Friday, September 04, 2009

Jive Motella! - Nick Lotay digs deep

A big shout out to Nick Lotay who has come forward with the best compilation I have ever heard of - until now - frankly unobtainable South African jive illuminating its genesis in the early sixties. And a whole lot more. So sit back, read, listen and learn!
This very special collection of songs comes from the ‘big pot’, as the Mahotella Queens called in it 1982. The fact that the MAVUTHELA MUSIC COMPANY was hailed as a big melting pot of talent (not just by its own artists) gives you some idea of its prominence in the black music industry in South Africa during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The tightly-knit team of vocalists, instrumentalists, composers, arrangers and producers based at Mavuthela churned out songs on a factory-line basis, subsequently creating hit after hit. The company’s success was down to a number of factors. It had the heavy financial involvement from its white-ran parent company, the imposing and (still) powerful Gallo Africa, and thus access to very high quality recording equipment. There was also the necessity of having a crew of brilliant producers, arrangers and talent-scouts who knew what they were doing. Let us not forget that having a gifted team of multi-talented vocalists and instrumentalists would help. Lastly, Mavuthela also benefited from being under the leadership of the big boss, Rupert Bopape – a manipulator and a criminal in some people’s eyes, but an astute and inspirational figure for others.

You don’t necessarily need a history lesson in order to enjoy the music, but I feel it’s an interesting (but yes, complex) story that needs to be told. Mavuthela’s history is indeed complicated but at the same time fascinating, and although the company began life in 1964, its roots lie deeply in the history of South African popular music.

Sebatana Rupert Bopape, born in 1923 in the green hills of Limpopo, grew up with a genuine passion for music. Though the series of events is not as clear as it could be, it is understood that Bopape landed a job at a record pressing plant sometime in the late 1940s. From there he moved onto to big things. When EMI decided to open its first studios in South Africa in 1951 – threatening the monopoly held by Gallo Africa and its wonderful ‘Gallotone’ series – Bopape was chosen to be its first (what was then called) ‘black music’ talent scout. Needless to say, he was excited about the prospect of running his own roster of artists and began talent-scouting all across the Transvaal. Marabi, the music referred to nowadays as ‘South African jazz’, was the music of the black urbanites. It originated in the slums of Johannesburg in the late 1930s and early 1940s, making a gradual journey to Alexandra and Pretoria. The rich blend of American swing and ragtime and unique African undertones proved irresistible to those who now lived their daily lives in the cities, and this music saw widespread popularity in South Africa during the 1950s. By the middle 1950s, Bopape (now EMI’s black music producer) had some of the best exponents of marabi were under his wing – Shadrack Piliso and Elijah Nkwanyana among them. These guys provided beautiful saxophone, trombone and trumpet harmonies on hundreds of Bopape’s African jazz recordings.
Marabi was the sound of the refined blacks. The music of the working-classes had only just started to receive national attention but the sounds were to flourish over the next few years. Pennywhistle jive went big in the ‘50s, though it had been around since the early ‘40s. It was usually practiced on the streets of Johannesburg by young black kids. The jocular pennywhistles were usually backed up by an acoustic guitar or two and the music attracted not only the attention of rebellious white teenagers, but the police too. “Khwela, khwela!!” the boys would shout to each other when they saw the approaching vehicle that aimed to prevent the jivers from causing a ‘public disturbance’. The “khwela, khwela” call became something of a feature of these street performances, and the music began being referred to as “kwela” by its white fans. (In ensuing years the “khwela, khwela” call has been interpreted in many different ways – the colloquialism for the police vehicles being one example. The actual phrase means “climb up” or “get out of the way”, in reference to the oncoming police car.) Johannes ‘Spokes’ Mashiyane had been one of those youngsters in the ‘40s. Mashiyane was signed to Trutone Records in the early 1950s and soon became the national kwela pin-up: his 1954 single “Ace Blues”, with its jovial rhythm and airy pennywhistle sound, easily became the biggest selling black music hit that year.

Mashiyane became a top star in South Africa but Trutone was by no means the most successful black music production house in the country at the time. You would think that that honour would fall to Gallo, by far the most powerful record company in SA. Ironically, it was the notably smaller black music unit at EMI who often ruled the roost and frequently overtook Gallo’s offerings. Rupert Bopape was an astute man who also doubled up as a talent scout, a role that contributed to his heavy early success. By a large contrast, Gallo’s Walter Nhlapo was a staunch marabi supporter and waved away the new ‘unrefined’ kwela sound as a passing fad. He did not dig deep for young talent to record, as Bopape did (to great success), and thus left Gallo attempting to catch up to EMI.
Rupert Bopape, founder and director of the Mavuthela Music Company and under whose formative influence the production house prospered. Pictured here in his EMI days, 1959. In 1977 Bopape suffered a stroke and, although he made a full recovery, began withdrawing from the day-to-day administration of the company. He left the music business in 1983 and retired to Limpopo, where he remains to this day

Bopape, gradually, found that he had little patience for the intricate rhythms of real marabi music and even less for the educated players, who were more aware of the music industry and less easy to control. Bopape usually focused his attentions on musicians playing on the streets or singers from rural town and country – these people wouldn’t have a clue about the industry and he could thus pay them with a standard recording fee (royalty payments were available to blacks but this was something ostensibly covered up by big producers like Bopape). Another advantage in hiring musically-illiterate players was that he would have the ability to have full control over the recording process without having to get into a heated debate. (There were some marabi players, like Shadrack Piliso, who were in favour of the new jive music and were quite happy to remain in Bopape’s stable. Piliso in particular built up a close friendship with Bopape and the two often composed songs together.) The simpler songs were also quick and easy to produce and saved a lot of money for the record company. In 1956, Bopape ‘discovered’ a kwela group playing on the streets of Alexandra. Formed by the line-up of brothers Elias and Aaron Jack Lerole (Aaron was better known as ‘Big Voice Jack’), brothers Zeph and Simon Nkabinde, and David Ramosa, the group called themselves Black Mambazo (meaning Black Axe. The name was adopted some ten years later by a small time Zulu vocal group from Ladysmith. Whatever happened to them…?). Bopape recruited them to EMI and began recording them under a variety of names: Alexandra Black Mambazo and the Alexandra Shamba Boys being just two. It was at this time that Bopape decided he wanted a vocal attention-grabber on his recordings, to further prop up his musical team. Big Voice Jack, a key member of the group, had used gurgling, guttural, groaning vocals on street performances since the very early 1950s and this remarkable, alarming, curious vocal sound prompted Bopape’s decision to utilise the pennywhistler’s voice to endorse the cohort of musicians and the record label at the start of recordings, i.e. as a commercial gimmick. However, Jack was never a natural baritone, and often took various illegal substances to ‘perpetuate’ the gruffness of his unusual voice. The forced groaning would end up destroying his vocal chords. Gradually Bopape used another member of Black Mambazo, Zeph Nkabinde, to fill Jack’s spot. Nkabinde did have more rhythmic vocal abilities, and possessed a slightly deeper voice. Nkabinde’s interpretation of the groaning style turned it into an art form.

The rest of the ‘50s saw a slow but sure convergence between the ‘refined’ and ‘unrefined’ sounds, pioneered by both the main companies. Marabi and kwela began to unite in what could be called ‘marabi jive’, and the general musical complexities of the older styles began to fade away. Gallo’s The Skylarks, a female close-harmony group modelled on influences from America (and led by the much missed soprano Miriam Makeba), built up a huge following in South Africa. Spokes Mashiyane was lured away to Gallo in 1958 (and insisted he received royalty payments and not a flat fee like his contemporaries), and often played his pennywhistle on recordings with The Skylarks, augmenting the instrumental breaks but often playing alongside the vocal line-up. However, the line-up disintegrated due to a number of factors by the early 1960s (most notably Makeba’s 1959 exile) and Bopape’s Dark City Sisters picked up the torch and kept it flowing, simultaneously becoming the most successful South African girl group of the early 1960s. Formed in 1958 as a result of Bopape’s talent scouting, the group comprised singers such as Esther Khoza, sisters Francisca Mngomezulu and Hilda Mogapi, Nunu Maseko, Dorothy Dube, Francesca Ngubeni, Kate Olene, and Lilly Dlamini. Molepolele-born Joyce Mogatusi, present on almost all of the Sisters’ recordings, gradually rose to become its main singer. The Sisters’ sumptuous, liquid-like harmonies were combined with acoustic guitar, bass, and trap set with saxophones and trumpets (courtesy of the likes of Michael Xaba and Elijah Nkwanyana) and guest male vocalists (usually Jack Lerole or Zeph Nkabinde). Almost immediately, the Sisters found success with audiences, who were enthralled by the group’s harmonious and rhythmic sound and the unique way in which a deep male vocal was juxtaposed against sweet female harmonies. As such, their recordings sold on a massive scale not only in South Africa, but also neighbouring countries such as Malawi and Botswana. Their records also circulated in small numbers in London, on EMI’s “Odeon” label.
A Nigerian pressing of the Dark City Sisters Star Time LP from 1964

Marabi jive was slowly giving way to a more sturdy-sounding, traditional-influenced rock as the 1960s dawned, and it was pushed more or less by Bopape himself (Bopape is credited by many as the father of mbaqanga. It would be something of an overstatement to imply that Bopape invented mbaqanga music, but it is true that he was the one producer who was critical in shaping its development – and it is his groups that are remembered more than any others). The introduction of the electric guitar to South Africa assisted the development of the music greatly, though there were no great innovators of the instrument in the public eye until the mid-1960s. The new sound was pioneered by Gallo’s Spokes Mashiyane, who caused big waves when he ditched his pennywhistle for a saxophone. His 1959 number “Big Joe Special”, just like his 1954 “Ace Blues”, effortlessly became a massive, massive hit.

Not everyone enjoyed this music – Michael Xaba, one of Bopape’s marabi saxophonists, being one of the many jazz men who felt that creative talents were being sidelined in favour of cheaper to produce ‘radio music’ (or ‘msakazo’). Ironically it was Xaba who gave the style its name, albeit disdainfully: mbaqanga (the name of a maize/porridge-type snack cooked by people in the homelands). Xaba thought the style far too “traditional”, too “unrefined” and thrown together rather quickly – as the mbaqanga snack was. This music itself was being referred to on record labels as ‘vocal jive’ or ‘sax jive’ and in studio as ‘phatha-phatha’ (‘touch-touch’ – a popular dance), referring to the almost pounce-like beat. It took over a decade for the mbaqanga name to enter popular culture as a term of affection for electric jive music.

By the start of the 1960s, Bopape’s girl groups were ruling the roost in all-female close-harmony vocal jive in South Africa. Gallo, who were not showing good returns in their black music production, desperately needed something to attract the black public. In late 1963, the company began trying to poach Bopape from EMI, behind the back of their then-black producer Reggie Msomi (also a very talented saxophonist). They offered an incentive: he would be the producer and one of three directors of a brand new black music subsidiary of the organisation. In 1964, Bopape decided he liked the idea, and jumped ship to Gallo. Mavuthela Music Company was formed. Most of Bopape’s musicians decided to remain with EMI as session players, but he set his mind at rest – the Gallo team already had a large list of good enough musicians who could do the job, and there were several talented people who had agreed to stick with him and move to the newly-formed Mavuthela: Shadrack and Edmund Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana, Christopher Songxaka, Wilson Silgee, Elias and Jack Lerole, Zeph and Simon Nkabinde, Francisca and Ethel Mngomezulu and Nunu Maseko. Simon, Zeph’s younger brother, had joined EMI in the late 1950s as part of Black Mambazo and appeared as a guest groaner (and sometime pennywhistler) on recordings with Bopape’s female groups (the most well-known is his lead vocal for the Sisters’ famous 1962 hit “Shala Shala Twist”). Simon was born into a traditional Zulu-Swazi family in Alexandra township on November 22, 1938 and, as a young boy, built up a handsome reputation with his beautiful voice. He often led isicathamiya choirs that sang at traditional Zulu wedding ceremonies. In the early 1950s, during an all-night wedding celebration, his voice broke during the middle of an expressive song. His throat became strained and by the morning became what he called “gruff”. His parents hurriedly took him to an isangoma (diviner). The medium denounced any claims from the worried Nkabinde parents that Simon had been witched, and provided the simple explanation that he was just “growing older”. Simon began singing again, and was told by his brother Zeph that his deep bass voice naturally suited the groaning style, at that time being originated in street performances by Jack Lerole. In 1952, struggling to find the money to pay for books and various fees, Simon decided to leave school and find work. Several minor jobs followed – dairyboy, timberyard assistant, and so on – and it was in about 1959 that Zeph suggested that he join EMI and make use of his talent. Simon’s teenage nickname was “Mahlathini” (he who comes from the forest), referring to his wild and unruly, bushy hairstyle, and at this point he began developing a stage persona as “Mahlathini The Bull”, with his somewhat overwhelming and commanding presence and deep, bellowing, sharp vocals (incidentally, during this time Simon decided to have his hair cut short).
Mahlathini the Bull in full flight

The vital core of Mavuthela’s roster arose as amateur musicians during the mid-1950s, and the story begins with Joseph Makwela. Makwela was born on January 3, 1940 and grew up in Warmbaths. At the age of 16, Makwela moved to Pretoria on the lookout for work. He eventually became a domestic worker in a white suburb, and encountered by chance another garden boy called Lucky Monama. Monama was born on December 25, 1938 in Cullinan, a small town to Pretoria’s east, but grew up in Hammanskraal. Monama got on well with Makwela and soon they became firm friends, learning that they worked only a short distance from each other. During an off hour at the end of the week, they spotted a pennywhistler performing at a sports ground, Johannes Hlongwane. Hlongwane was born in 1940 in eMathafeni, just outside Nelspruit. At the age of 16, after leaving school, the music-loving Hlongwane was sent to live with his grandfather in Pretoria to find work. After he gained enough money to buy a pennywhistle – during the “golden age” of kwela – Hlongwane began to make a name for himself on the streets of Pretoria by performing outside bus stations, at bus stops, and outside stadiums, inspired by his idol Spokes Mashiyane. After seeing the animated Hlongwane, Makwela and Monama bought their own pennywhistles and sought harmony advice from him, in awe of his precision music playing (and the high amount of money that he had garnered from onlookers). Shortly afterwards, the three lads formed The Pretoria Tower Boys. Three more members were soon added and Makwela replaced his whistle with a guitar. The Boys would, on occasion, come upon a rival pennywhistle group led by guitarist Marks Mankwane. The Boys would often marvel at his meticulous and rhythmic tunes and Hlongwane noted to himself that Mankwane was a very talented musician to look out for. Mankwane was born in 1939 in Warmbaths, hailing from the Pedi tribe, and played his first guitar, a self-made tinned, when he was twelve years old. The first musical influence for Mankwane was the scrupulous guitar work by the Zulu maskandi guitarist Joseph Radebe.
Mavuthela’s brilliant house band, the Makhona Tsohle Band, in 1967. Left to right: Marks Mankwane on lead guitar, Lucky Monama on drums, Joseph Makwela on bass

By the start of the 1960s, each member wanted to try their luck as professional musicians. Hlongwane decided to change his name to West Nkosi. Nkosi and Monama were the first: they moved from Pretoria to Alexandra in late 1960, where Nkosi again played pennywhistle tunes on the streets – Monama backed him up on guitar – enthusiastically waiting to be spotted. A talent scouting expedition from one of Gallo’s scouts saw the two boys moving to Johannesburg and Nkosi joining Gallo’s kwela studio group: Spokes Mashiyane & His All-Star Flutes. However, his time with them was brief, as he wanted to develop his own career as an individual performer. Monama decided to remain at Gallo as a session musician and permanently abandoned his pennywhistle, opting to become a rhythm guitarist. Nkosi once again moved on, ending up joining another studio group called the Bon Accord Boys. The fame that they acquired affected Nkosi deeply, who wanted a reputation as a brilliant soloist. This saw a move back to Jo’burg’s city centre in 1962 and back at the famed Gallo studios, this time with Joseph Makwela, for a second try. The two lads ended up performing as a duo outside the legendary building. They had at this point switched instruments: Nkosi replaced his pennywhistle with a saxophone after realising that the pennywhistle had quickly gone out of fashion, and Makwela made history by purchasing the electric bass guitar owned by Mannie Parkes, one of the band members of Gallo musical director/bandleader Dan Hill (thusly, Makwela became the first black electric bass player in South Africa). Reggie Msomi was sufficiently pleased by the performances, having seen them on his way in and out of the Gallo studios. The two men were recruited by Msomi into his stellar marabi line-up the Hollywood Jazz Band (Msomi himself led the band with an alto saxophone) and were subsequently reunited themselves with Lucky Monama – who, at this point, was already the rhythm guitarist in the Jazz Band. Msomi was impressed with Nkosi, and gave the performer a second role at Gallo as a solo artist. Nkosi’s professional career effectively began. Some minor success occurred before Msomi heard that Gallo was not showing good profits in their black music production. He decided to take the new line-up of the Jazz Band on a tour, this time to up north to Rhodesia, hoping that he would gain decent revenue from the live appearances and recordings of the band for the company.

Msomi took the musicians on a tour of Northern Rhodesia at the very start of 1964. Because the political tension in the country rose to an unexpected level, large proportions of the expected crowds didn’t attend the group’s concert performances. As a result, Msomi and his team were left stranded in Rhodesia for six months, unable to return home without the appropriate amount of money. When they finally managed to trek back to Johannesburg, they found that Gallo had been reorganised to a vast extent.

The company took Msomi’s unexpected departure as an opportunity to replace him. They managed to entice the massively successful Bopape and Mavuthela was born. Msomi was furious at Gallo replacing him behind his back, but he was persuaded by management to remain at the company with promises to become a possible co-producer (and continue recording with new musicians as “Reggie Msomi & His Hollywood Jazz Band”) in the new Mavuthela subsidiary. When West Nkosi, Joseph Makwela and Lucky Monama finally returned to Gallo in the middle of 1964, they found that, in the reorganisation of Gallo, Bopape had fired most of the old musicians. One of the new recruits to the new Mavuthela roster was none other than Marks Mankwane, who had been – until joining Gallo – a part of the popular session team The Downbeat Boys (at Troubadour Records) produced by talent scout Cuthbert Matumba. By the time Mankwane auditioned for Rupert Bopape, he had been playing a variety of instruments under Matumba’s direction including saxophone, banjo, and guitar. After tiresome recordings sessions at Troubadour, Mankwane gradually crafted a brand-new style of up-tempo electric lead guitar playing, exploring the instrument more fully than his contemporaries. Mankwane played his guitar to the full extent when auditioning for Bopape and subsequently won the role of Mavuthela lead guitarist. Also among the new recruits was another Pretoria garden boy, Wilfred Mosebi, a keen percussionist and sometime session musician hired as Mavuthela’s resident drummer. West Nkosi began pleading with Bopape to let him record as a solo artist on the new Mavuthela roster, just as he had done under Msomi, but Bopape – needing new musicians and having received word from Msomi that Nkosi was one musician from the old Gallo unit that didn’t deserve to be fired – and instead put him in a group of backing saxophonists (the four horn blowers in the foreground during Mavuthela’s infancy were Shadrack Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana, Zeph Nkabinde, and Christopher Songxaka) and started churning out the necessary vocal/sax jive output he had done at EMI.
Most "African" recordings from the sixties in South Africa were issued on 78 shellac discs and only compiled to LP for the "overseas/white" market

The first few Mavuthela recordings were simple instrumental sax jives with a ‘call and response’ nomenclature. Depending on the pseudonym, one of the saxophonists would call with his instrument. He would be responded with a team of saxophones played by the other horn blowers on the early roster – with all important accompaniments from Mavuthela’s house band: Mankwane’s high-pitched electric guitar skills, Makwela on his deeply-plucked bass, Monama on acoustic rhythm guitar, and Mosebi on brushed drums. The music itself built heavily on the mbaqanga (as Michael Xaba put it) sound. The deep electric bass pulsation and concentrated up-tempo electric guitar was an irresistible complementation and as such held the entire melody together.

West Nkosi asked Bopape if it was possible to audition now that Mavuthela was up-and-running. Bopape agreed. Nkosi, together with Mankwane, Makwela, Monama and Mosebi, performed a sax jive tune that he had composed some months prior. Bopape was impressed by this performance, and as a result, Nkosi was made a solo act – under the name West Nkosi and His Alto Sax – and recorded his first tune: “Orlando Train”, the song he had performed in his audition. Bopape formally organised the Mavuthela house band and later penned the Sesotho name ‘Makhona Tsohle Band’ [The Band That Can Do Anything] in reference to the skills of his musicians. Bopape organised for the band to perform at local gatherings to promote the Mavuthela division, which began its fruitful productive career releasing its product on the existing “Gallo-USA” and “Gallo New Sound” labels, and the newly-formed “Motella” label. The instrumentalists were very well-received with their new “electric jive” sound and success was to follow.
West Nkosi was Mavuthela’s biggest sax jiving star, Bopape’s protégé, and later on one of the company’s foremost producers. Following Bopape’s 1977 semi-retirement, he carefully encouraged his own influence with Gallo’s board of directors – using the influential advice that Bopape gave to him – and not only became head of production in the stable, but the first black man to be appointed to the board of directors at Gallo Africa (in 1982). Above – West in 1967.

A huge slice of the black public became fairly fanatical about this new musical craze and the “Motella” name soon gained currency. The easygoing Marks Mankwane was to become a key musical arranger, whilst the more open and enthusiastic West Nkosi found a mentor in Bopape. Bopape educated Nkosi, an aspiring producer, on the rigid studio system, and gave Nkosi a stable role as a solo performer. Nkosi was happy in his permanent position of employment in Johannesburg, not least because it gave him a chance to make a name for himself and at the same time remain with his beloved wife Thami and newborn baby.

Bopape, following his earlier success with the Dark City Sisters, had also built up the Mavuthela vocalist team whilst simultaneously organising the instrumental roster – first recruiting the singers he had brought with him to Gallo from EMI: Nunu Maseko and Francisca and Ethel Mngomezulu. Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde, the melodic groaner, was put in place as Mavuthela’s regular male vocalist.

Bopape and Shadrack Piliso reauditioned every studio vocalist from the former Msomi unit, and Bopape also scouted around the old Transvaal for good singers. Daily auditions followed, but the Mavuthela team very quickly comprised a group of nine female studio regulars: Hilda Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola, Ethel and Francisca Mngomezulu, Juliet Mazamisa, Windy Sibeko, Nunu Maseko, Norah Ndaba, and Mary Rabotapi. Piliso, one of the horn-blowers but also a gifted harmony expert, arranged the vocal parts so that no voice was out of key. Bopape decided to release singles and albums by any five of the nine regular members under a variety of different group names (as he and every other black music producer had always done) on a factory-line basis, giving the impression that the newly-formed Mavuthela Music Company comprised many “pop groups” to boast about – this would also boost radio airplay. Fabricated group names included New Farm Sisters, Dima Sisters, Soweto Stars, L.V. Sisters, Sweet Home Dames, and Mahotella Queens. The name “Mahotella” was a particular favourite for Bopape and was derived from a road sign:
“Bopape worked in Johannesburg,” says Tloubatla, “but he often travelled to Pietersburg with his family for the weekend. On the way back to Johannesburg they would always pass a sign near a park station that read “amahhotela (hotel), 3 miles”. He grew to love that name so much, and he named one of the groups after it.”
Bopape had earlier written a song about this regular occurrence of passing the sign back in 1962, titled “Mahotella Park Station” and recorded by one of his studio-only girl group line-ups, Abahambi.
“Mothella”, the very first Mavuthela girl group recording from 1964

The first vocal jive recording was released on the newly-formed “Motella” label (originated by Hilda Tloubatla after a name dreamed up by Rupert Bopape – a merging of the Zulu word for hotel [amahhotela] and the English word motel). This first single was aptly titled “Mothella” and pressed with the Dima Sisters name. The song, featuring the now-mandatory groaning vocals now a regular part of South African jive music (as provided by Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde), told everyone to begin taking notice of this new music, which was christened ‘jive Motella’ by Shadrack Piliso (the song’s composer). This first Mavuthela vocal recording sold very well, and after this successful first Motella recording, the subsequent instrumental 78 rpms by artists like Shadrack Piliso and Elijah Nkwanyana referred to this kind of music as ‘jive Motella’ via rapping at the beginning of the tunes, mostly provided by Simon and Zeph Nkabinde. (“Motella! Motella! Ashikinisi, ashikinisi, ashikinisi! Jive Motella!!!”) The first genuine success for Mavuthela was vocalist Nunu Maseko’s composition, the love song “Thoko”, released with the Mahotella Queens name. The record sold in huge quantities and went like hot cakes across the country. By this point, the majority of the very successful Mavuthela girl group singles had been pressed with the Mahotella Queens name: “Ashikinisi”, “Udumoka Christmas”, “Umgqashiyo”, and now “Thoko”. Consequently, it was this recording name that became stuck in the minds of the black public as a symbol of good quality jive music.

“Thoko”, a simple love song released in later 1964, was the first big success for Mavuthela and helped to etch the name Mahotella Queens into the minds of the black public

Before its successful township shows were set up, Mavuthela began promoting its singles to the public outside record stores in order to further publicise their music. In the very early days of Mavuthela’s life, three vocalists – Nunu Maseko, Ethel Mngomezulu, and Hilda Tloubatla – would perform as the Mahotella Queens on stages in record stores, outside of the store, or at bus stations, capturing people’s attention and giving them the number of the record, telling them to “get into the store and buy it!” (in the words of the much missed Marks Mankwane). These significant public appearances contributed to Mavuthela’s early success and, alongside the all-important radio coverage, only served to strengthen its roster – which was, at the time, small in numbers but contained a wealth of pseudonyms that implied many pop groups (incidentally, the amount of group pseudonyms increased radio play for what was essentially a team of 25 or less musicians, and as such, the Motella name was spread far and wide across South Africa). The success of the Mahotella Queens recording name was profound and was Mavuthela’s first big scoop. Gallo’s Sam Alcock organised the first formal concert in Rustenburg in early 1965 – the Mavuthela township package show was born. The Rustenburg show included the Mahotella Queens, Simon and Zeph Nkabinde, Elijah Nkwanyane’s Band, Alexandra All Star Band, and Makhona Tsohle Band. Six regular vocalists largely constituted the Mahotella Queens in their early live performances: Maseko, Mngomezulu, Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola, Juliet Mazamisa, and Windy Sibeko. Because there was no adequate transport to the Rustenburg venue, the musicians had to take a lift from a passing truck driver. However, when the assemblage finally arrived and performed their tunes, it proved to be a winning show, featuring the first appearances of the now-familiar dance stylings, sending audiences into high spirits; they quickly became the ezisematheni (the latest craze that has everyone talking) and their concerts only reinforced their reputation. The Mavuthela members would stay in the homes of high-flying black businessmen (the female vocalists would often pose as the ‘girlfriends’ of the male instrumentalists!) or sleep in the Gallo-owned tour vans – hotels, at this time in South Africa, were out of the question – often specially designed and labelled with promotional slogans. In addition to South Africa, the Mavuthela musical team also visited neighbouring countries such as (what was then) Rhodesia, Malawi, and Botswana, and performed up to three shows a day for fortnightly periods. They would often perform a set for one audience and perform it again for another audience, one after another, to accommodate the rising number of people. A noteworthy success was when Mavuthela went to Mozambique and ended performing there for nine days in a stadium holding 10,000 people. These happy, colourful and bright concert appearances helped to eliminate the darkness caused by the painful Apartheid system from the minds of their fans – if only for a few hours.
Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde poses with the first three well-known faces of the Mahotella Queens, 1965. Left to right: Ethel Mngomezulu, Mahlathini, Nunu Maseko, Hilda Tloubatla

The 1960s performances were not to be missed. Throughout Southern Africa, in the dull cinema halls, crowded shebeens, or the abruptly-built township stages, a full array of colour ensued whenever the group hit the performance area. The group’s shows would open with the swift on-time rhythms of the Makhona Tsohle Band, who would begin with an instrumental number. One of Mavuthela’s sax stars, such as West Nkosi, Elijah Nkwanyane, or Shadrack Piliso, would join the team on stage, sending audiences into a state of ecstasy with their brass talents. After a couple of instrumentals, one by one, the Queens glided onto the stage wearing customised Zulu outfits consisting of raffia dresses, white t-shirts or black brassieres, deniers, long and colourful Zulu beads round the neck, and bandanas, with afro hairstyles. Mahlathini would jump onto the stage wearing a similarly traditional costume: animal skins and an amended Zulu chief’s headwear with multicoloured feathers, and the music would reach an ultimate high. After a few numbers the Queens would change outfits to represent the shift from rural and traditional to urban and modern – chic striped trousers with fancy blouses, elegant necklaces, and afro hairpieces, sometimes covered by tasteful caps. Mahlathini was dressed-to-kill in a stylish sixties shirt, patterned trousers, gold necklace, and smart shoes. During the second half of the concert – at which point the audience was uncontrollable – the rhythm would slow down, with each of the Queens styled up individually in long, evening dresses and Mahlathini in his best suit and tie; and then, at the very end of the show, the emotional atmosphere would turn from poignancy into a massive celebration with a big finale. The music would entertain, excite, shock and even reduce some to tears. “You know, we even had heavily pregnant women in the audience, they refused to leave the show until they had seen us perform!”, as Hilda Tloubatla remembers.
The legendary concert appearances by Mahlathini and the Queens as depicted in a shot from 1967. Left to right: Thandi Radebe, Olive Masinga, Mahlathini, Thandi Kheswa, Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Shawe

The exciting times were depicted many a time in Drum magazine. Here is an excerpt from a 1967 piece on the Mahotella Queens that describes the euphoria perfectly: Simon Nkabinde, Juliet Mazamisa, Faith Mangxola, Windy Sibeko, and Julia Yende. Not a day passes without the Mahotella Queens being heard on the radio. A Soweto party without the sexy troupe’s records being played is unthinkable. But to most people the Queens are faceless voices. Drum joined Juliet and her colleagues in their recording studio and on the township platform just to see what being a recording idol means. Any five year-old kid in the townships knows or has heard of Mahlathini, whose proper name is Simon Nkabinde. This rotund, gravel-voiced lad from Orlando East has sent Mbaqanga fans into frenzies with his famous ‘Sithunyiwe’ and ‘Uyawuzwa Umoya’ – two records that are selling like hot cakes. He is the only man in this group. Backing them are Marks Mankwane, on lead guitar, Wilfred Mosebi, drums, Joseph Makwela, bass guitar, and Vivian Ngubane, rhythm guitar. The first show we went to was a performance for school kids at the Orlando Stadium. The thousands of Soweto children went wild. Something happened at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre where hundreds of people could not get in. And when the Queens started swaying their hips in their latest dance, adults were turned into swooning teenagers.
Mahlathini rehearsing a number with the Mahotella Queens in 1967, in Gallo’s famous Johannesburg studios

The songs that appear in this special compilation were all originally recorded and released between 1964 and 1969 on Mavuthela’s “Motella”, “Gumba Gumba” and “Smanje Manje” labels, and come from my personal collection of records. However, an enormous thank you must go to Siemon Allen at flatinternational, who very generously contributed tracks 1, 3, 5, 8, 12, 16, 20 and 30 from his vast assortment of 78 rpm records. Check out the numerous interesting projects he is working on by visiting

Some of you may remember an earlier guest post I did for Matsuli about my ongoing discography and retrospective project on the Mahotella Queens last year (“Africa’s Greatest Jive”). This Mavuthela compilation, with any luck, provides a musical counterpart to the project, and hopefully quenches the thirst of those who have been searching for this music for a very long time. So much of it is now extremely hard to find and you’ll often see original 78 rpms, 45 rpms and LPs going for massive amounts of money on eBay. It is such a shame that most of the material in this compilation has been kept under lock and key in the Gallo Archives in Johannesburg – in fact, only a meagre seven tracks from this collection of thirty songs are from rereleased CDs, the rest are from records. One only hopes someone from Gallo stumbles across this post and is able to influence the big guys at the top into reissuing at least some of this music… but for now, let’s just enjoy what’s there to enjoy. Load this playlist onto your iTunes or your iPod and submerge yourself in the sound of the sixties – and if you know how to do jive Motella or jive Mgqashiyo, get jigging!

Nick Lotay
September 2009
Compiled by Nick Lotay
*courtesy of Siemon Allen at flatinternational
A final word of thanks from me to Nick for sharing these treasures with all those good people that frequent this site. Now I'd like to see the gents at electricjive match this!


Chris Albertyn said...

whew! big up Nick - thank you all ... lets all build, and ensure this important history keeps getting richer

david said...

Fabulous work, Nick, with wonderful photos. Viva Mavuthela! Current Gallo execs: hang your heads low.

gilhodges said...

Thank you so much Nick for this almost incomprehensibly generous gift. And praises to the mighty Matsuli for providing the platform. This is the best of the best in the world of online egalitarian cultural exchange. I will be passing along the bounty to radio listeners worldwide.


An absolutely awesome gift, thank you so much to all those involved

Anonymous said...

totally enjoyed the history and now the music!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. What a history.
I've been looking for more South African music, especially any out of print Phillip Tabane recordings. This will scratch my itch for a while.

aduna said...

Hello Matt,
Thanks for this huge & very interesting post.
Have you seen this :

grooVemonzter said...

Totally awesome. A million thank yous. Cole

Nick said...

Thank you everybody for your wonderful comments. This music, as I'm sure you all agree, doesn't deserve to be locked up for no-one to enjoy and appreciate it. I just hope that my compilation helps spread it far and wide and satisfies those who have been trying to seek it out for so long. Enjoy it as much as you feel necessary!


Soul Safari said...

excellent compilation! the article is sublime as are the photographs...we at Soul Safari are impressed. Thank you Nick! Keep diggin'

Max said...

WOW! Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

Great f***ing post. Thank you very much for some tastey music.

Anonymous said...

wow, i can't say thanks enough! hurray, this will be played loudly. much appreciated.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Best music I've heard in a long time! Thanx!

Pelle said...

Super post! Thank you so much. Just curious: Are you sure "DIKGOMO" by MAHOTELLA QUEENS is really from 1967? Exactly the same recording can be found on their 1975 album "Marriage is a problem".

Nick said...

Hi Pelle. Yes, "Dikgomo" was originally released in 1967 - the album 'Marriage Is A Problem' (the US reissue of the 1983 album 'Tse Hlwahlwa Tsa') is in fact a compilation of older recordings, all of them released between 1967 and 1975.

Pelle said...

I see. Thanks for the info. It's quite hard to find any on the internet, as regards their 60-70s recordings.

andreasmazzia said...

It's Magnificent, but the link is broken! Can you reupload it?

matt said...

Sorry good people but Nick requested we remove this link. Over 400 d/ls

bolingo69 said...

So Matt, I see I came too late to get the goodies shared by you and your friend here.

I just posted two early seventies albums By The Good Boys and The Soweto Boys at my blog "Anthems for the Nation of Luobaniya" and I was curious if you maybe could help out with names of musicians and, well anything about the groups is welcome really.

Best regards,


PS. Should there be any change of mind as far as the Nick Lotay collection goes I would be more than delighted as I treasure this music very much.

Marq said...

Magical, truly magical!

galebolokane thutlwa said...


fieldrecordings said...

hi nick,
my name is wills glasspiegel and i helped release the recent compilation, Shangaan Electro. i'm looking to do more research into how this sound was born from the history of shangaan music in SA. could you or anyone you know help? thanks! i'm

Manzo said...

There is no doubt that 'kwela' music features among the most profound founding influences of urban black music and that to this day its sound evokes a deep nostalgia in people who knew it in its heyday. As a black South African who grew up with this music and as a language practitioner, I would like to iron out, if I may, the etymology of the term 'kwela' in this context. It really is NOT related in any way to 'khwela-khwela' (Zulu for 'climb in! climb in!') as referring to a police pickup van. The native Zulu word for 'whistle (noun)',the shrill sound one makes with the unaided mouth is 'ikhwela' or 'ikhwelo'. For making music the tinwhistle / pennywhistle proved a powerful aid in making this sound; hence 'kwela' music, i.e. music made through whistling. The unmusical 'whistle' (usually a metal mouthpiece) blown to alert people is in Zulu called 'impempe'.