Descendants of the Nguni, a Bantu people, and thus of the ancient Egyptians, the Zulu are an artful population of around 12 million, mostly living in South Africa’s coastal KwaZulu-Natal province. Zulu music is beloved around the world, and the popularity of Paul Simon’s use of it in his 1986 album Graceland led to a burst in popularity of world music.
Zulu music exists in multitudes: mbaqanga, maskandi, marabi, kwaito, jazz, isicathamiya (choral), etc. Much of Zulu contributions to music shares a shwabada, a Zulu term that means spiritual lineage. Whether it may be invoking the amadlozi (the ancestors), being against corruption and apartheid, practicing sanctity and dignity in urban life, singing a mother’s knowledge of plants—like Zim Ngqawana does—or performing ubungoma, Zulu for healing through music, the shwabada of Urban Zulu, the title of Busi Mhlongo’s classic 1999 album, marvels in contemporary music, and is at its highest in pianist (and sometimes wind instrumentalist) Nduduzo Makhathini’s and guitarist Sibusile Xaba’s ingoma (songs).
“It is not in one lifetime that you become a musician,” said pianist Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Molelekwa, who was found hanged at age 27 in 2001, is the amadlozi of music that Makhathini has now brought to new heights. Molelekwa’s Genes and Spirits is a masterpiece of melding spirit jazz, and contemporary hip hop, kwaito, and marabi grooves. Bheki Mseleku, also a pianist, is Makhatini’s mentor, and was one of Molelekwa’s main influences. “His music tells us that he has been here three or four times before,” said Molelekwa about Mseleku. Mseleku plays music in the lineage of John Coltrane. In Celebration (1992), Mseleku brings spiritual jazz together with marabi and mbaqanga and western classical music. Celebration is the musical maturity of Boet Gashe’s 1920s invention, that became marabi, the music of hot inner-city nights.
Makhathini, like Mseleku, plays spirit music. Nduduzo Makhathini is a sangoma, a traditional healer, who is interested in the cosmology from which the sounds that he plays emerged. It is a cosmology that he is sounding back into being. “Umlotha,” from his 2020 Blue Note release, Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds, is meant to echo this cosmology.
His album Ikhambi (2017) is meant to be a literal cure. His music is ubungoma, music with healing properties, of the underworlds, where the ancestors reside. Ubungoma is also the process of becoming spiritual, through song, if we allow dreams, visions, and music to take us there. “Amathambo” is a beautiful ubungoma. “Amathambo” is the story of Amathambo Wokwebelu who was given bones in a dream but lost them, until finding them again in piano keys, to which he was led by the ancestors. “O, Amathambo,” with whom we find ourselves singing along to, perhaps about ourselves.
Sibusile Xaba’s most recent album is aptly named NGIWU SHWABADA (2020). Sibusile is a native of KwaZulu-Natal, and a mentee of Madala Kunene, a giant of Zulu guitar who tells folk tales through his music. Kunene’s music is bright and communal. His phrases are repetitive, and timing and arrangements masterful. Kunene’s song “Abangoma” on Kon’ko Man (1996) soars through this.
The guitar is not a native Zulu instrument. The ugubhu, and the umakhweyana, both gourd bows, are the closest to it. Though the gourd bow is used to accompany vocals, the vocal scale is adapted to the tones of the gourd bow. In the Zulu tradition, the bow is played through friction (with the bow), plucking, or percussion, in full or partial vibrations. Melodies are made with overtones, which are partial vibrations. The overtones below the melody line are the ugubhu and unakhweyana’s isigibudu (harmonies). The tones, thus, are the effect of vibrations, where a full vibration is a fundamental tone. The hexatonic scale that all of this is based on (E-F-G sharp-A-B-C), is a scale that goes back to Zulu antiquity, a scale that has surely influenced Zulu language, given that vocal music is adapted to it.
The great achievement of Zulu guitar is to have transferred gourd bow traditions on the guitar, while blending it with other guitar styles and techniques in order to be cosmopolitan. Xaba’s guitar plays in the maskandi tradition. Like Kunene, his mastery of repetitive chordal playing is entrancing, and “UYAHLUPHA,” “UQONDILE,” “ABAKHOHLWANGA,” along with his vocals, feel like timeless ceremonies. Xaba’s playing is not as bright as Kunene’s but has the spirituality imparted by Kunene.
Carl Jung recounted that an African healer once told him that “we don’t dream anymore now that the British are here.” In a way, music grounded in Zulu tradition today is the story of Amathambo, who found his bones in music. After years of colonization and apartheid, musicians can now be their fullest self, and express their shwabada, their millennium old lineage.