Madala Kunene for all seasons

Kunene’s compositions don’t necessarily have a benchmark to conform to, but instead reveal the continuous state of transcendence his music takes.

Madala Kunene in the back. Image by Jonx Pillemer.

Last Saturday, Cape Town was furiously cold. The weatherman predicted a wet and cold front to last well over a week. Naturally, the spirits of most people are low, except for those who are willing to brave the winter chill in search of some entertainment. I’m part of this lot, but feel that my motivation to be out in the cold night is more meaningful than just a search for fun. For quite a long time I had been hoping to witness the legendary Madala Kunene perform live. And now, that wish is about to come true thanks to the organzsers of the musical extravaganza  known simply as the City Hall Sessions.

Saturday’s bill (also featuring Caiphus Semenya) marks the end of what has been a three-day series of performance that saw the likes of Mxo, Errol Dyers and Khaya Mahlangu among others, take the stage.

The turnout is very good. Both the reserved and unreserved audience spots are filled up by patrons, warmly dressed. They are cheerful, expecting a marvelous evening. Then comes the first sound. It seeps from a synthesizer and the notes sound like a prelude to something momentous. What follows is a belching rumble of Sibusiso Mdaweni’s electric bass. It’s easy to see why Mdaweni has been Kunene’s long time collaborator. The control he exercises over the tempered sound of the bass strings is admirable. He’s tactful, confident, yet unassuming. He doesn’t wriggle his body like some self-conscious instrumentalists do when they take centre stage. He just keeps a calm demeanor that makes him a true ‘Mr Cool’.

At first, Kunene’s guitar strumming appears to be hesitant. But perhaps its deliberate. It’s clear that the maestro is assessing the mood and the temperance of the music that has already taken a firm position on stage. No part of any sound ingredient should overwhelm another. Everything should be blended into a perfect harmony. Three men throw the weight of their voices behind the song, singing briefly in isiZulu in what seems to be a refrain. But their voices are muffled and submerged below everything else. Kunene notices the sunken voices and wears a smile. He has a graceful grin that inspires calm and hope. Perhaps this is due to his ever humble demeanor; he’s enormously gifted and seemingly oblivious to it. Sadly, the singing ends before there’s any improvement in the sound quality. At this stage, I can only pin my hope on the engineer, his alertness – he must have detected the flaw in the sound.

Kunene and his band continue, filling the vast space of the city hall with magic. Cheers erupt from the audience, they are happy with the start. All should go well now. The song plays on for a while, until the horns add their voices to the music too. The sound that comes out rekindles memories of great African horn players like Mankunku Ngozi and Hugh Masekela.

When the first song ends, Kunene takes a moment to speak. He starts off by greeting the crowd in isiZulu. A mild echo comes from the speakers and now I get really worried. But Kunene goes on to introduce the next song, and the music resumes right away. It’s clear now that the sound glitch comes from the voice microphones. The signature guitar sound rises, this time on its own. It’s soon joined by the sound of percussion that rattle and hiss in a coordinated fashion. Mdaweni lends his bass to the mix. The crowd cheers again and in the background a trance-like jam swells elegantly. The horns sound and are joined by the drums and the keys. The music prompts people to move, dance and whistle whichever way they can. Kunene’s voice is now loud and clear.

Kunene is widely referred to as an eclectic musician by his followers. Even in its near-fitting description, ‘eclectic’ does not flaunt the fact that much of Kunene’s music is overwhelmingly progressive. This brand of music, which he simply calls ‘Madala-line’ defies the titles that people attribute to it. The long list of creative collaborators he has worked with shows just how desirable and wealthy his music is. Among those who shared in his wealth are Mabi Thobejane, Busi Mhlongo and Syd Kitchen to name but a few.

Kunene’s repertoire for the City Hall Sessions is a reflection of various artistic planes he has traversed. These journeys share valuable secrets about the myriad of the compositional structure and aspirations his music has; his unconventional guitar tuning being one example. Kunene’s compositions don’t necessarily have a benchmark to conform to, but instead reveal the continuous state of transcendence his music takes. There’s jazz and everything musical in the songs, established innovations or those still lurking somewhere in space waiting to be discovered, which is what Kunene does very well through melodies layered with rich musical flavors.

The band plays ‘Gumbela’, a trance-like gem lead by Kunene’s mouth harp. They play ‘Impukane’, a piece lifted from Madamax, a collaborative effort with the Swiss-born guitarist Max Lasser. The version of ‘Impukane’ the band plays is mellowed. But it’s still the same jewel, only made fresher by the new approach. That vital string from Kunene is still there, leading the musical procession gracefully. Lungiswa Plaatjies, whose voice appears on the record version, is not here and I fear it may not sound as great. I’m mistaken. The three gentlemen doing backing vocals are on point – they give the live version a mysterious edge.

“Tshelani uBongani atshele uBonginkosi ukuthi amakhosi ayabonga” [“Tell Bongani to tell Bonginkosi that the ancestors/kings are thankful”] is a song that brings out Kunene’s mournful and nonchalant singing, the sounds he is renowned for. But before that, his strings render a devastating solo – the keys are equally overwhelming. ‘Gongo’ follows, before the last song pulls down the curtain.

Kunene thanks the audience and the organizers for the support. He urges the audience to continue throwing their weight behind initiatives like the City Hall Sessions. From this remark I remember the sad marginalization of South African legendary musicians by the very institutions that should immortalize them through acknowledging and celebrating their creations. Kunene’s appreciation for the support received feels like a lament towards the gatekeepers who control which artists or genre of music should be marketed more than others. His gratitude, as heartfelt and sincere as it is, feels like an unintentional subtext woven into his last words. I say this mainly due to the proverbial lack of indigenous music on the local broadcasting platforms. Radio stations across South Africa, particularly those like uMhlobo Wenene, Lesedi FM and others, are not doing much in helping to spread the reach of our music of legends. Instead, they dedicate the bulk of their playlist to western music, particularly American genres, with little compensation given to the local musicians by playing pop songs that only aspire to be American.

One wonders how the wisdom of our cultural icons like Kunene and many others would be passed on to future generations if these conditions continue unabated. Sadly, some of the fallen icons departed not having been acknowledged as sages of our time despite their pivotal contribution to music and culture. That said, bureaucracy or not, nothing will dissolve the love deeply felt for Madala Kunene in the city hall. The jackets are off now; it appears that the season has taken a cheerful turn.

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