The King of the Zulu guitar opens up about his musical odyssey Madala Kunene stands in the wings of a large-scale stage that’s been transplanted into the middle of an Ulundi soccer field. Guitar draped around his neck, he’s quietly waiting to perform his scheduled 40-minute set at one of those ANC government gigs, when
The King of the Zulu guitar opens up about his musical odyssey
Madala Kunene stands in the wings of a large-scale stage that’s been transplanted into the middle of an Ulundi soccer field. Guitar draped around his neck, he’s quietly waiting to perform his scheduled 40-minute set at one of those ANC government gigs, when an MC announces that Durban kwaito kings Big Nuz have arrived. Madala shuffles over to the young promoter wearing stonewashed jeans and a white golf shirt with Ray-Ban sunglasses hanging from the collar. He whispers a few sentences in the promoter’s ear before going on stage. It’s musical rush hour and the crowd is feeling boozy. Madala plugs in and tries to overpower their impatience with an up-tempo rendition of his greeting track, “Sanibonani”. Trippy youths gathered in front of the stage make a circular motion with their hands calling for a substitution. They aren’t interested in this nondescript old man playing their parents’ music. They want Big Nuz. Madala Kunene is booed off stage. The King of the Zulu guitar doesn’t even get a chance to finish his second song…
A true six-string original, Madala Kunene operates outside the humdrum of South Africa’s pop idiom. He is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s last standing musical lighthouses, yet he remains one of the most obscure musical figures in South Africa’s post-’70s blues lexicon. His weapon of choice is a Takamine guitar with a black neck and a coffee-brown finish. He puts it on a stand next to him before we start our conversation. This is the axe that Kunene has been riding like lightning across stages for the better part of the last decade. The short strands of strings that hang loose from the guitar’s bridge are emblematic of his own life story, equally loose and flexible.
The 62-year-old Kunene lives in a house in the middle of a newly-gentrified suburb just outside Durban called Hillary. Here, five-bedroom mansions are nestled between double-storey pads and convenience stores. Kunene and his family occupy a smaller house in the middle of Arundel Street. It is light red and in desperate need of a new paint job. The house is a gift from then-boss Robert Trunz, head of B&W (later “Melt”) Records back in 1998. This is where the blues troubadour’s head hits the pillow as he tries to keep away from prying eyes – particularly those armed with camera, pen and paper.
“Sometimes you guys make up all kinds of stories,” he says. “I once opened the paper and read that I was quitting music and becoming inyanga (spiritual healer). People just pull stories out of thin air. It’s really discouraging.” Madala sits in front of me wearing light cotton pants with tattered edges and an orange-and-lime print detail. An equally flimsy maroon floral overcoat hides his blue-and-white shirt and slouchy shoulders. A signature green knitted woollen skullcap frames his crumpled face.
I coax him into telling me what he said to the promoter before going on stage on that windy Ulundi afternoon. “I told him he is still gonna have to pay me in full,” he says before bursting into laughter. It’s not Madala’s usual kind of laugh though. It’s the wry sigh of a weary man.
In person, as on stage, he is evasive. Yet, he has a lot to say. He can talk for hours without making much eye contact. Often, when he performs he buries himself in the spotlight and looks straight ahead in a meditative state, always with a mischievous smile that proclaims: “This is my thing.” He is often described as an “umbhaqanga” or “maskandi” artist. These are tags he hates. He is an artist constantly mutating. He has no interest in genre prescriptions. Instead, his brand of blues operates in an opaque space where a transfusion of cool jazz, maskandi, mbhaqanga and myriad East Coast Blues intersect.
That “King of the Zulu guitar” is a title Kunene reluctantly accepts. “When I first heard that I was thinking: ‘Do those guys even know that we have a Phuzekhemisi and an Mfaz’ Omnyama?’ But I guess they say that ’cause they hear something different in my playing,” he says. “Music that’s one dimensional never connects with people,” he says. “I grew up listening to a lot of Duke Ellington and even then I realised that his music was from elsewhere. But it also had bits and pieces that I could recognise from my own life and that was liberating because it’s allowed me to merge things from different sounds that I like and have ownership of that process.”
During the time we spend together it becomes clear that the guitar is an extension of Madala’s personality, a medium for call and response between himself and the audience. Live, he adapts his songs with improvised riffs, depending on the mood of the audience. Often in mid-conversation he picks it up and breaks into melody, adding sound to the gaps where words cannot reach. Where language fails, music will have to suffice.
“I’ve never been really good at talking because talking also requires that you listen and it’s very difficult to express yourself when you’re in dialogue with someone you don’t agree with,” he says. “That’s why music is so important. It allows you to say things people don’t agree with in a way they like. It eases tensions in a way dialogue just can’t.”
Madala Kunene was born in 1951 in Mkhumbane, a vibrant mixed community just outside inner Durban. The son of a carpenter, he was raised by his grandmother, a staunch academic who wanted him to be something of a bookworm. He abandoned this path very early on and would often pretend to go to school but drift off. “I was just never made for that environment,” he says. “It’s not as if it was a political decision. I just didn’t want to go and I am actually glad that I didn’t.” At the age of eight, whilst living with his grandma, Kunene and some members of his extended family were trucked off by the apartheid government to live in the then-relatively new township of KwaMashu. “We had a big house and people can’t imagine what it’s like when you see bulldozers demolish your home in the middle of the night. I was just a kid standing there and I can still remember how damaged the wardrobe was and my father was so upset,” he recalls. “The worst thing was that when they moved us they came at night and packed my family into the back of a truck and then went to another area to pick up another family there and so on. So you were not just separated from your home, you were stripped of your friends and neighbours in the process. It was a very calculated act.”
As a meditation on that history, this month Kunene releases a record he has been working on for over a year and a half. 1959 is his first solo project since Uxolo: Live at the Bassline in 2005. The album explores dense, often melancholic subject matter, especially his own history as a victim of forced removal. “I’ve never spoken about those experiences in my music in an earnest way,” he says. “I wanted to recall them and, most importantly, make a personal album that was looking internally at my personal history rather than looking out.”
The record features many of KZN’s musical aficionados, including Guy Buttery, Lu Dlamini and standout track “Mfo ka Zibhebhebhu”, on which Bra Hugh Masekela’s Jedi mastery on the trumpet is in full swing. 1959 is a blues album, both a personal catharsis and an attempt to exercise the muscle of memory through music. It’s a record that says: “This is how you hurt us.” Insistent and unrelenting, 1959 is Madala Kunene’s urban war cry. “Music that isn’t grounded in some sort of real-world experience never really lasts,” he says, explaining the album’s genesis. “And that’s what I am interested in. I’ve found that the older I get the more focused I am. Not that I don’t have fun, but I’m not interested in entertaining and making music that I don’t feel some kind of person- al loyalty to.”
1959 is also an album that’s tinged with religious themes. It’s the portrait of the artist as a not- so-young man of faith; a sonic investigation that tries to make sense of the gradual process of sanitising history. How the real past is purged for the sake of a soundbite. Lyrically, it operates in the grey area where history is manufactured from the actual to the textual. “Music is the best medium to record and tell history,” says Kunene. “If I can add one layer of context that can help in understanding this period in our history, then that is great. As African people the way we know and understand our past is very influenced by music.”
Kunene’s history is rooted in music. At the age of seven he began busking on Durban’s beachfront with a guitar he had built from cooking-oil tins and wood, using gut for guitar strings. It was a small, flimsy four-string. “I played guitar because the double-bass is not for sissies,” he says, before belting into a genuine laugh this time. “And besides, it was the only thing that was common and affordable. Back then you had to be practical about these things.”
The guitar was the only constant in his turbulent childhood. “I think the guitar is one of a handful of lifelong friends I’ve had,” he says. “When you’ve been playing it for as long as I have, you can’t go a day without picking it up. It becomes natural.” By the age of 14, his repertoire mostly comprised Beatles songs. “It’s the music that white people in the inner-city knew and liked. We wanted to make some good money so we had to give them what they liked,” he explains. “But those songs were good and they really taught me a lot, just about song composition and sticking to structure.”
In the late 1950s, a young and impressionable Madala also used to watch his guitarist father’s quartet perform and rehearse regularly at his home. “I used to pick up some of what they were playing and try and practice it myself,” he says. “They were very disciplined and played constantly even though they had families and were working. I didn’t notice it at the time, but it was something that made a strong impression on me.”
He pauses, pulls from his pocket a newspaper that’s wrapped up into a little ball forming a tight little package. His average-sized hands open it to reveal some fresh-looking pot. He positions the unfolded paper on his left hand at a sort of 30-degree angle, and with the other hand he separates the seeds with his thumb and collects them in his palm. For Madala, influence is the by-product of proximity. He tells me he is mostly impacted by people he knows personally and has worked with. “When you share a space with people you get close to their way of thinking and you have discussions about music and life and that always leaves a mark,” he says. “The trouble with being influenced by people from a distance is that you don’t know who they are and you end up idolising people who are not what they pretend to be and that is dangerous in music. It leads to a lot of dilution.”
It takes him barely a minute and he is done sifting the herb and all that’s left are crisp, dry, aromatic leaves. He wraps the seeds in the paper before putting them back in his pocket and crushing the weed, between his fingers until it becomes slightly more manageable, into a blunt. He rolls one and lights it . “I’m down to two a day,” he says with a self-congratulatory smile as the smoke cascades and lingers in the dry air. “I used to smoke a lot more when I was younger but this stuff messes up your memory when you get older. Sometimes
I would leave the house and just forget stuff, so I had to cut down.”
Part of Kunene’s musical strength lies in know- ing his limits. It’s something he learned very early on. For instance, he has no illusions about the beauty of his own voice. “As a musician you can’t do it all – you need to know what works for you and try and master that,” he says. “I personally focus on composing on the guitar and lyrics. Everything else is secondary. Many artists are frustrated today because they have this illusion of exaggerated personal excellence.”
For Kunene, less has always been more. For the past four decades he’s weaved his own musi- cal path towards minimalism, finding a balance between voracious personal mien and economy of expression. These are the roots of what he calls “the Madala-line”. “The Madala-line isn’t only about rearranging the strings on the guitar but it’s also about how you play it,” he says. “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.”
Although Madala is not as musically radical as a Philip Tabane or Doc Mthalane, he has dealt with his fair share of politics, particularly the politics of language. As he grew closer to finding and defining the Madala-line, Kunene found that he could not divorce himself from his native tongue. He has written and performed primarily in isi- Zulu ever since. “It goes back to the issue of look- ing inside yourself. Language is a sensitive thing. It helps to connect and there are some expres- sions that you can only use in isiZulu and they make sense and when you translate them so much, context is lost,” he says. “Rather than watering it down I am trying to use the language and make it relevant.”
During a workshop session held at KwaMashu’s famous K-Cap theatre, Malian guitar sensation Vieux Farka Touré (son of Ali) hosts a workshop on the complexity of Malian guitar rhythms and how they are influenced by Tuareg roots from as far north as Tunisia. At the end of the session, Touré asks if anyone in the audience can play. The capacity crowd instantly starts chanting Madala’s name. He is seated at the back after having arrived late in an attempt not to draw too much attention to himself. Reluctantly, Madala makes his way onto the stage and he and the 32-year-old Touré engage in a game of one upmanship in which Touré plays a long, cocky operatic riff. Madala asks him to play it again and he does. Then Madala plays the melody back to him without missing a beat. Impressed, Touré asks Kunene to play something of his own and he does: a few chords he had been improvising and considering for a bonus track on 1959. Touré tries but can’t keep up. The whole room erupts into laughter and chants of “Bafo” could be heard as Madala makes his way off the stage. “When we grew up, music was like a sport. It was a competitive thing and we would often use it to show off and see who could play better. So it’s always fun to do that,” says Kunene.
The sports metaphor is nothing new for Bafo. In his teenage years, his passion for guitar often conflicted with the other love of his life – soccer. A staunch competitor, Madala played as both mid- fielder and sweeper for KZN soccer club African Wanderers. It’s said that this guitar griot got his nickname Bafo from the way he used to call for the ball whilst marshalling the defensive midfield. But owing to a recurring knee injury, Madala was faced with the decision of whether or not to hang up his boots in the beautiful game. “It was a hard thing to have to face because it had been part of my life for so long. I couldn’t imagine no longer being able to go on the pitch and play a game with my team and friends,” he says.
Madala did quit. Although those glory days on the field are well behind him, he speaks with some fervour about them. Even today, he is still an avid supporter of Moroka Swallows, which he tells me has gone soft. “It’s so boring and there is no intensity in it anymore. I mean, you have a season ending with your top goalscorer having 13 goals. It’s shameful,” says Kunene.
Like the sport he loves, music is often about an individual working to express himself whilst working in a group dynamic. Madala would get a taste of this as soon as he tried to focus on his music. Shortly after abandoning his soccer career, Madala met saxophonist Elias Ngidi in late 1981. Impressed by Ngidi’s imposing stage presence and musical discipline, the two decided to form a band, Izanusi. They cut their musical teeth performing little paying gigs at old-age homes in Durban’s suburbs. As part of Izanusi’s repertoire, he started infusing Nguni fables and storytelling into his lyrics. “It was good to have someone to work with regularly because he was so talented and I was making music with someone else and understanding the process and sharing ideas for the first time,” notes Kunene. “We used to get small gigs here and there. But more importantly, we started writing original material together and we were not just rookies anymore. We had both been playing for a while and this was the first time we could use our own songs and not just do covers.”
Although the chances were there in the mid-’80s and early-’90s, Madala didn’t go into exile to join his musical comrades and idols, who were utilising international stages to call for democracy through the medium of anti-apartheid concerts. He had to stay where he was needed.
In South African music history, exile and displacement is a trope that is used to deconstruct the trajectory of South Africa’s greatest musical sons and daughters. Madala is an artist of this ilk. Al- though he never went to exile himself, he is an artist born of displacement. His father went to “Johustleburg” and founded a school shortly after Madala and his grandma had been removed from Mkhumbane. Dad would not comeback for years and Madala would spend the next four decades in the South African musical wilderness as a troubadour in pursuit of the moving target that is the blues.
Part of Madala’s reluctance to record music stems from a tormented past with the format. Although 1995’s Konko Man is credited as his first real album, this is not his first recording. In 1988, along with Bayete’s Jabu Khanyile and Sipho Gumede, Kunene formed part of a loose line-up that went to Tusk music studios to record. The songs from those sessions were scheduled for an end- of-year launch, but the release date never came. Months later, when Tusk closed down, the master- tape of those sessions was lost. Despite various at- tempts to recover it, the record never saw the light of day. The band never recovered from the loss and months later they went their separate ways. They did, however, come together in varying forms to perform together on stages in the years that followed to kill the nostalgia and, in some sense, get a taste of what might have happened if the album had entered the public space. “I spent years frustrated by that experience. I still am, even today, because I understood how hard we worked in those sessions and for the work not to yield any results was just traumatic because we could never get that time and wasted effort back,” says Kunene. Madala continued to gig regularly with different line-ups on and off, including Woza Afrika and with Doc Mthalane, championing a brand of boozy blues that is borderline jazz and high-tempo roots melancholia. Though the period was the most active of his career, Madala says he was not sure whether he would get a chance at recording again, or even have the desire too. “Things were happening but I was mostly involved in other people’s projects. And you know, when music becomes your bread and butter and you are not getting recognised as an individual after so many years you start to worry,” he says.
Of most concern about the rarity of recorded material by Kunene is how one day – when he gets relocated to that main stage in the sky to join heaven’s line up that already features Busi Mhlongo and Sipho Gumede on its bill – Madala will take a wealth of unrecorded material with him, because much of it he keeps in his head. But that doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. “Music is a personal process and not every idea is worth sharing. That’s why sometimes I’m glad I don’t have my own studio because then after I’m gone people would be digging things up, editing them and releasing them in a way I wouldn’t want,” he says. “It’s better to keep some of the stuff in your head.”
On a dreary morning in 1963 a young Madala Kunene found himself beat down and broke walking through the suburbs of Durban. It had been a long night of hard gambling and losing at cards and now he was out of pocket. He stopped at a house to ask a young girl, standing outside while visiting her mother – who was a maid – for water. She obliged him. Out of politeness he asked after her health and who she was, and they spent the next three hours talking about each other’s lives. This was the first time Madala Kunene met Zulu blues-rock chanteuse Busi Mhlongo. The two would go on not only to be musical partners, but lifelong friends as well. “She was such a humorous person. That’s what a lot of people don’t know about because she was so passionate about her music,” says Kunene. “We would find ourselves in some sticky situations with police bashing our instruments saying we’re making noise and she would be the first one to joke about it.”
When Busi came back to South Africa after another brief stay in the U.S. and was diagnosed with cancer, they immediately resumed their friendship and began working on material. When the chance came for Madala to record again, it arrived in the form of a solo record deal with B&W records. CEO Robert Trunz took a liking to Kunene’s sultry dragging sound and offered him a deal. Kunene quickly assembled a line-up that included Pops Moham- ed as producer and the myriad blues luminaries, including Mabi Thobejane, Mandla Mgabhi and Mandla Masuku.
“I wanted to make a perfect album and I had a lot of ideas and so in the end I ended up having to leave out a lot of stuff that I wanted to include,” says Kunene. An album was pieced together and on the other side of three months of recording was Konko Man. “It’s a flawed album but I am really happy with how it came out. It was an expression of how I was at the time and my views on a lot of things and I am surprised by how people still look to that album as a blueprint for my sound.”
Konko Man sounds like both the start of some- thing (post-apartheid feelings of isolation) and the end of ’80s Nguni throwaway pop. It’s also the most powerful record in Madala Kunene’s record- ed discography. It’s the kind of album that tends to emerge when a musician has spent years preparing for it.
The term “Konko Man” means “Strong Man” and in our conversations when talking about the record, Madala refers to Konko Man as “an of- fering”, a term closely associated with a ceremonial sacrifice made by a sorcerer to the ancestors. An attempt at soothing the pain. And it was just that. Kunene confesses that the veracity he shows on Konko Man is due partly to some of the contributions “Sis Busi” made. Madala would often bounce ideas off her before going to studio to see what worked. “She was so musically mature. We would go in the studio with an idea of how to record a song and she would hear it back and advise on some ad-libs and how to make the song sound more familiar. Small tweaks that really made a song stand out just in terms of layers and structure,” says Kunene.
In an old video, shot in the build-up to some of the Konko Man sessions, Kunene can be heard off-screen strumming and singing, crisply and clearly. In the frame is Busi Mhlongo: dark face, big cylindrical earrings and a woollen beret-like hat. They are in a bright, yellowing Jozi hotel room; specks of light enter from a window at the edge of the room. Busi is calling down fire asking people why they’re fighting. She moves back and forth as her head gyrates and twirls. She is struggling to decide whether to go over the top or aim for a lower register. Her voice rides the coal train that is Madala’s guitar fingerwork.
Dick Jewell, who shot the rare footage, describes it as a stolen glimpse into a crystallising moment. “They just walked into a room and started impro- vising immediately. They knew each other well. You can see it in the recordings that I made of rehearsals in the room that went on long into the night. A perfect, relaxed atmosphere and beautiful output from two very talented people confident in their ability and just gelling within their culture and headspace.”
Themes of seclusion and inexplicable personal anxiety caused by social discontent are strong on Konko Man. This was the time of racial wars and the ushering in of electrified ghettos. In Konko Man we are brought unbearably close to a man carrying the weight of his own story. The stand- out cut on the record is “Abangoma”, which features Busi Mhlongo aka “Sis Vicky” in her full musical delirium. More burp than sing, her voice struts up and down the guitar strings. She gallops like a thronging Zulu-rock siren, an ambulance not wanting to believe its carrying someone dead inside. What is it that they say in that jazz haven called New Orleans? “Make sure it swings.” The song sure as hell does. “The way she was able to control her music and just leave her mark on what- ever she did gave me comfort,” reminisces Kunene. “It’s a loss that I still haven’t gotten over. We lost one of the truly great musicians in this country that day,” he adds, referring to Mhlongo’s death on June 15th, 2010. “What’s upsetting is that she still wanted to work and was active. For cancer to take away that desire was just harsh.”
Madala followed up Konko Man with the relatively safe King of Zulu Guitar. Between the two albums there isn’t much of a sonic mutation. King was partly recorded on a farm and possesses a visceral element, but musically doesn’t extend what he had started with Konko Man. With the demons of a debut album exorcised, Madala Kunene’s second effort was more pastoral than anything else. Uxolo, released in 2005 with Bernard Mndaweni, was another significant release. It’s an album that bashes in myths about what the blues should sound like. Madala soundtracks an emotion that is hardly ever investigated by musicians of any age or musical disposition – humility. The album showcases the broadness of Madala’s musical interests, which include reggae and gospel – and his own diversity in being able to adapt his playing style and the Madala-line to those interests. Even though the subject matter remains dense (war and lost faith), Madala plays the guitar with humorous bravado. “It was a really fun album and I wanted it to be musically simple. That’s why there are songs on there that are telling difficult stories in a fun way. I didn’t want the words to get in the way,” says Kunene.
On a cool spring evening at a concert at the KZNSA Gallery in mid-Durban, Madala Kunene is playing a short session with guitarist and friend Guy Buttery. Madala has recently burned his right hand and it’s still a bit sore. Buttery will have to cover the musical bases as the two feed off each other and play material from their respective records. Once he starts playing, Kunene is the epitome of concentration, calm and circumspect. His stubby flat fingers work their way up and down the guitar to form almost cylindrical shapes. He doesn’t use a pick. Instead, the nails on both his thumbs are grown to a length of about 1.5cm – strictly for the purpose of working them around the spine of his third limb. He is consummate and compact, as if labouring to unleash each note. His shows are less about performance than they are about exhibition. His solo flourishes bear witness to a conservative man playing adventurous music. When charting hostile waters, musical elasticity is the only constant. “I was worried that I would have to do too much since he was injured,” says Buttery. “But he is a true professional. He was with me all the way and that’s what he is always like on stage. His performances are all about giving space to the other person who’s with him to do their thing.”
Onstage, Kunene prefers to strip his performances down to their bare bones. It’s something that has become increasingly part of his arsenal the older he gets. Recently, in Cape Town, he performed two shows entirely in the dark. It’s an idea he adopted from a show he did in Switzerland with fellow guitarist Max Lesser (with whom he worked on Madamax and Madamax II). This experience was one of the most transformative of his life. “You can learn a lot about the way people ex- perience music. When it’s dark there’s nothing dis- tracting them from listening,” he says. “As a musician you also need to work a lot more at mastering your style because you can’t see them but also because you feel vulnerable in that darkness.”
Although a figure of relative anonymity, Madala is somehow able to get artists to rally around him for projects or causes. Friendships like those he shares with Guy Buttery are not a rarity for him. Recently, he’s been recording some new material with BLK JKS drummer Tshepang Ramoba. Madala is a made man, but just don’t tell him that.
Kunene regularly travels across the world receiving honorary awards, yet at home remains largely uncelebrated. It’s something which But- tery describes as a travesty. “There are a lot of musicians who are not as good as he is, but they receive way more attention,” he says. “It’s weird. He has such a dense body of work that people have no awareness of; it’s really disappointing.”
On the edge of a dusty road in the Underberg in the KZN Midlands, flanked by stretches of grass and dry shrubbery, is a makeshift signboard: “Madala Kunene RD.” Here’s the gate to South Africa’s longest running rock’n’roll apocalypse: Splashy Fen. Around these parts, Madala is a welcome figure. In fact, he was one of the first acts at Splashy when the festival debuted way back in 1990. Since then, he has played the festival more than anyone else – 12 times. In 2012, the organisers decided to commemorate his work and name a road after him while he was still alive. The irony of being lauded at a predominantly “white-attended festival” while being booed off black stages is not lost on him.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he says. “I’ve seen so many great artists die in poverty. You would think people in this country, especially those who administer the arts, would notice that and try and make it change. But nothing happens. We are just left to wither away. And then, towards the end, there are concerts in our name and memorial days when no one cared when we were still working. It’s disgusting and I don’t want any of it.”
Kunene doesn’t want to die broke. These days he doesn’t gig much but he gigs better than most. He is able to secure tour dates in countries like Germany, Switzerland and France. At home, he is a staple diet in manicured spaces such as Durban’s KZNSA Gallery, as well as UKZN’s Elizabeth Sneddon theatre. Anywhere will do to keep the blues alive.
Kunene has seen first-hand what perpetual frustrations his peers have imposed on them- selves as they try and remain relevant in the 21st century music rat race. He has just checked out and stopped playing the game altogether. He is vexed by music-by-design and artists who write songs that are convenient for auditioning for reality music competitions. He is also critical of public radio, which he describes as “musical purgatory”.
What is surprising, however, is his slight record collection. He only possesses copies of his own al- bums – along with the entire Busi Mhlongo discography. Everything else he had or gets is given away. He is no longer willing to submit himself to the afflictions of the modern music industry.
And since he was there when the past happened, he has no interest in hearing it again. “When you spend too much time listening to music you end up stealing,” he says. “And sometimes you are not even aware that you’re doing it. It feels like you came up with the idea and you don’t realise you stole it.”
There’s something about South African artists hitting their early 60s. Think of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Yarona, Bra Hugh’s Sixty, and Mama Miriam’s Sing Me a Song – all profoundly personal al- bums created on the brink of being pensioners. Madala is no different. He is bringing listeners unsettlingly close to his own personal experience. A man and his troubles.
A father of nine, parenthood has also had an impact on the way he approaches his music. His youngest daughter, Zimbali, is just two-and-a- half years old. Bafo describes her as a musical inspiration. “My story must survive,” he says. “That is my mantra and that’s all that matters in the end anyway. My family must eat and my kids must get an education. When I’m gone they must be able to speak my name without shame.”
We break open a pack of Eet Sum Mor biscuits and wash it down with some Sprite. “I look at the families of some of the artists that I’ve worked with who are now gone. They survive and are good people. That’s what I want to leave behind,” Madala smiles, reclining in his chair.
It’s been a long day. In the distance, the sky becomes murky and rain clouds gather. I must go now. I leave the guitar shape-shifter with his hands on his head, looking relaxed and feelin’ groovy.
Joy is all over his face as he gears up to compose and record his next album. For the first time in his life, Bafo can make music purely about happiness, and he is excited at the prospect. But first he must send his kids to school.