The late Samson Mthombeni. Picture: Twitter.
The late Samson Mthombeni. Picture: Twitter.

Solani Samson Mthombeni: The man, the village and his acoustic guitar

By Tinyiko Maluleke Time of article published Apr 11, 2020

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In the first Xitsonga novel by a native speaker - 'Sasavona' – written by Daniel Cornel Marivate in 1938, the Bungeni village of Limpopo is depicted as a hotbed of Xitsonga culture.

The novel is about an ungovernable character, Sasavona. Her life was the embodiment of the conflict between the majagani who converted to missionary Christianity, living in mission stations, as well as the vahedeni, who refused to convert, living in ‘heathen’ villages, such as Bungeni.

The conflict between the two ways of life cuts through many pioneering works in African literature, notably, Esk’ia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue, Chinua Achebe’s 'Things Fall Apart' and Ngugi wa Thi’ongo’s 'The River Between'.

At the turn of the 20th century, the great Chief Bungeni Mabunda, son of Nkongonyi, systematically inculcated a sense of pride for culture, land and tradition among his people. This, in the face of the encroaching political power of the Boer republic and the proselytizing onslaught of the Swiss missionaries. The latter were especially averse to indigenous culture. 

Renowned missionary, H.A. Junod, once described indigenous African music as the “whooping, howling, of all the most hideous noises of which the human throat is capable … a sort of song without melody in which violent inhalations and guttural sounds abound”.

Seven years after the publication of Sasavona, on the 31st of October 1945, Solani Samson Mthombeni was born into that vibrant fountain of Xitsonga culture, ka N’wa-Xinyamani, then part of Bungeni village. He was the third child of Mathavheni Mthombeni and his wife Makhanani Mthombeni, née Chabalala.

To announce the new birth, the sound of the big drum reverberated across the village. A few weeks later, the village descended on the Tshwungu (Mthombeni clan name) homestead, to observe the slaughtering of the thanksgiving goat – mbuti ya xidzwele. At that ceremony, the new-born was introduced to the clan and to those whom John Mbiti described as ‘the living-dead’, in his African Religions and Philosophy.

From a young age, Samson Mthombeni was soaked in the sounds of xigubu (drum), timbila (xylophone), xizambi (mouth bow), xitende (musical bow) and xitiringo (flute). He grew up listening to the sounds of communal chanting as well as various styles of indigenous singing. 

Born into a family of musicians, composers, singers and dancers, Mthombeni was drenched to the bone, in the music and the traditions of his people. For him, music and art were woven into the very fabric of what it meant to be alive and to be human.

His cousin, Daniel N’wa-Vuswa Mthombeni, a xylophone virtuoso, was one of the earliest and perhaps the most enduring musical influence in the life of the young Samson Mthombeni. But Samson Mthombeni’s instrument of choice was not the xylophone. He preferred the traditional drums, the singing voices, as well as his trademark acoustic guitar. 

Instead of the thundering and domineering sounds of electric lead and base guitars, Mthombeni preferred the softer rain of acoustic guitar chords.

His signature guitar sound, always took its cue from the beating drums and not the other way around. In turn, the beating drums were attuned to the rhythm of the muchongolo dance, while the accompanying vocal interventions were set to the communal call-and-response structure. In other words, Mthombeni’s very musical style was a kind of homage to his cultural heritage. 

While relying on the acoustic guitar, Mthombeni nevertheless used it to enhance and not to erase the triads and cadences of his African musical repertoire.
As he grew older, Mthombeni would learn that a man could not live on culture and music alone. While rich in culture, Bungeni, like its surrounding villages in that part of Limpopo, was poverty-stricken with little potential for economic development.

Whereas the great chief Bungeni had succeeded in keeping the influence of the whites at bay for the longest time, hunger and want would push and pull many of his subjects towards the urban areas, where an impure culture and the white employer awaited them.

In the absence of education opportunities, Samson Mthombeni soon joined his age - mates, in the weekly 35 kilometre walk from Bungeni to the Kwateba Recruitment Centre on the R547 road, and back. There they would stand in line, stomachs in chests out, each one of them hoping to be chosen by the white labour brokers representing the mines of Johannesburg and Kimberly. 

That is probably how Samson Mthombeni ended up being an inmate of the infamous Dube single-sex hostel, in the early eighties. From that base, he worked for various entities as a labourer, including the South African Railways. He also had a stint as a taxi driver. And yet, however hard he tried, he could not silence the beating drums and the strumming acoustic guitar, lying deep in his soul. 

With his dangling guitar strapped onto his slim body, Samson Mthombeni, soon became a part of the post-1960 musical circuit of the South African townships, so well captured by David Coplan’s classic, 'In the Township Tonight'. 

However, nether his spirit nor his musical bias, ever left his source of being, namely, the Bungeni village. Several political, cultural and natural events that occurred between 1960 and 1990 found expression in the lyrics of Samson Mthombeni. 

The following examples from his songs may suffice: Rivolwa idilikile, Mintirho ya Vulavula, Mangava ya Black Power. To appreciate Samson Mthombeni properly, we have to recognize him as the first among several equals. In the villages within a 30 kilometre radius from Bungeni village, there are several notable musicians and artists. Among these we include: the late Daniel Cornel Marivate, one of the greatest composers of choral music in

South Africa; the late Obed Ngobeni, also from N’wa-Xinyamani, composer of the song 'Ka-Zet', which was later covered by the late Mahlathini, Harry Balafonte and Lizzy Mercier Descloux; Xihumbuyani Joel Khalanga; Chaka Mkhavele; Opera Tenor Musa Nkuna now based in Germany; rapper and writer Sho Madjozi (Maya Christina Xichavo Wegerif); celebrated sculptor Jackson Mbhazima Hlungwani as well as poet and folklorist Daniel PP Marholeni; among others.

When the history book of Bungeni and the surrounding villages is written, the likes of me myself, and the likes of Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo, Communications Director-General Robert Nkuna, Limpompo Treasury Chief Director Rhukanani Mabunda, Vodacom HR Executive Fanisa Nkuna; and former Gauteng Premier, Mbhazima Shilowa; we may all be exposed as some of the least talented among the people who hail from that general area.

By way of contrast, the name of Solani Samson Mthombeni’s should be written in gold in that book. Everything about him, his music, including his gender-defying sense of dress, was a testament to the artistic creativity and the cultural integrity of the people who hail from that part of our country.

Rest in Peace Samson wa Mathaveni, wa Mashamba, wa Mbekeni, wa Mphuvane

wa, Nkoxola, wa Maselasela.
Wena N’wamagwenge, Chakachaka
Mtun’wha! Magagule!
Mupeluka wa tihavi ta Masingi,
Xinkhova xa mapandza nhloko.
Lavo pfulela marhole
ku sala tintswele etshangeni
Hi letiya ti lo thidaaa!
Ti ya hi mavala ya tona.

* Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. He writes in his personal capacity. His Twitter handle is @ProfTinyiko.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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