Monday, 11 June 2012
The Return of the Dark City Sisters - Vukani (1994)
Today’s share is an album that heralded the return of one of the most successful female groups from Africa to studio recording: The Return of the Dark City Sisters – Vukani, released on Tusk Records in 1994.
The success of the Dark City Sisters cannot be downplayed. They were the most well-known and biggest selling female group of the early 1960s. Their name was and still is a familiar one outside of South Africa – their records were pressed and sold very highly in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and Mozambique. Their first recordings from 1958 onwards were very raw – perhaps way in the opposite direction of groups like The Skylarks – but by the early 1960s, the now infamous gentle and thick close-harmony amalgam had been honed. The early line-up was comprised of Nunu Maseko, Francesca Ngubeni and Kate Olene. Within a year, the regular recording team was boosted with the arrivals of Joyce Mogatusi, Irene Nhlapo, Esther Khoza, Hilda Mogapi and Grace Msika. Mogatusi’s unique, sweet voice became a recognisable trademark for the group, and her rise to the top was quite an effortless one. Under her guidance, the Sisters continued recording well into the 1960s, even after producer Rupert Bopape resigned from EMI and joined Gallo, forming Mavuthela and developing the new harder mbaqanga sound of the Mahotella Queens.
In spite of the rise of the Queens and other newer mgqashiyo-style groups, the Sisters retained some degree of success, leaving EMI – after a hiatus lasting three or so years – for Gallo, where West Nkosi produced them for some eight years. Their success was modest amid the development of new musical tastes and sounds. After a straight switch to Black Cat Productions (distributed by EMI) in the early 1980s, the group’s recording career more or less disintegrated later in the decade. The Sisters were able to continue to function with live performances, and they played at various festivals and concerts throughout the 1980s – singing what else but the classic hits they were known for: “vukani, vukani sekusile madoda…”, “Tamatie yo yo, yo yo… kwela-kwela kalamazoo!”, “bengilele kwaDukuza izolo bengilele entabeni emahlathini”…
Approaching producers Tom Vuma, Desmond Malotane and former Sesotho singing star John Moriri in 1994, the Sisters – by now consisting of Joyce Mogatusi, Grace Moeketsi, Doris Ntuli and Caroline Kapentar – recorded their first songs for nearly a decade. A mixture of older hits re-recorded as well as new material, The Return of the Dark City Sisters – Vukani does seem very appealing. However, this album suffers from what I would term “over-production”. That is to say, an over-zealous attempt to modernise the sound of the group. Heavy drumbeats are abundant on some of the tracks of this album, and there are numerous synth effects to boot. Also, many of Mogatusi’s lead vocals seem to have been recorded at least twice and then overlaid on top of each other. As a result, the re-recorded versions of the classic hits “Tamatie Yo – Yo” and “Vukani” (aka “Sekusile”) are less than satisfactory.
But there is always a silver lining. To my ear, there are three fantastic numbers with “Mahutsana”, “Khabazela” and “Siyagiya” (aka “Eleventh Year Anniversary”). I would argue that this album is worth downloading just to listen to these three fine tunes. The vocals are tight and excellent, the instrumentation great. A shame then that some of the other tunes on this eight-track album are not up to scratch – a testament to poor production choices by those in the control room rather than the fault of the sublime vocalists. Elias ‘Shamba’ Lerole, former pennywhistler-turned-saxophonist, returns to groaning and provides the male counterpart to the Sisters on this album just as he did for them during the 1960s. He also delivers excellent pennywhistle jives for “Mahutsana”, by far one of my favourite songs from this album! I am not sure who provides the other instrumental accompaniment to the ladies on this album. Credits are scant and liner notes non-existent. The backing is possibly provided a team of session musicians brought together for these recording sessions… although the Sisters may well have had a regular backing group at the time.
The infamous article by Mandisi Majavu reveals that The Return of the Dark City Sisters - Vukani was not a great success, mainly due to the aforementioned "over-production". However, three more albums were produced afterwards, which Majavu's article describes as "unplugged". Electric Jive has yet to uncover either those albums or indeed the whereabouts of Mogatusi and Moeketsi, the long-standing mothers of the group. The two ladies were certainly still active in late 2007 when interviewed by The Sowetan, but there is no more recent information – and it appears that we are not the only ones seeking to find the ladies.
In the meantime, please do yourself a favour – download this album to help fill in yet another missing piece of the Dark City Sisters puzzle. Some of the material certainly isn’t as strong as the classic hits of the early 1960s – but the legendary voices are still are lively and vivacious as ever, and that’s enough for me!
In addition to the 1994 album, we present a special “extra” – four Dark City Sisters songs recorded in 1981 for Gallo-Mavuthela, produced by West Nkosi and featuring instrumental back up from The Shoe Laces (featuring Joseph ‘Texan’ Thusi on lead guitar, James Zondi on bass and Mandla Mtalana on the organ). The sound is very much in the vain of Amaswazi Emvelo and similar artists of the early 1980s, but the multi-layered vocals of the Sisters are quite sublime.
THE RETURN OF THE DARK CITY SISTERS – VUKANI
Kariba Records/Tusk TUCD 40
1. MANDI HAMBE
4. KWA – DUKUZA
8. TAMATIE YO – YO
RS / MF
1981 MAVUTHELA SINGLES
Gumba Gumba MGG 770-771
1. BINA O KATA-KATA
2. LERATO LARONA
3. ATSHABELA MONNA
4. MORIRI O MOSWEU
RS / MF