Madala Kunene, commonly referred to as the king of the Zulu guitar, lives in a house in the middle of a newly gentrified suburb just outside of Durban in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. He is often described as an mbaqanga or maskandi artist—something he personally hates. Kunene is an artist who is constantly shifting between musical habitats. He has no interest in genre specifications and prescriptions. Instead, his brand of blues operates in an opaque space where cool jazz, maskandi, mbaqanga, and a myriad of East Coast blues intersect.
“Music that’s one-dimensional never connects with people,” Kunene says. “I grew up listening to a lot of Duke Ellington and The Beatles. Even then, I realized that this music was from elsewhere but that it also had bits and pieces and sounds that I could recognize from my own life. And that was liberating because it allowed me to merge things from different sounds that I liked, giving me ownership of that process.” This merger of sounds is something Kunene has dubbed “The Madalaline.”
Kunene is best known for his 1995 debut album Konko Man (Strong Man). “It was an expression of how I was at the time and my views on a lot of things. I am surprised by how people still look to that album as a blueprint for my sound,” he says. Konko Man sounds and feels like both the start of something (post-Apartheid feelings of isolation) and the end of 1980s Zulu throwaway pop. It’s also the most powerful record in Kunene’s recorded discography. It’s the kind of album that tends to come out when a musician has spent years preparing for it.
Kunene was born in 1951 in Mkhumbane, a vibrant mixed community just outside of inner Durban. The son of a carpenter, Kunene was raised by his grandmother—a staunch academic who wanted him to be something of a bookworm. At the age of eight, Kunene and some members of his extended family were trucked off by the Apartheid government to go live in the then relatively new township of KwaMashu.
“People can’t imagine what it’s like when you see bulldozers demolish your home in the middle of the night,” recalls Kunene. “The worst thing was that when they moved us, they came at night and packed my family into the back of a truck and then went to another area to pick up another family there and so on. So you were not just separated from your home, you were stripped of your friends and neighbors in the process. It was a very calculated act,” he adds.
As a meditation on his history, Kunene recently released 1959. The album explores dense and often melancholic subject matter, especially Kunene’s own history as a victim of forced removal. “I’ve never spoken about those experiences in my music in an earnest way. I wanted to recall them and most importantly make a personal album that was looking internally at my personal history rather than looking out,” says Kunene. 1959 is a blues album with slightly more muscle—a personal catharsis and an attempt to exercise the muscle of memory through music. Insistent and unrelenting, 1959 is Kunene’s urban war cry. It is a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man of faith, a sonic investigation that tries to make sense of the gradual process of sanitizing history—how the real past is purged for the sake of a historical sound bite.
“Music is the best medium to record and tell history. As African people, the way we know and understand our past is very influenced by music,” Kunene says. “So if I can add one layer of context that can help in understanding this period in our history, then that is great.”