In Memory of Soul Brothers’ David Masondo: a Musical Requiem Mass

David Masondo of Soul Brothers

 

From Jaston Binala in Tukuyu, Southern Tanzania.

 

The first week of July will always bring  painful memories among traditional Bantu music lovers  in southern Africa.  This is the week we lost David Masondo, the renowned Zulu music composer, singer  and dancer  who died two years ago.

Drum Magazine reported In May 2015, that David had been rushed to hospital after suffering from fatigue and exhaustion during a live performance in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He was still performing at age 67.

The magazine said David was rushed to hospital after the energetic performance. He died on July 5, 2015.  This article is written to honour the iconic South African artist this week—a requiem mass of sorts–to mark his absence from us during the last two years.

David Masondo sang love and passion in Zulu language, but his songs could be understood by virtually all tribes in Southern Africa because music is in a sense a spiritual experience.  His musical band also toured France, Germany and Canada because music knows no borders.

The  Mbakanga´ music  he played was accepted  from Bulawayo to Maputo;  from Gaborone to Lusaka, from Chitipa to Dar es Salaam. David will be missed for centuries in Southern Africa.

The artist  co-founded the musical band  Soul Brothers with a team of friends then he became their  lead vocalist and dancer.    Most music reviewers concede Soul Brothers played unique Music–which suggests that David was a unique artist.

The year 2015 will therefore go into history as a terrible year for  Bantu music lovers in this region and elsewhere because this was the year one of our brightest shining stars in African music went dim.

But to understand David Masondo better, you should first understand his musical band—The Soul Brothers of South Africa.  The website www.AllMusic.com tells this story best. Few musical bands last 30 years, the music writer Chris Nickson  says on this website.  And fewer bands help define a country’s music the way the Soul Brothers have defined South African music.

Soul Brothers’ particular take on ‘mbaqanga’ music — the ubiquitous township jive — has made them stars in their homeland, with more than 30 albums covering their time.

The now late singer David Masondo and keyboardist Moses Ngwenya had been playing together since 1976, but the genesis of the Soul Brothers goes back further, to the Groovy Boys, a 1970 Natal band where Masondo was the drummer. The Natal band didn’t last, but Masondo, bassist Zakes Mchunu, and guitarist Tuza Mthethwa kept the music alive while working in a factory. In 1974 they made a leap of faith, 600 miles to Johannesburg, seeking fame and fortune–neither of which arrived quickly.

They played sessions, accompanied other bands, all the while working on their own sound, and taking on the name the Soul Brothers — a very apt moniker for a bunch more influenced by American soul than the prevailing British pop trend, mixing it with the township jive they’d grown up hearing.

The turning point came in 1976, when Ngwenya joined, bringing his Hammond B3 organ sound into the mix; and rhythm guitarist American Zulu also came into the fold.

Suddenly the chemistry was perfect, as their first two singles, “Mshoza Yami” and “Mama Ka S’Bongile,” showed, both becoming massive South African hits. They were flying high; but suddenly came an Icarus-like descent, as founder Mthethwa died in an auto accident in 1979, then Zulu quit in 1982.

However, the band went on to release Isiphiwo, which sold more than 200,000 copies — bouncing back very well. But they seemed dogged by bad luck. No sooner had they signed with Priority Records and released Isicelo, a massive hit album, when Mchunu also became a fatal victim of a car wreck in 1984.

For a while it seemed as if the Soul Brothers would just quit. But Masondo and Ngwenya decided to continue, drafting in new personnel (Maxwell Mngadi, lead guitar; Sicelo Ndlela, bass), and going back into the studio and keeping a prolific release schedule throughout the ’80s, with at least one album a year.

Their sound even made it out of South Africa, when England’s Earthworks released the compilation Jive Explosion, which covered their hits of the last decade. Using that as a springboard, they even toured overseas, in Europe and the U.S., playing the ceremony in Olso when Nelson Mandela and F.W. deKlerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The result of being on the road was that they released no album in 1990, but more than made up for it the following year, when no less than 13 Soul Brothers albums — a figure that included reissues — made it to the shelves., with seven more in 1994.

From 1995 on, the band more or less owned the South African Music Association award for best mabaqanga album, winning it for six straight years. Ngwenya has also issued solo records. In 2001, Rough Guide to the Soul Brothers offered a capsule overview of their career.

Then the year 2015 came, and David  Masondo was no more. The online edition of  The Sowetan, a Johannesburg based daily newspaper  says the artist seems to have predicted his own death. When the late Soul Brothers lead singer David Masondo belted out Ningakhali, no one noticed that he was prophesying about his death, The Sowetan says in a eulogy.

The ballad, jointly composed by Masondo and Moses Ngwenya, was recorded two weeks before Masondo was admitted to hospital where he died. It’s a touching song that offers comfort to families in grief.  The song goes on to say that the bereaved must accept that their beloved has departed and allow them to rest in peace.

In part the lyrics, roughly translated, say: “As family, let’s accept what has befallen us. God gives and God takes away. Be strong. What has happened is a familiar journey that all must travel and, as believers, we must accept and pave the departed’s way to the Creator.”

A month later, the same song was sung to his family at his funeral. And now it has been immortalised as part of the 10-track album released through The Soul Brothers Records.

Time Out was invited to a private listening session as the team that includes Ngwenya, Sicelo Ndlela and Nkosinathi Ngwenya put the final touches to the album before it goes for mixing.

Spiritual experience: Soul Brothers’ Moses Ngwenya says the group feels the presence of David Masondo every time they perform.  Photo Credit: Veli Nhlapo

Ngwenya says when he listened to the songs after the funeral he realised that Masondo knew that he was going to die.

“This is one of the songs that really make us emotional. We start having images of him while recording the album,” Ngwenya says. Masondo was buried in Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.

Ngwenya, admits the group is still struggling to adjust. He says they had to pick up the pieces and continue with the production of the album.

Ngwenya recounts how the first week in studio was after Masondo died. They all stood there not saying a word to each other. When they finally started speaking, they reminisced about Masondo’s last days and his life. Ngwenya remembers how Masondo would sit in the studio wearing his favourite black coat.

“He sat right there,” he says pointing at a couch. “He would wear his black coat whether it was hot or cold. Sometimes he would not say anything.”

Since Soul Brothers have been recording professionally for 39 years, they wanted to make the 40th album a special one.  As a result, they have featured their oldest industry counterpart, Steve Kekana, who gave them a run for their money in the 1980s.

Soul Bothers manager Bethwell Ngubane recounts: “Steve used to give [us] serious competition. He was very naughty because he would wait for Soul Brothers to release an album and then come up with something hotter than ours.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is featured in Hlisani Umoya and maskandi legend Ihashi Elimhlophe is featured in Uthembeni. Meanwhile, the followers of the group are waiting impatiently to see who will replace Masondo.

Ngwenya and Ngubane are quick to point out that Masondo is irreplaceable. Instead, they will use Nhlanhla Hadebe, who has been working with Soul Brothers for 15 years. Hadebe will alternate with Nkosinathi Ngwenya. Ngwenya feels that Masondo’s spirit is with them when they perform.

After dropping their album, the group will be touring Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Reflecting on their four decades in the music industry, Ngwenya says they will continue producing young groups in the stable.