Although maskandi legend Phuzekhemisi loves Mroza’s hit Van Damme, its allusion to waging war flies over his head. The song speaks about the slaying of a metaphorical Jean-Claude van Damme, which the artist says refers to any challenge one may be facing.
“Mroza’s is a good song but back then [in the early 1990s], you’d never speak of killing someone and have a hit because it was the era of violence and we were trying to prevent that,” says Phuzekhemisi, whose early career was often disrupted by the violence that preceded a democratic South Africa.
These days, however, war and violence of the direct kind have seemingly taken over the music genre, with two people dying in the aftermath of gun violence at Saturday’s Nqokotho Music Festival at Curries Fountain in Durban.
“This situation, I think, started in the early 2000s, when the likes of Mgqumeni [Khumalo, a musician who died in 2009] were still alive,” says maskandi musician Comeladies Mtolo. “But now there are actual east and west cliques.
“In maskandi there are all these different styles of tuning, but most of the people that are fighting are all playing isishameni, a tuning style popular in the south of the Tugela River.
“Sometimes they fight over fashion, who is dressed like who, and things of that sort.”
Mtolo says Saturday’s violence may have been the result of the taunting of Khuzani Mpungose by the fans of rival singer Igcokama Elisha (Mthandeni Manqele).
Mpungose is gap-toothed and therefore sings with a lisp, making him easy fodder for rival fans. “Look, I wasn’t there but witnesses say Igcokama’s fans came to the side of the stage and said: ‘Say “sa’’ to Mpu-ngose while he sang,’” says Mtolo.
Five people were shot in the resulting scuffle, two of whom died later from their wounds.
By several accounts, maskandi is a genre in flux, a little removed from the days when musicians would claim to be have been inspired by divine callings and motivated by building unity. But elements of machoism seem built into the music.
For example, Phuzekhemisi no Khethani’s Amagama Akho (released in 1992) warns of the consequences of careless speech, asserting a sense of pride in how young men from Mkhomazi carry themselves.
“When you talk about who you are, that was just showing pride in where you are from, but now people misrepresent that,” says Phuzekhemisi.
He is among the genre’s elder statesmen who are not impressed with the apparent new flavours of the moment. “Part of the reason the music is lacklustre now is because everybody is copying Mgqumeni or whatever’s hot,” he says from Illovo on the KZN South Coast.
“Why would I buy a fake Mgqumeni when I have a real one in the house? I think what could quell the violence is if the singers learned to play for themselves, because it leads to mistrust if you play for two different artists and the [one] guy scores a hit and the other one doesn’t.”
Durban-based maskandi musician Bhekizenzo Cele agrees with Phuzekhemisi, saying that, of late, guitar mastery has fallen by the wayside. “Playing has been looked down upon,” he says, “like it’s an uneducated person’s game or something.”
The role of the producer, so vital in shaping the sound of what came to be known as maskandi, has been made redundant by the crop of new singer-producer-managers — all rolled into one. “I was produced by West Nkosi for years. I have 22 gold discs. We went gold when gold was 50 000 copies,” says Phuzekhemisi with a hint of pride.
He says that, although the sound of maskandi is changing, the influence of mbaqanga is welded into the music’s DNA, although it has never been as overbearing as it is now.
“It was mbaqanga that raised our skill set because you could never be a maskandi player without having done your tutelage under an mbaqanga group,” he says.
“Thwalofu [of Uthwalofu Namankentshane fame] came up under Soul Brothers. Ihashi Elimhlophe came up under Soul Brothers. I came up under Special Five and Kati Elimnyama. They produced us. Bhekumuzi [Luthuli] came up under Abangani, which was with Tom Mkhize from around here in Mkhomazi,” he relates.
“Phuzushukela [the first recorded maskandi artist] is associated with Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje under Vala Nzimande.”
The roots of maskandi, it seems, are deep and underdocumented. Most studies of the music fail in their earnest anthropological approach that does not take into account the extent of black mobility and the fluidity of ideas, even under the oppression of colonialism.
In a recent radio appearance on 702, Johannesburg (via Bergville) guitarist Manqobizizwe Ncala broadened the roots of the terms maskandi and maskanda to possibly involve the masganda, a movement of musicians in colonial-era Zimbabwe who mimicked guitar picking from the cowboy characters they saw in early 20th-century westerns.
But Ncala was reluctant to let that thread take us where it may, cautiously reverting to the more popularly accepted narrative that maskandi has its roots in the Afrikaans term for musician, musikant. “What I know is that masganda culture also involved dancing,” says Ncala. “Maskandi has its roots in ingoma, which is dancing, drumming and singing.”
In a sense, Ncala is maskandi’s renaissance man, who holds its ideals dear while trying to reconfigure it anew. Like many guitar players of yore, Ncala regards his gifts as being bequeathed to him by his ancestors, in his case his musician grandfather.
“I had never listened to maskandi before 2012,” says the former telecoms engineer. “My dad played the blues and other things. I was into house music and Afro stuff. In my vision, my grandfather didn’t specify that I should play maskandi. I got into it from buying a compilation of Phuzekhemisi songs called Colours of Africa.
“I felt a spiritual event when that happened. I could play jazz and everything, but I was intrigued by the maskandi technique.”
Ncala went on to study the masters, Phuzekhemisi, Ihashi Elimhlophe and Mfaz ’Omnyama, who, in an antiviolence gesture in the Nineties, collaborated as part of the supergroup Isixaxa Mbiji.
“I studied their playing style, their personae and the content of their music. You read a lot into the personality of the man based on his lyrics and how he sings them, the topics he chooses. That’s how I felt I could manifest best as a maskandi artist.”
Although Ncala now teaches music from his Midrand base, it is the vision of his band that seems to be his driving force.
“As my grandfather revealed it to me: I am playing guitar, an Afrikaans guy is playing the concertina, a Xitsonga man is playing bass guitar. The keyboardist is from the North West (aMotswana), a coloured woman is on backing vocals and an Englishman is on drums. Some of my songs are specifically for black people and the others for society as a whole,” he says.
Ncala says he has only been able to field this line-up on a few occasions and is yet to find the permanent members of his envisioned band. “I dream the songs; I sit with the people in dreams. They inform how I hold the guitar, the picking style and so on. “
In the idyll of his music studio, Ncala seems a world removed from the stadiums of KwaZulu-Natal, where metaphors change at the drop of a hat, and you might die for laughing at the gap in someone’s smile.