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African Legends

Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens

By Marty Lipp
Published November 17, 2006

Though they were stars in South Africa since the mid-1960s, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens became an international sensation 20 years later as part of the first wave of world music to hit the States.

Though they didn’t participate in Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland, they were helped by the attention that album brought to South African music. Mahlathini was also one of the featured performers on the landmark Indestructible Beat Of Soweto collection.

The constellation of talent in the group included Mahlathini, whose bullfrog vocals were in perfect counterpoint to the sweet harmonies of the Queens. Their playful give-and-take was propelled along by the Makhona Tsolhe Band, led by the powerful bass of Joseph Makwela and sax player and producer West Nkosi.

They were pioneers of the mbaqanga sound, and were huge stars in South Africa until the original Queens decided to leave to raise their families. The entire performing troupe was actually the brainchild of producer Rupert Bopape, who discovered the Makhona Tsohle Band, comprised of young workers from Pretoria. Bopape teamed them with Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde, who was singing with the Dark City Sisters. Finally, the triumvirate was complete when Bopape added the up-and-coming Mahotella Queens. When the Mahotella Queens left, Mahlathini continued with singers called simple the Queens.

In 1987, the band reunited for Thokozile (Earthworks), a triumphant return to form, which reprised songs from throughout their career. They toured continuously until the death of Mahlathini in 1999.

No small portion of their success was the group’s great concerts. The Queens, all plus-sized and well into middle age, did intricate, synchronized steps together and soloed with the grace and lightness of dancers more than half their age.  Across the stage, Mahlathini, dressed in animal-skin prints, strutted and postured, but playfully dueled and let himself be trumped by the finger-wagging Queens.

Recommended Recordings

Thokozile (Earthworks)
The Lion Of Soweto (Earthworks)
Paris: Soweto (Polygram)