Obituary: Mahlathini

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The Independent Culture
SOUTH AFRICAN mbaqanga jive is one of the most distinctive and exciting musical styles to have emerged from the continent this century, and one of the styles which most impinged on European and American audiences during the African music boom of the late Eighties. Two top groups, the Soul Brothers, and Mahlathini and his Mahotella Queens, achieved greatest international success, but in terms of individual fame Mahlathini, with his powerful rasping "groaner's" bellow and his Zulu stage costumes, won hands down.

Mahlathini's international success occurred a decade after his great South African popularity had waned. At home, he was a star of the Sixties and early Seventies, the leading light of mbaqanga jive, a fast, bouncing guitar- and saxophone-based dance style that was the rage of the black townships, just as its predecessor, marabi jive, a more American jazz- based genre, had been in the Forties and Fifties.

The nickname Mahlathini - meaning "forest" - dated from his childhood and referred to his bushy hair: by the time he hit world fame he was balding, as far as could be discerned from the shelter of his habitual black fedoras or Zulu caps. He was born Simon Nkabinde in 1938 to a poor family and grew up in Alexandra, a segregated township outside Johannesburg.

He started work early, denied the luxury of education, in a soft drinks factory, then as a builder, and for a long time as a milkman. The great natural gift that would lift him out of a life of menial labour lost no time in manifesting itself on puberty: an astonished family apparently consulted witch doctors before coming to terms with the amazing bass rasp their progeny was capable of emitting at such volume.

Mahlathini was introduced to music-making by his elder brother, Zeph, who played sax and whistle in Alexandra Black Mambazo, one of the top groups playing kwela, the penny whistle jive derivative of marabi. In the late Fifties Mahlathini began singing with vocal harmony groups, another important genre of the period, notably the Dark City Sisters and the Flying Jazz Queens. It was during this time that he began to develop the deep bass "groaning" style of singing, impressed by the sound of another member of Alexandra Black Mambazo, Aaron Lerole, celebrated as "Big Voice Jack".

Mahalathini's great breakthrough came as a result of teaming up with two crucial units of mid-Sixties black South African dance music. The Makgona Tsohle Band (Makgona Tsohle meaning "Jack of All Trades") was the hottest backing group, producing the new, thumping, rock-flavoured, but deeply Zulu, mbaqanga sound: named after a township soul food staple, a sort of dumpling. The Mahotella Queens were a trio of superb close-harmony singers. The combination of Mahlathini's fully fledged "goat" voice roaring over the funkiness of the saxes and guitars, with the Queens soaring through the interstices, all singers formation dancing the while in Zulu regalia, was irresistible and Mahlathini began to acquire his honorary titles of "The Lion of Soweto" and "Mahlathini the Man".

By the late Seventies, mbaqanga music had gone out of fashion in South Africa, replaced by local forms of disco and Mahlathini's career stagnated until 1986 when Paul Simon's use of South African musicians on his seminal Graceland album hit a chord with international consumers and African music began to be in demand, at first in Europe, then in the United States and the rest of the developed world.

The French promoter and director of the Angouleme Festival, Christian Mousset, in 1987 brought Mahlathini to France for a short European concert schedule that soon blossomed into a number of years of intensive international touring. In the UK, the South African-born producers Trevor Herman and Jumbo Vanrenen licensed Mahlathini's classic mbaqanga recordings for their new Earthworks label and began releasing compilations such as The Kings and Queens of Township Jive, The Lion of Soweto and King of the Groaners, to considerable success.

In 1988 Mahlathini played Wembley Stadium along with Stevie Wonder and George Michael for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday celebration, and in 1991, an audience of several hundred thousand turned out for Mahlathini in the open air at Central Park in New York. In recent years, Mahlathini's profile was lower, and the ranks of old mbaqanga greats began to thin, with the deaths of West Nkosi and Marks Mankwana of the Makgona Tsohle band. In spite of fluctuating health due to diabetes, Mahlathini had recently completed a new album.

Simon Nkabinde ("Mahlathini"), singer: born 1938; died Johannesburg 27 July 1999.