Bringer of fire lights the stage
It’s a wet and humid Durban night in the middle of January when Dladla Mshunqisi finally makes an appearance at the Rich nightclub in Springfield.
He works his way through the crowd with an entourage who appear to be his dancers and a DJ. He stops to acknowledge those calling for his attention with his respectful, easy manner.
It’s past 2am and, even at this late hour, he shows no sign of fatigue.
He appears to be in his element with the distinctive glow of a pre-party nap.
He’s in no rush and has the air of someone unphased and unaffected by his own celebrity. We’re in Durban, after all, and even those who acknowledge his presence and that of other celebrities in the room only do so for only a beat before returning their attention to the drinks.
By the time he hits the stage, he does so for an audience whose anticipation has not only become palpable but also loud and slurred because of intoxication. The floor is littered with shards of glass and the mess of mopped-up accidents.
What’s immediately striking is that Dladla is not a glutton for attention. He assumes the role of a hype-man, belting out his signature “gimmicks” over some of his own music and that of his colleagues, while his dancers take to the main stage. Even as he warms up for his turn at the centre, his energy alone seems to activate the room. He seems aware of and rather bashful about being a legend and giving the impression that, beyond these surroundings, he’s far more reserved.
“It was something that was bound to happen; it’s something that I was expecting” is how Dladla describes both his rise to the top of the charts and his shift from being a supporting artist in his Afrotainment stable.
After more than a week of trying, we finally managed to gain time in his schedule for a phone conversation. Talking to him, he gives off the same warmth that he effortlessly dispenses on stage. The KwaMashu-raised superstar’s exchange of pleasantries are drawn out as if for the pleasure of conversation and not merely to give information.
“Looking at where I’m coming from to where I am now, from being featured in people’s songs and in people’s albums to where I have released my own project, has been the best. I’m enjoying every moment. I have always had that entertainer in me.
“Whenever there’s a gap at the function I am at, isidinga ivibe ethile, ngithatha leyo platform ngithathe i-mic and I entertain people. These gimmicks are something I have been doing from high school.”
Many Durbanites came to know of Dladla long before his break-out hit Memeza with DJ Benny Maverick. Before taking to music professionally, he was something of an urban legend. He was that guy who would often show up behind the mic at imicimbi (cultural gatherings) and parties of all kinds around the city, initiating call-and-response chants, which he refers to as amagimmick.
In the following months, these chants would then take on a life of their own among partygoers in the Durban social scene.
The most popular of these went: “Ngoba mina ngiyaygibela iNavara (iNavara)/ Ngoba mina ngiyaz’phuzela iSavannah (iSavannah)/ Ngoba mina ngiyazigroovela eHavana (eHavana) / Ngoba mina ngyaz’gqokela iCarvella (iCarvella)/ iNavara (iNavara)/ iSavannah (iSavannah)/ eHavana (eHavana)/ iCarvella (iCarvella). Weh ma (weh ma)”.
In this rhyme, which sadly did not make the cut on his album, he speaks about a particular type of provincial affluence. Lightheartedly, he brags about the car he drives, his choice of drink, the Durban club he attends and the shoes he can afford, to which the crowd responds by repeating each brand he name-drops.
His voice rises like that of a praise poet and, if you had your back to him, you would be excused for thinking that it was a woman leading the chant. Something about his voice defies the confines of gender.
It’s worth noting that the impromptu performance at a cultural gathering was not invented by Dladla. It has always been there — after food has been served and umqombothi (or harder liquor) is flowing, someone exuding a newfound bravery would start a similarly cheerful chant and, with the backing of other attendees, show off their mastery of ingoma.
In the Durban party scene, there is a modern take on this — a ring forms around a good dancer and those around him hype him up.
Describing how he went from Anele Dladla to Dladla Mshunqisi, he delves into the overarching theme of his music and his public persona — what he terms “umshunqo” — which is also the title of his debut album. Umshunqo in isiZulu refers to flames and his stage name Dladla implies he is the producer of these flames.
“We used to call each other by our surnames in high school and, when we would go out as a group, there’s a girl who would say, ‘uzofika umshu-nqisi, uyeza umshunqo kuzosuka uthuli’ [Mshunqisi is on his way, he’s bringing the fire].”
For Dladla, entertaining is spiritual. “When I go on stage, I don’t say I’m performing, I say ‘Ngiyashunqisa’ and there’s a difference compared to a person who gets on stage to perform, who is an artist who has been booked. My mission is different. I’m there to interact with them. Many of my songs demand my audience to respond. If I say ‘Ngizomemeza’, they must respond ‘Memeza’. I have taken gimmicks and made ingoma with them.”
Umshunqo is difficult to place. Listening to his album, Dladla says a lot by saying very little. His lyrics are simple but, when looked at through a lens informed by place, they have meaning.
In the same way as he speaks for the pleasure of speaking, his lyrics come from an innate understanding of language.
“I can’t say I have influences. I’m inspired by the love of ingoma, the love of igqom, the love of the beat. The words and the gimmicks just come to me. I can’t say there’s something that I even write.
“My manager at Afrotainment says, ‘uDladla ulinda isithunywa somshunqo [waits for the ancestor that governs umshunqo to possess him]. It’s not just any song that I’ll jump on to. It needs to take a hold of me for me to know that a beat is talking to me.”
When asked whether he deliberately set out to make gqom, or whether there were other vehicles he would have preferred, he replies: “I can’t say gqom music was my first choice. If you listen to Memeza, you can pick up it’s a different sound to gqom. Sometimes I’ll play a Black Coffee song and I notice my gimmicks also fit there too even though it’s tribal house.
“The beat must speak to the one that is inside me in order to release umshunqo that dwells there. In my album you’ll notice this mix. I’m not held down by gqom; I didn’t want to release a gqom album.”
When he speaks about his high school days, to which he traces the birth of umshunqo, he reminisces about this period of his life fondly, like one who enjoys and honours his place in the collective.
He does the same when he speaks about his Afrotainment colleagues; he regards them as family.
This comes up when discussing the next phase of his career. He says he’s excited to return to a supporting role and allow his stablemates time to shine.
“I’m still going to give people more of umshunqo. But this year we’re focusing on Tipcee’s album and supporting her. I’ll be getting a lot of features in people’s songs. I don’t think I’ll release anything soon. There are more songs in Umshunqo that still I believe deserve a push.
“Amalukuluku really carried me and now I’m focusing on Thutha. My album is very hot. For the next year or two, it can potentially carry me well because a lot of work went into it.”
Calling his album star-studded would be an understatement. All the songs feature other artists. On Amalukuluku, he features Professor, who seldom touches songs without turning them to gold. On Thutha, he features Beast and Spiritbanger.
Considering the choices on his album and his persona, two scenarios are possible — he’s either extremely passionate about collaboration or this is the mark of an artist still finding his feet and learning to trust his own voice in a stable full of talent.