Lulu Dikana stands by her special sound
Almost everything that could go wrong in the lead-up to Lulu Dikana's sophomore album, This is The Life, did go wrong.
Her father, jazz drummer Vuyisile "Viva" Dikana, died at the beginning of 2009. Then, almost immediately after he was buried, she fell ill rather mysteriously with a condition she had never heard of before.
The older sister of another singing sensation, Zonke, was diagnosed with oesophageal perforation, which occurs when there is a hole in the oesophagus.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be as serious as that," says the 33-year-old Dikana.
She speculates that it could have been aggravated by passive smoke during her time at the Barnyard Theatre in 2007 and 2008, working on the Hot Chocolate production.
Ironically, we're sitting in the smoking area of the packed Doppio Zero restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg, as all other tables are occupied or reserved.
"We had spent two weeks in Port Elizabeth, where we buried my dad. On my way back to Johannesburg I fell so ill that I had to be carried in a wheelchair straight from the plane to hospital.
"I was so grief-stricken and had my guard down, which I never allow. I remember trying to drink and eat something and choking. I could speak, but I coughed a lot," she says as she orders a pot of green tea and a slice of chocolate cake, which she says is way too big.
Somehow the Highveld storm outside fits in well with the doom and gloom she is describing.
The song Walking Miracle sums up the few months she had to spend in hospital. She says during that period she was as thin as a stick.
In the song, which is rather more upbeat than the melancholy of a three-month hospital stay, she sings: "Lying on that bed. How did I get there? Lots of questions on my mind weighing me down. Am I going to make it? What do I need to do? Then I remembered I have this word in me. I'm a walking miracle."
But Lulu, real name Lungisa, recuperated. When she had fully recovered, she set about getting her stop-start career firmly back on solid ground.
Her debut album, My Diary, My Thoughts, featuring the lead single, Life & Death, disappointingly received little promotion.
Her departure from Universal Music to TMP, which also looks after Zonke, is perhaps her best career decision to date. She wasn't going to be told to write and sing radio-friendly bubble gum music - she wanted a soulful sound.
Tumi Mokwena bought her out of her three-album deal with Universal, put her in a studio in Cape Town and when she was done perfecting it, sent the album to the US to be mastered by Herb Powers Jnr, who has worked on Lalah Hathaway's Self Portrait album.
Hathaway's album was the yardstick, Lulu says. She "cringes" when she hears songs off her "experimental" first album.
She' s happy talking about the new release.
"I love this album. I am talking about the love I have for God and the love I have for my fellow man. I've just poured my heart into it. That's all I can do."
We talk about people having remarked that the siblings (Zonke has been nominated for three Samas for her album Ina Ethe) sound American. She says they don't try to, but their sound is influenced by parents who enjoyed listening to singers including Barry White, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Lenny Williams and Diana Ross.
Is there any chance the sisters might work together in the future?
"We would never record anything together. I know she' ll always want to change something. I' m sure it wouldn't be that bad, but we' re not ready for it . We' re just not keen," she says, laughing.
Most singers would be happy to put music as steady and assured as Dikana's on an album. Songs including the title track This Is The Life, He Loves Me, Saviour and the luscious Voice Of Love are examples of what should be on heavy rotation on local airwaves, but they are not what most radio stations are playing.