The Interview – Rubbing cents together with Madala Kunene

2013-09-22 14:00

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Madala Kunene, the undisputed king of Zulu blues, is showing his indignation, writes Paddy Harper

Madala Kunene looks almost frozen as he sits deadly still on a couch in Marius Botha’s Headroom studio in Sea View, Durban.

But his eyes aren’t frozen. They’re alive with energy – and anger. Bafo, as he’s popularly known, is visibly seething as he recalls 40 hard years in a music industry that has been far from kind to the man acknowledged as a walking repository of Umkhumbane’s legendary guitar tradition.

It’s been a good week for Kunene. He has an SA Heroes Award behind him – although the MC declared him dead – and a rare weekend gig in Paris ahead. But life remains very much hand-to-mouth for him.

With seven albums under his belt and an eighth, titled 1959, set to be released in November, Kunene is flat broke. He has recorded abroad in Denmark, France and Switzerland but bad deals, a lack of financial acumen and poor management expertise mean all he has to show for his work is

a modest house in Sea View, a working class suburb.

Kunene lives in the house with his second wife, Nothando and kids Melody (19), Sibusiso (17), Soprano (10), Harmony (7) and Zimbali (2).

His first wife, S’dudla, and children Melusi, Lindiwe, Zola and Nompumelelo live in Joburg.

Kunene’s first album, recorded in 1988 for Tusk Music with artists like Sipho Gumede of Sakhile fame and Jabu Khanyile of Bayethe – both of whom have passed on – has “vanished”.

“It was a very nice album. Very nice,” he says. “I don’t know where it is today. Tusk closed down and we’ve been trying to get the master tape. I haven’t given up,” he says.

Kunene may be one of the most respected South African guitarists and songwriters among European audiences, but he struggles to get work at home.

Surviving on scarce gigs that pay slowly, he’s still waiting to be paid by local and provincial governments for performances as far back as eight months ago. He is often forced to turn to friends to stay afloat.

“This is not right, my bru,” he says. “There’s been 14 Hazelmere Dam festivals (KwaZulu-Natal’s main annual jazz gig). I’ve performed at one. One.

This is my town. I’m supposed to be the main act. Instead, the organisers bring in acts from elsewhere and pay them big money. People like me get nothing. What is that?

“These government departments here give me work but then I have to wait and wait to get paid. It’s unfair. When they want your talent and when you play, they’re happy. But when the time comes to pay, that’s another story. Then nobody knows you,” he adds.

Kunene has been part of some of the most distinctive sounds to have come out of Durban.

In the 1980s, he sang and played Jew’s Harp with Busi Mhlongo’s legendary Twasa band, which was born in his house in KwaMashu’s B Section. A decade later, Zanusi, his left-field but groovy collaboration with percussionist and poet Bruce Sosibo and Elias Ngidi, the left-handed bassist father of bassist Philani Ngidi, was “flying”.

Kunene started playing guitar on a self-strung tin number, inspired by his schoolteacher father Themba, who was a rhythm guitarist.

He was seven and living in Cato Manor, a couple of years before the apartheid removals from Umkhumbane to KwaMashu in 1959.

He started busking, first in the township and then on the beachfront, at the age of 10. He bought a six-string acoustic guitar for “five bob” in 1965 and started playing at any event that paid.

His first gig “in town” was for two weeks at the Hermitage Restaurant in 1980.

The young Kunene was also a keen footballer, playing goalkeeper and defender for African Wanderers’ junior side and a senior team called Seagulls.

“Soccer was no good for money in those days. I left soccer and went one way with music,” says Kunene emphatically.

“I’ve never worked. Only music.”

He had little interest in school.

“I didn’t go to school. I’m a moegoe, bru. You know us. Everything I learnt, I learnt on the street. Even the music I learnt that way. That’s how it is,” he says.

Kunene’s intense individualism – and his refusal to conform musically – has been a hallmark of his career. It’s also cost him in monetary terms.

“I don’t listen to CDs,” he says. “If you listen to another man’s music, you’ll steal from it. You listen and you take his thing. That’s what happens.

For some people that’s okay.

“For some people that’s right. Not for me. I can’t do that,” he says.

Kunene starts relaxing as he talks about his new album. The album, dedicated to the forced removals, was recorded at Headroom over a year, with no cash. The Headroom is a place of music and musicians. While Kunene is talking, another gentle guitar god, Steve Newman, is taking a nap on the other couch.

Newman, like a host of other musicians, played for free on 1959. Hugh Masekela; Guy Buttery; Sazi Dlamini; Eric Duma; Max Laser; Lu Dlamini; Bernard Ndaweni; Sithembiso Ntuli; producer Neil Snyman; and King Goodwill Zwelithini’s son, Hlangu, who sings lead vocals on No Pas, No Speshal are just a few of those who also kicked in for free.

Kunene says the 12 songs on 1959 tell the story of his life and of the removals that destroyed the community synonymous with

the distinct Durban guitar sound.

“For years I’ve been wanting to make an album about 1959 so that my daughters and my boys can listen and know what happened to us. I thought it was time. I called this one 1959. There is a song about Umkhumbane removals that my father used to play. It’s on the album,” he says.

Kunene also reckons 1959 may be the “make-or-break” moment in his career.

“This album is the one, bru. I’ve recorded in Denmark and France but this is the first time I’ve recorded here at home. There’s so many different musicians. It took a year to record. This is the first time for me to do an album at home. I’m very happy. If I’d think of something I could just come back in the morning and put it in. Nobody was telling me it’s finished, it’s okay. This is what I really wanted to do. This is me.

“Bru, I’m tired of making albums and not getting paid. I’ve been struggling. You know this thing. My last album was long ago, 2005.

“I’ve been waiting very long for this. Now I’ve said to myself that I’m no more going to make an album and not get paid. It’s time.”

Kunene is old school but he loves playing with young musicians.

He’s grinning about a session he has just had with BLK JKS guitarist Mpumi Mcata on a trip to Joburg.

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