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Music legend Gwala credits his success, longevity to his love for the people

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By Sowetan

JOHANNESBURG – South African music legend Freddy Gwala is a pantsula for life. Since his solo career started, he has always promoted street-lingo and the pantsula lifestyle.

Born in Mzimhlophe, Soweto, and growing up in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal, Gwala set himself apart from other artists with his repertoire, which focuses on township and prison life.

His music style, which he defines as Zumba, goes hand-in-hand with his fashion sense. His look is not complete without a jacket, wool- and cotton-blended shirts and a wide-brim hat.

As much as he has contributed immensely to the growth of South African music industry and toured the world, the 61-year-old still does not regard himself as a celebrity.

Just like his music, which is inspired by people and is for the people, he is a people’s person.

In his neighbourhood in Meadowlands, Soweto, Gwala is known for his humility and love for the people.

After all these years, Gwala still represents the old pantsula culture. He credits strong passion for music and people as elements that contributed to his longevity in the music industry.

“I have never seen myself as a celebrity. As you can see, I have always lived in the township. The secret of lasting this long in the industry is God, discipline, respect for the craft and the love for the people. I’m one person who is loved by people and I give them time to take pictures with me.”

Though Gwala wears many hats, having formed and composed music for Pure Gold and Platform One, his classic hit song Amadamara is one song that defines him.

The song was released in 1992 and it is still a banger.

The song is about a man who is complaining about losing his sweetheart because of Amadara, a gang that existed in Mzimhlophe in the 1960s.

Speaking to Sowetan about his classic song, Gwala starts singing it.

Gwala is a vocal powerhouse. He can switch to a beautiful soprano and in the next minute he pulls a deep bass baritone.

He explains that Amadamara was inspired by a gang, which was not known for criminal activities but their dress sense.

“They dressed the way I dress. Because of their style they were popular among women. A lot of guys used to complain that they were stealing their girlfriends.”

As someone who grew up at a time where apartheid police used to harass black people for not carrying a dompas, he made sure his music captures such experiences.

“I grew up seeing older brothers being chased by police. They will come back after a while. They will share their jail experience once they come out.

“I learnt that jail was not suitable for human beings. When I started my solo career, I wanted a sound that would capture what was happening at that time.

“If you take notice, I sing about life in jail but the plan was to warn young people that it is bad. On the contrary, my songs are a hit in jail. Prisoners sing these songs.”

Gwala, who has released about 18 albums, last dropped an album in 2016 with Ama-Criminal.

Over the years, his music transcended African and European borders. In 2023, Gwala is back in the studio to remix his classic hit Khiph’idayimani.

The song is part of the album Shikisha Amahala, which was released in 1994.

Apart from his colourful career, Gwala is the brains behind the formation of popular groups Platform One and Pure Gold.

He composed and produced music for the two groups.

Gwala is still in demand for performances and is heading to Dublin in Ireland where he has performances on May 24.

“When people do not see me performing locally, I am performing somewhere in Africa. Just before Covid-19 outbreak, I had bookings for Rome, Australia, Canada and the UK. Now that things have cleared up, I will be going back to those places. I will also perform in UK. When I return, I will prepare for the release of my single and my Canadian tour.”

Gwala grew up singing isicathamiya with his brothers in Durban.

In 1990, Gwala introduced Platform One after realising that people who attended weddings were too lazy to sing.

Through the group, he introduced a sound called Afro-pop music. The group released its debut Isencane that became popular.

“I was very stubborn at the time. Companies tried to get me to imitate certain artists but I refused. I wanted to do my own thing.

“Through Platform One, I introduced a sound that is popular today called Afro-pop. People might not want to acknowledge that, but I am a pioneer of Afro-pop.”