Maskandi or don’tby Dave Durbach / 22.01.2010
Shwi noMtekhala first came to my attention in late 2008 when Shwi was busted with close to 200 kg of weed in his bakkie. Since then I’ve been a huge fan.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Shwi (real name Mandla Xaba) spent a short stint in jail before being released on bail. Read all about it here. Now the duo are back with a new album. Uyob’unenhlanhla (“You would be lucky”) proves them to be far more than mere enterprising stoners. In fact there’s ample reason here why the three-time SAMA winners are Mzantsi’s top-selling maskandi act, one of the few (like Busi Mhlongo) who’ve managed to broadcast the guitar-driven traditional genre to a wider audience.
The album’s title apparently alludes to those who turn to conflict in difficult situations – they “would be lucky” to survive. It’s a plea, in other words, for people to respect others, stay out of trouble and avoid confrontation – a lesson that Shwi has learnt from experience. Those able to delve into the Zulu lyrics will find songs of personal pain and redemption. For example, ‘Ngake ngaboshwa’ covers Shwi’s trial, his time in jail, the emotional conflict at having disappointed his fans and vindicated his critics. Elsewhere, he writes losing his mother and cousin on the same day, while his partner Mtekhala (aka Rogers Magubane) sings about having his house and livestock burnt in his home in KZN.
All tracks follow a fairly similar format, without too much deviation from the golden S&M touch – spine-tingling guitar intro followed by layers of rock-solid, dance-friendly drum machine, heavy synth and accordian vibes, and smooth-as-silk vocal harmonies. To reduce the music to its individual components and common characteristics however is to miss out on the individually crafted beauty of each song. The sound never grows tired, and offers something new on every listen. The title track incorporates mbaqanga basslines and scathamiya vocals. “Sahamba lashona” (something like “it went, it sank”) has a catchy synthesizer hook that sticks like glue. The remix of the track that ends the album is a drum-heavy dub mix of the original. Other highlights include the gospel-flavoured ‘Ngizothandaza’ (“I will pray”) and the gloomy splendor of “Ngangingazi” (“I didn’t know). On a lighter note, “Vuvuzela” encourages South Africans to get behind our national team and keep blowing on that most monotonous of plastic horns.
Another major maskandi act to jump on the $occer bandwagon in the name of national pride is amaSAP, whose new album Bafana Bafana is on a similar tip. The album’s fifteen tracks follow a familiar maskandi path, proceeding at a more leisurely pace than Shwi noMtekhala’s release, with more stripped down instrumentation, though the signature guitars and smooth synths are still there. Vocals are handled by Ali Mgube, supported by a trio of backing singers, and oscillate between impassioned singing and highly charged rapping interludes,
Highlights include “Ngibakhahlela Kunje” (something like “I kick them like this”), “Uthando” (“Love”) and the uptempo “Ngiyagodola” (“I feel cold”). Unsurprisingly, the title track is an appeal for our team to pull finger and make us proud in 2010, and should prove popular come soccer time. Even at their worst, amaSAP are only a little too mellow or repetitive. They may not have quite the same polished vibe as Shwi noMtekhala, but this is still a sweet disc.
One doesn’t need to understand Zulu to enjoy these albums; these songs speak on a level that transcends ethnic target markets and racialised preconceptions. If you have any interest at all in authentic local sounds, Shwi noMthekala and amaSAP are where you need to be.