When Bernard Mndaweni was growing up in KwaMashu as a youngster, he idolized the music of Special EFX, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Yellow Jackets, Stanley Clarke, Winston Rodney, Billy Coban, Jacko Pistorius, Sipho Gumede, Harari, Kabasa, Theta and Busi Mhlongo. Little did he know that he would not only be a professional bass player one day but would get to record and work with some of the musicians he adored.
The 50-year-old self-taught bass player listened to a lot of reggae and contemporary jazz through his dad’s hi-fi. His cousin Mabi Khanyile also had a great influence in his love for music. They would listen to their favourite musicians appreciating the sound that came from it and often asking themselves how the musicians managed to record such beautiful sounds.
It was in 1996 when Mndaweni joined a band called Izanusi which was led by Bruce Madoda Sosibo and Madala Kunene. That year also signaled the beginning of the career as a musician for Mndaweni. But it was not easy to convince his mom who wanted her son enroll at university or college for a qualification. She would later change her tune and gave her son her blessings to embark on a career as a musician. Mndaweni’s mom also acknowledged that she could not afford to pay for her son’s tertiary education. On the other hand, his father was always supportive despite having a firm hand as a parent.
His love for reggae made Mndaweni to fall in love with the bass. Something about how the bass sounded on reggae recordings resonated with him. He realized he could play the bass lines of his favourite reggae songs as well as contemporary jazz tunes. When he concluded that the bass guitar was his instrument, he started buying books and asked friends to help him understand how the bass and the chords worked together. He can also play the piano and guitar but not proficiently.
Mndaweni has been a professional self-taught bass player for 23 years. His talent as a bass player was spotted by the late Busi Mhlongo who asked him to work with her. He describes Mhlongo as a very forthright musician. “She always told us to be punctual for rehearsals and to enjoy the music we performed and also be creative as artists”, he told Jazz It Out. He would later meet the late Sipho Gumede whom he describes as a “very innovative player”. “He taught me a lot of disciplines as a bass player such as acknowledging other band members when performing on stage”, he added.
He is very humbled by the remarks from his peers who describe him as one of the most versatile bass players in South Africa. “I have not really been exposed to a lot of hardcore jazz. It feels good to hear such remarks because it gives me encouragement to search and listen to all kinds of music, music that will enable me to play all kinds of genres. In the music industry, one never stops learning. You learn till you die”, he added. When performing live, he leads by example and has earned the respect of younger musicians.
Tone of Afrika is a group that he formed which performs a variety of music genres. When asked how important rehearsal is before a live performance, he did not mince his words: “Rehearsal is very important. Not having rehearsed properly can be evident in live performances. Musicians on stage need to respect one another as professionals. They need to respect the craft they present”, he told Jazz It Out. As a band leader, he also gets to work very close with sound engineers at live gigs.
As a musician who has been in the field for more than two decades, he always tells younger musicians to be focused and listen to different types of music. He always advises them to first purchase the instrument so that they can play it as and when they want to. Secondly, they must get a book for bass beginners which will give them an idea on how to combine their skills to become better bass players and accompany other instruments.
Mndweni believes that music talent must be unearthed as early as at school level. He is a firm believer in changing the mindsets. He identifies the need to visit schools as one of the top priorities. “Department of Arts & Culture often deploys seasoned artists to schools in order to teach learners how to play music”, he emphasizes. Mndaweni bemoans the fact that his generation of musicians grew up listening to a lot of American music and less of African music, but is glad to see that is changing.
Despite having done some collaborations in various albums, Mndaweni is yet to record his own album. He enjoys working as a team member than a solo act. “But I hope to record a solo album in the future. I just need more experience and get better as a musician doing African sound which is what I am passionate about”, he concluded.