Zulu Roots, Pop Sounds

Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens take their lilting mbaqanga on tour. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

IT was a steamy night last summer when Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens had their US debut here at the Sounds of Brazil club to an enthusiastic crowd of broadly mixed cultures, ages, and types. People in the audience couldn't keep their feet still as the veteran South African musicians played and sang the lilting, infectious music called mbaqanga. It was the musical style Paul Simon introduced to the United States with his ground-breaking cross-cultural album ``Graceland'' in 1986.

Since then, music has been pouring out of South Africa, to the delight of both musicians from that country and thousands of new fans around the world. Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, who have been playing for more than 30 years in their own country, never dreamed of success outside South Africa. Yet now they're becoming international stars.

The group is now on a three-month North American tour, with stops ranging from New York City to Burlington Vt.; Vancouver, British Columbia; Los Angeles; Little Rock, Ark.; Ames, Iowa; and many more.

Before an Earth Day performance here in Central Park last month, I chatted with members of the group at their hotel: lead singer Simon Nkabinde (whose stage name is Mahlathini); Hilda Tloubatla, one of the Mahotella Queens; and West Nkosi, saxophonist for the Makgona Tsohle Band, the combo that backs the group.

The Queens perform in colorful dress, with Mahlathini decked out in traditional Zulu costume, complete with leopard-skin vest. They sing in Zulu, with a few words of English thrown in, and their songs are about the ups and downs of daily life - more personal than political.

Stylistically, the music is rooted in tradition, but it bears the marks of pop technology - the synthesizer, computer, and ``dance mix.'' They're very much aware of the need to reach audiences without losing the African roots that have exerted such a strong influence on pop music around the world.

``I personally feel that music is like a tree, with a lot of leaves and a lot of fruits,'' says Nkosi. ``Everybody has taken all the fruits from that particular tree, and now every fruit on that tree is finished. The only place where they've not reached are the roots of that tree. So everybody is going down, now, to see this music of ours.''

Nkosi regards music as the leading edge in the movement toward freedom in his own country: ``Music has got no language. It has got no color. In our country, as you know, we have not been privileged in a lot of things. But we had our freedom in music. That's the only place where we had our freedom - that's all.''

Although international recognition still seems like a dream, Mahlathini and his group understand why it has happened.

``The man who made it to be popular is Paul Simon,'' says Mahlathini in the gruff ``goat'' voice that has become his trademark. ``And because West [Nkosi] brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo overseas.''

Mr. Nkosi, the main spokesman for the group, is a well-known South African producer. He worked with Simon on ``Graceland'' and has long believed in the durable appeal of mbaqanga.

Mbaqanga (literally a kind of stew) got started in the mid-1950s, growing out of an effort to reunite black South Africans after the tribes were divided by government regulations.

``They divided all the blacks - Zulus one side, Sotho one side - you name it,'' says Nkosi, who, though a teenager at the time, felt the pain of people close to him being separated from friends and family.

``So we decided to make this type of music, which is called mbaqanga. This music managed to get all these groups together to share their views and their enjoyment and their crises. It became very, very popular for every black population that lived in South Africa, and even the neighboring countries, such as Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.''

The music faded a bit in the '70s, when disco became popular. By then, the Makgona Tsohle Band and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens had been together a long time. The Queens - Hilda Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola, and Nobesuthu Mbadu - were taking time off to marry and raise families, but Nkosi and Mahlathini hung on through the disco craze and stuck to mbaqanga.

``The other producers had to change because of the market,'' says Nkosi, ``but with me it was a little bit different. ... I had a very strong belief ... that this music [should not] just die like that - at least there must be somebody there to take care of it.''

Then in 1982, Nkosi produced an album that sold 1.7 million copies, a response which encouraged him to stick with mbaqanga and try to reunite Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens.

Mahlathini, however, had decided his performing days were over. ``He had already given up,'' says Nkosi, ``saying, `Well, now, my age - I'm old, and that's it - it ends there.' But I said to him, `Please don't give up...,' and Mahlathini listened.''

``It was like a dream, really,'' says Tloubatla, ``for a person who is about 40-something years to go overseas. It was unbelievable, really.'' Tloubatla's children liked the idea, too. ``They're proud about it - that's their mom,'' she says.

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