Imagine your band loses its lead vocalist, lead guitarist and producer in a little more than a year. For most groups, it would be a death sentence, but the Mahotella Queens aren’t like most groups. In 1998 and 1999, they lost legendary singer, Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde (aka “King of the Groaners”), guitarist Marks Mankwane, and producer/saxophonist West Nkosi. While these men are irreplaceable, the three Mahotella Queens, Hilda Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu have stepped forward with a remarkable recording demonstrating their own, and mbaqanga’s vitality.
Mbaqanga has its roots in shabeens (South African drinking halls of the 1940s and ’50s), where workers from many ethnic groups gathered and played music on whatever instruments were on hand, including pennywhistles, accordions, guitars, violins and drums. During apartheid, even music was segregated, and not just segregated in black and white. The apartheid government divided the country by ethnic groups. When the Mahotella Queens began recording in the 1960s, they found it almost impossible to receive radio airplay. So they resorted to performing in front of record stores for 10 or 15 minutes and handing out little slips of paper with information about their records until the police came and forced them to leave. In today’s post-apartheid era, Mahotella Queens’ new struggle is how to proceed without three of South Africa’s musical giants.
Sebai Bai is the Mahotella Queens first recording for the premier French world music label, Indigo (the same company that produced recent groundbreaking recordings from Rokia Traore and Boubacar Traore). At first, mbaqanga without the ultrabass vocals of Mahalthini to alternate with the harmonies of the Mahotella Queens leaves that eerie feeling that there is just a little something missing. However, as the Queens alternate lead vocals and backing harmonies, they both demonstrate that they have some of the best voices in South Africa, and that you don’t need an ultrabass to create dynamic mbaqanga. Instead, the Mahotella Queens dart back and forth between their trademark soprano chorus with voices that run the entire female vocal range. Even in the wake of apartheid, the Queens haven’t shied away from tackling the region’s political problems. In the opening track, “Kumnyama Endlini,” they use the driving yet playful groove to comment on the atmosphere of increasing violence enveloping South Africa.
They create a truly uplifting mood with “Dlhaya Mhunu” with a reggae-tinged mbaqanga reminiscent of the early days of the Wailers.
Also notable on Sebai Bai are the four a cappella tracks, reflecting the group’s gospel side. “Town Hall” is a stunning mbube in the tradition of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, dealing with the struggle for women’s rights.
The album finishes with a tribute to their three fallen comrades, Nkosi, Markswane and Mahlathini. The track, strictly vocal and percussion, sets a dramatic tone for their stirring homage. Perhaps the album’s only drawback occurs when the vocals drift from Zulu to English and consequently seem a bit awkward and out of place. Recorded in South Africa’s famous Gallo Studios, with Indigo’s masterful producers Christian Mousset and Philippe Teissier du Cros, the Mahotella Queens have managed to not only overcome the odds once again, but have come up with one of best African albums of 2001.
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