Lilizela Mlilezeli – Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens
I talked about Tom Hark and South African kwela music in My Pop Life 51 and made a passing reference to the music which evolved out of that late 1950s flute jive – mbaqanga or Township Jive, which electrified the whole scene and replaced the flutes with saxophones around 1960 in Johannesburg, Soweto and beyond. This is the most powerful music I know, the most urgent, the most bouncy, the most potent. Perhaps apartheid repression contributed to this eruption of musical energy which lasted for at least 30 years to 1990 and beyond. We first got exposed to it in the UK with the LP The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto which caused a storm upon its release in 1985. Malcolm McLaren, ex-manager of The Sex Pistols and international musical huckster had already used the bass-line and rhythm of “3 Mabone” by The Boyoyo Boys on his hit New York skipping single Double Dutch, (and was successfully sued by them) but this was our first exposure to the bands behind that immense sound : Amaswazi Emvolo, Abafana Busequdeni, the Magkona Tsohle Band and Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens. Almost more than the seductive soukous of Kinshasa and Franco & TPOK Jazz, (see My Pop Life #38) this music excited me beyond anything else from this era – although Run DMC Public Enemy and KRS-1 were also creating and building something exciting in New York called hip hop.
Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde is what they call a groaner, singing so impossibly deeply that the sound appears to come from his boots. The Mahotella Queens – on this record a reunion of Hilda Tloubatia, Nobesuthu Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola, had been singing since the early 1960s and appeared together on many many South African LPs and singles. They were backed by the great Makgona Tsohle Band (“the band who can do anything“) who in effect were the creators of this sound and performed as the house band at Gallo Records, who had poached talent scout Rupert Bopape from EMI (see My Pop Life 51).
He created the Mavuthela subsidiary of Gallo which specialised in black music from the townships. Earthworks re-released a number of fine LPs from this period, and all are rather fantastic. The Makgona Tsohle Band comprised of Joseph Makwele on the bass, Lucky Monoma on drums, West Nkosi on saxophone and Marks Makwane and Vivan Ngubane on guitars. The result was hit after hit after hit. This was like the Jo’burg Motown.
After Paul Simon broke the artistic boycott in 1986 with the Graceland LP a worldwide appetite for South African music grew stronger, with increased exposure for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba. This, along with the success of the Earthworks Soweto LPs, compelled West Nkosi to pull the band back together for one shot at the international market. The LP Thokozile is the result. Many of the tracks are re-recordings of classic mbqanga/”mgqashiyo” hits, including Lilizela Mlilizela, written by Marks Makwane, and produced by West Nkosi. The album was an international smash hit.
They played at Hackney Empire in 1987 to promote the album and blew the roof off the place. Mahlathini is dressed in leopard skin and growls lasciviously into his microphone. The Mahotella Queens are pumping 300 lbs of heavenly joy and have more energy than a hydro-electric power station. The band are frighteningly good. I went along with friends from the Scala days – now film industry colleagues – Steve Woolley, Dominique Green and Don MacPherson. My girlfriend Rita Wolf and David Keyes (who were both in the play Sanctuary at the time) also came. They all wondered how I knew about this band. But that’s our secret isn’t it readers 😉
It wasn’t the only time I saw this great band in action, but that can wait for another post. But the first time that I got to work in South Africa was in 2005, in Cape Town in the show “Flood” about a tidal wave coming up the Thames. One of my first stops was the music shop on Long Street where I found the History of Township Music CD and an album by Abafana Busequdeni. Musical riches ! I always like to buy music from wherever I’m visiting, I could have bought the entire shop in Cape Town.
Incidentally “mgqashiyo” means “to bounce”. In Xhosa – the click language. You can hear them click every time they sing it. Listen to that bass line and bounce along !