Obituary: West Nkosi

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The Independent Culture
AS A performer and a producer, West Nkosi was one of the most important forces in developing a distinctive form of South African popular music, and in introducing it to the outside world.

Nkosi was born in the Eastern Transvaal in 1940 and first encountered music, like many rural African children, playing a home-made three-hole reed flute to herd cattle. At the age of 16 he was sent to live with his grandfather in Pretoria, where he earned enough money as a market porter to buy a German tin, six-hole penny whistle. This was the staple instrument of the penny whistle jive or kwela bands which burgeoned during the penny whistle craze of the 1950s.

Kwela, originally the music of newly urbanised black youth, acquired a following among white South Africans. Groups of young black musicians travelled into the white suburbs to busk on street corners. The word kwela means "climb up", the order given by the crews of the police vans which picked the musicians up for alleged disorder. Nkosi became a kwela whistler, formed his first group, the Pretoria Tower Boys, and with another group, Bon Accord, recorded his first 78rpm record.

By the end of the 1950s, Nkosi was working as a domestic servant, and moonlighting as a penny whistler and fledgling songwriter for the recording group Spokes Mashiyane and his All Star Flutes. In 1958, the Mashiyane band's huge hit "Big Joe Special" introduced the saxophone, with its sophisticated international image, as replacement for the penny whistle, and sax jive became all the rage.

Nkosi invested his savings in a second-hand saxophone and was at the forefront of the new sound. By this time he had made friends with three other aspirant young musicians, a guitarist, Marks Mankwane, a bass-player, Joseph Makwela, and a drummer, Lucky Monama, and together they began to develop a fast, hard modern sound making use of electric bass guitar for the first time and featuring strongly Mankwane's lead guitar.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the foursome moved to Johannesburg, the biggest and most developed city in sub-Saharan Africa, and began to work as session musicians for the Gallo record company. At this time, the African repertoire of the white-run record companies was chosen by a handful of powerful black talent scout/producers, of whom the most legendary was Rupert Bopape of Gallo.

Nkosi's own work at first failed to impress Bopape, but after the young saxophonist recorded a successful single with a rival company, Bopape decided to develop his career. This at first involved creating a new group, the Hollywood Jazz Band, around a nucleus of Nkosi and his three friends. The band toured southern Africa for some months before dissolving, primarily because Nkosi wanted to return to Johannesburg to be with his wife and new baby.

Back at the Gallo recording studios, Nkosi and his colleagues began to work with another of the label's acts, a "vocal jive" group named Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. The Queens came from the strong Zulu harmony vocal tradition, while Mahlathini's powerful gravelly bass voice was a perfect vehicle for the popular male style known as "groaning". With the addition of the Nkosi group's dynamic new sax jive backing, a winning combination was born.

Nkosi and his musicians christened themselves the Makgona Tsohle ("Jack of All Trades") band and began touring, to instant acclaim and wide emulation. The new sound, which superseded kwela and dominated the black South African sales throughout the 1960s, came to be called mbaqanga, after a common township dumpling dish.

In the mid-1970s, the mbaqanga boom died down, overtaken by American disco, but by this time Nkosi was also a producer, following hard on the heels of Rupert Bopape, whom he considered to be missing potentially successful acts. One such was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a seven-piece group from the Zulu a cappella choir tradition, a flourishing minority genre which featured powerful intricate male harmony and accompanying virtuoso dance routines. Until Nkosi's intervention, this music had been confined to ghetto radio: his 1973 hit production of the first album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo changed this, and made the group stars.

It was more than a decade before Nkosi's work came to international prominence, by which time mbaqanga was long past the peak of its popularity in South Africa. In 1986, Paul Simon, who had been introduced to South African township music via a BBC TV documentary, invited Nkosi and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to New York to participate on his album Graceland. The world-wide success of this record created such interest in Zulu-based music that Nkosi was able to re-form the Makgona Tsohle band and embark on a new decade of international touring and recording with Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens, while Ladysmith Black Mambazo went on to become album chart stars in Europe.

Although the styles he created form only a small niche in the booming 1990s Johannesburg music scene, Nkosi was regarded as one of the South African recording industry's most influential figures.

West Nkosi, musician, songwriter, record producer: born Nelspruit, South Africa 1940; married Tammy Vilikazi (three daughters); died 15 October 1998.