Shiyani Ngcobo

Shiyani Ngcobo is a master of maskanda music—the hypnotic, fingerpicking, acoustic-guitar boogie of South Africa’s Zulu people. It’s a singer-songwriter genre with roots in the cycling, repetitive airs of the southern African mouth bow—an instrument suitable for the long walks that are a common feature of life in the wide-open spaces of Zululand. Acoustic guitars became prevalent in South Africa early in the last century, but while some players took to imitating American country and western songs—Jimmy Rodgers was huge—as well as jazz and blues, pickers in Zululand adapted the instrument to their own traditions. The result was perhaps South Africa’s most distinctive guitar style. The Zulu inherit a warrior culture that is echoed in maskanda, where both the words and the music are full of proud, even boastful expression.
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“A maskanda musician can sing about social issues, and also tell a story with a guitar,” said Ngcobo during a recent stop in New York City, where he and his group performed at Carnegie Hall. “But the most important thing is to name yourself, and to praise yourself—the river you drink from, the mountains you see, and all the names your followers have given you.”

Every maskanda song begins with a flashy guitar introduction full of the player’s trademark touches. Ngcobo thinks of it as an attention grabber, like announcing yourself with “a knock on the door.” The piece then settles into an insistent, cycling groove, and, after some sweet, melodious singing that is often richly harmonized, the guitarist/singer shifts into a spitfire rap that tells his story.

In Ngcobo’s case, the tale is a meandering one.

Born in Zululand in 1953, he picked up guitar at the age of 13 from his older brother. Ngcobo started out on an instrument made from a stick of wood, a cooking oil tin, and fishing line. When his mother left home, fleeing her abusive husband, Ngcobo composed his first song for her, and soon began a transient life of his own, in and out of different households and jobs. As with other Zulu performing arts, the prime venue for maskanda musicians is the competition, where rivalry is fierce, and the judging is not always fair. After some frustrating years, Ngcobo won competitions in 1990 and ’91. He came by some money, but both times he was tricked out of the real prize: a chance to record his songs.

“I never gave up,” he recalled wistfully, “because I felt the guitar was in me.”

Eventually, outside producers recognized Ngcobo’s exceptional talent and began booking him into festivals in France, Norway, Cameroon, and Malaysia. In 2003, British producer Ben Mandelson heard Ngcobo at a festival in Durban, South Africa, and, in 2004, he produced Ngcobo’s one and only album, Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo [World Music Network]. Most commercial maskanda recordings bury the guitar beneath a thumping, programmed beat, booming bass, and keyboards. But Mandelson persuaded Ngcobo to keep it lean, filling out his picking mostly with vocals, violin, whistling, shakers, clapping, and nimble bass guitar played by Ngcobo’s longtime cohort, Alan Meyiwa. The album is a feast for the maskanda connoisseur—especially one keen to comprehend all that busy guitar picking.

Maskanda players typically tune the high-E string down to D, and use it as a drone. Melodies are often played using the bass strings, the thumb typically hammering out a strong, fast, pulsing flow of notes that requires formidable stamina. Ringing melodies—sometimes rendered in thirds or fourths by a busy forefinger—sound over the top as a kind of commentary on the bass melody. Ngcobo uses fingerpicks, but many maskanda players rely on fingernails. Everything cycles, moving systematically through a set of variations that follow the vocal. Capos are common, in part because they ease the action on battered, wavy-necked instruments, but also because they let a player bring characteristic C, F, and G picking forms up to the desired key for singing. Ngcobo actually tunes his guitar a half-step low, and then uses a capo to return it to standard pitch—a technique that produces a resonant buzz on certain bass notes, complementing his burnished, raspy voice.

Like so many roots players, Ngcobo is better at showing than explaining what he does, and he guards his secrets with mystic inscrutability. At the same time, Ngcobo says maskanda is “like any other music from any part of the world.” He proudly cites his sessions with South African jazz players, and says maskanda can be fused with other styles of music and “sound even better.” Still, if you want to play guitar with this guy, prepare your thumb for the workout of a lifetime.