The Mahotella Queens simply have to be an international institution. These three bouncing grandmothers have been on the music scene for nearly fifty years. Starting life way back in Apartheid-stricken South Africa in 1964 strictly as a session line-up, backed by the everlasting Makhona Tsohle Band and fronted by the late, great, bellowing groaner Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde, the girls soon made their way out of South Africa and began thrilling audiences across the world. The group’s mbaqanga music captivated me from the very first moment I heard it. So much so, that I began compiling this project I’m writing about – something that hopes to be the definitive Mahotella Queens history, featuring an extensive biography and comprehensive discography. The project started in July 2006.
L to r: Thandi Radebe, Olive Masinga, Mahlathini, Thandi Kheswa, Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Shawe
I had always been a lifelong aficionado of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This choral group – the style is isicathamiya (to walk softly), referring to the almost catlike dance steps – was at the hub of my life, and it was this group that introduced me to the Mahotella Queens. Well, sort of. Around 2005, I managed to catch a music video on a television channel here in the UK. The music video featured three ladies, all with leopard-skin covered hats and matching outfits, performing Mambazo’s famous “Homeless”, though with their own backing band and in their own inimitable style. ‘Who are these gals?’ I wondered. There were no names at the beginning and end of the sequence. I looked them up on the web, searching for whatever I could. Finally, a result. ‘Hmm… Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens. Oh yeah, I know them’. I remembered that I’d seen them some years before – well, the Queens, without Mahlathini – on the famed 1978 documentary about black musicians and their struggle with South Africa’s then-crazy and petty laws, Rhythm of Resistance. I liked the Queens’ sound, so I decided to do some more research.
From what I’d gathered, Hilda Tloubatla was at the helm of the group, with Nobesuthu Shawe Mbadu, and Mildred Mangxola. I listened to some song samples on Amazon.com. I ended up buying two of their albums, both from very different periods of their musical careers – Marriage is a Problem, from 1975, and Mbaqanga, from 1991. I grew to love both so well… I began to build up a small collection of their recorded works, which soon grew and grew… hits such as “Lilizela Mlilizeli”, “Umculo Kawupheli”, “Jive Mabone”, “Thokozile”, “Kazet”, and “Mahlare” now formed part of my assortment.
By the start of 2006, I had amassed a wealth of knowledge about Mahlathini & the Queens. I had dug deep, to find out some more info from the few web sites available, including Gallo Music’s own website, Africambiance.com forums, the marvellous Matsuli Music website, and what the Queens had said themselves in various statements and press releases. Pretty soon I typed up a ‘little’ biography as a reference; the group was formed in 1964 by producer Rupert Bopape, initially as a recording name – one of many – in the black production subsidiary of Gallo Africa, Mavuthela Music Company, for which he was the primary producer. The Queens were comprised on stage and in the studio by five singers, chosen at random out of the three dozen or so female vocalists at Mavuthela. Nine singers were associated with the name almost always, though: Hilda Tloubatla, Juliet Mazamisa, Mary Rabotapi, Windy Sibeko, Nobesuthu Shawe, Mildred Mangxola, Nunu Maseko, and Ethel and Francisca Mngomezulu.
L to r: Nobesuthu Shawe, Hilda Tloubatla, Thandi Kheswa, Thandi Radebe, Olive Masinga
They were backed by a group who had invented the music style they played, mbaqanga, in an after-hours jam in the studio: the Makhona Tsohle Band (Sesotho for “The Band That Can Do Anything”) – West Nkosi (pennywhistle from 1956ish – 1963, sax from 1964), Marks Mankwane (electric lead guitar), Joseph Makwela (electric bass), Lucky Monama (rhythm guitar from 64 – 67; drums from 1968), Wilfred Mosebi (drums from 1964 – 67), and Vivian Ngubane (rhythm guitar from 1967). West’s sax jiving was melodic and smooth, supplemented by Marks’s high-pitched guitar skills, and Joseph on his electric bass bought from Mannie Parkes (Joseph in fact made history as the first black electric bass player in South Africa). The Queens and Makhona Tsohle were also augmented by a guest vocalist – a shy, young man with a great, big, deep voice. Simon Nkabinde, nicknamed ‘Mahlathini’ (bushman. So-called because of his unruly teenage hairstyle, although he had cut it down when he joined Mavuthela), and his ‘groaning’ voice proved successful with new audiences. Mavuthela’s two biggest hits were, rather coincidentally, both pressed with the “Mahotella Queens” name – so this was the name that the public came to know and love. Not long after, ‘Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens’ backed by Makhona Tsohle became the biggest group in the country, with numerous hit singles and albums and a tour schedule comprising South Africa, Botswana, (what was then) Rhodesia, Malawi, Namibia, and even as far as Mozambique and Ghana, among others.
But by 1971, tension had risen in the Mavuthela studio. Mahlathini fell out with Bopape over his treatment, took three Mavuthela instrumentalists with him and went to Satbel Record Company, under producer Cambridge Matiwane. The Queens were being overshadowed by new competition: Izintombi Zesimanjemanje (The Modern Girls), under Hamilton Nzimande at his Isibaya Esikhulu outfit of the Gramophone Record Company (GRC). Nzimande and Bopape became scornfully head-to-head, with Mavuthela and Isibaya continuously trying to beat each other with plentiful jive numbers; pretty soon, key vocalists in the Queens were being enticed by Nzimande to join his stable. Bopape was in a rut. He decided, with help from West Nkosi and Marks Mankwane (who were now key associates and soon-to-be producers) to recruit brand new Queens. With this line-up, the Queens hit back with their hit 1972 album Marks Umthakathi, which was a massive success.
Mahotella Queens - Umculo Kawupheli (1974)
The rest of the 1970s saw some more membership changes, and promotions – Mankwane and Nkosi were now producers, as was Lucky Monama (Monama was now also Mavuthela’s Public Relations officer). Makhona Tsohle subsequently disbanded around 1979 due to producer responsibilities, though did carry on as session musicians, reuniting in 1983 for their own (highly successful) television show, Mathaka (Friends), with each band member playing mechanics in a garage, playing their music whenever garage owner Mr. Segwapa (played by ‘50s marabi guitarist General Duze) left the building. This reunion subsequently resulted in Mankwane reuniting five of the original Mahotella Queens with Mahlathini, bringing back on board the full original ‘Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens’ line-up. By the early 1990s, they were being renowned across the world (with a revised line-up of three Queens out of the original five; Hilda, Nobesuthu, and Mildred), in part due to Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African acts (including Ladysmith Black Mambazo) on his massively successful Graceland album of 1987, opening the floodgates for African and (what is now called) ‘world music’. Mahlathini & the Queens’ began a whirlwind world tour, beginning in the late 1980s. Their hectic tour schedule calmed down in the latter part of the 1990s to reflect upon the Queens’ status as grandmothers, as well as Mahlathini’s failing health (though he was only in his late 50s/early 60s at this time, numerous health problems had caught up with him). 1998 saw the tragic death of West Nkosi in a massive car smash in Johannesburg. That same year (in fact, on the day of Nkosi’s funeral), Marks Mankwane succumbed to sugar diabetes. If that wasn’t enough, Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde – the great king himself – died due to a diabetes complication in July 1999. The Queens were obviously distraught, but decided that they would continue – in order to keep the group name alive, in a tribute to their late colleagues.
One of those websites I had discovered, among others, was Africambiance. I ran a search on the site forums for various names associated with the Mahotella Queens, and came across a thread for the South African version of the “Golden Afrique” series. Posting in that particular topic was a user called ‘Bedward’. He seemed to know a fair bit about these fascinating mbaqanga sounds, and in particular the history of the coming together of the genre, so I decided to message him. It turned out to be Matt Temple, the guy who runs this fabulous Matsuli Music site. His site was (is!) pretty cool indeed. I e-mailed him, and we ended up sharing what info we had on the group, occasionally swapping copies of recordings between us, and soon building up a friendship online.
As I dug deeper to see what rarities I could find, I realised I had largely ignored the site that could possibly have the answer to everything I was looking for on those early (1960s/70s), ‘undiscovered’ years of the Queens career – eBay! I ran a search and found masses of original Queens 45s, 78s, and LPs, on the various Mavuthela labels; “Motella”, “Gumba Gumba”, “Gallo-USA”, etc. As my Queens vinyl collection flourished, the ‘comprehensive’ discography of this project filled up.
I’m flattered that Matt has asked me to write about my project for his wonderful blog, itself a treasure trove of music.
In fact I thank Matt, in all honesty, for getting me started on this mass Queens endeavour. Had I not contacted him, it would never have occurred to me that I could publish all this valuable, historical, wonderful, and entertaining mass of information regarding one of South Africa’s most famed groups. He has also been very generous in letting me obtain copies of his own collection.
The group’s history is as turbulent as their country’s. The long biography some paragraphs above only scratches the surface of their extensive collective musical careers. There is much more involved… numerous break-ups, numerous reunions, substituting musicians for one another, forming the sound of the group, planning concert performances, tension within the studio, the numerous hit songs, the sold-out shows in the townships, the fanatical audiences… all of which I’m covering in my book. Of course, this book has (or at least hopes to have!) much more detailed information than that produced above. So please, do keep a look out for it. I’m sure Matt will let you know how I get on with this. It has been slightly difficult in arranging for it to be published, but I’m fairly certain that my luck will turn within the next couple of years. I’m also planning for a historical CD release to go along with it, comprising mainly of classic – and rare – Queens ‘60s and ‘70s jive numbers. I don’t doubt that I will have uncovered even more information by that time about the Mahotella Queens – living legends, still performing and recording today, still being recognised.
Long live izintombi zomgqashiyo!