father, a construction worker gave her the name Zahara meaning “blooming flower” in Arabic. Zahara received her first electric guitar as a gift from a missionary in her home village and the first song she learnt how to play on the instrument was R Kelly’s The Storm is Over Now. After high school, she played on the streets of East London, South Africa, because her parents could not afford to take her to college.

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