Electric Jive presents an album containing some of the best 1970s material recorded by Simon 'Mahlathini' Nkabinde, perhaps the greatest male mbaqanga vocalist. I could not resist sharing this LP with you - some of my favourite songs are included on this album, which features Mahlathini in brilliant voice at the height of his career.
The "groaning" vocal style that became Mahlathini's most recognisable musical feature was originated not by him, but by Aaron Lerole, a member of the pennywhistle group that Nkabinde's older brother Zeph co-formed, Alexandra Black Mambazo. Lerole, who developed this vocal style to attract people on the streets where the group performed, was not a natural bass singer and ended up ruining his voice permanently. Zeph took over the reigns by the later 1950s when the group began introducing five-part harmonies into their performances. Mambazo was by now under contract to EMI under the auspices of producer Rupert Bopape. Simon, who was growing up to be a fine singer with a unique "gruffness" and baritone quality, was convinced by Zeph to join the group at EMI. So began a colourful and productive career.
At EMI, Simon featured prominently on lead vocals in Black Mambazo recordings, and often fronted the legendary recordings from EMI's girl group team, who recorded under names like the Dark City Sisters, the Flying Jazz Queens and the Killingstone Stars. Simon, informally known as Mahlathini, was also recording solo hits of his own as "Boston Tar Baby". Gallo Africa poached Bopape early in 1964, and he brought a selection of musicians - including Simon - over to the new Mavuthela division. With the new house band - the Makgona Tsohle Band - providing the all-important instrumental backup, alongside the Mavuthela girl group team - most well-known as the Mahotella Queens - providing the essential vocals, Simon completed the triumvirate as Mahlathini. Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens enjoyed a very successful recording and touring period in South Africa and neighbouring countries until 1972, when Mahlathini fell out with Bopape over royalties.
Mahotella continued as normal, filling the gap with groaner Robert 'Mbazo' Mkhize, when Mahlathini decided to leave Gallo. However, his popularity perhaps hit an all-time high when he joined Satbel under producer C. B. Matiwane (and later under the production of Wilson Ndlovu). At Satbel, Mahlathini was backed by The Queens, a new girl group that held a very familiar name to his last one. Several of the original Mahotella members, including Mildred Mangxola, made the move to Satbel to become key singers and composers in The Queens. The creative was also bolstered by the presence of musicians from both Gallo-Mavuthela and GRC-Isibaya Music, such as Selby 'Bra Sello' Mmutung, who provided alto sax and additional male vocals in addition. Mahlathini was also joined by Lazarus 'Boy Nze' Magatole, a wonderful groaner in his own right.
Mahlathini's 1970s career at Satbel was decorated with a solid and consistent sound. The fierce, raw energy of this selection of musicians came across in every song that they produced. Such powerful recordings like "Bhula Mngoma", "Umkhovu" and "Abake Ba Bonana" are classic Mahlathini. The Queens, meanwhile, could also hold their own without the King - "Isitimela", for example, combines only their beautiful voices with the combined prowess of Raphael Ngcamphala (lead guitar), Nunu Luphoko (rhythm guitar) and Alfius Madlokovu (bass).
This compilation of material recorded between 1974 and 1977 gives you a taste of Mahlathini's '70s rough-cut mbaqanga at its finest. This music is explored further in the fantastic Earthworks compilations The Lion of Soweto (1987) and King of the Groaners (1993), the first of which led the way in bringing the King's music to a wider international audience. I hope you enjoy Kudala Besibiza!
produced by C. B. Matiwane/Wilson Ndlovu
Music for Pleasure MFP PP 80200