The gripping sounds of a man on the rise
Just mention the name Nkunz’emdaka to anyone in the traditional music industry and they’ll know you’re talking about the legendary maskandi singer, one of the founding fathers of the genre.
Despite having produced more that 30 albums and winning many accolades, there is little documented about him.
An internet search produces only two articles that refer to him, and not a single profile.
The legendary maskandi singer was honoured on Saturday when he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to maskandi music.
“At last I have been recognised at home. This will bolster my strength to work hard promoting maskandi. I wish the youth can embrace this genre and preserve it as our heritage,” he said.
The awards were organised by the department of sport, arts and culture.
The 61-year-old father of seven – three sons and four daughters – has had two of his sons, Nkunz’encane and Phumakhasi, follow him into the maskandi business.
Despite a limited formal education Nkunz’emdaka, who was born Mlindelwa Mralatya, is a profound treasure in the music industry and as a mentor to many people, both young and old.
Confirming this status, Nkunz’emdaka was this year invited to Rhodes University in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) to be a Mellon Foundation writer-in-residence, as a singer, composer and producer of the South African traditional music genre – maskandi.
While there, Nkunz’emdaka had three months of holding seminars on maskandi music, poetry and composing.
The word maskandi is taken from the Afrikaans word “musikant” (musician), and refers to a musician who plays traditional tunes on a guitar. Maskandi music draws heavily from the practices of composing and performing izibongo (praise poetry).
The man with only a Grade 4 education qualification has had the pleasure of taking university students, including academics like doctors and professors, through a musical journey with himself and maskandi music as the focus.
Soga Mlandu, author and former King Sabata Dalindyebo municipal councillor, proposed Nkunz'emdaka to the university and was thrilled when everyone agreed with his choice.
“He is regarded as the third father of masikandi music following Phuz’ushukela and Mfaz’omnyama who have since passed on.
“His music and performances are enjoyed by audiences nationwide as well as in the Eastern Cape and KZN,'' said Mlandu.
Nkunz’emdaka was born in Nqabeni village in Flagstaff on February 10 1957, and later moved to Nkantolo village in Mbizana in 1983.
Due to infighting among AmaMpondo cultural groups, Amabhungu and Iindlavini, this year he relocated after his homestead was damaged and one man died in the fighting.
He began his music career as a flute player, only later changing to playing the guitar to accompany his vocals.
His singing style was influenced by his aunts at home. Phuzushukela, the late maskandi maestro, was another major influence on his music.
His first recorded album, Ibhubesi Elehlule Amadoda was released in 1985, beginning a highly successful musical career spanning over three decades of song composition and recording. “But that was the album that introduced the public to my music,” he said.
Nkunz’emdaka has won awards in the South African Traditional Music Achievements (Satma) Awards and the South African Music Awards (Samas) and among his many accolades are:
• Satma Awards: 2017 as best isiXhosa Recording Artist;
• Standard Bank summer award 8 as the best isiZulu musician;
• Standard Bank summer award 9 as the best isiXhosa musician;
• In 2007 he received an ornamental horn from the KwaZulu-Natal Arts and Culture Department’s Amantshontsho Kamasikandi Awards in Durban for excellence of his music and performances; and
• He has also received a platinum award from Universal as the best-selling maskandi music.
Nkunz'emdaka grew up looking after livestock and his stage name came about because he was dark in complexion.
He said that growing up he was called “Thobazithathe”.
He dropped out of school when in Grade 4 at Fundambini Primary School when he decided to go and look for a job in the sugarcane fields at Mzinto in KwaZulu-Natal.
“It was there at Mzinto where I met Mphendukelwa Mkhize who was good at playing guitar. While I was at home I could only play flute. Later I became perfect at playing guitar – thanks to Mkhize.”
One year when Nkunz’emdaka went to uKhozi FM in Durban he was met by presenter Masonto Buthelezi who recorded one of his songs which was aired a week later.
He got further encouragement and inspiration from veteran presenter Welcome “Bhodloza” Nzimande who said he should go and record in Johannesburg.
Nkunz’emdaka eventually did record – with Gallo Records – where he was assisted by recording studio’s producer West Nkosi and Joseph Makwela. He later signed with the Cool Sport Studios, but there was some dissatisfaction and I later left them to join Universal Records.
The musician said it had always been his dream to pass on his knowledge of maskandi.
“I was shocked to be called by the university – I first could not imagine myself in front of a class of university students – black and white and well as academics. But God has His plans,” he said.
Despite being in the music industry for many years, Nkunz'emdaka said being a tutor at Rhodes University showed that “I’m valued and that the people of SA value this kind of music which is sometimes referred to as music of the illiterate”.
Nkunz'emdaka said he wanted students to remember him as a selfless person who wanted maskandi musicians to flourish. He said he was worried that there were too few Xhosa speakers in the maskandi music business, compared to those in KwaZulu-Natal.
His love of music, especially the maskandi genre is inspired by the music of the likes of the late Phuzushukela Bhengu of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Music is in my veins. When I am happy, I sing, when I am hurting I find solace in God and in my guitar. Music takes me into another world and brings me peace and harmony,” he said
The legendary singer complained piracy was a rot destroying gains to musicians.
“This bleeds us poor, it just kills us, hence many musicians die paupers,” he said sadly...