Maskandi is a uniquely South African musical style that evolved since the 1930’s. Drawing on ancient lines of harmonic practices, it incorporated ‘modern’ instruments while changing the form from the seven-note Western scale to a six-note scale. Different ethnic groups incorporated different instrumentation, and with the Zulu’s, the guitar was chosen. In the late ‘60’s the pioneering musician, Phuzushukela switched from an acoustic to an electric guitar, adding drum programming, an electrified rhythm section and backing vocalists – this led to the most predominant wave of the Maskandi style, which could be described as Neo-traditional Zulu music.
Over the decades, a number of powerful Maskandi musicians emerged, bringing this deeply rooted music into the new millenium, and Bhekumuzi Luthuli is one of the greatest contemporary stars of this urban African style.
The word Maskandi came about as a Zulu derivation of the Afrikaans word for musician – ‘Musikant’. Bhekumuzi Luthuli extends this interpretation by describing Maskandi as: “when someone sings and plays guitar at same time particularly in a traditional way … and it’s when someone praises when he sings, like a praise poet”.
His personal style of praise however, extends from an individual perspective to express a broader social commentary, while also drawing on a strong sense of spirituality and morality:
“My ammunition is that I always pray before I start doing anything…. even if I have to grab my guitar before going to sing – that is my ammunition… I start by praying”.
Coming from humble beginnings, Bhekhumuzi grew up in a rural area of Kwazulu-Natal. Although his grandfathers were concertina players, they had already died by the time he was born, and so his first musical explorations came from a desire to alleviate boredom while herding his father’s cattle.
At that time, radios were scarce in his area, but he sometimes managed to catch the neo-traditional sounds of artists on the airwaves, like the older Maskandi kings, Uthwalofu and Phuzekhemisi along with the legendary cross-racial group, Juluka. Describing how: ” I listened a lot to those stars and that’s how I grew”.
In 1982 he was introduced to a producer, Tom Mkhize and hence found himself amongst other musicians for the first time. He joined a band that was divided into two outfits, one a Mbaqanga group for which he was a backing vocalist, and the other a Maskandi group for which he was the lead singer and guitarist.
Bhekumuzi first recorded in 1984 and then in 1985, but feels that it was only in about 1988 that he began to consider himself professional.
As one of the contemporary ‘lions’ of the Maskandi style, Bhekumuzi’s sound encompasses more influences and has a broader musicality than many of his forerunners. Undoubtedly Zulu in form and content, he also draws on the musical inspirations of different ethnic groups, but essentially he believes his main aim is to look at current issues and “deliver the message about bad things and right things”.
Because of his lyrics, he has sometimes been criticized as sexist by some of the younger generation. However he says: “I like to sing about women because I love women…. Since my mother’s also a woman, I keep loving the women and singing about them”.
He adds that he “doesn’t focus mainly on the bad things that women do… I also focus on the beautiful things that women do.” Bhekumuzi believes that it is the people who perpetrate injustices that may be offended, and hence not perceive his commentary as constructive.
With this, he affirms that as a musician he embraces his task, saying:
“If I was the president I’d go out there and call rallies to talk directly to the people, but God gave me a big talent where I can direct my message to everyone all over the country… this is my challenge and my responsibility”.
He extends this sense of responsibility by believing in the importance of maintaining culture and tradition through the musical style of Maskandi. He has released more than 14 albums and has in recent years won numerous awards, with most of his albums reaching gold disc status. For him this affirms the popularity of his style; although he says that from where he began, as a shepherd he had never imagined this overwhelming success.
“I thought that awards, money and medals are things that come to educated people, because I never saw school, and I didn’t think anything would come my way. I am quite surprised to be swimming in money and receiving awards… so I realized that God is the Mighty”.
Although he is one of South Africa’s biggest Neo-Traditional stars of the new millenium, Bhekumuzi has always retained his simple beauty:
“I feel great when I have my guitar on my side and my children at home … and when I’m standing in front of people singing for them I feel on top of the world!”