By Chris Spiewak |
Every person regardless of race, creed or color is on a journey through life. While some are simple and some are complex, all journeys are interesting in their own way. For some people, however, an event occurs that profoundly affects them and changes the route of their journey. Singer/songwriter Mthakathi (pronounced m-TAA-gaa-tee, with the ‘m’ enunciated quietly) is one of these people, giving up the cover band scene of the late 80s to embark on a South African music voyage.
Born in the U.S. and spending much of his adolescent time in Washington, D.C., he developed the love of music at an early age. Spending time honing his skills on the guitar, he decided that music would be his career, performing in top 40 bands in the metro D.C. area for a dozen years after high school. Realizing a talent for writing, Mthakathi recalls one of his music teachers at a local community college, Professor Herb Smith, who encouraged Mthakathi to think outside the box by mixing odd meters and unique chord structures within his compositions. Mthakathi took this advice to heart, and it would help shape his future.
About this time, he came upon a mix tape of different music styles, and on this tape was an example of the guitar-based Maskanda music from South Africa, sometimes referred to as “Zulu blues.” Open to new paths on which to continue his journey, Mthakathi became captivated by this music. He envisioned opportunities to create a new and distinctive sound combining American and Zulu styles of music. Relocating to New Jersey with new wife Pattie, he set out on the next chapter of his life.
Not content with just listening to the music, Ema, as Mthakathi is known to friends, immersed himself in the culture of the Zulu people, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. For several years he studied the area from his homes in Ridgewood and Asbury Park, and learned the language with the help of a linguist. He was now ready to make his initial trek to Johannesburg and put his ideas into motion.
Unfortunately for Ema, the apartheid system was in effect during his first trip, and all of the contact information he was given by U.S. friends was no longer valid; people had moved or had been taken away. Frustrated, he made his way to the American consulate, where he was directed to the Holiday Inn. Eager to interact with the local musicians, he pondered his next step. A consulate member directed him to a nearby music store, where he conversed with the clerk, Pops Mohamed, a prominent local musician and music preservationist. Mohamed, both surprised and impressed that Ema knew of Maskanda artist Aaron Mbambo, welcomed him with open arms and the two would become lifelong friends. With Mohamed introducing him to many other musicians in the area, Ema felt at home, even though it was 8,000 miles away from New Jersey. The Zulu people and Ema became great supporters of each other, and they would soon make beautiful music together.
Through the ‘90s and early 2000s, Ema made yearly excursions to South Africa, and wrote prolifically. In 2008, recording both here in New Jersey and in Johannesburg, he released his first CD entitled “Ownership” featuring many talented South African artists. With vast knowledge of Maskanda and marabi (a type of South African jazz/blues) music, this extraordinary songwriter has combined the best of both continents. His compositions cover many genres of music; if you like traditional American rock, jazz or blues, this album is for you. If you love the South African sounds of marabi, reggae or Kwaito, this album is for you. Ema has created an amazing synthesis of sound, which can aptly be described as “World Music.” He is an authentic storyteller and willingly admits that he is a writer first and a musician second. Listening to his mastery on the guitar may make one question that fact, however!
After performing in New York/New Jersey clubs as a solo act for the past few years, Mthakathi is positioning himself for big things in 2018. He is currently recording his second full length CD, and has decided to put a full band together to bring his exemplary music to the masses. Please visit mthakathi.com for show dates and the latest info on this fascinating musician, and join him soon on his journey of a lifetime.
Chris Spiewak is currently the bassist for Rock/Blues cover band VyntEdge.
This article was first published in the March 22-29, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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