My Pop Life #82 : Lilizela Mlilizeli – Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens

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Lilizela Mlilezeli   –   Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens

Ululate/Applaud

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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.  Featured imageThis 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.

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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.  Featured imageThey 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).

Featured imageHe 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.

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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.

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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 😉

Featured image 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 !

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My Pop Life #51 : Tom Hark – Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

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Tom Hark   –  Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

…your team is shit

I don’t know why

but after the match

you’re going to die…

That’s me singing nonsense aged too old in 1980-something in the North Stand of the Goldstone Ground – to the tune of Tom Hark.  After 1980 when The Piranhas did their cover of this much-covered song.   It is still sung today at football grounds around the nation, with differing violent and scatalogical lyrics depending on the team being supported.   I really enjoyed singing violent songs at football when I was a teenager.  “You’re going home in a fucking ambulance” followed by a rhythmical clapping pattern, thousands of hands in unison.   It was funny.   I know it doesn’t sound funny but it was.   We sang to Bread Of Heaven (“referee, referee – you’re not fit to wipe my arse” which I misheard, rather brilliantly, as “you’re the features of my arse“!), we sang to Land Of Hope and Glory (“we hate Nottingham Forest, we hate Liverpool too, we hate Westham United but Brighton we love you… ALL TOGETHER NOW…”) and we sang to The Quartermaster’s Song (“he shot, he scored, it must be Peter Ward, Peter Ward ! Peter Ward…”).  And many many more.   Football fans like to sing.  They like to change the words of popular songs to fit around their team, the current squad of players.  I know some musicians whose sole aim and ambition is to write a song which gets sung at football matches.   The Pet Shop Boys spring to mind as a recent addition – Go West has many different versions but the no-diocese “You’re shit and you know you are” is my personal favourite ;  the existentially acerbic wit of “you know you are” being the most humiliating insult in the lexicon.

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The Piranhas were a Brighton punk band led by Bob Grover who added lyrics to the tune of Tom Hark, and had a top 10 hit with it in 1980.  Previous covers were by Millie Smalls (1964) Georgie Fame (1964) Mickey Finn (1964) and the Ted Heath Band (1958).  The first three of these are all, like the Piranhas version, ska, or bluebeat, which is to say 1960s Jamaican music which became popular in the UK and elsewhere.   Which is odd because the original is from Johannesburg in South Africa.  It’s a nice story…

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Jack Lerole would play the pennywhistle or kwela on the streets of Jo’burg and Alexandria township for money with his fellow musicians David Ramosa, Zeph Nkabinde and his brother Elias Lerole in the 1950s.  They would carry hatchets or tomahawks with them to deter thieves and gangs.     One day, talent scout and producer Rupert Bopape heard them and invited them to record at EMI South Africa’s newly-formed black division.   The resulting tune was called “Tom Hark”  which may have been a mis-hearing of Tomahawk, or may have been changed to make the song less violently-flavoured.   It struck gold – the single was a huge international hit, and the success of Tom Hark in the UK charts (where it reached number 2 in 1958), and the orchestration by Ted Heath in the US (see below) hugely boosted the popularity of kwela music in South Africa itself, leaving behind many of the street urchin associations that pennywhistle had picked up (but which perhaps returned when we sang it on the terraces?).

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Pennywhistle music (or ‘jive flute’) was considered very lower class in the earlier part of the century, being the favourite employ of street gangs and urchins who would masquerade as buskers.  After it became “kwela” music it emerged as a genuine home-grown South African music, perhaps echoing the reed flutes of the Tswana and others.   The term kwela is also interesting.    In Zulu it means “climb on, get up” and is often shouted in these types of songs, encouraging people to join in.   However, on the record itself, listen: it  begins with a short scene (spoken in flytaal the Afrikaans-based urban African dialect) of men playing dice on the street, then packing up the gambling and pulling out the penny whistles as one shouts ‘dar kom die khwela khwela‘ – or the police van.  Who knows?  It certainly became kwela after this single was released.

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Either way it had been the dominant musical style of the townships throughout the 1950s and made huge stars of Spokes Mashiyane, Aaron Lerole, and Jack Lerole himself, forming a local style that could compete commercially with imported music.   It wouldn’t last too much longer though – by the early 1960s the saxophone had replaced the pennywhistle and the bands had electrified their guitars and added a bass guitar creating a brand new sound that would dominate the airwaves for over 40 years – Township Jive or”mbaqanga“.    But that’s for another post.    This was a commercial fact of life, to pick up the saxophone in order to keep making money from music, but many of the kwela players claimed to prefer playing the penny whistle because as Aaron Lerole noted later “I could master it. I could make it talk any sound I wanted“.  The saxophone is more rigid.

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Rupert Bopape in 1958

The record is credited to “R. Bopape” who took all of the publishing.  Elias and Jack never received a penny beyond that which they made for the day’s recording.  Jack Lerole went on to become one of the first “groaners” affecting an extremely deep voice like township star Mahlathini, but would die of throat cancer in Soweto in 2003.  Rupert Bopape would go on become a hugely influential Berry-Gordy-esque figure in the South African music scene, running Gallo records and creating many many hit acts, including The Mahotella Queens and the Funk Brothers of the South African scene, The Makgona Tsohle Band.   I came across all this music in 1985 via one LP released in the UK on Earthworks called The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto, featuring both of the above-named bands.   It was a doorway into a thrilling new collection of sounds.

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As for Tom Hark, it reappeared into my football life – c’mon, it had never gone away only the words had changed – when my beloved Brighton & Hove Albion became homeless in 1997, and the only viable site for a new stadium in Brighton was Falmer, opposite Sussex University.   We’d been playing at temporary athletics stadium at Withdean for years when the Falmer campaign really kicked in.   John Prescott was the target as his department would ultimately be the judge and jury, and so a long imaginative campaign by Albion fans commenced.  My own small part in it was to play the saxophone on a new version of Tom Hark called We Want Falmer with Attila The Stockbroker and The Fish Brothers, Too Many Crooks and me – a Brighton supergroup called Seagulls Ska.

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Recorded in Sayers Common one afternoon and rush-released in January 2005 with an instrumental version of our anthem “Sussex By The Sea” on the B-side, the mass-purchase of this single by Albion fans pushed the campaign song to number 17 on the national charts, and Number 1 on the independent charts.  Not bad.  Falmer Stadium eventually opened for business in July 2011.