The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
WHEN South African music legend John “Phuzushukela” Bhengu passed away in 2011, the views of those that came to pay homage on his graveside in Nkandla, Northern KwaZulu-Natal were quite unanimous.
A legend, the founding father of Maskandi had been laid to rest. In Nkandla, or even in Bulawayo, where the genre has always found favour, few had the inclination, let alone the desire to dispute that indeed the godfather of maskandi had breathed his last.
Nkandla is now perhaps famous for giving politics charismatic former South African president Jacob Zuma but in the world maskandi genre, the area is synonymous with Phuzushukela, a man whose sweet guitar gave birth to a genre that has defined Zulu identity for decades.
But as he was being rightfully eulogised and history was being written high on the mountains of Nkandla, some musical historians might have grumbled and mentioned that one man should have been mentioned, at least even as a footnote, when the talk veered towards who actually pioneered the genre.
Today, as maskandi blares from speakers in Bulawayo all the way to Kwazulu-Natal, few might mention the name of Hadebe, but he is often credited as the man who brought the genre to Mzansi, where it took firm roots and flourished.
During the 1930s, as the wind-up gramophone gained in popularity, so did the popularity of omasiganda, Bulawayo’s unique tribe of wandering musicians, who would go from town to town, busking and performing at local events.
These musicians were a product of popular culture in those times. As Bulawayo’s industries began picking up pace, so did the desire for entertainment. As the colonial masters understood that workers needed to be entertained to distract them from the inhumane working conditions they toiled under in the mines and factories, free films were provided, with droves of low-budget American western films screened for the fatigued masses.
From these, came the cowboy attire that Hadebe would make famous on and off stage. He might have been far from Texas and he might not have ever owned a horse in his life, but that did not prevent him from dressing like a cowboy. Cowboy hats, neckerchiefs and boots were all part of the snappy African dresser’s attire. Armed with a guitar, Hadebe, alongside others such as George Sibanda, became the city’s first taste of popular masigandas who tamed western country music for local African areas.
It was perhaps fitting that these first notable guitarists from Southern Africa came from Zimbabwe. According to the LP Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends the “Moorish invasion in the eighth century that brought the guitar from Africa to Spain.” The instrument was reintroduced to Zimbabwe by Portuguese traders when they settled in the country in the 1620s. Three centuries later, Hadebe would pick it up to devastating effect, as he began laying the foundation of what would eventually become maskandi.
On the streets of Bulawayo, Hadebe travelled and played everywhere, with appreciative crowds throwing a few coins towards his direction in appreciation. From tea parties, which were popular in those days, to shebeens, Hadebe spread the gospel of ukuvamba (vamping) — a playing style characterised by strumming two to three chords on the lowest strings of a guitar while picking the high strings to create the melody. It is a style that is still used by maskandi artistes today.
By the end of the 1930s, Hadebe’s popularity had soared. His music at that time, already had the distinct flavour that characterises maskandi. On songs like Wazibamba Emarabini, his lush guitar is accompanied by izibongo, the rapid fire praise poetry that is a tradition in Zulu or Ndebele culture.
On Marabini waxes poetical about himself, referring to himself as “Hadebe Ishokolote YoMfana, Umfana WakoBulawayo.”
With such words, it is no wonder that won the hearts of many in Bulawayo, performing even at Stanley Hall, then a prestigious venue in Makokoba, then the beating heart of a city that was now taking shape. He would go on to record 15 songs with Eric Gallo, the founder of titanic South African music stable, Gallo Records, as the label searched for talent around the region.
However, Hadebe did not always have it easy in Bulawayo. In colonial Rhodesia, where Africans had enthusiastically taken to Christianity, he and other musicians were often chastised for being agents of the devil himself.
It was said that his tunes tended to be “derogatory and vulgar” with his favourite song Pendeka, about the life of a prostitute, a firm example of this. In “An African Troubadour. The music of Josaya Hadebe. “S J M Mhlabi speaks of the social hostility towards popular music at that time. In one instance, an old woman rejoiced after she had crushed the famous “masiganda” Sabelo Mathe’s guitar, exclaiming “Ngimbulel’ uSathane. Ngimqamul’ imbambo!” (I have killed Satan. I have broken his ribs!)
Similarly, when Mhlali brought a guitar to St Columba’s School, where he was headmaster, he earned the wrath of an Anglican Church member who fumed over the presence of “Satan’s ribs.”
It is unclear if any of this ever affected, but in the 1950s, he migrated to South Africa. In Mzansi, Hadebe was a hit, as he would draw huge crowds when he came to busy towns and started strumming his guitar on street corners. Legend has it that when he visited the Bantu Sports Club in Johannesburg, in 1951, he caused a riot “as the crowds followed him through the tunnel, obstructing the soccer spectators from all sides of the field”.
During his travels, Hadebe would meet Phuzushukela and change the face of music in Mzansi forever. When they met, Hadebe reportedly taught the would-be legend the art of “ukuncinza intambo”. Phuzushukela headed the lessons and from then on the maskandi gospel spread like wildfire to KZN.
While Hadebe might now be a mere footnote in history, his influence has not been forgotten by some of Bulawayo’s most famous sons.
In an interview in the early 1990s, Lovemore Majaivana gave a nod to Hadebe and Sabelo Mathe, little-known men from the City of Kings who are undoubtedly music royalty that deserves their flowers, even in death.
“Of course what does it mean, if they had not lived I wouldn’t be here myself,” an indignant Majaivana said when asked if he knew of the pair.
“Sabelo and Josaya are the pioneers of this music. What I did was to broaden it. I think this is what it should be like, the young and up-coming artiste will take from me one day and broaden the sound, experiment further.”