Madala Kunene sits at the overcrowded Piazza di Roma, one of the pseudo Italian-chic coffee shops at Johannesburg International airport. His face is gentle, his eyes clouded and distant. Beneath the flickering of a fashion channel from the television above his head, the KwaZulu-Natal musician seems out of place. He is on a stopover between Durban and Paris with his younger counterpart, the bassist Bernard Sibusiso Mndaweni. The relationship between the two men is brotherly after two decades of playing together; their thoughts, like their music, closely intertwined.
Uxolo, a new collection by Kunene and Mndaweni, is being launched in Johannesburg on Saturday, when the musicians will perform live. The album — the title meaning peace or forgiveness — is a collection of remastered tracks from their back catalogue, with four new tracks. Kunene also recently composed the music for the successful feature film Yesterday, and the pair have been touring Europe with Boyzie Cekwana’s dance piece Cut.
The music of Kunene and Mndaweni is steeped in traditional Zulu idioms and divination rhythms. It draws from elements of maskanda among other styles, yet settles in no distinct category. Kunene calls their music “Madala-line”. It has a strong sense of rootedness, evoking a distinct physical, cultural and spiritual space. His steel string guitar-playing is deeply rhythmical and repetitive, it is circularity like the movement of a gathering towards a place of celebration or mourning. Kunene’s voice is gritty, its cries rising and falling like supplication.
Kunene finally orders an expensive cappuccino and remarks, “once in a year”, a statement jarring with his later claim that in Europe “when we jump off at the airport, a Cadillac is there for us”.
It is one of the incongruities of Kunene’s and Mndaweni’s careers that they have performed frequently at clubs and festivals in Europe over the past decade, but have performed only a few times a year in South Africa, where they have received little recognition or radio exposure.
Times have been hard for the musicians, after the folding of their record label MELT 2000. However, the launch of Uxolo will also mark the relaunch of MELT 2000 as Melt Music Phase Two. The formerly British-based label, which has released artists such as Moses Molelekwa and Busi Mhlongo, went into liquidation in 2002, but will now be based in South Africa.
“I think Madala is one of the most underrated musicians in this country,” Robert Trunz, the Swiss label owner and producer, told me later. “When you go overseas a lot of people know Madala. It would be a beautiful thing for him to get recognition in South Africa. For me there’s nothing more pleasing than to launch an album with him and, at the same time, relaunch MELT.”
When the coffee shop becomes too noisy for us to continue the interview, we look for a quiet spot in the airport. After wandering through sterile passage ways, glaring with white light and marked with signs warning against loitering, Kunene suggests we sit down in the passage. “It’s the traditional way,” he says. However, instead of the archetypal tree, we sit on the floor beneath a Lufthansa sign. Beside us, a group of women in veils wait for their husbands in the Muslim prayer facilities. It is a strange, but somehow harmonious congregation.
For Kunene and Mndaweni, ritual and spirituality are ingrained in their music and way of life. Their music is inspired by their ancestral beliefs. “The ancestors are very important,” says Kunene. “Wherever we go their spirits are always around us, we’re always communicating with them.”
“What we realise is most of the people have forgotten their roots, so we have sinned … we’re asking the ancestors to forgive people,” says Mndaweni. “People are starting to realise their background, the use of the ancestors, because really we are living because of them, they are looking after us. That’s why we use this name Uxolo.”
“The words come from the heaven, always … sometimes from dreams in the night,” says Kunene.
Kunene’s lyrics are often inspired by traditional Zulu narratives — like the track Unogwaja, which tells the story of a rabbit who hears footsteps and fears its own death. “Our children don’t know nothing about the story. I’m trying to put it back into the song, because it’s no more around to us … this story my granny told to me,” says Kunene.
The sparse beauty of some of the tracks on Uxolo seems to intimately evoke the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal; its fecundity, moisture, sense of openness. “When we stay in the rural areas, we always walk through the mountains, and sometimes when we rehearse, we do go and rehearse in the mountains, so that’s how we relate the music with the atmosphere of the place,” says Kunene.
The violent history of the province of their birth has also left its mark on the musicians and their music.
“Now, it’s time for everybody to come together to stop fighting, everyone must love each other. That’s why we make this Uxolo,” says Kunene.
“This is not just about music, it’s about healing,” says Mndaweni.
It is time for the musicians to board their plane. We walk, lit by effulgence of banking adverts, past Piazza di Roma, Cafe di Roma and the Travellers Shebeen, decorated with angular, synthetic African sculptures. I ask Kunene and Mndaweni whether its painful that South African audiences haven’t accepted them.
“Eish, it’s very painful,” says Kunene. Mndaweni continues his sentence seamlessly: “Because it’s from home that you get your spirits and blessings.”