Maskanda Roots here at Electric Jive.
According to Rob Allingham’s detailed account in the liner notes of the excellent compilation CD Singing in an Open Space, “John Bhengu was the first South African rural recording artist to come to prominence. He was born at Nkandla in Southern Zululand on March 24, 1930. By the late 1940s he had migrated to Durban where he achieved a measure of local fame in street music competitions. The audience would judge these informal affairs on how skillfully a musician integrated a traditional song with guitar, the technique and originality employed in the izihlabo — the introductory instrumental flourish — and the rendering of the ukubonga, the declamatory centerpiece which might praise family, clan, chief and fame, not money. Bhengu’s success at these contests must have been partially due to his mastery of these elements. They remained an integral part of his style for the rest of his career, not to mention that of practically every other Zulu traditional musician who followed after him.” (Allingham)
Bulawayo omasiganda, Josaya Hadebe is said to have been an influence on the young Bhengu who’s unique finger-picking style or ukupika set him apart from other contemporary Zulu performers who strummed or vamped their guitars. Bhengu claimed to have originated the finger-picking style though some accounts have it that he “copied the style after hearing it in a Durban beer hall frequented by a group of amateur musicians from the Umkomaas district.” (Allingham)
On a visit to Johannesburg around 1955, Bhengu met producer Cuthbert Mathumba and recorded his first tune Ilanga Libalela ("The Blazing Sun") with Troubadour Records (David Coplan). As Allingham reveals, after Mathumba’s death, Bhengu moved to Trutone in 1968 and then worked for a short period with producer Cambridge Matiwane, who may have been instrumental in getting him to perform with a backing band, a notable departure for maskanda music at the time. (Coplan suggests that it was Mathumba at Troubadour that initiated this urbanisation process.) The Trutone recordings were also Bhengu’s first to use the name Phuzushukela (or "Sugar Drinker") and the rest is history!
As Phuzushukela, Bhengu moved to GRC in 1971, where producer Hamilton Nzimande electrified his sound with a full mbaqanga backing band and dancers. The combination of traditional maskanda with the heavy bass lines of mbaqanga produced a product that was irresistible and a formulae that remained for the next 30 years.
Coplan elaborates on Bengu’s appeal in his book In Township Tonight: “The amplified instrumentation provided Phuzushukela’s music with compelling, danceable rhythms and improved its appeal to African working-class audiences. Though his playing and singing retained their original integrity, Phuzushukela’s stage appearances and recordings clearly represented an artistic compromise with commercial appeal. Significantly, his dancers did not reproduce but rather broadly satirized traditional dance, and acrobatic turns by male dancers in warrior dress greeted by screams of laughter from the appreciative audience.” (Coplan)
Produced by Hamilton Nzimande at GRC in 1982, this album was Bhengu’s last before his death on February 22, 1985. Tracks three through six are particularly excellent and thought the album has no liner notes, Bhengu’s ukubonga, on track four give’s a shout-out to the brilliant Noise Khanyile on violin.
Phuzushukela is of course not to be confused with Phuzekhemisi, another hugely popular but contemporary exponent of the maskanda tradition.