When I first saw it last year, this image on the cover of Ayanda Sikade’s album struck me as unremarkable. Too bare: no people or animals in sight, not even neighbouring homes, and what lively scenery this viewpoint could gift us is left outside the frame, the hut itself in need of more than a fresh coat of paint. I was reminded of painter Gladys Mgudlandlu’s unpeopled rural landscapes, whose solitary huts sometimes huddle in silence among lush greenery, evoking what the writer Sindiwe Magona might call the “easy sameness of round huts”. That is to say, postcard vibes.
Unlike the complicated village portraits of painter George Pemba or the chaotic everyday in SABC1 classics such as Kwakhala Nyonini or “the hopscotch rhythm of/ these crowded huts”, to quote from a Mafika Gwala poem, Umakhulu’s album cover instead whispers of quiet and isolation, is lacking in obvious signs of human activity, a canvas light on autobiographical suggestions.
If this sounds like a complaint though, it isn’t — the cover image may leave a lot to the imagination, but it is also an invitation to the listener to project their own (no doubt complex) readings onto it, just as Sikade does in the nine compositions that make up Umakhulu, wherein he is able to draft a particular portrait of the village where he was born and have his musical links converge on the hut. Umakhulu is his grandmother. Who, in the gendered language of ukuhlonipha employed by married rural Xhosa women, calls the hut enkumbeni. Besides Umakhulu and Enkumbeni, other songs make obvious reference to ancestors (Amawethu) and clan names (Gaba). Taken together, these acts place the hut at the centre of Sikade’s village connections, as if to insist that his own family hut — to borrow from writer Zakes Mda — “was the centre of our social life”.
It is this centrality of the hut to village identity that I wish to recognise in Sikade’s Umakhulu, if only to make a case for rural-centric work that enables us to see village life beyond the tired tropes that continue to limit our understanding of the rural’s true creative value.
It’s a sin still committed by many, that African huts (especially the mud-and-wattle, thatched-roof kind) are regarded as symbols of the continent’s underdevelopment or backwardness, their depiction in popular culture still bound to stereotype — the casual racism of colonial ethnography, Transkei mud schools, Western media’s “ooga booga journalism”, Mr Bones, you name it.
The preceding examples sit at one extreme end of the pendulum, while on the polar opposite are artists similar to Sikade, whose works beautifully demonstrate our need for unconventional portrayals of rural realities.
It is my argument that Sikade, following in a line of black, mainly South African artists of rural origin working post 1994, is engaged in a decolonial struggle to reclaim the very iconography of precolonial Africa used to justify the oppression of its people, e.g. indigenous belief systems, our languages, skin colour, discredited myths, the village hut.
FRAGMENTS OF A DEDICATION, or an incomplete playlist
To consider the cover images of albums by Ayanda Sikade (Umakhulu), Zoe Modiga (Inganekwane) and Sisonke Xonti (uGaba the Migration), the photography of Zenande Mketeni, Nicholas Hlobo’s installation Umthubi, and some paintings by Richard Mudariki as constituting, in the last three decades, a sustained exaltation of the rural. Less a movement but a flowering, and far from being alone in centering the village, these works primarily reinvigorate its symbolism by framing rural themes in contexts that are normally urban: goats in Mketeni attempt to synthesize urban and rural spiritualities, Hlobo’s kraal in Umthubi is housed inside a gallery space, while Xonti uses the kraal as a departure point and destination to track his own movements from rural to urban and back, Modiga sifts through Nguni folktales, and the hut in Mudariki and Sikade plays host to the conflict between African tradition and Western modernity. All this activity I connect to a larger shift in how the rural is being reimaged in public discourse and point to the movie Inxeba, the musician Laliboi (whose very name translates to “village boy”) and the late fame of Xhosa musician Madosini as evidence.
Although Sikade’s cover for Umakhulu maintains South African jazz’s enduring relationship with photography, it also prioritizes memoir – there is a main character (the drummer Sikade) and a storyline (a jazz musician reflects on his trajectory: born in the village of Kwetyana, outside East London, and growing up in Mdantsane Township), Sikade’s musical evolution being the real narrative: Mdantsane Drum Majorettes, Tete Mbambisa, Pat Matshikiza, Johnny Dyani , Mongezi Feza, The Soul Jazzmen, the University of Natal in Durban, Darius Brubeck, a band called The Moneymakers, the late Zim Ngqawana … Through it all umakhulu is present as muse. “She was my friend. I was very close to her. Ever since I was born, she was there.” As quoted in New Frame, “Ayanda Sikade honours his grandmother on Umakhulu”, Atiyyah Khan, 14 Jan 2022. “My grandmother was also a musician in a way, a traditional musician.” With the song Umakhulu, actual vocals come in at 05:02, in the merrymaking vein of Xhosa rituals, and eventually dissolve into chanting and hand clapping, “Usila kamnandi umakhulu, oh usila kamnandi” looped 22 times. Spicy translation: My grandmother knows how to concoct a knockout brew.
Umakhulu occupies the same terrain as Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali’s 1971 poem, Inside My Zulu hut: while the word enkumbeni sheds light on our gendered relationships to home, Mtshali’s title has an ethnic thrust – it’s not just any hut, but a Zulu hut! Either as defence of rural Zulu identity or a foregrounding of the hut as key to his way of life, “It is a hive/ without any bees” and more.
Enkumbeni is 9 minutes, 11 seconds long. Like a long short story told by three voices. Simon Manana’s alto sax. Sikade talking with his drums. Nduduzo Makhathini’s piano. Three solos put together into one sweeping composition, less in dialogue with each other but layers of a conversation from different vantage points. Think triptych in flashback: sepia sunset, huts in the distance, smoke, a bustling courtyard, a cattle herder exits the kraal, snatches of voiceover talk, growls, coughing.
Umakhulu finds company in the many huts that populate Zakes Mda’s work: The huts “decorated outside with geometric patterns of red, yellow, blue and white” that Toloki remembers of his village childhood with Noria, in Ways of Dying (1995). The prophet Mhlakaza’s hut that becomes a shrine for Nongqawuse’s followers in The Heart of Redness (2000). “Kaffir huts” and the non-payment of hut tax that lands Malangana in colonial prison in Little Suns (2015).
In analysing the cover image of Sikade’s Umakhulu, also review the poem The Mud Hut (1981), by the Zimbabwean poet Cain Mathema for its rejection of the mud hut: I don’t want no mud hut being the classic refrain. How many times is the line “I don’t want no mud hut” repeated: 8 times out of 10 stanzas. It’s the opening line of the first stanza (“I don’t want no mud hut/ I don’t want it/ Do you hear?”) and it’s the closing line of the last stanza (“No,/ I don’t want no mud hut”).
The reasons given in the poem:
“I can’t bear the smell/ Of cow dung every other day.” (Stanza 3)
“I don’t like to rush/ From the kitchen to my hut for sleeping/ Under attack from rain,/ I don’t want to run with my food/ From the wind, dirt and rain/ to my other hut.” (Stanza 4)
“I can’t bear to sleep on a mud floor/ I can’t because I can’t/ And because it dirties my blankets.” (Stanza 5)
To be fair to the poem, it was written at a time not just of great unionization and a general push against worker exploitation, but is driven by the same spirit that fueled the struggle for liberation in Rhodesia-era Zimbabwe. At its core, it’s a worker’s protest against unfair wages, as Mathema points out in stanzas 6 and 9:
Don’t I produce enough cement?
Don’t I produce enough corrugated iron?
I work so much and produce all these things
But look what I have gained,
A hut built with mud, cow dung and grass
That needs to be changed
Every now and then.
My father worked for years before him,
But what did we gain from those years?
Huts, huts and huts and again huts
Built with mud, grass and cow dung
Because those who rule us say
Ours is to work
So that they can live in modern, stable
While we live in huts
Built with mud, grass and dung.
The poem’s flaws: Mathema’s justified demand for better housing somehow turns not only into a rejection of the hut but all that the hut represents. It’s not enough that the male speaker in the poem desires “a cement house/ With a sitting room, bedroom and kitchen/ And internal toilet and running water” just like in his white boss’s house, but that this desire is a rationale for his complete renunciation of the African hut, in which (for him) rural underdevelopment is best exemplified. Stanza 8 goes so far as to deny the hut even the possibility of evolution, which is to say not only does the poet not want a mud hut (or a better developed hut) but the architecture must be done away with altogether:
I don’t want no mud huts
I don’t want them
Do you hear?
They must be confined to museums
History books, leisure and tourism,
Not to necessity and everyday life.
Gaba the song in Sikade’s album shares a connection to uGaba the Migration on saxophonist Sisonke Xonti’s 2020 album. When Xonti, in a New Frame interview after the release of his album uGaba, emphasizes his inseparability from his forebears (“wherever I go, I migrate with my ancestors”), he is drawing from a very rural idea of ancestors as ever-present, active entities embodied in one’s movements in the world, as does Sikade in invoking his ancestors in Gaba. Clan names are a literary genre besides, in the rural especially – Gaba is a clan praise, the clan name being Ngqosini, with links to the Bafokeng royal house and a storied cameo in the anticolonial wars of the Cape Colony. What comes to mind while listening to Gaba: solemn, elegiac, Robert Sobukwe, bluesy talk, the Pondo Revolt, ukunqula ecaweni, jazz that is unmistakably ritualistic as performance vs African jazz as a limited label defined by conventions, a loudness that is quiet, Makhathini’s strong solo, trembling cymbals, Sundays are for jazz types, and so on and so forth and some such.
The ghost (2002), Sibusiso Duma
The idea of a “living skeleton” is both humourous and unsettling. Dressed in nothing but a hat and shoes, in broad daylight nogal: is this a man who has returned home from the city close to death or the unappeased spirit of a dead loved one wandering back into the world of the living? The ghost sits comfortably between objective reality and the supernatural in ways that ring true of the superstitious nature of rural life. The women both have their backs to us (so that we cannot read their expressions of either terror or indifference), just as with the skeletal figure (whether he is leaving or arriving, we cannot tell). What’s in the briefcase and is that broom in front of the skeleton floating on its own? There seem to be no windows in the huts (hence the creeping air of doom that suffocates the interiors), just as the positioning of the “ghost” conceals his eyes and other facial features from us. In Duma’s painting, the rural is a stage on which a theatre of domestic drama is continuously performed and The ghost is a scene where more than one reality is affirmed. The hut, even as a prop, carries a double meaning — as home and jumping off point, as refuge as well as economic status, familiar and also made mysterious, where both women and men come to find or lose themselves. The hut is, to return to my first impressions of Sikade’s album, given a multiplicity of meaning denied by the cover of Umakhulu.
In a region where bitter wars of resistance were orchestrated by amaXhosa against white colonists over land and sovereignty, Nxarhuni River is not a small gesture – Sikade is no more X-marking his spot on a map of the Eastern Cape as he is embracing the myths, historical contexts and political meanings that come with the name Nxarhuni for the river that runs through his village (known officially as Nahoon River, about which there are debates currently about restoring its isiXhosa name). One of my favourite compositions, something satisfying about establishing a theme that you then, through enough layered call-and-responding, continuously breathe new life into. Sikade’s drumming especially. Length: 7:22 — the listening feels shorter than that.
The full Mda quote I used earlier: “The kitchen rondavel was the centre of our social life in the evenings. Not only did grandmother cook our food in a three-legged cast-iron pot in the hearth that was in the middle of the hut as fifteen or so grandchildren huddled together around the fire in a cold winter, we also told folk tales in this room.” As published in chapter one of Mda’s memoir, Sometimes There Is a Void (2011).
The Magona quote I also offered is sampled from the poem “The village”, published in her volume Please, Take Photographs (2009):
This symmetry of round huts
Muted shades of mud gray
And thatch; easy sameness.
Magona has another poem, “Village time”, in which she characterizes the village as maybe quiet like Umakhulu’s album cover: “There is time in the village./ It sets the pace by which people live;/ Rushing and loudness foreign”, the problem being that associating the village with an innate sluggishness suggests a mute if not invisible population. Where are the people, we ask of Magona’s two poems, as we do of Sikade’s Umakhulu, when village lifestyles have always been dictated by some manner of routine daily activity?
Country Dawns and City Lights (1985), a collection of poetry by Musaemura Zimunya:
These poems awaken us to the sometimes antagonistic relationship between the urban and rural, and this binary is both the worst and the best quality about Zimunya’s Country Dawns and City Lights, the collection’s main shortcoming and deadliest weapon: where the rural is the loving “world which nourished the imagination”, the urban is relentlessly demonised as “the lion’s den that is the city”. His views of place are incredibly absolutist/mutually exclusive (the village is good, the city evil), and this lens denies not only the city a nuanced reading but blunts Zimunya’s sharpest celebrations on the village: “With the arrival of the bus/ the city was brought into the village/ and we began to yearn for the place behind the horizons” + “Such a long travail it was/ a long journey from bush to concrete” + “but my road runs and turns into dusty gravel/ into over-beaten foot tracks that lead/ to a plastic hut and soon to a mud-grass dwelling/ threatened by wind and rain and cold” + “and the villagers dance to the stereophone”, “bewitched/ by the city” + “she cried and longed to belong to the city” + “the eternally lit city” + “The city has eyes that reach/ the heart and break the spine of the village.” + “the city casts yellow flames on the village”.
The poems are by turns nostalgic, full of song, talk about naked bodies/genitals, wild animals, death and the weather, all to do with how a rural man perceives his world — a great counterpoint to Mathema’s poem.
Huts (1966), Gladys Mgudlandlu
In the words of a Sekgabe Ntshwarisang, of Botswana, as quoted in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) by Bessie Head: “The traditional mud hut has contributed much to the serenity and order of village life. A man might be poor and have nothing in his purse but he can always have a home, as beautiful as he and his woman can make it. It costs little or no money to erect a mud hut and the only tools required are a hoe and an axe and some very skilled hand work.”
History of Art in Zimbabwe (2016), Richard Mudariki:
Wherein an African man sits proudly inside a hut full of artworks: the painting is a statement about both Zimbabwean art as well as Mudariki’s place in it. It is a conversation across generations, historical contexts, ethnic lines, locations, mediums and art styles. Some of the referenced works are allegorial in subject matter, others clearly carrying a political motive, there is Fauvist colour use and a pastiche of Khoi-San cave figures, as is the vigorous but kitschy tableau of “Township art”, even what looks like face masks on the wall, most of the artworks being framed paintings and wooden sculptures, though a gardening hoe can be seen, ditto cultural artefacts. It is an idealised image of the hut as the intellectual home of a nation’s visual archive, a centre of knowledge production accorded the kind of institutional significance that is usually reserved for the museums of the metropolis. The hut as an art gallery.
Amawethu, the title Sikade gives to this prayerful number, has the plural noun prefix ama- (something you claim in collective terms) as well as the possessive pronoun the Nguni give to their ancestors (wethu). Amawethu turns an individual offering into a group libation, in this case: you < we = by identifying musicians and family as key influences in his artistic journey, Sikade is also registering his place in a family tree that includes musical as well as blood relations. Thus Xonti says, in that New Frame interview: “So whatever changes I go through, my people go through those changes with me or through me.”
I borrow the line “the hopscotch rhythm of/ these crowded huts” from a Mafika Gwala poem, Sunsets (Collected Poems, 2016):
Clusters of rondavels
Like the brown poisonous mushrooms
that the people do not feed on,
Gargling ghetto commotions,
Spreading them in torrential drops;
Not across; the hopscotch rhythm of
these crowded huts can be the
Right thing too.
An original photograph by Vuyo Giba, taken in Coffee Bay, Transkei. Accessed on 09 June 2023, here. Compare Giba’s photograph to the version on Sikade’s Umakhulu.
The tribal hut in July’s People (1981), Nadine Gordimer
An exhibit of photographs focusing on the places that made the young Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s roots revisited (2018), Bonile Bam
“Homeplace (A Site of Resistance)” (1990), an essay by bell hooks
Memoirs of the rural, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960) and The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life (1963), Noni Jabavu
Sibusiso Mash Mashiloane, Closer To Home (2018).
|As quoted in New Frame, “Ayanda Sikade honours his grandmother on Umakhulu”, Atiyyah Khan, 14 Jan 2022.