Can you play the igogogo? Afri-can!

This week’s word of the week, igogogo, is part of the vibrant musical culture of the Zulu people of South Africa. Maskanda is a form of rhythmic and repetitive guitar picking that originated among Zulu migrant labourers when their rural homes to work in the cities and live in the townships. They have been called Zulu troubadours. Some of them played igogogos.

Modern maskanda is marketed with kit drums, synthesisers and digital beats and “lashings of musical cheese”.  Its style is combined with mbaqanga (township jive) and other international influences.

Original maskanda is simpler, bluesier and sung and played on acoustic guitars. The best traditional maskanda player was Shiyani Ngcobo who, perhaps, was more popular overseas than in his homeland.

I discovered his only CD in a music shop in Leichhardt, Sydney, several years ago. Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo is full of rhythmic energy. I can’t understand a word of the Xhosa (the Zulu language) but the emotion is unmistakable. It is one of my favourite albums.

Whereas modern maskanda is nationalistic and about Zulu pride, Ngcobo’s music is about relationships and vulnerability. When Ngcobo first toured France he was dubbed the “Zulu Bluesman” and this description is spot on. Think Robert Johnson.

Sevelina is one track on the album that is very significant. It is a traditional maskanda piece Ngcobo was taught by his brother when he was 13. This song gave him his lifelong fascination and love of maskanda. Ngcobo sings the track solo and plays an igogogo. Watch it on YouTube.

The igogogo is a form of guitar that uses a five litre petrol or cooking oil can as the sound box, a piece of wood as the fret board and is strung with fishing wire or unravelled bicycle brake wire. Some have 6 strings like a regular guitar, but most are made with 3 or 4, and are either fretted or fretless. You can find instructions on how to make one here. It may sound a bit cargo-cultish but the Africans have used all sorts of things in their history to make their guitars from gourds, to carved wood to tortoise-shells. There is even a company selling electrified igogogos on the web. The igogogo is also called a ramkie and is sometimes also known, wonderfully, as an Afri-can!

To get sounds like this from any instrument is an accomplishment but from such a makeshift instrument it is extraordinary. Those guitarists with all the best equipment should have a look at what this man could do with an oil-can. Alas, Shiyani Ngcobo died in 2011, aged 58, so this is my little tribute to his memory.