A spirited and versatile performer who could switch from a whimper to a roar in a single note, the South African singer Busi Mhlongo achieved worldwide fame in the latter part of her career. She spent many years in exile from the horrors of apartheid, living and working in Portugal, North America, the Netherlands and the UK. Of the half-dozen solo albums she released, Urbanzulu (1998) was the best known, an innovative reinvention of the tough, bouncy maskanda music of her Zulu roots, hitherto an almost exclusively male preserve.
Even so, Mhlongo had to fight to make her mark in the country of her birth, and never recorded for a major label. She came to be known as "Mam'Busi", and was recognised for her considerable contribution to South African culture, as noted by President Jacob Zuma, who said, "She transformed the maskandi guitar of migrant Zulu mine workers into an instrument of peace. Her music carried poignant messages of South Africa's struggle for freedom and justice."
Mhlongo grew up in a musical family in the mountain village of Ohlange. At home, in church and at school, she was encouraged to play drums and sing, and to find solace in music. She was inspired and influenced by contemporary legends Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka and in particular Princess Magogo, but also the unknown maskanda musicians often heard at parties organised by local stokvel credit unions.
As a teenager, she joined the hit musical King Kong when it arrived in Durban, and was soon on her way to Johannesburg with it. While there, she recorded a cover of the international smash hit "My Boy Lollipop" (as Vicky Mhlongo) for the Gallo label. This was a pan-African success, but she never received any royalties. More exploitation followed while working for African Jazz, a Johannesburg-based touring revue company, then a rite of passage for many aspiring artists.
Before leaving South Africa for Portugal in 1968 (via tours of Mozambique and Angola), she had marrried the drummer Early Mabuza, and they had a daughter, who she had to leave behind. Soon after Mhlongo arrived in Portugal she learnt that her husband had been murdered, but having effectively gone into exile she was unable to return to South Africa to attend his funeral and look after her child. She spent the next five years in Portugal with the expat Angolan band Conjunto Juan Paulo, and then moved to London in 1974. This led to her participation in the album Jabula (1975), recorded with fellow South Africans Julian Bahula, Lucky Ranku and Dudu Pukwana. From there, she moved on to the US, where her first brush with cancer forced her out of the limelight. In remission, she joined the Canadian musical Reefer Gladness before eventually resettling in South Africa.
However, by the start of the 1980s she had been forced back into exile, this time to the Netherlands, where she worked with her own band, performing at increasingly high-profile events. Again she returned to South Africa in 1985, and despite even worse repression rebuilt her life in Durban, dropping the stage name Vicky in favour of Busi, and founding her band, Twasa. She eventually recorded her debut album, Babhemu (Munich Records), with them after a 1991 tour of Europe, but it wasn't released in South Africa until 1993. The same year she toured Europe and the UK, which brought her to the attention of the former Soul II Soul producer Will Mowat.
In 1994, Mhlongo joined Hugh Masekela's homecoming celebratory tour, and the following year appeared with him at the Africa '95 Gala in London. After signing to the M.E.L.T. 2000 label, she contributed to albums by labelmates Madala Kunene, Sipho Gumede, Max Lasser and Skeleton, before recording Urbanzulu (1998) with Mowat. The album was launched in the UK with support shows for Ladysmith Black Mambazo and it cemented her reputation abroad and at home, where it won three South African Music Awards.
Mhlongo followed this up with the indifferent Indisa album in 2002 before undergoing drug rehabilitation and signing to Masekela's Chissa label for a return to form on Freedom (2003). Although her cancer returned in 2005, she also released Amakholwa (2009), and the retrospective African Classics (2009). She was working on recordings with Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the time of her death.
Victoria Busiswe Mhlongo, singer and songwriter: born Ohlange, South Africa 28 October 1947; married Early Mabuza (one daughter); died Durban, South Africa 15 June 2010.