Restlessness was Mlahleni David Ngcobo’s essential gesture. Stubborn and immensely gifted, his boyhood desire was to sing and tell the stories of the KwaZulu-Natal sugarcane belt through his guitar. This he would later do with distinction over two decades and dominate the Radio Zulu airwaves (now Ukhozi FM), singing the folk songs rooted in a threatened Zulu heritage.
In his youth he met his childhood hero, John Bhengu, popularly known as Phuzushukela; stayed with him in Johannesburg; and even recorded with the maskandi icon. “He affectionately called me inkonyane lami. He was my mentor and set the bar pretty high for me,” Ngcobo said in an interview a few months before he died.
Ngcobo first left home at 13 to work in a nearby sugarcane field whose white owner was commonly known as Madlebe. This is when he found an outlet in music, first strumming an oil-can guitar he had made himself. “The traditional guitar was a big thing in the sugarcane belt. I was introduced to styles from Nongoma in the north, the Eastern Cape, and many places. I knew the guitar was in my blood.”
He bought his first guitar with his first salary, which was R3.50 a month. His maternal uncle, Makhendle Zungu, taught Ngcobo guitar basics; not his father, Bhojwane, who also played Zulu traditional guitar. He spent a great deal of his childhood at his mother, Hawukeleni’s, home at Mgazini village. That his parents were not married was a major source of bitterness throughout his life — another lasting source of alienation.
When we last spoke in May at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), where I was a resident, Ngcobo shared a song on this theme: Sengithwele Kanzima/I am Heavy-Laden. “The fact of my being born out of wedlock, caused a great deal of imbalance in my life. It’s a lasting wound on your forehead. It puts your life on a frightening spin. What consoles me is that I enjoy the biggest protection of my maternal ancestors,” he told me.
Ngcobo believes a series of mishaps for almost three decades can be seen within this existential context. “I have survived an assassination [attempt] and an electrocution accident, thanks to God and my ancestors.”
Popularly known as Piki Nefosholo, his stage name, Ngcobo died of Covid-19-related complications last week, aged 70.
Traditional Zulu music, commonly called maskandi, had such compelling power for him: Music was his life. “No white man, no uncle, no brother brought me to Jo’burg: it’s the guitar that brought me here. Destiny made me abandon countryside limitations, its village gossip and such nonsense,” he said. Some members of Ngcobo’s family mistook his artistic ambitions for outright misdirection; his riffs brought a lasting rift.
But his sense of alienation fed his trenchant love of a cultural life “lost” when he rebelled against the parochial Zululand countryside of his childhood. That is why the golden fire in his often-melancholic songs is a bitter-sweet spiritual homecoming of sorts. Everyone who has recently listened to his music agrees — Ngcobo was one of the last in the stellar list of pioneers in modern rural Zulu music. At the helm was John “Phuzushukela” Bhengu, who was the first artist to record a maskandi album in 1955.
“I hate that I am now the last of the lot, since I came just after David,” maskandi legend Thwalofu Khoza said. He had just returned dejected from the Umfolozi forest in search of his four missing cattle. “I hope my cows were not stolen. Ngikhathele nkabi yami.”
Ngcobo said he first met Thwalofu in 1962 at the Tongaat Sugar Mill. “This was the first time I performed for a big crowd. Thwalofu came on stage and played my guitar a bit. I was then taken to several sugarcane mills at Darnall, Ixopo, Mthunzini, Emkhomazi et cetera. The sugarcane fields had been the first place where I had learned several guitar styles with deep roots in rural KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.”
That Ngcobo got his big public showing in the sugarcane fields was perhaps apt. This is where, as a teenager he had first heard different guitar dialects, representing many parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. In his youth, Bhekitshe Shabalala, a member of Izintombi Zesimanje Manje, a mbaqanga group led by Irene Mawela and Sannah Mnguni had left a big mark when they performed at Mandeni. Listening to Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde a few years later, also confirmed Ngcobo’s passion for the stage.
In 1963 he left home to work as a gardener in Durban. He had an accidental encounter with Ntamoyenkunzi Mchunu, a leading maskandi artist at the time. “Destiny called. I saw him by chance and followed him as he played his guitar. Ntamoyenkunzi then stopped and asked if I liked and played the guitar. He challenged me to prove it. The rest is history,” he said.
In 1965, Ngcobo was part of a recording of Mchunu by renowned talent scout and composer Strike Vilakazi. “I was only 14, and I was not even allowed to enter Ematsheni beer hall in the city, where Ntamoyenkunzi was going that day,” he said. “The recording gave me the guts to go solo. In 1966 the SABC recorded me in their Durban studios after the Radio Zulu announcer Douglas Mfeka saw me playing my guitar in a Durban Corporation bus. What an exciting day: many famous announcers like KE Masinga, Bawinile Mahlangu and Thokozani Nene came over, and motivated me.”
He recorded six songs that day. The opening with Zala Thina, is a pithy, Zulu warrior-like chant with memorable repetitive phrasing and resonant bass lines. Ngcobo would later reunite with Ntamoyenkunzi in 1972 when they both performed at a festival celebrating the official coronation of the late Zulu king in Durban in 1972. “At the time I had begun to compose amahubo and pay tribute to Zulu kings. Thokozani Nene was one of the people who encouraged me to do this,” he said.
At JIAS, ethnomusicologist Dr Sipho Sithole said that he sensed in Ngcobo a possible influence for some of the songs of the late maskandi virtuoso, Mfazomnyama. “Ngcobo is the keeper of a distinct Zulu guitar sound that is fast disappearing,” said opera singer and chief executive of the Playhouse Company in Durban, Linda Bukhosini.
Andy Innes, a composer, and producer who formerly was music director of the late Johnny Clegg’s band agrees. “He was one of those rare gems, he kept the original traditional Zulu style. Strains of Phuzushukela make Ngcobo one of an undiluted exponent of a rich Zulu guitar tradition of old. Sadly, he was marginalised by an industry where many like him are not respected in favour of cheap American imports.”
Ngcobo’s son, Vusi Ngcobo, 30, said his family would do its best to keep his memory alive. “Our dad loved this country and cared for traditional African music and heritage.”
Ngcobo is survived by four children and nine grandchildren.