Young, gifted and black

2009-10-24 00:00

“THE young, gifted and black Bongani Nkwanyana­”, was the what the late bass maestro, Sipho Gumede, used to say when referring to his band’s second bass player while introducing band members to audiences.

This was clear testimony of Nkwanyana­’s talent on the instrument, especially when coming from arguably the country’s finest bass player himself. To enable music lovers to further put to the test his music prowess and composing skills, Nkwanyana (47) has released his debut solo album called Ithemba Lami, five years after­ Gumede’s death.

His 14-track album includes a song title A Song for Sipho Gumede to pay tribute to his mentor. The album has been released under Sheer Sound — the same label that recorded and marketed Gumede for many years. Having started playing music from an early age and recording with many bands and musicians, Nkwanyana joined Gumede’s band to keep the rhythm going with his second bass, while Gumede went to town on solo bass.

“It all started when my father bought two acoustic guitars, for me and my brother. He forced us to play them, without any musical knowledge, while he sang. My father was just mad about music. We fiddled with the instruments until we struck the right cords and I have never looked back since,” remembers Nkwanyana.

His father, Elijah Nkwanyana, then bought enough equipment to start a band. After honing his playing skills and learning the mechanics of his instrument, Nkwanyana, the late keyboard player Qunta Mbhele, who he calls one of his mentors, late saxophonist Mandla Masuku, and drummer Wake Mahlobo got together in 1983 to form Stax which took the Afro-pop scene by storm.

The band shot to prominence with hit albums such as Maze, Nothing for Mahhala and Faith. That marked the start of Nkwanyana’s professional career as a musician. He later swopped his guitar for bass after the bass player left Stax.

“I just felt comfortable playing bass and other­ people saw this and encouraged me to stick to it. I then decided never to part with it,” he says.

He said Stax was influenced by the sound of the popular but now defunct Sakhile which had been formed by Khaya Mahlangu and Gumede. When Stax split up in 1986, he and Mahlobo joined the exodus of musicians and other artists to Johannesburg to look for greener pastures.

There they met singer Godfrey Nzuza and formed a band called Casino and only returned to KwaZulu-Natal after the first democratic elections in 1994.

“We decided to come back home to revive Stax. In 1995, I first backed Sipho Gumede and Busi Mhlongo when they were performing at the Grahamstown National Festival,” says Nkwanyana.

He was part of Gumede’s band until 2004, the year in which Gumede died of lung cancer. To many observers and Nkwanyana himself, it was no mistake that he and Gumede got on well as they had a lot in common. Apart from both playing the same instrument, they both started as lead guitarists in separate bands in the early years of their careers.

Moreover, Nkwanyana’s slim figure and spindly fingers resemble those of Gumede. And the fact that Gumede’s burial on July 31, 2004 coincided with Nkwanyana’s birthday is another interesting coincidence about the two.

As if this is not enough, when Gumede died he reportedly had the spirit of a sangoma while Nkwanyana was later intiated as a sangoma. Gumede bought his first house in KwaMashu, a township which was home to Nkwanyana.

After Gumede’s death Nkwanyana and other members of Gumede’s band regrouped to form the band Jika, which initially predominantly played Gumede’s tunes. Nkwanyana is the co-ordinator of the band, but more importantly, he plays Gumede’s leading role.

As many people agree that the two look alike and there is a lot in common, could this mean that Gumede was reincarnated while he was still alive?

If you like Gumede’s music then you are bound to fall in love with Nkwanyana­’s.

Nkwanyana and jazz giants Brian Thusi and Selaelo Selota will be launching their albums at the Bat Centre in Durban on October 30. Entrance fee is still to be confirmed but it is estimated to be between R100 and R120.


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