Thandi Draai: Transcending Chaos in a Beautiful World

“South Africa is a very colorful country. As a people, we are full of culture, full of music, so much talent. Every country has its sad history. There is so much to South Africa than just Apartheid and that side of history. There is so much richness that the world doesn’t know of, not just South Africa, Africa as a whole.”  Reflects Thandi Draai, speaking from her home in Johannesburg on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The 29-year-old DJ, producer, songwriter, and vocalist has been shortlisted as one of South Africa’s rising talents by the likes of Black Coffee and Culoe de Song. Hailing from Port Shepstone in Kwazulu-Natal, Thandi Draai moved to Johannesburg after high school to pursue her passion for music. Thandi Draai was the first woman to enroll in Soul Candi’s Institute of Music, where she learned and perfected her DJing and producing skills. That would not be the last time Thandi Draai would be the first woman in the South African dance music industry to make history. She was the first woman of color in South Africa to release a self-made EP Down on Me and Ignozi. Her desire and determination led her to become a show contestant in music competition programs aired on South African television. Her talents landed her in top positions and won her a mentorship with Wyclef Jean. 

In 2020, German imprint Get Physical Music released Thandi Draai’s debut EP, Iris. Iris was part of their compilation series Africa Gets Physical Volume 3, compiled by Blanka Mazimela. Meanwhile, Connected, the record label run by Stereo MC’s, Terranova, and Kompakt Records, released the LoMhlaba EP, a collaboration between Moroccan DJ and producer Cee ElAlssaad and Thandi Draai.  She concluded 2020 by being part of Abracadabra’s New Years’ 2021 digital festival lineup, where she spun the latest Afro House/Afro Tech and showcased her singing.

Thandi Draai spoke at length to The DJ Cookbook about the healing effects music has had on her life. A survivor of child abuse, Thandi found comfort in music at an early age. Her journey began at a children’s home in Port Shepstone, where she was eventually adopted by a teacher who cared for her and supported her music dreams. Thandi told us how she found the inspiration to sing in Zulu and how the risk paid off. She also talked about her love of food, gave us a run down to some of South Africa’s most popular dishes, and her favorite South African DJs and producers.

Q: When it comes to food, what has the lockdown taught you? Did you try cooking or baking any new recipes during the first lockdown wave?

A: I realized the lockdown forced us to cook!  We were not able to order or pick up take-out food. I’m going through a southeast Asian food craving. I love cooking Indian food, like Biryani rice, beef, and chicken curry. During the lockdown, I experimented a lot, and I discovered I liked roasting.  My sister and I came up with our take on BBQ chicken. We put the chicken in the oven with fresh herbs, rub it with our BBQ sauce along with potatoes. I don’t use cookbooks. There are no rules for cooking. I cook as I produce, or I produce as I cook! Everything is an inspiration. I ask myself, how does this taste in its organic form? Does it make sense to mix the garlic and ginger? I like doing everything from scratch. I don’t buy processed foods or spices. 

Q: Before COVID-19 shut the world down, what did you eat after a night of clubbing, is there a thriving street food scene in Johannesburg?

A: Yes, there is a thriving street food scene in Johannesburg! For example, there are 24-hour pizza joints in Johannesburg. I love pizza! There are Braai spots where you can have your favorite grilled meat, vegetables, alcohol is sold, and you can dance if you want to. So everything is right there at your disposal. You can say that meat, alcohol, and dancing are important parts of our culture.

Q: Can you describe South African cuisine?

A: It is like African spices and food plants that got mixed with British, Dutch, French, Chinese, and Indian cuisine.

Q: What is your favorite meal of the day?

A: I’m not a morning eater.  When you get older, life gets more stressful, you realize you need more energy, so I am trying my best to eat in the morning. I start my day with a cup of coffee. I’m more of a brunch type of person.

Q: What do you enjoy eating?

A: I love to eat and enjoy it so much, as long as it tastes good! I am always interested in trying new things. Believe it or not, I’m obsessed with fruits and vegetables. Right now, I enjoy the raw crunchiness of vegetables and love roasted fruit.

Q: As a child what did you love to eat and why?

A: I have this memory of the first time I tasted honey. I think it was a sign from God. He knew how hard it was for me as a child. He must have sent some bees. There was a honeycomb right outside the house I used to live. The bees would come and do their thing. I’d go and pinch some of the honey. It was such a treat for me. Once I tasted it, it tasted like heaven. For me, eating raw honey, sucking it out of the honeycomb is one of the best memories I had from my childhood. Let’s put it this way when life was bittersweet!

Q: When did you know you wanted to be involved in dance music?

A: I grew up in a children’s home for the majority of my life. Through therapy, I realized that I loved music. A children’s home is a place of safety, so everything is very restricted, and they are very aware of what you listen to so that it does not contribute to your childhood trauma. We would listen to Gospel music, Christian music, Easy Listening, and musicals. I realized I liked music that was much more uptempo. Once I was adopted, I began to listen to a lot of dance music. I would make my mom go to the record store and buy me dance music compilations if I was well behaved. I loved House music. You can mix House music with anything, with African music, with Latin music, with R&B. House music can accommodate everything and everyone. It’s crazy, it’s a feeling, I can explain it. Ever since I felt that feeling, I was like whoa! I need to know more about it, how do you make it, how do I sing this way, why do I feel this way about it.

Q: How did this process evolve, did you learn how to sing or play an instrument when you were younger?

A: I realized from an early age that I was musically inclined. At the children’s home, we also listened to a lot of Opera and Andrew Lloyd Weber. While listening to Gospel and R&B, I would pick out the elements and figure out what made me feel sad or happy. Music is so powerful. If I needed to feel better I would listen to music. Music became part of my therapy. In the beginning, all I did was sing. During that time, there wasn’t a lot of access to places where you could attend and learn how to produce music, so I stuck with singing. It was much later in my life that I learned how to use Fruity Loops. Right after high school, I moved to Johannesburg. My mother knew I wanted to be involved with music and that’s how we found Soul Candi. Soul Candi releases a lot of dance music compilations, which I used to buy. Eventually, they opened up the Soul Candi Institute of Music, and I enrolled. I applied too late in the year and had to wait until the new semester began. They were very impressed because I was the first woman to ever enroll in their music production course. I was invited to visit the school whenever I wanted to. I was able to check out their program, see how it worked. I met a lot of interesting people. My voice was my only instrument. A lot of people knew me as a vocalist first. I put in the hard work behind the scenes, learning how to produce and DJ.

Q: You participated in music competition shows on South African television, what motivated you to become a contestant? 

A: As an independent artist, to get the markets or get the recognition that I need, I decided that I needed to get myself out there. Thandi Draai was mostly known as a vocalist. When I started seeing these competitions for singing or Djing, I knew this was how to get my product out there. I am now in spaces where I have air time. Whether it is radio or tv, there’s a product that people will see and hear.  That’s why I had to go and compete, to show and advertise myself. The last competition I competed in was a remix for South African House trio Mi Casa. My remix was in the top 10 chosen by Mi Casa and was used as the campaign song.

Q: Do you remember your first studio set-up?

A: Oh yes! Before I moved to Johannesburg, my mom had given me a very old second-hand laptop, I was so excited, it was a Fujitsu. Once I got to Johannesburg, a friend of mine downloaded a trial version of FruityLoops for me, I had a small set of computer speakers and another friend of mine gave me a second-hand midi controller. That was my mini setup. I also remember, once I got to Johannesburg, I used to practice with Virtual DJ. Equipment as a whole is just so expensive. I used to practice every day, I manifested and envisioned myself to be the best DJ out there, introducing people to my creativity, my song selections, and how I mix my songs

Q: What is your studio setup now?

A: Girl, I practically live in my studio now! I have great monitor speakers, my midi controller, sound card, Fruity Loops, and Cubase.  My Iris EP was produced from my studio setup.

Q: How did you end up DJing on Ukhozi FM?

 A: I’ve been very fortunate to be put on the biggest radio station in Africa, Ukhozi FM, ukhozi means eagle in Zulu. I met King Sfiso in 2019 at ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event) and he enjoyed my mixes. He, later on, called me and told me there was the opportunity to DJ on Ukhozi FM and I said “Yes, I’m there, don’t bother finishing up your sentence!”. So every Friday, I’ve been given the responsibility of educating and introducing the listeners to new music from all over the world in Africa. King Sfiso handles the show from 8:00 pm to 11:pm and I come in to mix from 10:00 pm to 11:00 pm, I close the show with a banging mix!

Q: How do you go about your mixes? Are they spontaneous or do you go by a feeling or theme?

A: The way I create my mixes is that I need to tell a story. I love slow intros and build from there. I prep my mixes, I ask myself what do I want to go for today? What type of songs do I want to play and introduce the listeners too. I prepare. I don’t do things on the fly, and I don’t throw songs on top of each other. I have to tell a story. It varies. The feelings are very different. I can surprise you with a very subtle mix or a hardcore Afro drum-driven tech mix, it depends on how I am feeling.

Q: Does dancing play an important role in your everyday life?

A: When I was younger, I was a very good dancer. I was always dancing. Now, I may not have the coolest dance moves, but I love dancing! I dance with myself. I dance to have fun! In my production process, before I start dancing, I need to feel something, my body starts to move to this feeling, then it is a good start. I always say if you’re listening to music, and you don’t have a stank face then you need to work harder on the music. You know when you’re listening to music, and it is so good you scrunch up your face like you’re in pain, but it is not pain, you’re just like boom, this music is amazing! We call it stank face! You know, that face you make up when you smell something foul, something that stinks!

Q: How do you approach the production process? 

A: The groove is what drives most of my songs. The drums, the percussion. I need to feel things first. If the groove is doing it for me, then everything else comes after. I need to grab the listener from the very first note. They need to be hooked, from the start.

Q: Do you see yourself mentoring a new generation of South African female producers in the future?

A: I am big on women uplifting women. In my radio show, I try to feature as many women producers as possible. When I began, no one was calling me, asking for a remix of a track or a collaboration. It starts with me taking action and advocating for women’s empowerment.

Q: Do you eat or drink before or after a performance?

A:  If I have a singing performance or a DJ set, I drink a glass of wine before to calm my nerves.

Q: How did the collaboration between you and Cee ElAssaad happen? What does LoMhlaba mean?

A: Cee El Alssaad is an amazing DJ and producer from Morocco. We met in Amsterdam, in 2019, during the Amsterdam Dance Event. We hit off immediately and we began to collaborate in the LoMhlaba project together. LoMhlaba means earth in Zulu. In the song, I am singing, “what a beautiful world we live in”. COVID-19 prompted me to write those lyrics. In general, pandemics have a very negative impact, a lot of confusion, and we all process things differently. I remember I went outside and I looked around me and saw the trees, beautiful flowers blooming, birds were chirping, the sky was gorgeous that day. I was like, so much chaos going on in the world caused by humans. Humans do a lot of dark things to each other. Evil things! We can’t blame nature for COVID-19. We live in a beautiful world, the world is not a bad place. We made it into a bad place by the actions we do to each other. That is what inspired LoMhlaba. It was my way of respecting nature, everything that is beautiful and pure. This beautiful chant says: “never forget that this world is beautiful, despite what we do to each other”.

Q: How important it is for you to sing in Zulu?

A: Zulu is native to South Africa! For the longest time, I believed that to connect with other people around the world I had to sing in English. I realized that I needed to sing in my native tongue when I did the LoMhlaba collaboration with Cee ElAssaad. A lot of the House music that I was listening to featured a lot of African languages that I did not understand. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I could feel something. I just kept having this amazing feeling, the music, the lyrics, the chants, it was just so powerful. First of all, I am African, and the best way for me to reach out and make a powerful song for me is to use my native tongue. So I decided to take a risk. This collaboration was a very successful release, and it showed me that it could transcend. I went crazy when Adam Port played my song because he felt the vibe, he felt the emotion, lyrics, and melody even though he did not understand what was sung. Proving that listeners outside of Africa responded to a song sung in Zulu.

Q: Who are you into at the moment in regards to the South African dance music scene?

A: There are so many! This is hard to narrow down, you have to listen to Lemon & Herb, Kuba, Karyendesoul, Atmos Blaq. There is Culoe de Song and Black Coffee,  myself (laughs!), Vanco. I don’t even have a top 5 because I am so in love with music. Every day you listen to something new and you’re like whaaaaat! This could be endless and hard because there is just so much music being produced at the moment!

Q: Let’s talk about food now! Tell us the importance of Pap in South African food.

A: After music, food is my favorite thing! Pap is made out of maize meal (coarse flour made from maize). It is really delicious and very important in South African food. It is one of the most important starches. You can eat it for breakfast as porridge, lunch or dinner. It can be cooked thick, loose, or crumbly. You can use it as a side dish with Braai (grilled over coal) meats or BBQ meats.

Q: Your favorite Braai is?

A: For me, the best Braai has to have everything, it needs to have fish, beef, chicken, lamb. Braai needs to cater to everyone’s taste buds and needs. I don’t eat pork so I don’t mind when there’s no pork!

Q: Can you describe what Vetkoek is? 

A: It is basically like a donut, it is South African fried dough bread. It is so good.

Q: Do you eat Biltong?

A: Ah, yes! I love me some biltong! It is a way of eating spiced dried, cured meat.

Q: What is Chakalaka?

A: Chakalaka is like a cooked salsa. It is a spicy tomato and vegetable-based relish. You have it on the side and it just brings all the flavors together. You can eat it with bread, pap, stews, and curries.

Q: What makes a great Atchar?

A: I am not the biggest Atchar fan, it is like a pickled mango. You use unripe green mangoes and chilies. You can spread it on a Kota. 

Q: What is the difference between Bunny Chow and Kota?

A: There is a huge difference between Bunny Chows and Kotas. Bunny Chow comes from the area I am from, Durban in the  Kwazulu-Natal province. Durban has a strong Indian influence. Durban has the highest Indian population outside of India. A Bunny Chow consists of a hollowed-out loaf of white bread filled with meat or vegetable curry. In other parts of South Africa, such as Johannesburg they eat Kotas. Kota is a loose pronunciation of the word quarter. A Kota is a loaf or quarter loaf of bread cut in half stuffed with chips (french fries), eggs, atchar, bacon, or any other meat. It all depends on what you want on it. It is a huge delicious carbohydrate! You can say one is like a curry sandwich and the other is sort of like a burger!

Q: Do you like Malva pudding?

A: I am not a fan of malva pudding either! For me, it is a bit too rich. It is a sweet pudding made with apricot jam and it has a caramelized texture. I’ve yet to try a Malva pudding that captivates my taste buds, I haven’t given up on Malva pudding, just need to find the right one! 

Q: Your favorite wine produced in South Africa is?

A: My favorite wines are being produced in Cape Town. The red wines coming out of Stellenbosch are fantastic. Stellenbosch has great vineyards. I enjoy drinking red wine and eating a little bit of dark chocolate! 

Q: Red wine and dark chocolate, perfect ending! Thandi, thank you so much for talking to us!

A: Thank you for the invite and for letting me be part of your journey!

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