Fezokuhle Mthonti speaks to South African music icon and childhood hero Phuzekhemisi about speaking truth to power and the suppression of powerful ideas.
My earliest and most enduring memory of my paternal grandparent’s home – in the then small and untended village of Emangweni in rural Estcourt – is of the big black hi-fi in the living space of the main house.
Voices muffled by the static of smaller – and cheaper – radio sets would linger in the rondavels occupied by my aunt and uncle. The quality of the sound these contraptions produced was often poor and indistinct.
The superior sonic quality and reception of my grandparents’ hi-fi would draw my whole paternal family to gather for the morning and evening news, radio dramas, live soccer commentary, and the mix programming of popular and traditional South African music on Ukhozi FM.
My father and his brothers had a relatively rich and diverse appreciation of South African music, but it was maskandi music that would have them crouching in front of the speakers with the delight of schoolboys, strumming their air guitars and concertinas, mimicking the intricate riffs and rhythms.
Chief among their favourite artists were the Umkomaas-born sibling duo of Johnston Zibakwakhe Mnyandu, who went by the musical moniker Phuzekhemisi, and his younger brother Khethani Mnyandu. Seemingly wise to the seriousness with which the crouching men took to playing their invisible instruments, the hi-fi would blare out, “Njalo nje, kukhona imbizo”, the popular refrain from the duo’s 1992 hit, Imbizo.
As I thread this childhood memory back into the present, an amused Phuzekhemisi, in his home in the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast town of Illovo, sitting on a big couch with bits of blackened leather flaking off, chuckles softly.
Phuza … has held iconic status in the South African music industry.
One can imagine that Phuza, as his fans affectionately know him, has heard many iterations and accompanying anecdotes of this musical refrain since the song’s release in 1992. He has held iconic status in the South African music industry as the only remaining member of the group since Khethani’s tragic death in a car accident in 1993.
Siemon Allen of music blog Electric Jive writes that “almost every text on maskandi usually opens with a mention of this scene: a seemingly lonely figure walking the streets of Durban, decorated guitar in hand, strumming away and singing to himself. The ambulating musician and the cyclical, repetitive structure of the music almost suggests a journey or even a kind of nomadic life.”
But Phuzekhemisi’s story differs from Allen’s depiction of the lone maskandi troubadour. He recalls the beginning of his musical journey with Khethani in the mbaqanga group the Special Five.
“We first had contact with the band around 1982 as fans and supporters,” he remembers. “Special Five was an incredibly popular group we used to travel with, offering support and assistance wherever we could, and eventually, as time progressed, the band leader recognised our potential and asked us to audition.”
Although Khethani did not play an instrument at the time, his stage presence was undeniable and he was given a concertina to play alongside his brother, who was already a masterful guitar player.
Maskandi is considered a neo-traditional style of Zulu music that is typically based on the acoustic guitar. From its beginnings in the 1930s, the longstanding musical tradition now incorporates a variety of instruments such as drums, synth, keyboard, accordion, violin, the referee whistle, and the concertina, which Khethani used to entrench himself in the stylings of the genre. As Khethani practised the concertina, he began to develop the sonic basis for what would become Imbizo.
As if to temper the nostalgia I had attributed to the song, Phuzekhemisi reminds me that “Imbizo has a rich and precarious history to it”. He recounts that, at the time of its release, tensions were high between the Inkatha and the ANC.
The chiefs who had power over members within various rural communities would routinely call ‘izimbizo’ – meetings or gatherings at which they would solicit money from community members to finance the political and cultural membership and aims of Inkatha.
This was frustrating for many people in those areas because they weren’t all affiliated with or sympathetic to the political whims of Inkatha, and so the song was an attempt to criticise a process in which poor people’s money was taken from them.
Imbizo was not the only song in Phuzekhemisi’s discography that critiqued the exploitative practices of the day.
“Imbizo opened up people’s eyes and they realised that they weren’t to be used for the benefit of political parties,” he says. But Imbizo was not the only song in Phuzekhemisi’s discography that critiqued the exploitative practices of the day.
Inja Yami, off the 1994 album Emapalamende, questioned why chiefs imposed a ‘dog tax’ on people who owned dogs in rural areas.
In 2002 Amakhansela criticised municipal workers and the effectiveness of local government officials. But shortly after its release, Phuzekhemisi remembers government officials appearing in his recording sessions to monitor what he would say.
“I was scared and decided to avoid singing about these sorts of things as these people were more powerful than I was and I had no one protecting me,” he says.
Realising that raising the ire of political heavyweights might land him in trouble, Phuzekhemisi has since used songs such as Bayede (2000) to give praise and all-knowing status to Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini.
In a more recent song, Sinekinga Ndabezitha (2017), Phuzekhemisi looks to the king again to encourage Zulu people to speak their language and not to forget the value of learning and being articulate in their mother tongue.
With a career that has spanned more than three decades, Phuzekhemisi has learned to read his audiences, with some crowds being more amenable to controversial material and others being more concerned with a celebration of conservative Zulu idealism. But whatever the political leanings of those who appreciate his music, they all share an enthusiastic appreciation of his brand of maskandi – just like my father and uncles crouched around the hi-fi with their air guitars in the 1990s.