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ATTEMPTS to categorise or tag music often result in hopeless confusion.

On many occasions, music labelling has resulted in tempers flaring because at the core of it all rests issues of social status and derogatory tribal tagging particularly in the case of South Africa. There has been on going contesting views about what jazz is or is not.  Much to the disgust of “jazz purists or custodians,” it has since become common that jazz, as a music style and a term, is used loosely to mean different things to different people.

Heritage month celebrations bring to the mind the unfortunate reality of how easy it is for African music heritage to be distorted owing to a lack of deeper understanding or appreciation of the origins of particular music styles. A case in point is the classification of mbaqanga under the traditional music genre at the 2012 MTN Samas.  Previously, the music was categorised as mxhobanyawo -an isiZulu word for stomping or dancing. Mbaqanga has enjoyed wide popularity over decades. South African music icon Ray Phiri insists that the sound on the Paul Simon ‘86 Graceland album -that sold over 14 million copies and collected a number of Grammy awards- is mbaqanga. Five or six years before Simon stumbled upon the artistic and global pop value of mbaqanga, British producer Malcolm McClaren had helped himself to one of the styles hit tunes, titled Puleng, by Boyoyo Boys. After fiddling with the song, McClaren emerged with a tune called Double Dutch that saw him leap to the top of the British charts in 1981.

Two years ago the mbaqanga sound made its way into one of the 2010 Soccer World Cup’s pop songs, Waka Waka, sung by Sharika with Freshlyground. Countless hot classics of the style feature in the repertoire of big name S.A acts such as Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Mbongeni Ngema, Mpharanyana, Mahlathini and Mahotella Queens, Soul Brothers and Makgona Tsohle band. The silence around the classification of mbaqanga as traditional could indicate, to some, the style has been called by something that it actually is or what it has always been. In fact a judge in the Samas category fiercely contests that mbaqanga is and has been traditional all along. “It’s not,” says seasoned music campaigner, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse. “It is modern or urban African pop, popular music of yesteryear. Mbaqanga represent a potpourri of kwela, marabi… that’s why it’s called mbaqanga. You could say it’s traditional township pop.”

“Ey!” wails organist Moses Ngwengwa who is one half of the Soul Brothers, a group whose brand of mbaqanga has been and continues to be emulated by many acts to this day. “It was wrong and confusing to categorize mbaqanga under traditional because we use western instruments and besides the sound of the music itself has a lot of western influence.” Ngwenya’s argument is corroborated by a random sample of the Soul Bothers’ album catalogue that stretches back to the 70s. It has been widely accepted that the organist introduced to the group the hammond organ playing styles of Booker T. Jones known for soul and r&b music and that of Jimmy Smith’s jazz. An entry on the Southafrica.info website offers that by the middle of the 1950s, the various strains of South African music were pouring themselves into an exciting melting pot of ideas and forms, propelled in part by the hunger of the vast urban proletariat for entertainment. “By this time, the old strains of marabi and kwela had begun to coalesce into what is broadly referred to as mbaqanga, a mode of African-inflected jazz that had many and various practitioners,” the post reads further.

Veteran singer and actress Abigail Khubheka says mbaqanga is African music but not traditional, however isicathamiya is, on the other hand. “If you know your music you will know that mbaqanga is urban dance music,” she says. But trombonist Jonas Gwangwa adds a middle ground kind of twist to the debate. “It’s (mbaqanga) traditional music played with western influence,” he says. “Chords are modified here and there. It’s music that only exists in this country, it’s indigenous to South Africa.” Gwangwa finds a supporter in academic Goodwill Mfundo Ntaka’s 2007 paper titled: Music As Culture, Music In Culture: An Analytical Study of The History And Cultural Context Of Mmaqanga Music In South Africa. Following extensive research and interviews, Ntaka concludes that Mbaqanga reflects African and Western features.

In the book World Music- The Rough Guide, the then recording company executive Rob Allingham tells of the urban conquests of instrumental mbaqanga that lasted for two decades, starting from the 50s, and included hits such as Spokes Mashiyane’s Big Joe Special. The vocal, Allingham reports, component of mbaqanga was called mgqashiyo and began developing in the mid 60s with the urban electric sound of Makgona Tsohle Band strongly behind it. Costumes attired by mbaqanga groups do not mirror African culture or tradition, but reflect urban aspirations of a particular taste or class. Takkies, jewellary, loose fitting and almost baggy trousers, floral or shining shirts, tee shirts and even caps -to a larger degree, mirror the urban lifestyle of a certain class of people.

It’s likely that the decision to tag mbaqanga as traditional got influenced by the general perception that it is backward and unsophisticated music of the uneducated traditionalist Zulu’s mostly found at hostels or in rural areas. Indeed the music is almost exclusively sung in isiZulu, but in his paper Ntaka reveals that great mbaqanga exponents, such as Griffths Motsieloa and Marks Mankwane, were not Zulus. Of course, mbaqanga is almost exclusively sung in isiZulu, but in his paper Ntaka reveals that great exponents of the style, such as Griffths Motsieloa and Marks Mankwane, were not Zulus. “In fact Mankwane, who was Sotho, did try to put in Sotho lyrics in their songs. However those songs had seminal success. Most of their big sellouts were songs that were sung in Zulu,” writes Ntaka.

A disconnection of mbaqanga from its urban origin eliminates any remaining opportunity of the sound adding a distinct African element into the present day pop or dance music.

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