South African legends: Mahotella Queens, Hugh Masekela

Audio 21:13
El trompetista Hugh Masekela
El trompetista Hugh Masekela Griot GmbH

Jazz legend Hugh Masekela continues to blow audiences away with his flugel horn, while the Mahotella Queens are still singing and dancing mbaqanga in their mid-sixties. It’s been twenty years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and now South Africa is the first African nation to host the World Cup. Suddenly we’re all South Africans, and every festival wants a bit of the Rainbow Nation.


The Mahotella Queens and Hugh Masekela recently played at La Villette in Paris as part of a festival of South African performing arts. Both put on a good show, but their voices offstage are very different.

Hugh Masekela turned 70 last year and his latest album Phola means  "to heal, to get well". But age has not tempered the musician who left South Africa in the 60s to pursue his music in New York and never stopped denouncing the injustice of apartheid in hundreds of benefit concerts, rallies and protest marches.

He returned to South Africa in the early nineties and as well as continuing to sing and play flugel horn (over 40 albums to date), wants to help rebuild confidence and pride in being African.

"Colonialism, international business and surrogate political administrations for colonialism have all been very instrumental in manipulating Africa to think that its heritage, especially cultural heritage and performance, is primitive, barbaric, heathen, backward and all those words", says Masekela, clearly irritated.

The reality, he goes on, is that Africa has an amazingly diverse culture and of a very high standard - yet you don’t see it.

"The invisibility of that excellence is my greatest obsession."

In a bid to instigate that revival he’s currently working on an African leadership academy for the arts.

"Because when I was a kid it was all over. In the old communities where we grew up, weekends were like carnivals of cultural excellence, from urban to the most medieval performances. So we grew up with a sense of what it is to be African."

While he’s concerned that people are losing a sense of African identity, he expects nothing of politicians,  most of them “stooges for industrial interests”. 

The gap between rich and poor is widening, he says. "All we’ve got is the vote and freedom from harassment, but you can’t eat that."

He’s more upbeat when remembering how he came to write the song Nelson Mandela (Bring him back home), which has come to be known as the anti-apartheid anthem. 

In 1985 Masekela was living in Botswana, active in the fight against apartheid. On his birthday he received a letter from Mandela praising his work and wishing him luck in the fight.

"It just broke my heart, that a person in prison would care about me, a free man."

Masekela says it was as if Mandela had "sent" him the song. It was recorded in exile in London in 1986, four years before Mandela was released.

"What happened later on had nothing to do with me," he adds modestly.

The Mahotella Queens remained in South Africa throughout the apartheid years, working in and around neighbouring countries, performing to black-only audiences.

Mahotella Queens
Mahotella Queens DR

Essentially a vocal harmony backing group with Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde (known as the Lion of Soweto for the way he growled when performing) they not only survived but prospered in the 60s, inventing a style of urban music known as mbaqanga, meaning "steamed mealie bread" in Zulu. It fused traditional South African tribal music with marabi (a kind of urban jazz) and kwela (penny-whistle driven music).

Mbaqanga was in fact an ingenious creation during the worst of the apartheid years. When blacks could no longer play to white audiences and white broadcasting programmers did not approve of American-influenced music, black producers came up with the idea of returning to the styles of acoustic African popular music and harmony singing groups. They electrified the instruments, mixed the sexes, and added a jolly 8/8 township beat. 

Mbaqanga became the sound of the townships in the 60s and 70s and the Queens had a huge international hit with Kazet (about giving the poor rural area in the north a massive facelift) and famously recorded the classic Mbube ('The Lion Sleeps Tonight').

While the group has had its ups and downs and was hard hit by the loss of Mahlathini in 1999, it found the strength to go on. Three of the original members (Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola) can still sing in harmony, high kick and whistle blow their way through an hour-long show.

Hilda Tloubatla, now 67, explains their longevity thus:

"It’s because of God’s strength we’re going on today," she says, before adding that daily exercise is also essential, including getting up to make yourself nice for your husband.

She bursts out laughing, and not for the first time. A love of life, and of music, has kept them going against all the odds.

Hugh Masekela, Phola, Times Square Records

Mahotella Queens, Reign and Shine, Wrasse Records


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