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Maskandi is a kind of Zulu folk music that is evolving with South African society. Ethekwini Online describes it as "The music played by the man on the move, the modern minstrel, today’s troubadour. It is the music of the man walking the long miles to court a bride, or to meet with his Chief; a means of transport. It is the music of the man who sings of his real life experiences, his daily joys and sorrows, his observations of the world. It’s the music of the man who’s got the Zulu blues."
Nowadays this is untrue in as much as it is no longer just the domain of men. African women - notably the Busi Mhlongo, and in more recent times Dr. Buselaphi Gxowa, Osukasambe, Imithente, Izingane Zoma and Lungi Ngcobo, daughter of the late Shiyani Ngcobo - are also making Maskandi music. The style music is largely popular and mostly consumed in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, given its rich Zulu heritage and significance to the Zulu tribe. Maskandi happens to be the second top selling genre in South Africa, after Gospel music. Although Maskandi music can be heard in more urban cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town, it is important to note that it is largely played by migrants who come to the big cities to seek a better quality of life and better employment opportunities. Maskandi typically fails to connect with a wider audience and this is largely due to a lack of overall understanding of the genre, which subsequently leads to a lack of interest from listeners. These perceptions are beginning to change quite rapidly, as the world observes more people following African oriented trends.
Although the genre has been in existence for many years, after the 90's there seemed to be no real interest shown in the music by youths and young musicians. This was due to the large influences of western and pop culture, which led to most young musicians to choose to pursue western genres of music such as Hip-Hop, Pop and RnB. This led to the problem of having very few young Maskandi musicians to carry the genre forward, putting the future of the genre at risk.
In recent years more evolved Maskandi acts have emerged including quite notably the likes of Mbuzeni Mkhize, Imfezi Emnyama, Igcokama Elisha King Duyaza, Mjikjelwa Ngubane (Late) Amageza Amahle, The Bunny Chows Carrots the late Khulekanikwakhe (Umgqumeni) Mseleku ka Khumalo (who can be said to be the father of the Maskandi as most of the artists who sing the music today follow his style of singing, with long recitations of his achievements and trials in life-known as izibongo),
Khuzani Mpungose, Mdumazi Mhlongo, Dlubheke and others, who have taken up the role of youth activists for the genre. Such "newer" acts have dedicated themselves to the preservation and appreciation of Maskandi music, as well as traditional forms of music as a whole. Many of these newer Maskandi musicians advocate for youth and future generations to learn from and co-innovate with their more experienced counterparts, in order to ensure the secrets and intricate nuances of Maskandi are properly and correctly preserved for future generations.
Instrumentation and traditions
Maskandi is typically played on cheap, portable instruments, or modern instruments tuned or produced to imitate the polyphonic sounds of the old instruments. Traditionally, a Maskandi musician had one song, a long one that evolved as the story of the musician's life grew. Nowadays albums may contain the usual 10-14 tracks, some of which though may still be over the three-minute mark. Although there are several variations of Maskandi, the instrumental ensemble typically remains the same in all variations. This is deliberately done to keep the unique sound. When listening to Maskandi, these are the typical instruments to be heard:
- Concertina, "Inkostin'" or "Inkostina" (Typically a 20 button Anglo concertina, tuned to G/C and played Maskandi style). A common misconception some people make is to identify a concertina as an accordion. An accordion is mostly found in Sotho music, and is much larger in size that a Concertina. The tone produced by the Concertina is also much brighter and higher pitched.
- Acoustic Guitar, "Isginci". In "every" Maskandi band is an acoustic guitar played in a unique rhythmic picking pattern. The guitar is also the instrument that leads the entire band, and all elements need to blend in with the guitar's setup, this can include adjusting tuning, key and other aspects of the accompanying instruments. Typically the thumb and index fingers are used when playing Maskandi technique, and it is widely known that Maskandi guitar is one of the most difficult techniques to learn and master as a guitarist. In most cases, Maskandi guitarist are also the lead singer or front man of the band. The most notable difference with the Maskandi guitar technique, is the way in which the guitar is tuned. A true Maskandi guitarist is typically fiercely protective of their tuning, as this forms a significant part of identifying the band/guitarist. To be able to play the Maskandi guitar or the song of another Maskandi guitarist, you would need to first figure out the tuning of that guitar and then figure out all of the licks and possible riff phrasing combinations that make a musical melody or rhythm. Because of this, Maskandi guitarists are typically very technically advanced as well as extremely competitive, albeit rarely formally trained in music and guitar. As the complexity of the tuning and licks increases, so does the reputation and respect of the guitarist.
- Bass Guitar, "uBhesi" or "amaBhesi" or "emaBhesini". Also, the heartbeat of the Maskandi song, the unique sound of Maskandi also relies heavily on the correctness and technical application of the bass work. Maskandi bass serves as the source of the groove of the song. It is typically played in a very aggressive manner and sounds best when played with emotion and soul.
- Backing Vocalists, "Abavumayo". Backing vocalists are an extremely important element in Maskandi music, basically no Maskandi song is complete without there being backing vocalists. Given that Maskandi is a very soulful and deeply personal genre, the backing vocalists responsibility is to create and set the tone and overall mood of a Maskandi song. "Ukuvuma ingoma", literally means to sing along in agreement with what the lead vocalist is singing. The backing vocalists also carry deep secrets in how a Maskandi song is arranged and sequenced and are therefore as equally important as the other accompanying elements. The vocal riffs are usually intentionally complicated and include a lot of unconventional phrasing. The extensive use of legato and sharp notes makes the riffs unique to the Maskandi genre. Typically a Maskandi lead or backing singer should have a solid understanding of the concepts of musical key, harmony as well as good rhythm/timing. Given the emphatic singing style, it is also important for a Maskandi singer to have developed lung capacity and demonstrate a good breathing technique.
Variations of Maskandi
As there is very little documented literature and information readily available on Maskandi, it is therefore not common knowledge that there are actually subgenres or variations of Maskandi. It is important to consider Maskandi as more of a lifestyle or way of life, as opposed to explicitly a musical genre. Other variations of Maskandi include:
- Umzansi also called Isikhomazi
All of which have their own unique identifying traits which are easily picked up and identified by Maskandi enthusiasts. More recently there have been artists and other musicians who have labelled their music "Maskandi", however the music does not meet a lot of the minimum requirements or criteria for a musical piece to be accepted as real Maskandi. This is largely due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of traditional Maskandi music. Applied or performed incorrectly, an ignorant Maskandi musician may even upset or insult the fraternity, which is why many modern artists would rather include Maskandi elements in their music, in genres such as "digital Maskandi" which includes American Hip-Hop/Rap elements. Other South African artists such as Zola, Zuluboy, Thandiswa Mazwai, and Ntando have apparent Maskandi influences and elements in their music, however are not necessarily traditional Maskandi acts.
A traditional Maskandi song is distinguished by an instrumental flourish ("izihlabo"), typically that of the acoustic guitar or the concertina that sets the tone at the beginning of each song. Izihlabo are also an introduction of sorts, and serve the purpose of allowing the guitarist to showcase/show off his level of skill by capturing the listeners' attention. Given that traditional Maskandi guitarists tune their guitars differently, listening to izihlabo also provides a way for the listener to tell with certainty the identity of the guitarist/band. Izihlabo are typically rapidly played notes, that do not necessarily make up a melody or explicit rhythm. Playing izihlabo can also be likened to an actor getting into character.
In a Maskandi song, there will typically be rapidly spoken sections of Zulu praise poetry, called "izibongo". The content is not always praise, though, and with pop, house and other influences colouring Maskandi, it has become more about the storytelling ethic and the modern migrant culture, than simply about the musical style. Another key element of Maskandi music is the lead singer or frontman's natural personality. In Maskandi music, it is not uncommon for songs to "sound the same", yet the music consumption does not necessarily decrease. Fundamentally Maskandi is about telling stories and providing a window to the lead singer’s soul. It is largely about the message carried in the songs and music, and this is why it is considered the same as listening to soul or blues music.. Early 2000s there was a new artist introduced called Mtshengiseni Gcwensa (late) who started music with his friend Mgqumeni Khumalo (late). They both introduced many styles in this industry which made upcoming artists look up to them.
Composer Darius Brubeck explained: "The Maskanda referred to in the title of my work is a performer of neo-traditional Zulu instrumental music. Etymologically the word derives from the Afrikaans musikante (musicians). Kwa-Zulu Natal, a province of South Africa where I have lived and worked for the past decade, is home to literally thousands of 'Maskandis', who have developed a rich musical repertoire employing a special style of guitar playing."
Prominent Maskandi Musicians
Amageza Amahle Ithwasa langempela Ofakazi