Wednesday 27 July 2011

Spotlight on... Mahlathini

Today, July 27, marks 12 years since the untimely passing of one of South Africa’s greats – Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde.

We at Electric Jive are paying tribute to Mahlathini in the first of a new, occasional series of posts entitled ‘Spotlight on…’. With this irregular series, we will be focusing on particular artists or groups who have contributed greatly to the rich musical history of Africa – and who better to kick-start this series than the King of the Groaners himself?

Simon Nkabinde was born in Alexandra township in November 1938 into a Zulu-Swazi family. Singing came naturally to the young Simon, who slowly but surely built up a reputation with his handsome voice. His talent blossomed and grew, and before long he was leading mbube choirs at Zulu wedding ceremonies. It was during one such festivity that a life-changing event literally occurred. An expressive number managed to help break Simon's voice into what he later called a gruff. The fiercely-traditional Nkabinde parents believed he had been "witched", but an isangoma provided the simple explanation that Simon was merely growing up. The gruff was here to stay!

His singing career brought to an untimely halt, Simon continued with his schooling until his parents died. Struggling to cope with the costs, he left school and looked for work. His brother Zeph was a regular member of a local pennywhistle group, Black Mambazo, which was recruited for commercial recording by EMI's black music producer Rupert Bopape around 1956. Aaron 'Big Voice Jack' Lerole, one of Mambazo's pennywhistlers and vocalists, had been using deep, guttural groaning vocals in street performances since the group's inception to attract attention, and Bopape decided to use this strange sound at the start of (and during) the group's recordings as a commercial gimmick. Jack was not a natural baritone and the straining put immense pressure on his throat - not to mention the various illegal substances he'd take to "enhance" the groaning. Zeph was a much more natural baritone and often stood in Jack's place. Simon, who was having little luck holding a job down, had had little to do with singing for quite some time, but Zeph realised that Simon's gruff may just be the key to his success. He convinced Simon to develop his own groaning and then auditioned him for the big boss. Rupert Bopape was impressed and it was around 1959/1960 that Simon joined the team of musicians at EMI, often fronting the legendary Dark City Sisters.

Simon began building up a new musical reputation and was soon affectionately known to his contemporaries and to the masses as "Mahlathini"... he who comes from the forest... the man with a voice like a goat... the Main Man... the Bull...

Mahlathini was among the handful or so of musicians who accompanied Bopape when he moved from EMI to Gallo in 1964. The newly-formed Mavuthela Music Company needed three things to gain some form of success: 1) a house band; 2) a female vocal team for the band to back; 3) and a groaner to front the vocal team. The house band, later named the Makgona Tsohle Band, came together with immense ease (fronted by Marks Mankwane on electric lead guitar, and Joseph Makwela on electric bass). The vocal team, under a wide variety of different pop-group-names (the most famous being the Mahotella Queens), was comprised of ten or so female singers. Mahlathini completed the triumvirate and music magic was to occur.

From the start, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens proved they were worth their collective weight in gold. The hits came fast and thick throughout the productive period of 1964 to 1971... from "Umoya" to "Sithunyiwe"... from "Umkhonto" to "Basibon' Izithutha"... from "Igugu Lezwe" to "Bophumthwalo"... and from "Uyavutha Umlilo" to "Sabela Zwide". Their public appearances were viewed through the eyes of a mad frenzy of kids, teens and adults.

Even when Mahlathini broke from Gallo-Mavuthela in 1971, his popularity refused to wane. He joined the Satbel Record Company under producer Cambridge Matiwane in 1973/4, where the golden gruff reigned supreme with such gems as "Ngibuzindlela", "Amagoduka" and "Bayasimemeza". All of these hits uncovered a newfound energy in the ibhodlo which had only been glimpsed before.

A reunion with his old musical companions at Mavuthela in 1983 and a meeting with two French talent scouts in 1987 opened up another chapter in Simon's life and catapulted Mahlathini to the world en masse... but it is the early success that the great groaner encountered that we spotlight today. It would be madness, however, to gloss over the injustice he suffered at the hands of greedy people with all the power.

Simon died on 27 July 1999, aged 61, following complications with a diabetic condition that had reduced his health to naught over the course of the entire 1990s.

Exploitation denied this great man the chance to reap the benefits of his life’s work – exploitation first from producer Rupert Bopape in the studio in the ‘60s, then from manager West Nkosi on the world tours of the ‘80s. At the time of his death, Simon Nkabinde should have been a rich man by rights. In reality, he had only a few rands to his name, and the only property he owned was a small three-roomed house. As Hugh Masekela once lamented, Mahlathini was so poor he didn’t even own a bicycle.

However, Nkabinde’s lasting legacy is that he is still remembered well into the 21st century for his iconic performance, decades after all those classic recordings and live shows. Courtesy of YouTube, here is a selection of music videos from after the international breakthrough - all of them well worth checking out:

Thokozile (1987)
Gazette (1988)
Mbaqanga (1991)
Stop Crying (1991)
Umuntu Ngumuntu (1999)

Electric Jive also plays its part, providing a modest but well-intended tribute to Nkabinde via the sharing of much of his early out-of-print work, hoping to keep the memory of King Mahlathini alive for years to come. To illustrate this point, we present to you the latest in a long line of Electric Jive mixes, featuring 25 classic Mahlathini songs recorded between 1966 and 1979, at the height of his early career.

Enjoy... ladum' izulu!

3. IGUGU LEZWE – with the Mahotella Queens (1972)
4. UMKHONTO – with the Mthunzini Girls (1966)
5. AMAKHAMANDELA – with the Mthunzini Girls (1966)
6. SABELA ZWIDE (1970)
7. ISINYOLOVANE – with the Soweto Stars (1966)
8. UMNUMZANE – with the Mthunzini Girls (1968)
9. AMAGODUKA – with The Queens (1974)
10. ISIDWABA – with The Queens (1979)
11. ABANGANI BAMI – with Izintombi Zomgqashiyo (1969)
12. BOPHUMTHWALO – with the Mahotella Queens (1970)
13. IMBODLOMANE (1967)
14. INYAMA – with Abafana Bezi Modern (1966)
15. SHWELE BABA (1970)
16. BAYASIMENMEZA – with The Queens (1974)
17. KUMNANDI EMGABABA – with The Queens (1974)
19. UYAVUTHA UMLILO – with the Mahotella Queens (1971)
20. LADUM’ IZULU – with The Queens (1976)
21. BASIBON’ IZITHUTHA – with Izintombi Zomgqashiyo (1969)
22. SHALUZA MAX – with the Mahotella Queens (1969)
23. MAFEHLEFEHLE – with the Mahotella Queens (1968)
24. AKEKHO (1979)
25. ITHEMBA ALIBULALI – with The Queens (1976)

Download links
RapidShare: here
MediaFire: here


  1. staggeringly sublime & superlative selections. RIP Groaner

  2. Thank you. Great idea to have a 'Spotlight on..' series. Who's next?

  3. Yebo, Nicky!
    Thanks for the extra effort and your acutely-tuned ears. ;-)

  4. Simpy wonderful. Thank you so much for this.

  5. a great piece and the music was a joy to listen to. which album is isidwaba from? i had the impression that mahlathini and the mahotella queens were inactive from around '71 to early eighties, but you have the date as '79. was 'mahlathini and the queens' a different line up altogether?

  6. Hi Owen,

    Many thanks for your comment. Mahlathini left Gallo-Mavuthela (and, consequently, the Mahotella Queens) in 1972 following a dispute over royalties. He joined Satbel Records the next year, recording with an entirely new line-up of musicians, under the name 'Mahlathini and The Queens'. The Queens in question were not Mahotella (for Gallo held the copyright to that name!) but rather a separate female vocal troupe - and this is the group that backs him on 1979's "Isidwaba".

    Mahlathini recorded with these newer musicians until circa 1983, when he rejoined Gallo under the production of Lucky Monama (briefly). He reunited with some of the original Mahotella Queens for a two-year recording project later in 1983, under Marks Mankwane's production. The project fell through in 1985, at which point Mahlathini joined forces with Swazi traditional group Amaswazi Emvelo. He reunited once more with three of the Mahotella Queens in 1987, remaining with the ladies and Gallo until his death in 1999.

    Hope this helps!

  7. incredible. love this man, love this mix. gruff!

  8. Great voice. Thanks for introducing me to it.

  9. Dear sweet lord,
    Is there any possibility of a re: upload of this incredible looking mix?


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