Monday, 21 December 2015

Classic Mbaqanga Girl Groups - Vol. 5

Happy holidays! Electric Jive welcomes in Christmas week with a brand new volume of our popular Classic Mbaqanga Girl Groups series, delving into the music of South Africa's female groups of the 1960s and 1970s. In Volume 5 we take a look at the music of the Mahotella Queens, Mthunzini Girls, Jabavu Queens, Dima Sisters, Izintombi Zomoya, Manzini Girls, Dark City Sisters, Amagugu, Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje and other solid female ensembles from the mbaqanga era. What better way to celebrate the festivities? 

MAHOTELLA QUEENS
Our first song is "Mphemphe Yalapisa", a recording credited to the Dima Sisters but actually recorded by the pool of singers who toured live as the Mahotella Queens. Talent scout and producer Rupert Bopape usually devised several group names with the intention of creating a number of successful girl bands. From 1964, he had a team of session singers record under a variety of different 'band names' for Gallo's Mavuthela Music division, and after two massively successful singles released under the name Mahotella Queens, Bopape spend his time carefully building up a public profile and image for the group. Key to the publicity were close relationships with the influential African announcers on the SABC's Radio Bantu service: K.E. Masinga, Hubert Sishi and Winnie Mahlangu. The line-up of the Queens solidified for impending tour dates, but Bopape continued to recruit more singers to the group before splitting it into two distinct sections around 1967 - the first continued to tour and record with Mahlathini under the name Mahotella Queens (as well as recording under several other pseudonyms), and the other (newer) section recording and touring as the Mthunzini Girls with vocalist John Moriri. In 1968, Bopape took another of the Queens' recording names - the Dima Sisters - and built it into a fully fledged group, and on the practice continued for several more years. It was a shrewd, cunning move designed not only to fill the Mavuthela roster with a selection of top girl groups, but to keep a steady supply of singers flowing through the Gallo building when the walkouts occurred: Bopape would recruit singers in their late teens or early twenties - they were young, naive and easily led by a father figure. A master A&R man, producer and songwriter, Bopape was also a hugely corrupting force who kept his artists ensconced in what could be best described as cheap labour. As the young ladies grew up, they became aware that they were working hard for essentially nothing, so they quit - only for Bopape to replace them with younger, more naive singers.

Talk of harsh pay, busy schedules and strict leadership is associated with almost all of the African music producers, who besides Bopape included Strike Vilakazi of Trutone Records; Cuthbert Matumba of Troubadour Records; then later Hamilton Nzimande of GRC's Isibaya Esikhulu Music; David Thekwane of Teal Records; and West Nkosi of Mavuthela Music to name just some. Exploitation was part and parcel of the industry, especially where young, vulnerable women were concerned. Depending on a producer's personal preference, they were either daughter figures or lovers, and any money doled out from the boss was certainly kept to an absolute minimum. Occasionally producers would succeed in poaching musical stars from their rivals with promises of healthy pay packets and better working conditions - and of course, neither prospect actually materialised. The huge irony is that the sounds that these ensembles made constitute some of the most delightful, energetic and exuberant music ever put down on record. Repetitive cycles of electrifying, lilting guitar hooks; superb female harmonies that danced between smooth blended chorus to brazen wailing; and a solo lead male assuredly bellowing his way through the tunes. Girl groups and mbaqanga music were synonymous with each other as the genre became South Africa's own answer to the Motown sound for a period of nearly twenty years.

MTHUNZINI GIRLS
Though producers liked to stick to recording mbaqanga tunes in the languages that sold the best - isiZulu and Sesotho, the two languages that the lion's share of African consumers spoke - songs were sometimes composed in Pedi (Sesotho sa Leboa), Tswana and Venda to ensure quotas were met. "Ka Tatampela" by the Sweet Home Dames - actually the Mthunzini Girls featuring Virginia Teffo on lead vocal - is a fun, upbeat tune categorised as 'Pedi Vocal Jive' on the 45rpm label; "Emarabini" by the Mthunzini Girls - actually Izingane zo Mgqashiyo led by Beauty Radebe - is labelled as 'Swazi Vocal Jive'. "Emarabini" is more or less a straight cover (without a credit for the original composer!) of "Siyo Ba Bamba" by Joseph Mthimkhulu and The Space Queens. The latter tune - included on Ingwe Idla Ngamabala (CBS LAB 4005) which can be found here - was a huge hit of 1967 for Isibaya Esikhulu, the African division of Gramophone Record Company. Though Rupert Bopape was certainly one of the most successful and influential producers on the scene at the time, he was not the only one. By the 1970s, Hamilton Nzimande stood as the only other producer who actively challenged Mavuthela's crown.

SANNAH MNGUNI
At Isibaya Esikhulu, Nzimande carefully cultivated a hugely successful roster of excellent female vocalists, instrumental players, composers and arrangers. Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje was Nzimande's first major success. The girl group, which eventually became a vehicle for the raspy crooning of lead singer Sannah Mnguni, rose so high in prominence that the popularity battle was dominated only by two groups - itself and the Mahotella Queens. Both groups were capable of attracting a staggeringly phenomenal amount of fans who clamoured to township halls, theatres and football stadiums just to see the beautiful voices in person. Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje was supported by the excellent Saul Tshabalala as their groaner and Abafana Bentuthuko, the backing band led by the highly innovative lead guitarist Hansford Mthembu. Nzimande's Isibaya Esikhulu operation was so successful that it became the next port of call for artists who resigned from Mavuthela. The original Mthunzini Girls quit Mavuthela to become Izintombi Zentuthuko for Isibaya in 1969, but it wasn't the fairytale move that they had imagined, and pretty soon the act disintegrated. One of the singers, Windy Sibeko, stayed on for a while, multi-tracking her vocals for certain numbers such as "Mmona Oaka", released as the S'modern Girls. In 1972, most of the original Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje members (as well as Hansford Mthembu) suddenly quit the Isibaya stable. Sibeko followed them to EMI, where they started up a new, even greater chapter of their musical career as Amagugu Esimanje Manje.
MAHOTELLA QUEENS and the MAKGONA TSOHLE BAND
HILDA TLOUBATLA
Under the orchestration of producer Bopape and flanked by a team of ingenious songwriters, musical arrangers and instrumentalists, the Mahotella Queens produced a long, wonderful stream of high quality vocal jive singles from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. The Queens, easily the country's leading mbaqanga group of the era, perhaps benefitted from three distinct elements. The first was Mahlathini, hailed in the townships as 'Indoda Mahlathini' ('Mahlathini the main man'), a thoroughly decent and humble personality who possessed a showstopping stage persona and impressive vocal rawness. The second was Hilda Tloubatla, who Bopape positioned as the main lead singer of the Queens during its early days in 1964. Tloubatla possessed a reassuringly smooth, deeply resonant and thick vibrato-heavy vocal, a beautiful sound that clearly screamed 'Mahotella Queens' to every Radio Bantu listener. The third was the Makgona Tsohle Band. Marks Mankwane was not only the group's acclaimed lead guitarist, he was also the principal musical arranger of the Queens' music. He applied hundreds of melodies, all of them fresh and new and not one like another, to the lyrics written by the group's members, ensuring every Mahotella release was crafted to perfection. "Shaluza Max", recorded by the Queens in 1969, is a contorted celebration of Marks' talent. In 1973's sublime "Abaculi Bethu", the guitar wizard's abilities (as well as the talents of the other Makgona Tsohle Band members) are celebrated more openly. Queens' alto vocalist Juliet Mazamisa is the composer of "Madulo", recorded alongside "Shaluza Max" in 1969 and later covered by the legendary Letta Mbulu for her album Culani Nami.

It's obvious that with the success of these big groups, young women were influenced into forming their own groups and moving up to Johannesburg to try out their luck. The Temptation Kids were a group of singers trained by vocalist, producer and impresario Roxy Jila who brought them up to Johannesburg from Durban around 1970 to record for Mavuthela. Inevitably, the lure of a luxury lifestyle, big pay-packets and plenty of public appearances sent the Kids on their merry way to a rival producer, a move that both left Jila miffed and the Kids completely empty handed. One of the gems from their shortlived career was "Mamezala", a strident up-tempo vocal jive describing the emotions felt by all when a young bride leaves her home after she is married.

AMAGUGU ESIMANJE MANJE
“Kumnandi Ezayoni”, recorded by The Pride in 1976, is an odd one. From a musical perspective, the tune is not a traditional masterpiece but deserves inclusion simply because of its intriguing all-star line-up: the groaner is Mthunzi Malinga from Isibaya Esikhulu; the lead guitarist and arranger is Hansford Mthembu from EMI; the backing band is Mthembu's troupe Intuthuko Brothers from EMI; and the vocalists are a mixture of Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje and Amagugu members. All of these artists were under contract to their respective companies during the recording of this and other songs for Mavuthela's Smanje Manje label (the name ‘The Pride’ references the English translation of ‘Amagugu’). So-called ‘underground’ sessions for rival producers and companies were actually commonplace in the industry during this era - the artists had to eke out a living somehow - but it's unusual that both Malinga, Mthembu and manager/arranger Titus Masikane are all given open and honest credit on the 45rpm label rather than fictional pseudonyms as would be the norm. One wonders if they were reprimanded by their EMI bosses. Amagugu continued to record for the company for another four more years before they moved over to WEA, then back to EMI, then disbanded for good.

Four tracks in this compilation are from Izintombi Zomoya, one of Mavuthela's junior female ensembles arguably used by the bosses as a 'testing ground' for new vocalists. But during the early 1970s, the group - backed by the Zwino Zwino Boys, 'Zwino Zwino' being Venda for 'now now!' - began to develop some real attention for the first time. Thandi Nkosi was the face of the group for a while until she was promoted to the Mahotella Queens in 1972. She was replaced by Irene Mawela, whose voice glides sweetly and gracefully over the groans of Robert 'Mbazo' Mkhize and the other singers in "Siphum' Enyakatho" and "Igama Lami (Libizw'emoyeni)". In 1975, the line-up was reshuffled again and Irene began to make recordings under her own name for the first name. Her position in Izintombi Zomoya was taken by Julia Yende, who had recently returned to Mavuthela after several years (she had been the original lead singer of the Mthunzini Girls until 1969). "Sponono Ngiyeke" highlights her mournful, bittersweet lead voice.
IZINTOMBI ZOMOYA
After Yende and the other Mthunzini Girls walked out in 1969, Mavuthela replaced them with an entirely new line-up. The same pattern repeated itself in 1971 as a new third incarnation led by Beatrice Ngcobo started recording under the name. That third incarnation quit in 1972 after being denied their touring fees and found a new recording home at Satbel Record Company in 1973. Under producer C.B. Matiwane, John Moriri and the newly-named Manzini Girls set to work recreating the magic they had worked up in the Gallo studios, complete with lead guitarist George Mangxola and the renamed Soweto Boys. For some of their recordings, they were joined by former Mahotella Queens singer Juliet Mazamisa, whose creative compositions gave Moriri and the Manzini Girls some golden hits including "Baqhubi Bezimoto". Things seemed rosy for a while - Moriri and the Manzini Girls' 1975 single "Isikhova" sold four gold discs and two platinums - but astonishing sales figures do not necessarily translate into fortune for the music makers, and by 1976 they had had enough of Satbel and quit to join WEA's new African operation led by guitarist-producer Almon Memela. It was around this time that the popularity of vocal jive groups began to decline for the very first time. In desperate attempts to keep their groups relevant, producers reworked the mbaqanga format by introducing a keyboard into the band and changing the rhythm patterns to create a new sort of 'disco jive' sound. "Basali Basejoale Joale" by Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje represents a sort of 'last gasp' of the original sound, featuring two guitars - lead and rhythm - competing for the spotlight along with the obligatory organ. "Otla Ntswarela" by the Mahotella Queens is even more distinctly soul-infused, but strangely manages to create that new feel without even a trace of organ or electric piano. If one must choose a favourite from this strange era, "Woza Ungilande" by Izintombi Zomoya - complete with yet another new line-up led by Joana Thango - would have to be mine. It carries an effervescent arrangement seemingly at odds with the solemn lyrical themes of prayer and church.

Mbaqanga girl groups continued to enjoy relevance and popularity for several more years until they were finally eclipsed, first by all-male mbaqanga line-ups, then the solo stars of bubblegum music in the early 1980s. The joyous sounds of mbaqanga music vanished from the pop scene without trace. But the memorable music still exists, buried under the rubble, waiting to be fished out, cleaned up and preserved for eternity. Classic Mbaqanga Girl Groups - Vol. 5 presents a selection of 30 female mbaqanga vocal classics from the era when the genre ruled the airwaves. Hit the download link and be prepared to do some serious jiving. YEBO! :-)


CLASSIC MBAQANGA GIRL GROUPS - VOL. 5
COMPILED BY NICK LOTAY
01) DIMA SISTERS – MPHEMPHE YALAPISA (1967)
02) SWEET HOME DAMES – KA TATAMPELA (1968)
03) MTHUNZINI GIRLS – EMARABINI (1968)
04) MAHOTELLA QUEENS – MADULO (1969)
05) MAHLATHINI AND IZINTOMBI ZOMGQASHIYO – HAMBA MINYAKA (1970)
06) S’MODERN GIRLS – MMONA OAKA (1971)
07) DIMA SISTERS – SUKUNDI JEMULA (1969)
08) JABAVU QUEENS – SIDEDELENI (1968)
09) MAHOTELLA QUEENS – SHALUZA MAX (1969)
10) IZINTOMBI ZOMGQASHIYO – NAMHLA KUNGAMI (1970)
11) MASHALASHALA GIRLS – YANGENA INSIZWA (1971)
12) MAHOTELLA QUEENS – LESELESELE (1972)
13) TEMPTATION KIDS – MAMEZALA (1971)
14) MTHUNZINI GIRLS – SANGENA, SANGENA (1973)
15) DIMA SISTERS – BANTWANYANA AWU (1972)
16) IZINTOMBI ZOMOYA – SIPHUM’ ENYAKATHO (1973)
17) JOHN MORIRI & MANZINI GIRLS – TSWANG-TSWANG (1974)
18) IZINTOMBI ZOMOYA – IGAMA LAMI (LIBIZW’EMOYENI) (1975)
19) MAHOTELLA QUEENS – ABACULI BETHU (1973)
20) DARK CITY SISTERS – NTUNTSOANE (1976)
21) JULIET, JOHN MORIRI & MANZINI GIRLS – BAQHUBI BEZIMOTO (1975)
22) MAHOTELLA QUEENS – YAKHAL’INYONI (1976)
23) THE PRIDE – KUMNANDI EZAYONI (1975)
24) AMAGUGU – THULA MNTWANA (1976)
25) OLIVE MASINGA AND THE “T” BONE DOLLS – IZIHLOBO ZIYASISHIYA (1974)
26) IZINTOMBI ZOMOYA – SPONONO NGIYEKE (1975)
27) IZINTOMBI ZESI MANJE MANJE – BASALI BASEJOALE JOALE (1977)
28) MELLOTONE SISTERS – UTHANDO LUPHELILE (1977)
29) IZINTOMBI ZOMOYA – WOZA UNGILANDE (1977)
30) MAHOTELLA QUEENS – OTLA NTSWARELA (1976)

7 comments:

  1. Just in time for a marathon of wrapping and tinsel drapping .... The women's glorious harmonies and the guitar twangs and riffs the perfect accompaniment to mindless but pleaurable preparatory activity! You've got me stomping, swaying, nodding and generally having a great time of it .... some of your music offerings educate , excite, divert and even broaden my horizons but by far my favourite is the infectious good time stuff like this .... one more thank you for the year!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ps just been though my collected downloads of your stuff and found i was missing the first two volumes .... investigations into back issues suggested the reason being that you published them both as extended play mix tapes that dont save in the same way .... I know its likely to be a schlep but if there is any chance that you revisit the posts and ressue them as separate tracks I for one would be a very happy chap.... cheers .

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you Eyepictures for your kind comments! Glad you're enjoying the music. When time allows, I shall try to provide new versions of Vols. 1 and 2 with individual tracks.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for your kindness. Please note that tracks #10 et #23 cannot be red with windows media player. Could you fix it.
    Regards.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Nick, you never cease to amaze me with your your deep insight about how this proudly South African music sound was conceived, evolved and waned - to say nothing of the hectic goings-on behind the scenes in the lives of the people that made this unique sound possible. No other non-South African has taught me so much about a niche of SA life as you have. I take my hat off to your astounding journalism.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you very much Manzo for your kind, supportive, humbling and encouraging words. My thanks to you for championing our blog - and of course sharing your vivid memories of those days.

    A very merry Christmas to you and everybody reading Electric Jive this December. :-)

    ReplyDelete

Electric Jive is currently receiving a deluge of spam. Apologies for the additional word verification requirement.