The late Welcome “Bhodloza” Nzimande must have listened with pride as maskandi dominated Durban-based Ukhozi FM’s annual Ingoma Ehlukanisa Unyaka competition for the past two years in a row. Ntencane’s 2019 hit, Wawuthembeni, might not have ushered the station’s listeners into 2020 because of legal challenges over the concept of the competition, in which listeners choose their favourite song of the year, but it was the undisputed winner. And last year, the talented Khuzani Mpungose’s Ijele received almost one million votes to be the first song the station’s listeners heard in 2021.
The 73-year-old Nzimande, who died on 15 January from Covid-19-related complications, was a champion of maskandi even before he became the station manager of Ukhozi FM, which has the largest listenership in South Africa with about 7.7 million people tuning in each week.
Over the course of his life, Nzimande discovered some of the country’s finest talent, formed a maskandi supergroup with an awareness of music’s power that preached unity during a turbulent political time, and worked to guard against the genre being marginalised.
Maskandi, which grew its roots in urban hostels when rural people came to the cities as migrant labour on the mines, had been pushed to the margins by mainstream radio for years, despite enjoying popular support. But Bhodloza insisted that traditional music needed airplay like all other genres of music, and today maskandi enjoys wide support on radio.
Nzimande spent 32 years of his working life at Ukhozi FM. He joined the station as an announcer in 1978 when it was still called Radio Zulu, moving up through its ranks to become station manager in 1997, a position he held for 13 years. Under his management, the station became the most listened to on the continent. For 19 years he was also behind the mic, from where he championed different kinds of traditional music through various programmes, including Ezidlubhedu and Sigiya Ngengoma.
The success of maskandi in the station’s popular competition first came through Mroza Fakude’s Elamanqamu Namhlanje in the transition from 2016 to 2017. One could argue that it should have come earlier, with maskandi artists like Ihashi Elimhlophe, Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Shwi Nomtekhala, Izingane Zoma and many others giving the nation hits year in and year out. But because of the genre’s marginalisation when it came to choosing the song of the year, it was never considered and kwaito, and later gqom, were the undisputed owners of the slot.
That’s why Bhodloza’s role in championing maskandi should never be underestimated. Towards the end of his career behind the mic, Bhodloza had already had a massive impact on the genre, so much so that the artists Phuzekhemisi and his late brother Khethani composed a song in his honour in 1994 for their album Emapalamende. In it, they sing:
“Thina Zulu’omnyama sizoyibonga ngani na Ingulube Encane,
sisho uBhodloza umfoka Nzimande, ingulube encane
Yakhulisa isizwe sakithi singelutho ingulube encane.”
The brothers ask how the Zulu nation is going to thank Bhodloza, the son of Nzimande who has done so much for a nation whose identity had been obliterated by colonialism and apartheid. The song is titled Ingulube Encane, one of Bhodloza’s nicknames.
In September 2018, the Durban University of Technology heard Phuzekhemisi and Khethani’s call. The faculty of arts and design conferred an honorary doctorate of philosophy in visual and performing arts on Bhodloza, acknowledging his contribution towards growing traditional music on radio and television through his show Ezodumo.
Accepting the honour, Bhodloza expressed how he “took a keen liking” to maskandi music. “It was a genre that was not popular to the listeners and often derided by colleagues. Nonetheless, I took on the challenge of popularising maskandi music through innovation. I introduced maskandi competitions, which brought public attention to the genre and thoroughly engaged listeners and artists.”
In 1987, at one of his talent searches held at the then University of Natal, Bhodloza discovered the brilliant Mphatheni Khumalo, popularly known as Mfaz’Omnyama. The late cultural historian Ntongela Masilela once wrote that “the day Mfaz’Omnyama is fully understood in our country, it will most probably bring about the revival and renewal of interest in the poetry of SEK Mqhayi”. We wouldn’t have experienced the genius of Mfaz’Omnyama if it was not for Bhodloza.
The music legend Bheki Ngcobo, known as Ihhashi Elimhlophe, affirms the sentiment that Bhodloza did more than just play the music on radio and television. “What was amazing about Bhodloza was that he played maskandi music and promoted it at the same time,” says Ngcobo, who has recorded almost 30 solo studio albums and attributes both his success and that of maskandi to Bhodloza.
For him, Bhodloza looked beyond the lyrics and also appreciated the skill and arrangement of a song. “You would hear him say, ‘Do you hear the bass, do you hear the guitar?’ You see, he really pushed and supported the music and made sure that you got the message and understood the music,” adds Ngcobo.
Alongside deeply understanding the music and its message, Bhodloza was also keenly aware that cultural forms play a political role in society. In the mid to late 1990s, KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng were engulfed in a civil war in which many died and thousands were displaced. In Richmond, where Bhodloza was born, the violence was rife. In the midst of this rampant violence a maskandi supergroup was formed.
It is Nina Simone who said “an artist’s duty, as far as I am concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptures, poets, musicians… How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.”
Bhodloza used to do satire through maskandi music and “had a song that went something along the lines of ‘ibhabhalazi labulala obaba [hangover that killed our fathers]’,”remembers Ngcobo with a chuckle.
During this time, Bhodloza approached Phuzekhemisi, Ihashi Elimhlophe and the late Mfaz’Omnyama to form a group. Ngcobo explains that Bhodloza initially wanted to do a bigger project of satire infused with maskandi, and he approached the three artists to do four songs each for him.
Peace and advocacy
When the recording was done, however, the initial idea of adding commentary to the recorded songs was canned because Bhodloza and the other producers thought the three could make a formidable group. In the violent context of the time, Bhodloza was convinced that the group could have a huge impact on peace-making and advocacy through music.
Ngcobo says it was Bhodloza who came with the group’s name, Izingqungqulu Zomhlaba. The first album’s title, Sxaxa Mbij’, also became the unofficial name of the group among maskandi fans and went on to be the title of all their albums, just numbered differently. Their music reflected the times. The impact of Izingqungqulu Zomhlaba was immediate.
Looking back at this period, Ngcobo says the “songs are different. There are songs of happiness and joy and there are songs that have positive messaging.” For example, he says, “there are songs that remind us of our identity – who we are as a people”.
He adds that the songs had a profound impact on people. “I remember one day there was a young man who approached me. He told me that he got possession of a gun and wanted to kill someone. In the middle of those thoughts, a song called Ubuntu Abande Ebantwini played. He felt that the song was speaking directly to him. He thought of the consequences of his action – the fact that he will be arrested and his children will grow up without a father. The children of the person he wanted to kill would be without a parent as well,” explains Ngcobo.
This was certainly the objective of Bhodloza when they conceived of the idea of Sxaxa Mbij’. A collaboration between three artists in their prime made people realise it was possible to do things as a unit and stop the fighting, says Ngcobo. Bhodloza’s peace initiative also extended to a bitter rivalry in the history of South African music between followers of the late artists Mgqumeni and Mtshengiseni.
On a personal level, Ngcobo appreciates Bhodloza for forming the group. “Before the formation of Is’xaxa we knew each other and respected each other as artists in the same industry. But with the formation of the group we became like blood brothers,” says Ngcobo.
For the maskandi icon, this memory also means that those in power must ensure there is an annual maskandi festival named after Bhodloza in Richmond and also a statue of him built in his hometown. The premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, has committed to renaming the Endaleni college for further education and training in Richmond after the pioneer.
The legacy of Bhodloza will live on through the artists on whom he had an impact, the institutions he helped to create like the South African Traditional Music Association, and his powerful, lasting influence on maskandi.