Monday, 28 March 2016

Mahotella Queens - Ezesimanje (1982)

For today’s post, an early 1980s album from female mbaqanga mavens the Mahotella Queens - Ezesimanje, released in 1982 on the Hit Special label and produced by guitarist Marks Mankwane.

Naturally the staples of 1980s mbaqanga are all there – the lone lead guitar, bass, lively organ and disco drums – but unlike most of the other African pop acts of the day, this one does not follow the restrained Soul Brothers beat and instead feels much more vigorous and buoyant. Whether the presence of female singers has anything to do with it isn’t quite clear, and to be fair to the great Soul Brothers, they were always much more enthralling and exciting live on stage than on LP. (That didn’t stop them outselling the Queens and every other mbaqanga act in the 1980s though!)

The lead vocals on Ezesimanje are handled by Emily Zwane, who was the de facto leader of the group during the somewhat circuitous late 1970s – mid 1980s period, until producer Marks Mankwane dissolved the line-up and brought back three of the more famous singers who had seen the Queens through its supreme glory days of the mid 1960s through the early 1970s. (The line-up on this album, referred to by industry figures as ‘Mahotella B’, actually continued to perform together long after Mankwane terminated their services in the wake of the international breakthrough of South African music. Mankwane busied himself with the reconstituted Mahotella Queens, Mahlathini and the Makgona Tsohle Band, while the Mahotella B line-up continued to perform under that moniker for audiences at home for some years thereafter, creating some confusion among punters about which act was actually the legitimate one.)

The opening tune, “Amanga Neqiniso”, advises people to be truthful in order to gain the love of others, rather than lie and court misery. The lyrics may be tame but the vocal harmonies are sweet and pleasant, as is the Mahotella way. “Ngothini Na?” is a lovely soothing gospel ballad featuring a solo sax and spiritual vocals. The fifth track “Bongani Mntanami” chides a youngster for going out late and disrespecting his granny – a perpetually relevant topic. The last track isn’t musically outstanding but still one of my favourites: “Isono Sami” is a poignant number about a woman who says she has sinned by remaining in Johannesburg without having returned home to see her loved ones. With each passing year she has remained in Joburg despite their pleas for her to come back to see them. ‘What will I say when I go back?’ she says.

Marks Mankwane, in addition to producing the album, plays lead guitar here alongside Mzwandile David on bass. The keyboardist is Thamie Xongwana, Mike Stoffel plays the drums, while Mike Nyembe provides a secondary guitar on one or two of the numbers.

Queens (from left to right on album cover): Beatrice Ngcobo, Maggie Khumalo, Emily Zwane (lead vocals), Hazel Zwane, Caroline Kapentar.


produced by Marks Mankwane
engineered by Keith Forsyth and David Segal
Hit Special IAL 3034
Zulu Vocal

Monday, 21 March 2016

African Music Show #1: Zimbabwe (1984)

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited: Queens Hotel Beer Garden ~ 1983. Pic Bob Snow.
Before the mid 1980s marketing explosion of “world music” it was very rare that radio stations outside of Africa featured popular music made in Africa. In May 1984 Triple RRR community radio station in Melbourne Australia pioneered a weekly two-hour “African Music Show” hosted by a newly converted African music enthusiast who had just spent some years volunteering as a teacher in the recently liberated Zimbabwe.
Click on the pic to check out RRR's streaming radio

The tapes of those shows, which I will be sharing over the course of this year, are a fascinating document of Tony Hunter’s perspectives on popular African musics of the time. Tony’s insights and sometimes dry humour provide an entertaining commentary between the main business of his radio shows, great music played from his vinyl collection.

Tony spent two years in Zimbabwe and then in 1983 travelled overland to Congo Kinshasa with the main goal of seeing as many live music performances as possible, and to collect vinyl.

Tony picks up the story: “When I got home to Australia my tea chest of records had arrived and I decided that the word needed to be spread. The most successful independent/community radio station in Australia is 3 RRR (Triple R) – weekly listenership is currently 440,000. Helped by Melbourne’s flat topography it has wide reach and has been going since the late seventies. I rocked up, said I had a box of records from Africa and wanted to tell people about them.

“My exposure to African music began when I took up a teaching position in newly independent Zimbabwe in May 1981.

Tony Hunter meets up with friend
Godfrey Dzavairo
 during a 2011 return trip to Zimbabwe
“Zimbabwe recruited teachers from the Commonwealth and there were a lot who came from Australia.   You had no idea where you were to be posted, my posting was to Seke No 1 High School in the dormitory town (now a vast area) called Chitungwiza 30 km out of Harare. The school had just been built after independence and to cope with the demand for education and there were 2 schools a day. Early morning til noon and noon til late afternoon. It was called hot seat learning as the seats never got cold.

“I lived in Hatfield an outer suburb and got the bus to work. Being a white on the bus and was a source of great amazement to the locals. When walking through the township to school little kids would run inside crying mzungu, mzungu (white man). There was a lot of hostility to whites but not to us, once people found we were from Australia to teach their children we were welcomed warmly.

 “My first experience was hearing 2 huge post independence albums Africa by Oliver Mtukudzi and Gwindingwe Rine Shumba by Thomas Mapfumo. That trademark cough of Tuku’s was fascinating but it was the fast staccato guitar of Jonah Sithole in Mapfumo’s band that grabbed me the most. It was only later that I found out that the guitar was mimicking the mbira.

“I think of Oliver and Thomas as like the Beatles and the Stones. I’ve always been a Stones man and so it followed that much as I like love Oliver, I have always seen Mapfumo’s music as the spiritual heart of contemporary Zimbabwean music.

1982: Tony visiting Otis Banda
“I first saw bands at the Hotel Elizabeth – the Pied Pipers from memory. Having whites in the audience and a band with whites and blacks was a big thing in the new Zimbabwe. Optimism was incredibly high in Zimbabwe, the country was still quite affluent, Mugabe was saying all the right things (well sort of – not if you were from ZAPU or lived in Matabeleland) but internationally he was up there with Mandela.

“My regular haunt was the beer garden at Queens Hotel. A wonderful place with flowering jacaranda trees overhead, cheap beer and a regular flow of great bands. Internationals too- I can vividly remember Hugh Masekela’s shiny trumpet pointed upward to the African sky…fantastic.

“Bob Marley played at the independence ceremony and despite Mugabe declaring reggae and Rastafarianism degenerate, a lot of reggae bands toured. Aswad, UB40 and Misty In Roots stand out. Misty were incredible and I followed their tour around the country.

“Mushandira Pamwe out in Highfield was a big beer barn and I’d see Thomas out there a lot though they could be really late nights as Thomas would take breaks for hours at a time smoking mbanje. When he toured Australia I complained about that and he said you should have joined us-well a little late. Perhaps the weirdest gig was seeing Mapfumo play at the officer’s mess at the Zimbabwe air force. The 4 Brothers were often resident out at Mushandira Pamwe –they heavy on the guitars with a succession of short fast songs.

“I had a friend who lived in Kwe Kwe and I stayed with his family. There was a band that’s sound captivated me. Africa Melody was led by a guy called John Kazadi who I think came from Lumbumbashi. The few references to the band describe it as sungura music but to me it had less of rhumba feel and at times more of country rock sound with the guitars right upfront. Some months later I was in some bar in a township and this guy jumps up and exclaims “Kwe Kwe”! It was John Kazadi and we greeted each other like long lost brothers. It seems I had been obvious to spot in that Kwe Kwe beer hall,

Thomas Mapfumo: Pic Bob Snow.
“A band I regret never seeing were the Devera Ngwena Jazz Band who had hit after hit in the early eighties. I understand they were based at a bar in a mining area, Shangani I think but as the bar owner owned they equipment they could never tour. This changed later but not while I was there.

“Holidays were long and frequent as the kids had to go back to help on the farms so I would travel to other African countries collecting records as I went-often not knowing who they were – singles especially were very cheap."

Tony was also responsible for compiling the hugely popular "Harare Hit Parade" series of posts on Electric Jive. You can find them here.

So – the first two hour African Music Show unsurprisingly showcases Zimbabwe. Enjoy!

Part 1: download here
Part 2 - download here

Monday, 14 March 2016

Sipho and His Jets: Goods Train (1976)

Keeping with Matt’s theme of pre-June 1976, Zulu Bidi art-work, and the Soul-Jazz-Pop label, here is a further gem showcasing the fusion of a basket of styles into what is an uniquely identifiable Soweto 1976 sound.

Composer Sipho Bhengu on alto saxophone fronts up the Mavuthela studio band with three strong tracks that blend mbaqanga with a pinch of bump-jive while channelling the roots of marabi jazz. Nick Lotay has already featured a seven-single version of “African Fingers”, much played by John Peel, here
The flip side track of the Sipho and His Jets 45rpm contains a 2:55 edit of Goods Train, which, on this LP stretches to 6:39. At 13:14, I have not come across any other edition of the bright and jazzy Two Doors.

Those of you who spent time in Pietermaritzburg during the 1980s will recognize the “Hey Jude Record Library” card on the back cover.

Sipho Bhengu features elsewhere on Electric Jive, here, here and here

Goods Train
Recorded: 9th February 1976
Soul Jazz Pop BL65
Composed by: Sipho Bhengu
Compiled by: West Nkosi
Engineer: Peter Ceronio

Download: here