The Saturday Star, 19 January 2019
Yearning to learn pays off for Bala
He’s come a long way from his days as the curtain-raiser for his dad’s quartet
LOYISO Bala grew up thinking everyone could sing. His whole family did; mom, dad, older brother and sister.
There wasn’t any money in KwaNobuhle township outside the little town of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape for soccer balls, even less for rugby balls or cricket bats 39 years ago, so the Balas sang. Then tragedy struck, his father who had been poorly died and the children were passed from one relative to another; grannies and uncles who did what they could while they could afford it.
But it was his 19-year-old cousin Lwando Bantom who did the most. He worked at a garage filling cars, but he did everything he could to put food on the table and a roof over Loyiso and his older brother Zwai’s heads. Bantom was no ordinary pump attendant, he was chosen as the best in the country by Shell and he used his new-found fame to organise scholarships to South Africa’s pre-eminent music school – the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir.
It was tough. Zwai was the first black kid at the school in 1988, followed by Bala two years later. They were competing with their township education against other children who had had at it all, but their musical talent pulled them through.
When it was time to go to high school, Bala had four options, all scholarship funded; he chose St Stithian’s in Johannesburg. Zwai was already there and together with school mates Kabelo Mabalane and Tokollo Tshabalala would form the hit Kwaito-trio TKZee.
The trio helped the younger Bala launch his musical career, but he didn’t want to be a kwaito artist, he wanted to do R&B – people tried to talk him out of it, but he stood fast. Eventually he would perform with his older brother and baby brother Phelo as the Bala Brothers
When he turned 30 – at the pinnacle of his career, about to sign an American recording contract, he followed his heart again. “I was sitting in Scotland about to fly to the US, but instead I sat and I thought “is this how I want my life to go?
“I bought a ticket home. I finished my songs I still had to write, I found my purpose, I found God.”
“I thought about Lwando’s sacrifices, the schools I’d attended, the families of my schoolmates who’d put me up and shown me a side of life that I would never otherwise have known existed.”
His purpose and his gift of song was to serve others, so he went to bible college, at Rhema in Randburg. It was embarrassing, he was 30 sitting with youngsters in class, most of whom had seen him bump and grind in his music videos.
“The bible teaches us from the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” he remembered this week. His life didn’t fall apart, his fans didn’t shun him, instead he grew in other directions – as a multiple award-winning gospel singer and met his wife too.
He was still writing music, singing, presenting on TV, sitting on industry boards and raking in awards, but, as he puts it, he had developed a “yearning to learn”.
The next opportunity would be inspired by a meeting with his personal trainer at gym who had studied at Henley Business School Africa and graduated with an MBA. Bala was intrigued, but first he needed funding.
“I prayed and the Lord said, “have you applied?’ so I applied for the Post Graduate Diploma course and then a royalty cheque came in the post.
“I was the most scared person on the course, I was there with real business people, me who had never read through and integrated report, never knew how to even use Excel or work a spreadsheet, because as artists it had always been given to us – that’s what we paid managers for.”
Bala refused to give up, he persevered, studied hard and graduated with distinction. The yearning hadn’t subsided. One of the faculty suggested he try for an MBA.
By this stage he was doing some work for Trinity Broadcast Network, the biggest Christian TV service in the world, with more than 30 affiliates beaming good news gospel programming from sermons to documentaries, films and even children’s programmes to more than 2-billion people across every continent in the world every day.
He applied and was accepted and then applied for a scholarship and won the Business School’s Johnny Clegg scholarship. Bala was working throughout, performing, presenting TV shows on TBN and the SABC, but he’d already started studying TBN as part of his course work for the MBA – but he never knew how the one would end up opening the doors to the other.
“It’s a lot of work, you have to be consistent, otherwise you fall behind, but then I started to feel the rewards, starting to get really great marks.”
That’s when he started asking the question, what was the point of it all, what would it eventually amount to? He prayed.
“It was a matter of saying let me not start any business, stuff will reveal itself in time,” he said, “I must just keep serving, coming to church and singing, going to shows…”
His prayers were answered when Leon Schoeman, TBN’s chief content officer and channel director for the UK, Europe and Africa approached him.
“He said to me, ‘for the last seven months I’ve been waiting for someone that we can appoint. I’ve watched you grown, I watched you serve here for the last three years where you can, your love for the media and now with your MBA it’s a no-brainer for me.”
This week, Bala was appointed channel director for TBN in Africa. His job is to lead the team, create content, define strategies and implement it, develop new business models and markets.
He’s come a long way from being the curtain raiser for his dad’s family quartet singing at weddings and funerals at KwaNobuhle, but he has no plans to stop singing any time soon.