Fresh out of matric, Sizwe Mdluli’s first job was building Carnival City’s stage and lighting rigs, 25 years later he has come full circle to launch his debut album as an artist at the Johannesburg casino and hotel.

Mdluli, who performs under his stage name of Bhek’zizwe, was first inspired to buy an acoustic guitar in the early 2000’s while working as a sound engineer at Carnival City and watching Chico & the Gypsies perform on their tour of South Africa. “This started my musical journey but at first I was scared to take it seriously. The more I played, the more people started complimenting me and I gained confidence. Because we worked long hours, I often practiced at work, in the corridors of Carnival City as I built my music behind the scenes.”

The eight-track adult contemporary album, African Stories, is a social commentary on “the universe, God, politics and love,” in Zulu, Xhosa, English and Sesotho, said the 42-year-old, singer, songwriter and composer. The band formed in 2017 and consists of a drummer, bass guitarist, keyboardist, lead guitarist, backing vocalist, while Mdluli plays the acoustic guitar.

His song ideas arrive as “downloads”. “I wake up with a melody in my head and sit and construct it into a song, call the band together and watch as it develops.”

Bhek’zizwe started gigging in 2018, and Carnival City was the natural home for these performances. “Our second gig was Carnival City’s Premium Jazz Festival where we were on the bill with big names including Vusi Nova and The Soil.”

“It is a transition from building and setting up a stage to performing on it – almost surreal. I spent years working my way up to become a senior sound engineer and venue manager of Carnival City, and doing soundchecks for other people, and then suddenly you’re the one facing 3 500 audience members.  At first it was scary but you gain confidence and do what you have to do.”

In 2011, Mdluli took a leap of faith and resigned from Carnival City, and used their financial backing provided to small businesses to set up his own audio-visual company, Ugqozi Entertainment. “With a cash injection of R380 000, I could buy sound and lighting equipment and today I do events and shows not only for Carnival City but also for a number of corporate clients in and around Johannesburg.”

The company currently employs two others, having shrunk in size after the pandemic, and about 20% of its income is from providing services to Carnival City.

“I believe in the universe, it would have been extremely hard without Carnival City so I take my hat off to them for the help they have given me in starting not only my own small business, but also to get a foot up into the music industry.”

The Bhek’zizwe African Stories album launch happened on Wednesday, 22 May 2024 on Carnival City’s Applause stage at Bru’s bar and will be available on digital music services 24 May 2024. (https://VMGAfrica.lnk.to/AfricanStoriesAr)

“I’m excited about African Stories, and believe it will do well – the older generation aged 35 to 50 is being left out because everyone is going after Ama Piano. There is a need for more adult contemporary music and we are filling this gap for those who don’t want to be young again – they just want to listen to the music they enjoy.”

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