The monarchs of mbaqanga


By Norm Dixon

South African township jive — mbaqanga — has become popular throughout the world largely because of the phenomenal talents and energies of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and their often overlooked but equally influential backing band, the Makgona Tsohle Band. This formidable team not only has spread the delights of this great music far and wide but is one of the most important creators of the mbaqanga sound.

They are currently on their second tour of Australia. On their last tour, in mid-1991, they amazed audiences with their exuberance, energy and humour, Mahlathini's deep, gruff groaning and the Queens' sweet, soaring and gently mocking harmonies. The Makgona Tsohle Band's sparkling, irresistible groove kept the crowds dancing from start to finish.

Soon after their first Australian concert in Perth on February 16, Green Left Weekly spoke to Queen Hilda Tloubatla and Marks Mankwane, the Makgona Tsohle Band's lead guitarist. The response of the Perth crowd to their concert was "beautiful, it was great really. Everybody was dancing. Everybody was full of smiles and excited", Hilda enthused.

Hilda has been with the group for 29 years, as have fellow Queens Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu, and 56-year-old Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde. The Makgona Tsohle Band (which translates as "The Band That Knows Everything") has been part of the team from the beginning as well.

The group virtually invented modern township jive, Marks Mankwane boasted. "Mbaqanga is the style of music that we do. We started it in 1964 when we started the group. We didn't just start a group but we also sat down and said we should try and change the style of music that was being done.

"Mbaqanga is a Zulu name for a kind of homemade bread that they used to make in olden days ... When this music came about we didn't have a name for it. A radio announcer asked us, 'I like this music of yours, what do you call it?'. We said we didn't have a name for it. We explained that we took it from different rhythms — in those days there was kwela, marabi, township jazz — and we took a little bit of everything and we added them together and out came this kind of music. That it is a mixture. Then he said, 'Oh, your music is mbaqanga because it is a mixture of ingredients'."

Things are improving for South African musicians, Marks said.

"When we started we didn't know anything about royalties, and the record companies at that time could see that we didn't know anything." Many South African musicians were exploited and denied their rights. "But when we started this band we did it for the love of music, not for money ...

"Now is not like 20 years back. Things have improved and musicians are getting their rights. The record companies have also improved. We do get royalties, although the percentages might not be the same as international recording companies. Some of our people are trying to organise unions for musicians ... I hope in a few years time we'll have a union of musicians. It's on the way."

Hilda believes that their music has helped to keep the spirits of the black people high in the face of apartheid. Many older people "never went to school ... that is why we decided that we have to give them the message through the songs. Songs have to have a message, to tell [the people] what is happening and to tell them how they should live."

Yet the group's songs are seldom overtly political. Marks explains: "When we started, apartheid was still very strong. You couldn't write any songs with political lyrics because they would put you in jail, or censor it or ban it. Even now we are not used to putting politics in our music."

Despite this, Marks pointed out, "Whenever we write a song we believe in sending a strong message ... we don't believe in just writing like Western people who mostly use lyrics that say 'I love you' and all that. Our culture is very important, and we like to teach our youngsters about how they should behave, how they should live."

"In our music we sing about what is happening daily", Hilda added — topics like divorce, education and the terrible violence in the townships. "We sing about children going back to school because we feel that without education they will be nothing tomorrow."

Mahlathini, the Queens and the Makgona Tsohle Band come from diverse ethnic and tribal backgrounds including Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu, Hilda said. They advocate unity, something that is breaking down under the weight of the violence, often state-sponsored, in the townships. "We really discourage the violence. We really try to tell people to stop the violence, stop fighting each other. We are brothers and sisters; for us to fight together makes no sense. We sing a lot about it."

Remaining tour dates are:
Sydney — (appearing with the Malian superstar Salif Keita) Thursday, February 25, and

Friday, February 26, at the Enmore Theatre. Friday, March 12, Macquarie University.
Brisbane — (with Salif Keita) Saturday, February 27, at the Suncorp Piazza, Southbank.
Ballina, NSW — Sunday, February 28, at the Ballina RSL Club.
Wollongong — Thursday, March 4, Wollongong University.