Much more than a madala


Early one evening in April 2000, Jack and Mike (not their real names) joined me at my flat. We had planned to go to Splashy Fen. Later that evening, as catching up ran its course, Mike suggested that we should leave right away, and drive through the night. About thirty minutes later we were ready to go in a packed Uno, thinking about having breakfast in Underberg.

After breakfast we arrived at the farm. Cops searched cars just before the entrance. We shared a few pleasantries but got excited with the cop who could not contain his enthusiasm about their first child, a daughter. He was checking his phone regularly and made plans to go when he got the call. After handshakes, pats on his shoulder and laughter all round, we were looking for a camping spot.

Jack suggested we walk up the hill facing the stage, spotting a small tree where the three of us might get just enough shade. The band that was playing left the stage as we settled into our spot. We shared stories about years gone by with booze and smokes in between. A lazy sunshine afternoon in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains.

From the stage, too far to properly see who was on it, a sound was drifting through the afternoon. Seamlessly floating over grassland, over the river and up the hill. The rhythmic guitar edging away all other sounds and unevenness from the landscape. Growing into a wave, forceful yet calming as it drowned out all other thoughts.

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We just sat there. Having lost all interest in whatever we were talking about. Absorbing every moment. Slowly moving our heads and hands in sync with what became a captivating, brilliant expression of talent. What an artist. All we could see was one man and his guitar, standing, producing something so beautiful, so free.

After what felt like an hour, the song slowly, rhythmically, came to an end. Mike pulled out a programme, or what was left of it, after maneuvering it from his pocket. It took some time to re-adjust to reality. Nobody had a watch, so we judged the time of day, guessed the artist line-up and finally agreed that we had it right. It was Madala Kunene, the King of Zulu guitar.

Throughout the rest of the festival, we frequently affirmed that Madala Kunene was the best experience. His music anchored itself in our collective memory, still as firm today as I’m writing this, 21 years later. Shortly after the festival I acquired Madala Kunene’s album, King of Zulu Guitar Vol 1, and discovered the song he played that day was Nqo, Nqo, Nqu. A 16-minute exposé of brilliance.

Since then, I explored his work, albums, and collaborations. For instance, with Swiss guitarist Max Lasser or our very own Syd Kitchen, who passed away in 2011. Thank you Madala Kunene for being on stage that day. You have become so much more than a madala to me.

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