Friday, 17 October 2014

Madala Kunene Performs Carnegie Hall

Madala Kunene is one of South Africa’s most musically accomplished sons. He is a guitarist, singer, a songwriter, a composer and a musical anthropologist whose native rhythms cross the musical lines between jazz and Nguni folk blues. Affectionately known as Bafo (which means brother) his sound has become a staple diet on music stages across South Africa for well over five decades and his dexterity on the six string has earned him the title of King of the Zulu Guitar.

Kunene was born in the culturally vibrant black suburb of Mkhumbane (later known as Cator Manor), in 1951 just outside of Durban. The son of a carpenter and a working mother, he was raised by his grandmother who was a dedicated academic and school teacher.

Madala first got a whiff of the blues via the small quartet which was run and lead by his father. Almost daily they would practice in the Kunene yard and even write their own songs to perform at the local Mkhumbane venues over the weekends. It is this that lead to Kunene having a good ear for music from an early age. “I didn’t notice it at the time but it was something that made a strong impression on me,” says Kunene. “Especially seeing my father outside of the role of being a parent and enjoying it so much. It made me understand the transformative power of music.”

It those formative years, Madala would also show the rebellious spirit that has become part and parcel of the DNA of his music by quitting school and instead electing to forge his own path. “It was not easy decision but even from that early age I knew that I wanted to communicate in a different way and that being an academic was not my destiny,” he notes.

In 1959 under the tightening grip of Apartheid’s laws, Madala, his family and many others in Mkhumbane were up-rooted from their homes, stripped of their possessions and then moved to the then relatively new township of KwaMashu. This was the first time that Kunene came face to face with the tyranny of the Apartheid state – a tug of war that would be a personal imposition on him for the next 35 years. Speaking about this Kunene describes the forced removals as an audacious attempt at erasing the cultural memories of an entire community. “When they moved us you didn’t even move with your neighbors. You were all located in different areas so all those people we knew and loved, we never got to see some of them ever again. It was not just moving us physically but it was moving the world as we knew it”

It’s these types of incidents that have both fuelled and informed Madala’s musical output. This desire to revive memory is part and parcel of his musical arsenal and is expressed sincerely as Kunene blends up-tempo guitar synths with melancholic bluesy lyrics – resulting in a contemplative yet entertaining musical concoction.

At the age of 7, Kunene made his own guitar, a four-string made from oil tins, fishing line and wood. Soon after, Madala’s first band The Amanikapeni (loosely translated to give a penny) was formed. Kunene began to hone and fine tune his craft on the streets of Durban where each day he would walk 8km with his band to bask and hustle. Then, his musical repertoire was made up mostly of Beatles songs and American jazz standards.

In the years that followed Madala started to gain notoriety as a top guitar marksmen. But this love for music often was at odds with his other passion – football. A fierce soccer player, Kunene struck fear into the hearts opposing sides as key player for the African Wanderers side of the 70’s and early 80s.

Around 1978 encouraged by the late great Sandile Shange and Duzi Mahlobo, Kunene began to formulate his concept of blending intricate jazz patterns with traditional Zulu musical structures and Nguni folklore lyrics. This blend has become the central distinguishing characteristic of Madala’s music – known as the Madalaline. It has since been studied by academics and included as course material in musical classes. “You don’t have to take on too much responsibility or to play too many chords. Just play what feels right for the mood and the moment,” says Kunene. “The Madalaline is about how your work with the guitar and what kind of life experience you bring to it.”

Following his retirement from professional football after a recurring knee injury, Madala Kunene was able to focus more fully on his musical output. In 1981 Kunene found a partner and collaborator in Saxaphonist Elias Ngindi with whom he joined up to form Izanusi. The outfit would be Madala’s first major foray into original compositions. In the 80s the cultural lines in South Africa were also being blurred and venues started to open up a little more for previously marginalised musicians, The Izanusi would often perform in public spaces and old age homes building an audience for themselves wherever they could. But this was not without its challenges often the police would barge into rehearsals, calling the sessions illegal gatherings before destroying the musicians’ instruments. Despite this, the tests only served to strengthen Madala’s resolve in the urgency of what he had to say.

Madala’s friendship with guitar master Sipho Gumende was a turning point and with Gumede they travelled to Johannesburg where Kunene would start to tour professionally for the first time, gracing stages with musicians such as Doc Mthalane, and longtime friend and partner in crime Busi Mhlongo.

In 1988 Kunene embarked on a solo career and after a three year stint working on and off with troupe Woza Afrika, this blues troubadour was offered a solo record deal by B+W records (later knows as M.E.L.T 2000) and under the label featured on a litany of complilations including Freedom Countdownproduced by Sipho Gumede in as well as Healers Brew along with Aito Moreira. This was the first time Bafo worked extensively in a defined studio environment recording music.

In late 1995 Madala’s first album Konko man (which means strong man) was released. Produced by folk legend, Pops Mohamed, Konko man features a list of musicians that reads like the who’s who of Mzansi’s Nguni blues scene. Including Sipho Gumede, Mabi Thobejane, Busi Mhlongo, Mandla Mgabhi and Mandla Masuku. Konko man, covers themes as varied as displacement and unease at the height of South Africa’s transitions into democracy. This record was largely ignored by mainstream media, failing to grapple with Kunene’s eclectic short-stop finger work style. However it gained traction via live shows and soon became a hit and is now known as the crown jewel in Kunene’s discography. I am surprised by how people still look to that album as a blueprint for my sound,” says Kunene. “It was an inspired record because I had spent a lifetime preparing for it. So I knew what I wanted to say in the songs and had the space to say it.”

Kunene’s haunting rhythms have regularly been appropriated by artists of a younger generation. Most notably blues heiress Thandiswa Mazwai’s rendition of Abangoma, one of the lead tracks Madala wrote and recorded with Busi Mhlongo for Konko man.

In 1996 Kunene along with Gabriel Thobenjane, Kunene was invited to record in London with Doc Mthalane as he pieced together his last offering called, Respect.

A sophomore album, MadaMax, which was co-written with Swiss guitarist Max Lesser, came out two years after Konko man and was welcomed with equal with critical acclaim. The duo worked hard to create a record that was a musical quilt of their different backgrounds and tastes. It would also open up avenues for Madala to travel more regularly overseas and ply his musical trade there.

That project was followed-up by another collaborative record, this time with fellow Durban son, Syd Kitchen entitled Bafo Bafo. It continued in Madala’s now established habit of mixing ethnic and Western playing styles of music to create a vibrant and musically diverse output. In 2004 Kunene worked with Bernard Mndaweni on the bass to perform two live shows which were filmed and released on DVD.

Since then, Madala has recorded several solo projects including his latest album 1959 (2014),MadaMax Bafo in 2006 (the second part of his series with Max Lesser) and Uxolo (2005), A meditation on South Africa’s post-democratic story and an examination of rainbow nation values.

Among his most personal work, Kunene recounts his score for the soundtrack of the international isiZulu language film Yesterday featuring Leleti Khumalo. The film centers on the story of a young girl named Yesterday, who lives with her HIV positive mother.

In 2012 Kunene was honoured by the longest running music festival in the country, Splashy Fen for his role in advancing music in South Africa and increasing the international prestige of the event. In the Underberg farm where the festival is held annually, Kunene has a road named after him and remains one of the most prolific performers on the Splashy fen stage having been on the artists line up a total of 12 times since it was founded in 1990.

Kunene has wowed audiences with sold out solo shows in countries as far afield as Germany, Switzerland, France and the USA. Along the way collecting a string of honorary degrees and musical praise.

Kunene is also a regular feature on various records including those of guitar virtuoso, Guy Buttery and has recently worked with BLK JKS drummer Tshepang Ramoba on some new material. Kunene is also currently composing his next album, an all instrumental offering which he says will be a masterclass on the Madalaline guitar playing style. Kunene is a man who has forged a long and varied career in music simply by being himself adding his personal voice and musical sensibility to the process of collaboration. This give and take he says is the most cherished part of what he does. A spiritualist and believer in the ancestors, Madala has been married twice and is the father of nine. “Music and the guitar are just extensions of my personality they allow me to be more of who I already am and that is a precious gift,” says Bafo.

(Extract from

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