Electric Jive has recently learnt of the tragic passing of one of the former members of the Mahotella Queens. We pay our respects to the late Beatrice Ngcobo today with a short post reflecting on her life and career.
Beatrice was born in Umbumbulu, Durban on 25 October 1944. Unlike so many other singers of her era, she was not born in a musical family, but she did sing in a school choir, developing a distinctly rich and smooth alto voice. Beatrice’s family was hit hard by the death of her father in 1955, and Beatrice was subsequently unable to complete her school studies because of the high costs involved. Her school had, however, helped to give Beatrice a great love for music. She started singing in her teens in and around Durban with various girl groups, and was eventually discovered by promoter Roxy Jila in the late 1960s. Beatrice was soon cast in his play Chief Mamba, performing on stage in an acting role for the first time in her career and without any prior training. She latterly recalled to Electric Jive the exciting buzz of performing for audiences every night.
Beatrice was still performing in Durban with Jila’s company when singer John Moriri and guitarist Marks Mankwane turned up at a showing of Chief Mamba in 1971. The two artists, both of them in-house musicians for Gallo Africa’s Mavuthela Music Company, had travelled from Johannesburg to Durban in search of female singers for Moriri’s then-backing group, Mthunzini Girls, which had recently split. Moriri and the Mthunzini Girls had a number of pending shows booked in Malawi, meaning replacement girls had to be found in time. Moriri and Mankwane were immediately taken with Beatrice’s performance and invited her to become the lead singer of the Mthunzini Girls. An excited Beatrice gladly accepted their offer and awaited the arrival of special transport from Durban to Johannesburg organised by Mavuthela bassist Joseph Makwela. In addition to Beatrice as lead singer and John Moriri as the male soloist, the other Mthunzini Girls were Olive Masinga, Whyte Mkhulisi, Julia Ngubane, Beauty Radebe and Phyllis Zwane.
Beatrice’s first composition as a recording artist was “Njomane”, a song that became something of an anthem for schoolchildren back home in Durban through constant airplay on Radio Zulu. Soon after recording the hit, Moriri and the Mthunzini Girls travelled to Malawi to perform. While there, Beatrice realised she was pregnant and decided to return home to her mother in Durban. She gave birth to her son Bongani in late 1971, spending a very short three months at home before rushing back to Johannesburg in the name of music, leaving Bongani in the care of her own mother. When Beatrice arrived back at the Gallo studios in March 1972, neither Moriri nor the Mthunzini Girls could be found. She discovered that when Moriri and the rest of the girls finished the Malawi tour and arrived back in Johannesburg, Mavuthela boss Rupert Bopape had refused to give them their wages, saying that he didn’t have the necessary money to pay them. Moriri and the rest of the girls resigned in protest. At the same time, Mahlathini and several of the Mahotella Queens quit in a similar dispute with Bopape over touring salaries. Bopape and Marks Mankwane decided to rebuild the Mahotella Queens and let the Mthunzini Girls name perish, simply because Mahotella was the more popular and well-known name. Beatrice found herself being recruited into the biggest female mbaqanga group of the day and was ecstatic. In 1973, she performed on stage for the first time as a Mahotella Queen when the group travelled a long distance to perform in Molepolole, Botswana. The line-up, then consisting of Hilda Tloubatla, Caroline Kapentar, Beatrice Ngcobo, Nancy Ngema, Thandi Nkosi and Thandi Radebe, performed in the local town hall as well as various other places including a chief’s kraal.
|MAHOTELLA QUEENS, 1979|
Clockwise from top left: Caroline Kapentar, Nomsa Njakazi,
Beatrice Ngcobo, Emily Zwane, Thandi Nkosi
Beatrice recorded and performed with the Queens throughout the 1970s and also composed a number of their hit songs. Most of her compositions were based on events that happened in her own life. She wrote “Uxoshisa Abanye” after rumours began spreading throughout Mavuthela that Ray Mkize (Abafana Baseqhudeni member and one of Mavuthela's Public Relations Officers) wanted to get Beatrice fired for no apparent reason. Lead singer Emily Zwane takes Beatrice’s song to a high plateau with her sweet soprano. Another composition, “Sengidlala Amakhehla”, told the story of Beatrice’s love affair with a much older gentleman who eventually broke her heart. Her song “Bongani Mntanami” was one very close to her heart. Beatrice would return home to Durban to care for her son Bongani as often as her bosses would allow, but while busy working in Johannesburg, her ageing mother would often complain over the phone to Beatrice about Bongani’s mischievousness and bad behaviour towards her. Beatrice decided to teach her son a lesson by writing a song for him, telling him through loving lyrics to respect his family and stop misbehaving. Although Emily Zwane sang lead on most of the Mahotella Queens recordings of the 1970s and 1980s, Beatrice was allowed to do the lead vocals on some of the hits including "Izinyembezi Zesuliwe", “Malume” and “Isidwaba”. Emily and Beatrice share the lead vocal duties on a track they wrote together - "Kobanini Ngihlupheka".
|BEATRICE as seen in Jeremy Marre's|
Rhythm of Resistance
Beatrice was still a prominent member of the Mahotella Queens line-up when English filmmakers visited South Africa hoping to film the group: first was Jeremy Marre in 1978, who filmed a Mahotella Queens stage performance for his documentary on black South African music, Rhythm of Resistance; and then a BBC team who were making a documentary about the music and influences of Hugh Masekela in 1984. In the latter documentary – broadcast only once on BBC2 in May 1985 – the Mahotella Queens (by now consisting only of Emily Zwane, Caroline Kapentar and Beatrice Ngcobo) performed their recent smash hit single “O Boshako” accompanied by accordionist Mzwandile David.
|MAHOTELLA QUEENS performing|
"O Boshako" in 1984
L to r: Emily Zwane, Caroline Kapentar,
Beatrice stuck with the Mahotella Queens even through a fallow period during the mid-1980s which saw the group leave the Gallo organisation for the first time in their career. A number of messy behind-the-scenes incidents led to Marks Mankwane, the producer of the Queens, resigning from Gallo and taking the group with him to a new independent label. The venture lasted for almost a year until they once again uprooted and moved over to local EMI subsidiary CCP. During this era, the popularity of the Queens declined significantly and Beatrice detected Marks Mankwane’s disillusionment with (and eventual resentment of) the group that had once sold out whole stadiums.
A number of musical projects during the early 1980s had increased international awareness of South African music. Some of these included Rhythm of Resistance, Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock, Duck Food, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto and Paul Simon’s Graceland. Marks Mankwane was persuaded by West Nkosi to rejoin Gallo and reunite Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens for overseas performances. Mankwane duly agreed and began conducting rehearsals between Mahlathini and three of the original Mahotella Queens (Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Shawe and Mildred Mangxola), neglecting to inform Beatrice, Emily and Caroline, who were still recording and performing under the Mahotella Queens name. Beatrice and her bandmates found out only after spotting Hilda’s crew in another rehearsal room and were hurt by Mankwane’s deception. While Mankwane now busied himself with preparations for the reunited Mahotella line-up to visit the US and Europe, Beatrice and her bandmates were left dealing with the stigma of being unceremoniously fired and deprived of the opportunity to perform for audiences abroad.
During the 1990s, Beatrice and some of the former Mahotella Queens regrouped to perform under the same name for South African audiences, appearing at several local traditional music festivals and community halls. In order to avoid misunderstandings, they eventually decided to make a distinction between their group and the one touring the world with Mahlathini, tweaking their group name slightly to become X-Mahotella Queens (the ‘X’ obviously referring to ‘ex-’, as in ‘former’).
ABOVE: A snippet from a new recording by the X-Mahotella Queens, "Badla Inqondo"
|X-MAHOTELLA QUEENS in 2011|
L to r: Emily Zwane, Beatrice Ngcobo,
Thandi Nkosi, Caroline Kapentar
In 2011, a grouping of now-forgotten stars from mbaqanga’s past – including X-Mahotella Queens – united to form a non-governmental organisation called Omama Besxaxa Foundation. The foundation has held a number of successful shows and workshops in township halls across Johannesburg over the last three years, most recently holding an all-day show at San Kopano Hall in Alexandra in March 2014. The show featured a galaxy of stars including X-Mahotella Queens, Izintombi Zesimanjemanje, Izingane Zoma, John Moriri and the Manzini Girls, Isigqi and others. The show had been in the pipeline for months and Beatrice was looking forward to performing for audiences after so long. X-Mahotella Queens lead singer Emily Zwane had recently retired from performing, leaving Beatrice to step into the spotlight as leader for the first time in her career.
Tragically, Beatrice was knocked down and killed while visiting family in Durban in February 2014.
We at Electric Jive mourn the loss of a very special lady but give thanks that we were able to meet her and interview her at length about her wonderful career before her sudden passing. Life had dealt Beatrice some hard blows, including the sudden and untimely deaths of two of her four children and having to cope with extremely poor living conditions in her old age. But this was a woman who was blessed with enough strength to keep fighting in spite of the many obstacles in her way. Beatrice confirmed to us that she was happy and satisfied about the work she had done over four decades immersed in music, hoping that her life story would be valued in particular by the younger generation. We hope our humble tribute has done her proud.
Rest in peace, mam' Beatrice!
01) UXOSHISA ABANYE
05) NGOTHINI NA?
06) BONGANI MNTANAMI
08) SENGIDLALA AMAKHEHLA
09) KOBANINI NGIHLUPHEKA
10) IZINYEMBEZI ZESULIWE
My thanks to Matt for sharing two of the above songs, and a special acknowledgement to Norton Ramavhoya for giving so much of his time and efforts towards our mission - without his hard work, a tribute like this would simply not have been possible to compose. Thank you Norton!