The rhythm of Soweto


By Jacqui Kavanagh

Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens with the Makgona Tshole Band in concert
Mbaqanga album released by SBS records
Reviewed by Jacqui Kavanagh

After 27 years of dominating the South African music scene, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens have finally burst onto Australian stages. Last week packed audiences in Sydney and Melbourne were wowed by the exuberance of Mbaqanga music, played by the people who invented it.

Marks Mankwane, Makgona Tshole guitarist, told Green Left, "We chose to do our own thing, our own music, something unusual, something out of the ordinary. What we are doing, what we are playing is original."

The influences of Mbaqanga range from traditional rhythms to township jive to black American music. Mankwane says: "We took everything and mixed it together in order to form Mbaqanga, one strong rhythm".

Mahlathini's unique voice, alternately deep groaning and gruff roaring, is complemented by the sweet, soaring harmonies of the Mahotella Queens — Hilda Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu. Throughout the show, vocal and physical bantering between Mahlathini and the Queens provide riveting entertainment.

Visually, the show is spectacular. The lithe fervour of the Queens'non-stop synchronised dancing is counterposed to the intense, stalking, almost ominous movements of Mahlathini.

Makgona Tshole perform several numbers without the singers and are a compelling group in their own right. West Nkosi's sparkling pennywhistle is thrilling, as is his sax.

Johnny Clegg, another South African musician, has said about the group, "If anyone is looking for the music which brought hope and represented a humanising force during the darkest dehumanising days of apartheid, they should look no further than the incredible Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens".

Says Mankwane, "At the time the group was formed, apartheid was very strong in South Africa. We had to promote our music the hard way. We were not allowed to play in the venues that we wanted to. We couldn't play in the cities, not in the white suburbs, we couldn't play in decent halls. We could only play small township halls. The radio at that time was only for 30 minutes a day, so there was not much exposure of our music on the radio.

"With the recording company, we didn't even know what royalties were at that time. We were not getting any royalties. We did it for the love of music, not for the sake of money."

If you didn't make it to a show, despair not. The latest album by the group, Mbaqanga is available on SBS records. And those of us wanting to relive the exuberance of the concert will appreciate "I'm in Love with a Rastaman" and "Jive Motella", both of which were received with rapture in the concerts.