Monday, 30 July 2012

A Tribute to Joyce Mogatusi

Electric Jive today honours a veteran of the South African music industry, an individual whose distinctive voice and emphatic leadership helped to define the sound of the female harmony group of early-1960s South Africa – Joyce Mogatusi, the lead vocalist of the Dark City Sisters, who passed away this month. Mogatusi’s death comes almost exactly one month after the passing of Rupert Bopape, the prolific producer who founded the group that she subsequently led for more than five decades.

Mogatusi was more than just a talented vocalist; she was the driving force behind the Dark City Sisters. Her very keen ear ensured that the resultant recording featured nothing but perfect female harmony, a delightful amalgamation of four to five voices to create a lush and smooth sound. It was this sound that became the Sisters’ trademark, a sound that was developed almost as soon as Mogatusi joined the group the year after it was formed.

Initially formed of a band of session singers that included Francesca Ngubeni, Nunu Maseko and Kate Olene, the Dark City Sisters began life as rough-and-ready recording act. Their sound deviated wildly from the tender vocals of their nearest rivals, the established Skylarks led by Miriam Makeba over at Gallo, instead preferring a more boisterous and animated singing style. Their sound was a key part of the development of what was later called “mbaqanga”, a shift that signalled the end of the jazz and swing-based sounds that had dominated the music scene heretofore. However, within about a year or two, the sound of the Dark City Sisters had changed to focus on well-blended close harmony. Key to this was the recruitment of several new singers including Irene Nhlapo, Hilda Mogapi, Grace Msika and, most significantly, Molepolole-born Joyce Mogatusi. 22-year old Mogatusi was recruited to EMI by Rupert Bopape in 1959 and was immediately ensconced within the female vocalists team at the company, recording songs in rotating line-ups under such famous names as the Killingstone Stars, the Flying Jazz Queens and – of course – the Dark City Sisters. Mogatusi possessed an amazingly well developed, delicately sweet voice that early on helped to develop an image for the latter pseudonym. By 1964, the Sisters had become the most popular female group in South Africa – and a large part of this success can be attributed to the vocal talents of Mogatusi and her ability to lead the team of women in joyous song. Mogatusi was far from someone who just turned up for the rehearsals and the recording sessions – she soaked up the talents and skills of those around her (Almon Memela, Aaron Lerole, Zacks Nkosi and Zeph Nkabinde) to nurture a prolific arranging and composing career.

The famous STARTIME album
Gradually, with the departure of Rupert Bopape from EMI (he joined Gallo and became the executive head of the new Mavuthela operation), Mogatusi assumed complete control of the Sisters. A magnificent talent for arranging harmonies helped to sustain the group’s popularity through the 1960s with the release of hundreds of singles, in spite of the rise of Bopape’s newly formed Mahotella Queens. Together with Grace Msika, Esther Khoza and Audrey Zwane, Mogatusi continued composing and leading the group until a brief disband in 1971. A yearn for music saw Mogatusi regroup with the ladies a mere two years later, returning to Bopape’s stable but under the wing of producer West Nkosi – by which time Mogatusi had married and given birth to two children. The Sisters were able to maintain some degree of success at Mavuthela and continued to record for the company until 1981, when they departed for a new producer and label. It could be that creative differences formed a part of their decision to move – West Nkosi had by now begun to reimagine the mbaqanga sound to cater for the changing tastes of the audience – as well as the lack of royalty payments. Now a trio (the other two members being the now-married Grace Moeketsi and new recruit Doris Ntuli), the Sisters joined Black Cat Productions – distributed by their old company, EMI – and producer Roxy Buthelezi. Another fallow period followed, during which Mogatusi returned to her domestic life to help raise her family.

Mogatusi made a return to West Nkosi at Mavuthela in 1984. She cut a solo album entitled Basadi Balla, a Tswana LP released under the name Joyce and The Shoe Laces (The Shoe Laces being West’s team of instrumental players). Mogatusi was the only vocalist on the album but was multi-tracked to create a smooth girl group harmony, a testament to her abiding and by now well-honed gift. With the explosion of international interest in the music of South Africa, it was perhaps inevitable that the Sisters would reunite to capitalise on this chance. Several original group members had since passed away, but Mogatusi reformed the group, together with Moeketsi, Ntuli and two new recruits, Caroline Kapentar and Emily Zwane, both of whom had spent the last twenty years in the Mahotella Queens (although Kapentar had had a brief spell in the Sisters during the mid-1960s). Zwane was to later depart but Mogatusi enlisted the talents of session veteran Isabel Maseko, and the quintet began to resume their live appearances.
circa 1997
Until recently the group had continued to make live appearances across the country, although not on the scale of some of their other musical counterparts such as the Soul Brothers and the Mahotella Queens. There were also a few new forays into recording in the post-apartheid era. The last major development in the history of the Dark City Sisters was the formation of the Musician Organisation of Gauteng (or “M.O.G.”) in 2006, led by Lulu Masilela, an outfit set up to challenge local promoters about the lack of live performances for veteran performers and groups.

Mogatusi was described as motherly and dedicated, and always encouraging. Her role was more than the face of the Dark City Sisters; she was the heart and soul of the group, she was determined to defeat the obstacles that the Sisters endured through the years, and she was a perfectionistic individual. The breadth of her talent was magnificent – from joyous celebration (“Searchers”, “Papadi Oyakae”), to soft, tender, lullaby-style (“Imphefumlo”, “Mafutsana”, “Lefu”), to plain-out expressive singing (“Umkhwekazi”, “Poppies”).

Electric Jive was only made aware of Mogatusi's passing following an internet search this week. The fact that such an iconic figure - indeed she was a legend of South Africa, one of the country's heroines - had lived quietly and peacefully for years speaks volumes about the ungrateful attitude of the media. A number of reporters stepped up to pay tribute to this great lady once news of her passing reached them. Where were the journalists when Mrs. Mogatusi was alive and well? Why did no-one even attempt to find this great lady, interview her and publish her amazing life story to the world? Such stories are sadly prevalent in today's South Africa. Legendary figures are left to fend for themselves once the public and media decides that their sound is no longer hip - and they are left to try to scramble together a secure income somehow. Mogatusi, noteworthily, advised her children and grandchildren to seek an education above anything else. Had she been born in the West, she would be as celebrated a figure as Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross.

Joyce Mogatusi died of heart failure on Saturday 14 July 2012, aged 75. She was buried in Ga-Rankuwa on Sunday 22 July. The world has lost a legend, but her memory will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of everybody who has and will continue to hear her music. We at Electric Jive are merely honoured to present some of her best recordings for you to enjoy.

18. ZOLA
20. LEFU


  1. Extremely well-researched piece, Mr. Lotay. Where do you find this stuff?!

  2. This Joyce Mogatusi compilation, along with the Mabel Mafuya & Rupert Bopape tributes are absolutely brilliant! Thank you.

    Without your efforts I would unlikely ever to have the opportunity to hear this gorgeous music.

    Mick from Oz

  3. Splendid tribute! Such a distinctive voice, never to be forgotten once heard.

    Question: Are the tracks "Kgarebe," "Zola," and "Kusa Kusile (Mapopotane)" all credited as being by the Dark City Sisters? Or is Joyce credited and named individually as the artist? Or some other group name? Your track list just notes the name of each song, but not the name of each performer (unless they're all presumed to be by the Dark City Sisters). And do you know by chance when those three tracks were released? Thanks!

    Yes, it's sad that once-legendary artists get forgotten and end up living in obscurity in their later years, but it doesn't just happen in South Africa. Just a few months ago I went to a garage sale given by some old guy selling off his record collection to pay the rent. I thought it was just some random sad old man, but it turned out to the founder of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the person who discovered Janis Joplin, and who had several Top-40 hits back in the '60s. But now he was indeed just some random old guy, mostly forgotten and unknown. It's the fate of many musicians, and the nature of the fickle music business.

  4. Im searching for Joyce & The Shoe Laces ‎– Basadi Balla anyone have that album please?

  5. Joyce And the shoe Laces album Bassadi Balla, I cant Find any track from this album, i wanna hear this album

  6. i wanna hear Joyce & The Shoe Laces album Bassadi balla anyone have that please?


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