“Don’t let this picture fool you. It is the somber, dolorous and docile portrait of a lively bubbling brook of hep cat, Mabel Mafuya. The jazzingest twenty-four inch waist I’ve seen in a recording studio. And what can you get in a wiggly waggly twenty-four inch waist that heps and jives and dashes behind partition to rehearse the next verse in the middle of the recording session? Lots. You get her Troubadour AFC 353 that paints the grim grime of a miner’s life in jumping tones.” (Drum, February 1956, in Coplan)
David Coplan uses this fragment of Todd Matshikiza’s 1956 review in Drum magazine to illustrate Matshikiza’s style of “word jazz”. But the text also paints a wonderful portrait of a young Mabel Mafuya, who in the mid to late 1950s was one of South Africa’s top-selling jive vocalists. At Troubadour, Mafuya was only second to Dorothy Masuka, and in the mid to late 1950s Troubadour dominated the African market (with at times up to 75% of sales).
|Mafuya in 1993 by Mike Mzileni|
Mafuya’s destiny as a star seemed to be set in a fortuitous meeting, that Z.B. Molefe describes in A Common Hunger to Sing, when as a young teenager in Orlando she passed by her idol Dolly Rathebe. At that moment Rathebe happened to toss aside a half eaten apple. Mafuya picked it up and took a bite. In her interview with Molefe she recalls: “My mind and heart told me that if I bit that apple where the great Dolly had bitten, I would grow up and sing like her one day.”
That destiny was soon confirmed. While Mafuya was still a student at Orlando High School around late 1955 or early 1956 Cuthbert Matumba, producer and talent scout for Troubadour Records invited her to make some recordings at their studios. There she would soon rub shoulders with another of her idols, Dorothy Masuka, who would also became a mentor to her in those early days.
Dixie Kwankwa, Doris and Ruth Molifi, and Mary Thobei. The company had a roster of artists who rotated and recorded under a number of different pseudonyms and the groups Mafuya performed with included the Girl Friends, the Satchmo Serenaders, Starlight Serenaders, Starlight Boogies, the Starlight Singers, etc.
Mafuya appeared as a backing vocalist on a number of songs by Dorothy Masuka, notably one of my all-time favorite tunes, Five Bells, recorded September 3rd, 1956. But her career really took off with the hits Nomathemba and Hula Hoop recorded with her group the Green Lanterns that same year. Rob Allingham describes Nomathemba as her masterpiece in that the “song’s narrative of broken ties […] encapsulated the dislocating experience of rural-to-urban migrancy for many township residents.” (CD liner notes, History of Township Music)
Interestingly, Nomathemba has been at the center of a recent legal battle over copyright between Sting Music and Gallo Records. A song called Nomathemba was used in the stage production Umoja. Gallo claimed that it was originally released by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on their debut LP in 1973. The plaintiff claimed that the song was traditional, free of copyright and pointed to a number of earlier examples including Mafuya’s 1956 version. That version was written by Zachariah Moloi, one of the Green Lanterns, but is not clear to me whether the song is the same as that composed by Joseph Shabalala. Read more about the court case in the Sowetan.
The social references in Mafuya’s Nomathemba were typical of a number of her songs from this period. In fact, where other record companies shied away from political or social content, Troubadour openly embraced it. Matumba often encouraged critical or topical commentary in the recordings during this period, and despite visits by the Police "Special Branch," remarkably the owners of Troubadour did not temper the activity.
Troubadour was initially founded in 1951 by three and then later two Jewish businessmen, Morris Fagan and Israel Katz. Their approach was to focus on material that appealed to working class urban blacks, a market that was going through quite a renaissance in the 1950s. Still, the political environment in South Africa at this time was particularly turbulent. Sophiatown, one of the key centers of cultural production for a multi-racial community, had just been dismantled in February 1955 by the apartheid government, making way for a new white area soon to be called Triopf. The Treason Trial had begun after 156 people including Nelson Mandela were arrested in December of 1956. Nevertheless, music that carried a political message was able to get through to the public, either by record sales or less frequently by way of the rediffusion service, a cable based radio system available to blacks in some townships. This of course was the case until the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960, which resulted in a severe increase in censorship and self-censorship of political content.
Bailey Archives. Read more about the story at IOL.
|Regina Brooks and Thandi in 1955 by Bob Gasani (Bailey Seipel Gallery)|
Mafuya’s homage to individual heroes was also not unique in the case of Regina Brooks. After the suicide of Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini on April 3rd, 1957, Mafuya and her Troubadour colleague Mary Thobei immortalised the boxing legend in their song King Kong Oshwile Ma. Unfortunately friends and family of the boxer interpreted the song as a mockery and subsequently both Thobei and Mafuya were badly beaten by his supporters one day at the Jeppe Railway Station — an assault severe enough to land Mafuya in Johannesburg General Hospital. (Molefe, Coplan) Before his suicide, Dlamini had been sentenced to prison for murdering his girlfriend and later became the subject of the famed musical King Kong in 1959.
|Thobei in 1993 by Mike Mzileni|
here and more here.
|Sourced from SAHO (Drum Photographer, Bailey Archives)|
Asikhathali is a classic of the struggle and this 1957 track probably marks the first time that it was recorded. Do a search for the term on YouTube and you will find many later renditions of the song, some professional, some really informal. Notable versions can be viewed here and here.
Cato Manor was the official name of an area that become home to a vibrant, informal settlement just outside Durban. To the local resident Cato Manor was known as Mkhumbane. Read more about the place and Todd Matshikiza’s 1960 musical of the same name here at Electric Jive.
The Durban City Council had long established a revenue system of selling alcohol to the black population exclusively through a series of beerhalls. The acquiring of alcohol from sources other than these official beerhalls was declared illegal for black South Africans and the residents of Cato Manor resented such control over what had been regarded as a tradition. Illegal brewing developed as a result, and in response the South African authorities regularly raided what were considered to be illicit businesses and made numerous arrests. Protests at such police action resulted and often led to violent clashes.
A nervous Durban City Council issued a proclamation in June 1958 to relocate inhabitants from Cato Manor to the more distant regions of Umlazi, Chatsworth and the newly developed township of Kwa Mashu. In 1959 the City Council declared Cato Manor a white zone under the Group Areas Act and in June began the process of forcibly moving residents.
In the song Beer Halls Mafuya announces in English: “They say do not buy potatoes! Do not eat fish and chips!” probably referring to the boycott of food items that were sold at beerhalls.
At Troubadour other political themes were tackled, most famously Dorothy Masuka’s song Dr. Malan with a line that translates as “Dr. Malan has difficult laws.” Allingham in the liner notes to the Masuka CD suggests that this marked the first occasion that an actual political leader was cited in a critical song. The disc sold well and was even played over the rediffusion service, but eventually the Special Branch came to the company requesting the master-tape and remaining copies. Fagan, the co-owner of the company had misleadingly claimed that he thought the song was a praise song for Malan. Records were confiscated but Fagan was able to hold on to the master recording. Ultimately Fagan and Katz did little with Police intimidation and remarkably continued to give Matumba significant latitude over content with Troubadour's ‘African’ catalogue.
Although Troubadour was bringing in significant sales, Allingham points out, that the technical quality of the actual product was quite poor when compared to the other major competitors. Still the studio was able to maintain an edge by using some unorthodox policies. For example it was well known that musicians under contract with rival companies were welcome to record, under-the-table, with pseudonyms if they needed cash. Many took advantage of this grey approach including Kippie Moeketsi, Ntemi Piliso and others. Sadly, none of the recording ledgers have survived and very few songs can be accurately dated with the full personal. (Allingham)
The company’s fall was as dramatic as its rise. After Matumba died in a car accident in May 1965, Troubadour began a rapid decline and by 1969 they were completely consumed by Gallo and ceased to exist.
Mafuya’s own singing career was severely affected after a botched thyroid operation in 1957. But still she was able to perform and towards the end of the decade formed a group with Thobei and Thandeka Mpambane known as the Chord Sisters. In 1958 the group was encouraged to join the King Kong crew and Mafuya played a small acting role in the classic 1959 play. After that success she was invited to travel with the cast to London and stayed there for a year. Mafuya eventually returned to South Africa and continued with her acting career. She would later perform in the hit TV sitcom Velaphi.
While her singing career turned out to be quite short, Mafuya was nevertheless prolific and the tracks featured below reveal just a small part of her excellent output during a turbulent but also dynamic time. For a provisional discography of Mafuya visit flatint.
Postscript: Mafuya in her 1993 interview with Molefe, laments over the fragmentation of the music tradition in South Africa: “The young sisters nowadays seem to have no idea of where they come from. They don’t know us. But who can blame them. Nobody told them about us.” (Molefe)
MABEL MAFUYA ON 78 RPM
(1956 - 1960)
(Flat International / Electric Jive, FXEJ 9)
01) MABEL MAFUYA AND HER GIRLFRIENDS
Regina - 1956 (Matumba, Troubadour, AFC 364, RSA)
02) MABEL MAFUYA AND HER GIRLFRIENDS
Baba - 1956 (Matumba, Troubadour, AFC 364, RSA)
03) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE SATCHMO SERENADERS
Tsili - 1956 (Monamoeli, arr. Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 387, RSA)
04) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE SATCHMO SERENADERS
Satchmo Special - 1956 (Monamoeli, arr. Mafuya, Troub., AFC 387)
05) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE SATCHMO SERENADERS
Khumbula - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 416, RSA)
06) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE SATCHMO SERENADERS
Woza Skanda Mayeza - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 416, RSA)
07) MABEL MAFUYA
Bumba Lo Ntsimbi - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 417, RSA)
08) MABEL MAFUYA
Ungibalele - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 417, RSA)
09) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE STARLIGHT BOOGIES
Heyta! - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 427, RSA)
10) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE STARLIGHT BOOGIES
Kehlela - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 427, RSA)
11) ALEXANDRA CASBAHS
Azikhwelwa - 1957 (Mafuya, Thobei, Troubadour, AFC 429, RSA)
12) ALEXANDRA CASBAHS
Alexandra Special - 1957 (Mafuya, Thobei, Troub., AFC 429)
13) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE STARLIGHT SERENADERS
Charlie - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 434, RSA)
14) MABEL MAFUYA AND THE STARLIGHT SERENADERS
Chomie - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 434, RSA)
15) RUTH MOLIFI AND THE STARLIGHT SINGERS
Asikhathali - 1957 (Molifi, Troubadour, AFC 440, RSA)
16) RUTH MOLIFI AND THE STARLIGHT SINGERS
Mfana - 1957 (Mafuya, Troubadour, AFC 440, RSA)
17) MABEL MAFUYA
Silindele Christmas - 1959 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 534, RSA)
18) MABEL MAFUYA
Sisaphila - 1959 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 534, RSA)
19) MABEL MAFUYA
Cato Manor - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 567, RSA)
20) MABEL MAFUYA
Beer Halls - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 567, RSA)
21) MABEL MAFUYA
Sibarie - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 579, RSA)
22) MABEL MAFUYA
Umtata - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 579, RSA)
23) MABEL MAFUYA
Happy Xmas - Happy New Year - 1960 (Ngubane, Troub., AFC 584)
24) MABEL MAFUYA
Jabulani Xmas - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 584, RSA)
25) MABEL MAFUYA
Ngi Yeka - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 608, RSA)
26) MABEL MAFUYA
Itlalo Ya Lizwe - 1960 (Ngubane, Troubadour, AFC 608, RSA)
(1956 - 1960)