Artist Profiles: Amampondo

Amampondo

Amampondo was formed in 1979 by Dizu ‘Zungulu’ Plaatjies, and was originally made up of seven young men from the same neighborhood in Langa Township, Outside Cape Town.

Dizu was raised in an environment of traditional dancers and singers, and both his father and grandfather were healers, which meant that he begun to realize the importance of his culture at a very young age.

Amampondo, which means ‘the people of Mpondo’, the fabled land of the Xhosa Kingdom in the Eastern Cape was founded with a strong desire to preserve and protect South African traditional music. Their goal has always been to carry traditional sounds into the future rather than see it washed away by the wave of westernization and the growing influence of American music amongst the African youth. Twenty years later Plaatjies, Mtzwandile Qotoyi, Mandla Lande, Simpiwe Matole, Xola Mbizela, Michael Ludonga together with the newer members are still bound by their dedication to African culture.

The journey of this eleven-man percussion ensemble has been a long one. Starting out on the streets of Cape Town, they busked to raise cash for more instruments and by 1981 were playing at the Scratch Club. During the same time they were also working with ethnomusicologists to study the traditions found in Nigeria, The Ivory Coast, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the Transkei. Working with the rhythms, dances and songs of the Xhosa, Zulu, Shangaan and Sotho people, the group created a pan African sound that soon won them critical acclaim.

In 1983 they traveled to Johannesburg where they played at the Market Theatre. Here they were reviewed to see if they were suitable for export as ambassadors of South African music. Planning on spending two weeks there they stayed six years, given work and subsequently sent to perform in Israel, Reunion and Taiwan. These travels however led to some amount of trouble for the band later on.

In 1988 Amampondo were asked to play at Nelson Mandela’s seventieth birthday concert at Wembley. This spectacular performance established their international reputation as one of the world’s best percussion groups, and seen by millions on television worldwide was a huge success for the band. All their fees were donated to the ANC demonstrating their political activism during this period, but unfortunately on their return the ANC’s cultural desk had banned them from performing either outside or inside South Africa. They claimed it was a result of them playing in Israel and Taiwan, but having just played at Mandela’s concert the boycott was somewhat surprising.

Unable to perform for four years, the band stayed in Langa and concentrated upon educational programs in an effort to teach South African culture in schools. These workshops and the satisfaction gained from giving something back to society helped keep the band together.

Eventually help arrived with the assistance of Archbishop Desmond Tutu with whom they had previously recorded an album ‘Give Praise Where Praise Is Deserved’ after he won the Nobel peace Prize. He wrote to the ANC complaining about the boycott, and it was shortly reversed unleashing Amampondo once more onto the international stage. Carrying their clearance letter they set off for Germany and France in 92 with five months grace before the boycott was reinforced! However by this time Mandela was about to walk free giving them his blessing. When he was released he started recommending them for work having seen one of their videos whilst in prison. He promoted them as ambassadors of South African music and to this day they remain his favorite band. It was he who nominated them to represent their country at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games held in Atlanta in 96.

In 1994 they met with Robert Trunz, owner of MELT2000, who became instantly enamored with their music. Due to other contractual arrangements he was unable to sign them until 96, but their debut album for MELT, ‘Drums for Tomorrow’ was certainly worth the wait. Produced by Cameroonian virtuoso Brice Wassy this album incorporates the familiar marimbas, drums, chants and a cappella singing as well as adding other African instruments alongside saxophones and trumpets. It also features guests from around the world such as Airto Moreira from Brazil and Changuito from Cuba, Emmanuelle Sejourne from France and Chris Stiefel from Switzerland on keyboard. Introducing global influences, the spirit of the album remains true to Africa.

Another important step in their career has been their collaboration with Gabriel ‘Mabi’ Thobejane, who since leaving Sakhile, has found a new spiritual home with Amampondo. From October through to the middle of November 1998, the fifteen Amampondo members braved the Scandinavian winter and toured extensively throughout Sweden, Norway and Finland, performing and running educational workshops at festivals, clubs and schools. Hosted by the School of Music at the University of Gothenburg, their goal was as much to heighten the interest in traditional African music, as it was to demonstrate the importance of such music and instruments as tools in the education of music students and teachers, thus redressing the previous reliance on Eurocentric music teaching methods in South African schools and worldwide.

While preserving the spirit of tradition, they also want to carry this forward and make it more accessible to the masses. This is demonstrated in their collaboration with techno outfit, Juno Reactor whom they met in 97. Dizu Plaatjies, Simpiwe Matole, Mandla Lande, Michael Ludonga, and Mabi Thobejane toured with Juno Reactor supporting Moby on a five-week tour of the US bringing the music of their homeland into the realms of contemporary dance music. Clad in body paint and full costume Amampondo wowed the crowds with their acrobatics whilst beating out their percussive rhythms alongside Ben Watkins’ techno and guitar riffs. They have since collaborated on Shango, Juno’s new album and will be touring the album internationally.

In October 2000 six members of the band performed with the great British jazz saxophonist, Alan Skidmore, around Great Britain and in Berlin, continuing their creative collaboration that begun in 1999 when they guested on Skidmore’s album ‘The Call’, released on Provocateur Records.

In addition to this Dizu and Mzwalinde Qotoyi also work together as DZM Projects, which is dedicated to recording and advancing the cause of traditional South African music. They featured on the bootleg.net release, Ethno Trance Live (BNET002) and worked on an album from Madosini. Educating people about the importance of preserving their heritage, Dizu also teaches African instruments and dance at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music.

“We believe that music is a unifying force and our task is to unite people and encourage them to appreciate Africa” explained Dizu, “We started Amampondo because of the lack of African music in our country. The kids are now influenced musically by America and we need to change that.”

Having traveled the world transporting their music to over thirty countries on every continent, their dynamic display traverses cultural and historical boundaries and has made them the popular percussion ensemble that they are today. The closing of the millennium marked a milestone in the life of Amampondo, celebrated in the release of ‘Vuyani’ in October 2000. Completed at the end of 1999, ‘Vuyani’ is a celebration of twenty years of music making in the life of this exceptional group. The album included some of the band’s favorite past tracks revamped and performed in different ways with some superb new tunes as well, and is guaranteed to carry you through Africa to the heart of the motherland, lifting spirits and awakening the dancer within everyone. ‘Vuyani’ not only celebrated the coming of age of the group, but also the immense talents of Simpiwe Matole, as a multi- instrumentalist and fine producer of the new album.

Amampondo Musicians:

Dizu Zungulu Plaatjies – Leader, lead vocals, percussion, dance.
Mzwandile Qotoyi – Bass &piccolo marimba, African drums, percussion, vocals, and dance.
Simpiwe Matole – Soprano marimba, vocals, dance/acrobatics.
Michael ‘Nkululeku’ Ludonga – African drums, tenor marimba, vocals, dance.
Mandla Lande – African drums, percussion (jembe/congas), vocals, dance/acrobatics.
Blackie Zandisile Mbizela – Bass marimba, percussion, vocals, dance.
Lulu Lungiswa Plaatjies – Lead and backing vocals, percussion, dance.
Nondzondelelo Fancy Galada – Lead and backing vocals, percussion, dance.
Nonhtle Sylvester – Backing vocals, dance, percussion.
Mantombi Matotiyane – Lead and backing vocals, umrhumbhe, isitolotolo and dance.
Madosini Manqineni – Lead and backing vocals, umrhumbhe, isitolotolo, uhadi and dance.

Amampondo joined former South African President Nelson Mandela & some of the world’s top super stars at the 46664 Concert held on 29 November 2003. The event, one of the biggest ever in media history, aimed to push the awareness of the world to the human catastrophe that is HIV/Aids.

Discography:

Uyandibiza (Claremont Records, 1983)
Searching for the missing link ‎(Teal Trutone Music, 1986)
State Of Emergency ‎(Assembly Records, 1988)
Feel The Pulse Of Africa (Claremont Records, 1989)
State Of Emergency ‎(ProJazz, 1990)
An Image Of Africa (EWM Records, 1992)
Drums For Tomorrow (M.E.L.T. 2000, 1997)
Inyama ‎(Mountain Records, 1997)
Vuyani ‎(M.E.L.T. 2000, 2000)
Raw And Undiluted ‎(M.E.L.T. 2000, 2005)
IntSholo ‎(Mountain Records, 2008)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.
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