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ALBUM REVIEW: “King of the Zulu Guitar, Vol. 1” by Madala Kunene

This album review was written by Motheo Mofokeng

The name Madala Kunene evokes awe and reverence amongst many contemporary artists in the country, particularly those in the jazz and folk scene.

Musicians such as the eminent Nduduzo Makhathini, Banda Banda and Sibusile Xaba have sung their praises and paid the musical respects to him.

And while he is such a highly revered musical figure amongst his contemporaries, he remains relatively unknown to the South African public.

What drew me to his music was listening to him deliver at the Fort Hare Music School where he described various aspects of his musical upbringing and development, the musicians he worked with, such as pianist Bheki Mseleku.

Seated with his six-string Taxamine guitar on his lap, he would intermittently break into song whilst talking to the audience, something which never fell short of captivating their attention. Where words failed to describe, the music intervened delightedly.

Now Madala’s music defies categorizations of genre. One could say he is a Maskandi guitarist, but that would itself be scant to encapsulate the wide range of musical influences inherent in his playing style, which he describes as “Madalaline”.

His guitar style draws from the well of the Maskandi guitar tradition, as well as ancient Zulu traditional music forms such as “Amahubo”, whilst at the same time, borrowing extensively from the Delta Blues guitar tradition and the modern jazz tradition as well, which forms part of his musical upbringing as a child from Umkhumbane near Durban.

All of this together culminates into a potpourri of an intensely complex, yet richly beautiful art with deeply spiritual undertones that have become signature to his musical style.

It is this album’s provocative title that elicited my attention to listen to it. Self-styled “The King of Zulu Guitar, Vol. 1”, it was recorded in 1995 by MELT Records, a year into the commencement of a newly-elected democratic dispensation, fresh from the wounds of apartheid.

However, what is so unconventional about this album is how it was not recorded in a studio, but recorded outdoors near the riverbanks of his home in KwaZulu-Natal.

It is the ambience of the great outdoors that makes this music intensely soothing and rich to the ear. One can almost close their eyes and wallow themselves into a secluded village in the outskirts of urban KwaZulu-Natal.

The first track kicks off with a casual conversation between the producer, artists Pops Mohamed and Busi Mhlongo. However what starts off as a casual conversation filled with banter and laughter develops into an intricate sonic journey, with somber palettes of introspection and contemplation at first, to the sound of barking dogs and harking storks at the background, which both compete with the amplified guitar for the attention of the listener.

Then like its’ title Indiza (Airplane) suggests, it takes flight into a trance-like melodic interplay in the key of F, leaving the rest to the listener to absorb the beauty at play. I stand up and with my two left feet, I sway to the rhythm that is gently mapped in 6/8 time, trying to form a loose waltz in that time.

After seven minutes, Madala comes in with his mellow voice to the sound of an airplane. As though he noticed its rather commanding sound, he proceeds to sing “Bhanoyi, Bhanoyi, o bong phatela maswidi, o bong phatela makhekhe”, which means “Airplane, please return to me with sweets and cakes.”

I suspect it is how the first song’s title “Indiza” came to mind. After 12 minutes, the song comes to an end, leaving the audience purely in awe of what they’ve just heard.

The next song, kicks off from the remnants of the previous one, in a loosely defined melodic interplay that bears the resemblance of a Delta Blues guitar style of play, with bluesy overtones that beckon the sound of the wailing guitars of the Mississippi River. The sweet chirping of the birds gives a fitting ambience to the music being offered.

The song then develops into an intricate trance-like melody after two minutes. Titled Nqo Nqo Nqu, it is the longest of the album’s songs, clocking in at 16 minutes and 53 seconds. From the lyrics, the song is about neglect, loss and turmoil, perhaps hinting at the internecine violence that was happening at the region, that was largely fueled by the IFP-ANC feud which continued to spill over to the Mandela years, leaving fresh wounds to those who witnessed this abrupt turmoil.

Madala moans and groans, beckoning the people to put an end to the unnecessary violence and bloodshed; lives have been shed and irretrievable cattle has been lost. He vocalizes to the point of almost crying, which is highly discernible in this record.

From the remnants of this tentative weeping, he fashions a rhythmic accompaniment with his voice to his guitar playing, which becomes softer and softer, slower and slower, indicating that the song is coming to an end.

The next song, titled Amnandi Amasi kicks off with the sound of the riverbanks eerily recognizable. The Maskandi influences become easily discernible from his playing. Whilst playing an upbeat two-chord pattern, he bellows to imitate the sound of a cow, then bleats ferociously to imitate the sound of a sheep, then proceeds to sing almost infectiously, lamenting the absence of cattle at his kraal to milk in order to make amasi (sour milk), which is usually eaten with maize meal, jokingly lamenting that perhaps Joburg amasi is nicer than KZN amasi. To my admittance, this is a personal favorite from this album.

The song comes to an end to a light applause from the small audience, which is carried over to the next song Khono Thwele which plays over the sound of a whispered conversation between two children. The song starts off in an almost meditative manner, shaped by the soft translucent guitar of Madala Kunene accompanied by the sounds of veteran percussionist Mabi Thobejane who eagerly joins him with his plethora of percussion alongside.

The song then stops midway, then changes rhythm into a groovy danceable I-II based riff, which Mabi complements with his shakers, Jew’s harp and eventually Malombo drums (which catapulted him into stardom alongside Phillip Tabane in the 1970s).

The audience then joins in, clapping to the beat that has been established. The song becomes a jubilant celebration, far detached from its’ introduction and the actual title itself, but it then returns to its’ introspective introduction, from the remnants of jubilance, ending in a resolute yet celebratory manner.

The next song Cabazini starts off with a guitar sound that is discernibly Malian in influence, pointing to the West African guitar blues tradition of the eminent Ali Farka Toure. The song continues in a II-I harmonic pattern that is indicated by a 6/4 rhythmic pattern by both Madala and Mabi, to the sound of a rumbling tractor at the background. It then takes a different form into the three minute mark, whilst retaining the harmonic sequence, but takes a 4/4 rhythmic pattern. The song is brief and comes to an end after five minutes.

The next song Apartheid is one that stands out as well, particularly due to the historical era which it is recorded. In this song, Madala pours out his contempt and disgust at the system of apartheid which discriminated against the people of his ilk. He starts off with a laughter laced with irony and reflection, then he sings “Ayihlekisi, ayihlekisi bo. Ngiyahleka ngoba namhlanje“, aware of the irony in his laughter.

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He confesses his joy at the formal end of apartheid, but then hesitantly asks whether it’s still present. He then begins to exorcise it, chasing its’ remnants away in as though he was aware that the formal end of apartheid did not signify the end of its’ subtle mechanisms that have been ingrained into society.

He pours out his hatred for discrimination of all kinds, to the accompaniment of his lush guitar harmonies and the subtle percussion of Mabi Thobejane. The memories of apartheid remain fresh in the psyche of the oppressed, yet Madala’s intervention offers a meditative form of healing from the pain through the music.

The next song Gumbela commences with the unmistakable sound of a mouth bow reed in the tone of F, however with overtones in between. The instrument seems to be manned by Madala himself, who proceeds to play the instrument throughout to the sound of young children who sing an almost childlike melody.

Madala then joins the children in song, the song then develops into a chant as Mabi steps in. He chants in overtones like a diviner possessed by the otherworldly. The children laugh instinctively as they witness him, the song comes to an end in this jovial fashion as Mabi hints to the producer “I hope you got it” concluding what was a beautiful sonic experience captured in recording format.

The beauty of this recording lies in the fact that it was recorded in a communal atmosphere of a village where the music was instinctively sung by all participants, and the distinction between performer and audience were blurred. The procedural technicalities of studio recording were almost absent in this recording as it was taped all in one take. The jovial banter, laughter and conversation formed integral to the sound-making of this album and thus needed not to be removed during the mastering and editing process.

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To me, this encapsulates the sheer strength and artistic prowess of Madala Kunene, who has carried and continues to carry in his back the rich sonorities of the indigenous Zulu guitar tradition and in overall, the indigenous Southern African music-making experience. If there is anyone fitting of that apt title itself, look no further than the man himself: Madala Kunene: KING OF THE ZULU GUITAR.

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