Not many musical groups can lay claim to defining an entire genre. One of the most famous names in South African music, the Mahotella Queens arose in 1964 to become the country’s premier mbaqanga vocal harmony group. The sweet, joyous close harmonies of the Queens, counteracted by the deep bass ‘groaning’ of Mahlathini and the lilting guitar backing of the Makgona Tsohle Band, became one of the most loved and prominent musical attractions in South Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s. They were soon touring the world, included in such projects as Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning Graceland in 1987 and Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South African President in 1994. They went on to tour widely, appearing at major stages and festivals worldwide. After Mahlathini’s untimely death in the 1990s, they regrouped and continued recording and touring, and collaborating with a range of international artists (John Legend, Hugh Masakela, among many others.)
Now, in their 55th year, original member Hilda Tloubatla has injected the stage act with youthful and renewed vigor with the addition of singers Amanda Nkosi and Nonkululeko Maseko. The Mahotella Queens are revitalised, renewed and ready to bring the exciting sound of South Africa back to a world audience.
Areas of Representation: Worldwide
Not many musical groups can lay claim to defining an entire genre. One of the most famous names in South African music, the Mahotella Queens arose in 1964 to become the country’s premier mbaqanga vocal harmony group and the most popular musical attraction in South Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s. Several hit records – all of which went gold – and mammoth tours across the country and neighboring Lesotho, Botswana, the then- Rhodesia, Malawi and Mozambique helped to cement Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens’ position as the yardstick by which other mbaqanga groups were measured.
Now, in their 55th year, the Mahotella Queens are revitalised, renewed and ready to bring the exciting sound of South Africa back to a world audience.
The origins of the Queens are rooted in the apartheid-stricken conditions of 1960s South Africa. Veteran producer and talent scout Rupert Bopape, then one of the country’s most influential businessmen, joined Gallo Africa in 1964 with the instruction to create a fresh-faced, exciting new musical act for the African public. As fate would have it, all of these elements coalesced under Bopape’s leadership almost immediately.
First, there was Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde, born in 1938 in the latter-day KwaZulu-Natal, who was already a hugely talented star. Then there was trumpeter Shadrack Piliso, a musical arranger with a unique knack for melody and vocal harmony. The band that Bopape later christened the Makgona Tsohle Band (best translated as “the band that can play anything”) comprised true musical innovators: lead guitarist Marks Mankwane, rhythm guitarist Vivian Ngubane, electric bassist Joseph Makwela, drummer Lucky Monama and alto saxophonist/pennywhistler West Nkosi.
The final component of the new act was the Mahotella Queens, formed by Bopape from daily auditions at the Gallo building. The very first line-up of the Queens was Hilda Tloubatla on lead vocals, backed by Ethel Mngomezulu and Nunu Maseko. The name was inspired by the roadside hotels in which Bopape’s girl groups made regular stage appearances. The line-up of the Queens was soon augmented by Juliet Mazamisa, Windy Sibeko, Mildred Mangxola, Thoko Nontsonwa, Mary Rabotapi and Nobesuthu Mbadu.
The sweet, joyous close harmonies of the Queens, counteracted by the deep bass ‘groaning’ of Mahlathini and the lilting guitar backing of the Makgona Tsohle Band, became one of the most loved sounds in South Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s. For the rest of the 1960s, such evergreen jive numbers as “Pitsa Tse Kgolo”, “Sithunyiwe”, “Dikgomo”, “Ashikinisi Jive Mgqashiyo”, “Izulu Liyaduduma”, “Bantwanyana”, “Lilizela”, “Mahlare”, “Guga Mzimba” and countless other gems dominated the radio airwaves. Their stage act was not to be missed either. Mahlathini commanded the audience with his ‘bushman’ act, offset by the ladies’ winning combination of traditional African war and wedding dance with American twist and jive, all performed with girlish self-assurance.
Inevitably, the good times came to an end in the mid-1970s. The original Queens dispersed into rival groups after a payment dispute; Mahlathini quit Gallo for another label; Bopape and Piliso retired from the music business; and the Makgona Tsohle Band split to fulfill new producing roles in Gallo. West Nkosi went on to produce some of the best South African popular music acts of the day, including a new Durban-based Zulu choir named Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Marks Mankwane, the excellent guitarist and budding arranger, kept the Mahotella Queens brand alive with new members through a difficult late 1970s/early 1980s period of soul, disco and bubblegum music.
But while mbaqanga was at its lowest ebb in South Africa, its uplifting beat had started seeping into the public consciousness overseas.
In 1983, Malcolm McLaren utilized the services of mbaqanga session players on his crossover album Duck Rock, which ‘borrowed’ several backing tracks from 1970s Mahotella Queens hit singles. Then, in 1986, Paul Simon recruited a number of famous South African names to produce his seminal mbaqanga-driven record Graceland, winner of the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of The Year.
These projects sparked major international interest in mbaqanga music. In the wake of Graceland, two French music promoters visited South Africa in 1987 with the intention of returning home with some thrilling African musical talent. West Nkosi reassembled the original golden trio – Mahlathini, three of the original Mahotella Queens (Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola) and the Makgona Tsohle Band – to perform for the French visitors. Before the ‘80s were over, Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens were one of the most active live performance acts from South Africa, with regular visits to North America, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, China, Japan and Australia.
For the next decade, Mahlathini and the Queens were kept busy both in the studio and with a string of international tour dates. These included a live performance before 500,000 people in New York’s Central Park in 1991; an appearance at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Concert in Wembley Stadium in 1988, before an estimated global television audience of 600 million; numerous appearances at WOMAD festivals; and a special performance at Mandela’s inauguration as South African president in Pretoria in 1994. This busy work schedule continued until the untimely, successive deaths of West Nkosi, Marks Mankwane and Mahlathini in the late 1990s.
After a period of mourning, lead vocalist Hilda took charge of the act, keeping the show on the road in memory of their fallen comrades. The return of the Mahotella Queens saw the release of their first album without Mahlathini and the Makgona Tsohle Band, Sebai Bai. This was followed by the 2nd annual WOMEX Award for outstanding contribution to world music, in 2000.
In recent years, eclectic collaborations with Idris Elba, John Legend and South African luminaries Hugh Masekela, P.J. Powers, Lance James and hip-hop megastar Cassper Nyovest have helped to both sustain the Mahotella Queens brand and enhance their appeal. The unavoidable passage of time has seen group regulars Nobesuthu and Mildred retire due to health troubles. Undeterred, Hilda – the last remaining original member – recruited two young performers, Amanda Nkosi and Nonkululeko Maseko, taking some months out to carefully train and educate them in every aspect of mbaqanga music and of the Queens’ journey. The result has injected the stage act with youthful and renewed vigor, while securing the integrity of the group.
In 2019, the Queens signed exclusively to the UK-based Umsakazo Records, a label well versed in the lineage and structure of true mbaqanga music. This ensures the Mahotella Queens continue their astonishing journey, far and wide, to audiences young and old, across the next few decades.
As for the present, the ladies are very much ensconced in projects. In July 2019, the Queens featured on Damon Albarn’s experimental Africa Express album. September 2019 will see Umsakazo’s re-release of the very first Mahotella Queens LP from 1966, Meet the Mahotella Queens, on deluxe 180g vinyl. Then, in December, the Queens will release their first album of new material in over twelve years.
More than five decades since the mbaqanga beat was born, the Mahotella Queens remain the genre’s leading exponent, carrying their stirring, passionate music to all four corners of the globe.
The MAHOTELLA QUEENS are
HILDA TLOUBATLA, AMANDA NKOSI and NONKULULEKO MASEKO
SANDILE MKIZE – lead guitar
KHOLA PHALATSE – bass guitar
JACKY MOKOATLO – keyboards
BETHUEL MBONANI – drums
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“South African township jive full of thrilling vocal harmonies and mbaqanga guitars… dazzling Zulu dance steps that make them such a live attraction.” – Songlines
“While the percussion and rhythm is indeed stunning, the focus lies in the silken harmonies of these gifted women… their voices offer intricate and pristine layers of traditional Zulu and Sotho melodies. In a land where voice reigns supreme, the Mahotella Queens are giants.” – Offbeat Magazine
“A trio of women who harmonize as richly as the Supremes. It is a combination of rawness and refinement, of traditional African intonation with gospel-choir harmony… for an American listener, the music is simply a joy. The singers shared synchronized dance routines, gesturing to underscore lyrics or acting out stories of courtship or conquest. And to begin the early set, the Queens harmonized, unaccompanied, in a gospelly song that stated, ‘Let’s sing the praises of Mandela,’ and, ‘We shall overcome, come what may.’ There is a tough-minded, resilient spirit behind the jubilant music.” – NY Times
“There’s always a danger with a veteran band like this that they can turn into a novelty act, but the Queens kept their credibility – and their dignity. They promised they had ‘another 20 years of life’, and they deserve yet another revival.” – The Guardian
“The hippest hips in town!” – BBC London
“Foremost in the Queens’ dynamic performance is the music itself. It has the rhythmic drive of township jive, tightly woven harmonies and choreography derived from Zulu ceremonial chants and dances. Every element seems carefully integrated, yet one never loses a sense of the spontaneous joy that can come only from musicians who are living in the moment, not replicating the same performance night after night. The group somehow manages to stay connected to its roots in folk tradition while applying contemporary arrangements and presentational elements, some borrowed from Western pop, that make this music as current as the nightly news… in other words, mbaqanga is their version of a musical gumbo.” – LA Times
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