Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
SOMETIMES when he is playing during a gig, Moses Ngwenya imagines the late Soul Brothers’ lead vocalist David Masondo in front of him, mic in hand, serenading thousands of adoring fans.
In fact, concerts nowadays are a sort of time machine for Ngwenya. Whenever he plays on stage these days, he is magically transported to the 1970s, back to the era when the Soul Brothers were born, and he can imagine himself playing with the original five members of the legendary group.
Back in 1976 when Ngwenya joined forces with three boys from Kwazulu-Natal, David Masondo, Tuza Mthethwa, Zenzele Mchunu and one young guy from Mpumalanga, American Zulu, he did not think he would one day carry the Soul Brothers torch alone. One by one they’ve left him and he is now the last Soul Brother standing.
When Sunday Life caught up with Ngwenya a day after the Soul Brother’s performance at Skyz Metro’s Umcimbi Wabantu in Bulawayo recently, he confessed that memories of not only Masondo but the rest of the original Soul Brothers haunt him on stage.
“Sometimes when we’re playing songs I just imagine what he would be doing. I miss a lot about all of my late colleagues because we’ve got songs that are over 40 years old and when you play them you start saying if so and so was alive he’d be doing this and if so and so was alive he would be doing this.
“It all comes back to me to me sometimes, but I try to tell the younger guys that if we have to keep our brand on top we’ve got to do this and that just like the original Soul Brothers used to do,” he said.
Death has stalked the Soul Brothers from the beginning, something that is expected for a group that has spent over 40 years as one of the most sought after outfits. According to Black Moses, as Ngwenya is popularly known, the first death, that of Mthethwa, was perhaps the hardest to swallow for the group especially as it came when they had just started to get famous.
“When we formed Soul Brothers there were five of us. During all these years we’ve had losses. First it was Mthethwa in 1975 due to a car accident. We were shaken because we were very young and only starting to be famous.
“That was our first taste of fame. We never gave up on our music and we kept our heads up and recorded songs like Deliwe during that trying time. After we had recovered from that tragedy we lost Mchunu in 1984. It was hard again but again we didn’t stop,” said Ngwenya.
With age comes wisdom, the adage goes, and although he and Masondo had become synonymous with the Soul Brothers brand, he has had the courage to take on life after the demise of a man who had been by his side through thick and thin. As painful as the loss of Masondo was, it was cushioned by the understanding support of the group’s die hard legion of fans.
“Luckily whenever we lose a member of the Soul Brothers the fans love us even more. Our CDs sell out at a faster pace following a death. What I’m trying to say is that even today even though Masondo has left me, I’ve not lost that spirit that we started out with.
“We don’t have to stop especially now because this band is too big all over the globe. I’m trying to keep the same spirit and say that although David has left us as the lead singer, we’ve got young boys like Thokozani who we’re grooming for that role,” he said.
Without Masondo, the man whose voice was the highlight of many a Soul Brothers hit, Ngwenya was adamant that the group had lost none of its old spark.
“When we do shows, people say that you’re still as good as before and some say that they can’t tell that Masondo is no longer there which I think is a good thing because this band is not Moses Ngwenya. This band is bigger than individual names and so I’m still pushing it and I know that I’ll make it,” he said.
As the only remaining original Soul Brother, Ngwenya is fully aware that he also will not live forever. As thoughts of retirements creep into his mind, he is also beginning to think of ways in which he can pass the torch to a younger generation of “ogandaganda” over the next few years.
While Masondo was the undoubted star with his voice, one thing that distinguishes the Soul Brothers from every other mbaqanga group is Black Moses’s work on the keyboard. This too is a skill that he is eager to pass on.
“I’m getting older now. I don’t think I’ll be playing 10 years from now. I also plan to retire and teach organists my style. From next year, because I’ve heard a lot of cries from musicians who say that they’ve been trying to play like I do but they can’t, I’ll be teaching young musicians the style that I play on the organ.
“I think in South Africa I’m the only one who plays the organ in that way. A lot of people don’t understand that I don’t play the piano but the organ. It has a certain feel that’s just different from the piano. It has this feel reserved for gospel songs, this feel that’s most suitable for weddings. This is the type of mbaqanga that I chose and people loved it. So from next year I’ll be holding workshops to teach younger people how to play like I do,” he said.
The Soul Brothers pioneered their own style of mbaqanga, a style in which each and every song begins with Ngwenya running his magic fingers on the organ. According to Black Moses, this was an invention that was a masterstroke and made the group who they are, as it separated them from hundreds of mbaqanga groups whose music kicked off with the sound of guitars instead.
“Before we formed the Soul Brothers all mbaqanga songs started with a guitar. So when we came and infused my style of play on the organ it changed things. When I started out I was a jazz artiste, playing the kind of music made by the likes of Rex Rabanye. When David and the others came from Natal they were making typical mbaqanga so when we jammed together then our style music was created. This thing was created and we won’t change it. Why change it when the people love it?” he said.
Before a power failure ended their gig prematurely last week, the Soul Brothers had got another rousing reception in the City of Kings. When Masondo visited drinking spots around the city on Sunday, he was given a hero’s welcome wherever he with Soul Brothers CDs selling like freshly baked cakes wherever he went. Although the group is loved in a lot of places, Ngwenya acknowledges that they share a special bond with fans in Bulawayo, something he credits to the group’s timeless music.
“I think it’s because Soul Brothers were popular before most of the people who attend shows now were born. So these young people grew up on our music and it has been passed from generation to generation. Our music is not about things that are going to end anytime soon. We sing about human issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis and will always be relevant. Our songs don’t get old,” he said.