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Shiyani Ngcobo: Musician who popularised the Zulu folk music known as maskanda

With the release of his only full-length album, Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo, on the UK’s World Music Network label in 2004, many doors were finally opened for a musician who had been playing since his teens. Although his understated “back-to-roots” take on the Zulu traditional maskanda style was largely ignored in South Africa, the recording led to two UK tours and helped put his music on the world stage.

Maskanda arose in the early 20th century among Zulu men forced to become migrant workers. Originally it was a “walking” style, usually played solo on an acoustic guitar ­ often a home-made, less resonant but more percussive variant called an igogogo. Popular contemporary maskanda frequently features kit drums, synthesisers and digital beats, and can be mixed with mbaqanga (“township jive”) and international pop flavours. In South Africa, its distinctively stomping, macho style has become intrinsically bound up with concepts of Zulu nationalism. However, Ngcobo shunned this approach in favour of a more intimate aesthetic that harked back to the likes of the mid-20th century maskanda icon John Bhengu (later “Phuzushukela”).

Ngcobo’s lyrics were more concerned with relationships, the struggles of working class life and death. “You didn’t get that strong sense of a popularised warrior, a powerful Zulu man. His is the music of a more vulnerable Zulu man,” observed Dr. Kathryn Olsen, a KwaZulu-Natal University academic closely associated with him in the latter part of his career.

Ngcobo became fascinated by maskanda at the age 13, when his older brother Khetuwise taught him the hypnotic traditional piece “Sevelina”. He later picked up others by ear at local celebrations. Their father was a heavy drinker who spent most of his meagre pay on his younger wife, and Shiyani never attended school. When he went to work on a local sugar cane plantation, his father stole his first pay packet and beat his protesting mother, who then left. “When she left I composed a song about her [which] said: ‘How can I forget my mother who has breastfed me?’” Ngcobo told the American journalist Banning Eyre in 2007.

Ngcobo left home soon afterwards and around 1970 began an itinerant life which initially took him to Durban and later, briefly, to Johannesburg. He worked sporadically in unskilled jobs, all the while pursuing an amateur passion for maskanda. Eventually he settled in Kwa Makutha, outside Durban, where he met his life partner Gertrude.

1989 saw Ngcobo’s biggest decisive step towards music as a profession when he won a lucrative maskanda competition at what is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal. From then on, he occasionally gave maskanda lessons there, showing great skill as a teacher. Eventually he acquired a manager, which led to him performing abroad for the first time in 1997 in Nantes, France, where he was dubbed the “Zulu bluesman”. Tours to Norway and Cameroon followed, and in 2000, he played at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia, where he first caught the ear of the British producer Ben Mandelson.

Although he had by then signed a recording contract in South Africa, this lapsed before enough material for an album was gathered; the song “Asihlale Phansi” eventually surfaced in 2002 on the compilation Roots And Ancestors Vol 1. The same year, Mandelson recorded some demos of Ngcobo and his bass player (the late Aaron Meyiwa) at Olsen’s home. These were for a BBC Radio 3 Andy Kershaw session, and “uMendo” became the lead track on Kershaw’s compilation More Great Moments of Vinyl History (Wrasse, 2004). Mandelson soon returned to South Africa, and produced Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo with a larger ensemble.

To coincide with its release, Ngcobo toured the UK in July 2004, playing the City Of London Festival and guesting on Charlie Gillett’s BBC London 94.9 FM show. The following year he was back, and appeared on Gillett’s BBC World Service show. His subsequent tours included Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, and in 2007, he made a celebrated US appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Theater. His last tour took him to the Netherlands in 2010.

Shiyani Ngcobo, musician and songwriter: born Umzinto, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa 1953; married (one daughter); died near Durban 18 February 2011.