Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were a fusion of the three South African musical acts put together by talent scout and record producer Rupert Bopape at the Gallo Recording Company in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1964.

The first act of the amalgamation was its lead vocalist, the late Mahlathini, born Simon Nkabinde on 30th November 1937 in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal. He had been a successful basso-profundo singer who started out as a boy leading mbube and isicathamiya choirs at traditional Zulu wedding ceremonies. In the early 1950’s Mahlathini had been suffering from a strained voice. So concerned were his rural mother and father about his growl like voice that they took him to see a sangoma healer who informed them that he was not suffering from any form of witchcraft which they believed his symptoms to be, but instead it was just a part of growing up. After singing with the Alexandra Black Mambazo choir who specialised in the style of “groaning”, Mahlathini was discovered by Bopape and signed to the Gallo’s subsidiary label Mavuthela.

The second act were the Mahotella Queens, originally a septet of in-house female mbaqanga session singers that appeared on many of the records made by various singers and groups on the label Bopape was working for. The group consisted of Hilda Tloubatla (aka Hilda Buthelesi), born in Payneville, Springs, 1942; Nobesuthu Mbadu, born 26th April 1945, Durban; Mildred Mangxola (aka Mildred Nyembe), born 9th January 1944, Benoni, Johannesburg; Juliet Mazamisa, Ethel Mngomezulu, Mary Rabotapi and Nunu Maseko.

The third act, the Makgona Tsohle Band, an instrumental group that originated in 1956 from Pretoria that was led by the late saxophonist, songwriter and record producer West Nksoi, born in Johannes Hlongwane, 1940. The group also included the first black electric bassist in South Africa, Joseph Makwela and drummer Lucky Monama, both of whom were taught by Nksoi himself how to play rhythmic music. On guitar was the late Marks Mankwane and rhythm guitar, Vivian Ngubane.

The newly formed Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens released a series of successful albums together from 1964 onwards along with individual releases from each of the three separate elements that made up the super group including Meet the Mahotella Queens; Let's Move with Makhona Tsohle Band; Indoda Mahlathini; Isigubu Sabalozi; Makgona Tsohle Reggi; Marena and Marks Umthakathi. The group were known for their distinctive sounding records and energy packed presence at concerts. They became South Africa’s most successful band of all time and were dubbed “The Beatles of South Africa”, this success lasted until 1972 when Mahlathini left the Mavuthela label due to payment disputes with Bopape.

Around that time the original line-up of the Mahotella Queens parted company. The split saw three of them, Maseko, Tloubatla and Mbadu joining rivals groups such as Izintombi Zesimanjemanje. While Mahlathini worked with the Mahlathini Girls and The Mahlathini Guitar Band. Nkosi discovered the then unknown Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir. Mankwane became the producer of an entirely new line-up of Mahotella Queens: with Emily Zwane, Caroline Kapentar, Thandi Nkosi, Thandi Radebe & Beatrice Ngcobo that continued to record and perform under that name until the mid 1980’s.

Both Mahlathini and the new Mahotella Queens enjoyed individual success in South Africa for the next few years until the arrival of disco in the late 1970’s. It became one of the dominant forms of music there putting their music in decline. Mahlathini continued to record and perform live at venues refusing to compromise the style of music he was making by defying the genre of choice of the masses.

In 1982 disco itself was in decline as other various styles of music had taken over such as new wave and new romantics. In the UK the late Malcolm McLaren began working on a project that defied normal music convention by mixing unrelated genres together. During the research for his classic concept album Duck Rock, he came across the music of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens along with other artists from around the world. Although McLaren’s work on that record has been criticised over the years by some as nothing more than exploitation, it was the first album that brought what is now known as world music to a bigger audience outside of South Africa and other countries. Western musicians slowly began to incorporate that style of music into theirs, but it wasn’t until Paul Simon released his infamous 1986 album Graceland that brought the genre to the forefront of mainstream international music. Following the success of that album and the new global interest in world music Mahlathini along with Tloubatla, Mbadu & Mangxola reformed Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens in 1987 along with their backing band the Makgona Tsohle Band.

They released the acclaimed Paris – Soweto worldwide on the Urban African label, a subsidiary of Polydor Records in 1988. With their new album the group reached an even larger audience than before, but it wasn’t until 1989 that they would have a hit in the UK. The hit single was a Yebo!, a collaboration with the Art of Noise and to promote it the two groups appeared on British TV giving Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens further exposure. In addition to that single they also featured on another two tracks with the group, Chain Gang and Spit that appeared on Art of Noise’s Below The Waste album.

Over the next decade Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens continued to perform and record albums that gained critical acclaim until tragedy struck on 8th October 1998 when West Nkosi was killed in a car accident, followed by the death of Marks Mankwane in the same year. On 27th July 1999 Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde died of diabetes complications.

The Mahotella Queens are still making music. Since 2001 they have released a series of successful albums: Sebai Bai; Bazobuya; Reign & Shine and Siyadumisa (Songs of Praise) along with appearances in concerts across the world keeping their musical legacy alive
© Copyright K.M. Whitehouse 2008

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