08/03/2017 04:55 SAST | Updated 08/03/2017 04:55 SAST

How Maskandi Continues To Tell Our Tales

Maskandi music has told a story of identity, concerns of land tax, indicated a gendered space being infiltrated, and education against social ills.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Growing up in Ulundi, KwaZulu Natal, I remember hearing Phuzekhemisi performing a song called "Imbizo". This was a catchy tune which at the time and held no deeper meaning for me other than a song played on radio. What captured my attention, even before the words were sung, was the distinct guitar and mosquito-like sound that instantly alerted me that this wasn't just any style of music. I came to know it as maskandi. With time, tacit knowledge taught me that in a few minutes the musician would - in a quick recitation - say his self-praises; these were distinct to his clan or his personal background in what sounded like a female mimicking pitch.

Somehow, this evoked enthusiasm in me. It created a feeling as though through this brief introduction, I knew the musician; where he was from and the valleys he walked through as a boy. For a brief minute I, a Zulu girl from the township, could see him and the valleys of his village in every high pitch note. I came to know of his cultural identity and where he was from. Later on, as I got older and started analysing the song, it became evident that the song spoke of paying land taxes and the fact that through migrant work, black Africans had to pay for the land that he and his family inhabited.

Time passed, I grew older and started hearing music form Johannesburg artists, watched more TV than I listened to radio. Consumed by the flashiness of urban culture, I forgot about maskandi for a while. That was until I heard Izingane Zoma's "Isidina Sikamahlalela". Again, the distinct instruments captured me and this time, the female-like voices I heard were actually women singing in the song. Surely, this meant more than just women singing about social ills of an abusive and unemployed man that they were tired of. Times were changing and women were entering a male dominated space, I thought to myself. At a personal level, Izigane Zoma indicated a change; the audacity and tenacity for women to sing about social issues and about the things that they as women were tired of.

Fast forward to 2016, nearly every second person I met was reciting the line: "Sobulala uVan Damme". For many this one line indicated their plan to get wild at a party or to just let go of the stresses of 2016 and enter well and with jubilee into the New Year. All of this, I later found out, originated from the song by Mroza Mkhathazi with the same title.

These are but a few examples where maskandi music has told a story of male identity, concerns of the land tax, indicated a gendered space being infiltrated, and the education against social ills facing the country. Maskandi music seems to share community stories of identity (and gendered identity), interactions and brings to public attention the areas of contestation. But sadly, too few of us (I am equally guilty) self proclaimed "urban youths" know of the origin, the impact and stories that this genre of music has been and continues to tell.

So, in an attempt to rectify my ignorance, I decided to conduct some research on maskandi music and I must shamefully admit that most of the interesting information that I learnt, I did not know. As a way then of making sure that this ignorance ends with me, I decided to share with you some of the information that I found interesting.

Some quick insights into Maskandi:

  • The word "maskandi" is derived from the Afrikaans word "musikant" meaning musician.
  • The origin of maskandi music can be traced back to the emergence of the South African migrant labour system. Migrant workers would sing and perform maskandi while reminiscing about their distant homes back in the villages, their lost love and to cure boredom while at the mines and factories.
  • The music genre combines the use of vernacular lyrics with Western musical instruments such as guitar, concertina, violin, and piano accordion. What makes maskandi recognisable is the distinct guitar and concertina which is 'doctored' to produce a certain pitch and the self praises that the musicians say when introducing the song.
  • The use of traditional praises in the performance of the song is what makes many writers refer to maskandi as "poetry".
  • Although maskandi has popularly been known as a typically "Zulu" type of music performed by Zulu men, many literary and academic scholars have argued that contemporary maskandi is not limited to the Zulu culture, but is found in isiXhosa, isiNdebele, Sesotho, and Setswana culture.
The translation of a Maskandi song into a hashtag in 2016 clearly shows that this music is here to stay. And I for one can't wait to discover more messages and lessons that this genre has to offer. I hope to share these lessons and insights with you as we shed some light on my former ignorance of the knowledge held in indigenous songs.