BY RICHARD PITHOUSE
DURBAN, South Africa — Together with the bunnychow (see the glossary for a translation of South Africanisms), the spliff and the palm tree, life in Durban includes AmaZion trance dancing on traffic circles. So it's rather strange that many here still see trance as a musical genre that only visits their city via foreign DJs or on hugely expensive albums marked "import". Madala Kunene's gentle revolution is changing that.
Kunene is not the only musician working with ancient divination rhythms, but his guitar interpretations are flying high and far and his CDs are starting to appear in the music collections of people whose other listening interests centre around the Ninja Tune label, or Rage Against the Machine and even Koos Kombuis.
Hipper Durban audiences are waking up to Madala's deep soul and his albums are selling well in Jo'burg, Paris, London and Oslo. Madala says that he likes having a large number of white fans: "I'm happy that the white can learn".
And that makes sense. After all, past encounters between African trance and open and creative Western minds have been enormously fecund. The celebrated Dwaal Stories (1921) by the morphine-addicted writer Eugene Marais is a good example. It was inspired by Marais' meeting with a San shaman and is still hailed as the finest Afrikaans literature ever produced.
Like all soul adventurers, Kunene has made many journeys. He was born in Cato Manor in 1951 to a family of eminent educationists. But, despite their pleadings and beatings, he flatly refused to ever spend a day at school. After the family were evicted to KwaMashu, he found solace in music and, at the age of seven, started busking on Durban's beach front with a guitar made from an old cooking oil tin. He laughingly explained that "people threw money out of the flats. Sometimes money can hit you on the head!".
A life of dodging coins had its disadvantages, but instead of submitting to the beatings and attending school he formed a marabi band called the Amanikabheni. It featured himself on guitar (cooking oil tin), a friend on spring bass (tea chest, rope and stick) and another on drums (paint tins with tyre tubes for skins and the lids for cymbals).
In 1963, Kunene bought his first real guitar, which he used to imitate the Beatles and the Shadows at weddings. Three years later, he apprenticed himself to Phuthu, a top mbaqanga guitarist, and soon graduated to playing township halls. But there was still an inner restlessness. Kunene wanted to play "my own thing. What I create. Not imitate anybody." So he opened himself up to the voices that filled his dreams and allowed "the music inside me to come out". He calls this music "the Madala-line" and it requires six different tunings and a delicate plucking style. Although based on divination (trance) rhythms, it weaves elements from genres as diverse as maskanda and rock into the groove. The lyrics are made up of old poems, chants, nursery rhymes, lullabies and animal sounds.
It's not music which can be reduced to words or symbols. As Madala explains: "When I am playing, my brain is not there. Each time I go to a place I've never been before." Since each dream-time journey (dwaal) is different, every performance becomes a separate event with a particular character.
An especially brilliant performance has been captured on his live solo album King of Zulu Guitar Vol 1. This remarkable album was recorded in one take, outside his home, on a portable DAT recording machine. It is so live that you can even hear the dogs barking in the background. Those who know it treasure it, and Kunene admits that it's his favourite. But if his next album, Kon'ko Man, (on the MELT 2000 label) is second best, it is a close-run thing. It features artists of the stature of Pops Mohamed, Busi Mhlongo, Mabi Thobejane and Brazilian legend Airto Moreira and their magic supports and at times extends Kunene's vision.
Kunene has also just released a collaborative album with Swiss guitar legend Max Lasser. It's called Madamax and is largely based on the bluesy sounds familiar to the discerning urban ear. But it weaves enough African soul into the melange to create some real magic within that generally accessible sound. Many people are drawing comparisons between this album and Ry Cooder's celebrated collaboration with Malian star Ali Farka Toure on Talking Timbuktu.
Although Kunene makes the routine musician's complaints (radio doesn't go for the "deep stuff"; most promoters are "only interested in money"; "there's a minister for soccer but not music"), there's nothing routine about his art. So fuck the McWorld and the kak it sells as soul. Madala Kunene's alchemy is the real thing. Just do it. Open yourself to this natural mystic and his dwaal jol.
Glossary of South Africanisms: AmaZion — followers of the Zionist Church, a religion that is a synthesis of traditional African religion and Christianity; bunnychow — a half-loaf of bread with the inside removed and filled with curry; dwaal — to be confused or to take a journey with no fixed destination; jol — party, trip, scene; kak — shit; Koos Kombuis — a progressive Afrikaans-language folk singer; marabi — a jazz-based popular music that was fashionable in the '50s; Spokes Mashiyane — a popular exponent of marabi; mbaqanga — a form of urban dance music popular in '70s and '80s made internationally popular by Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens; maskanda — a hugely popular form of Zulu folk music made famous by Johnny Clegg, Noise Kanyhile and Busi Mhlongo; San — a hunter-gatherer people indigenous to South Africa, also known by the derogatory name of Bushmen.
[Richard Pithouse teaches philosophy at the Workers' College and the University of Durban-Westville, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He writes on politics, media and music for South African radio stations, newspapers and magazines, as well as underground Durban publications like Durban Poison and Bunnychow.]