Maskandi queen’s long journey

2010-06-19 00:00

“WILFULLY idiosyncratic” and “fearlessly innovative” are among the many descriptions given to South African songstress Busi Mhlongo, who died aged 62 at the Albert Luthuli Hospital in Durban on Tuesday following a long battle with breast cancer.

Mam’ Busi, as she was known to her family, friends and legions of fans around the globe, defied critics’ expectations thRoughout her career, effortlessly blending Zulu chants with mbaqanga, maskandi, elements of jazz, funk, rock, gospel, rap, opera, reggae and West African sounds.

As Playhouse CEO Linda Bukhosini said in a tribute, she had the complete package. “Busi had the most unique-sounding voice. [But] she was more than a good singer, she was a phenomenal and a truly action-packed artist … a prima donna in the most positive sense of the expression,” she added.

Mhlongo’s influence was certainly felt by generations of performers, with artists like Culoe De Song choosing to use her vocal on their popular track, We Baba, which contested the song of the year category at this year’s South African Music Awards (Samas).

Mhlongo was also known for her scorching live performances, which saw her give full expression to her Zulu roots through her dancing and singing. Those roots were firmly planted in the soil of Inanda, north of Durban.

Born into a musical family on October 28, 1947, Busisiwe Victoria Mhlongo was given a small drum and two sticks and encouraged to sing at weddings, in church choirs and at school.

As a teenager she secured a position in Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety Revue and later went on to record a version of My Boy Lollipop under the name Vicky Mhlongo. The song was a massive hit across Africa, and in 1968, Mhlongo found herself living in Portugal, via Mozambique and Angola. Watching the fans applaud songs sung in indigenous languages, as well as Portuguese, made her realise that “music truly has no border, no language”.

The success she enjoyed in Portugal was tinged with sadness, however, when she learned that her husband, jazz drummer Early Mabuza, had been stabbed to death.

“That was one of the darkest periods of her life,” Mhlongo’s long-time manager and friend, Neil Comfort, said. “Having gone into artistic exile, she could not return to South Africa or care for her only daughter, Nompumelelo ‘Mpume’, who had been left in the care of family.”

Mpume, who now lives with her husband John Black and daughters, Zoe, Suray and Inga, in Florida in the U.S., was at one time estranged from her mother. But the pair were reconciled and enjoyed a close relationship at the end.

During the 1970s, Mhlongo worked in Britain and the United States, recording with South African exiles like Dudu Pukwana, Julian Bahula and Lucky Ranku, and working extensively with bassist Steve Neil in New York. It was also the decade when she first began battling breast cancer.

Mhlongo returned home in the late 1980s to be close to her mother, Flora Phiri, and had to reinvent herself. “Returning to a country still in the grip of apartheid made this an extremely frustrating period in her life,” Comfort said. “From being feted all over Europe to being treated as a second-class musician and citizen in her own country was very difficult.”

But being back in Durban also gave her the chance to form the group Twasa and they toured Europe in 1991, recording the album Babhemu in Munich at the end of the tour.

Then came her classic album, Urban Zulu. Produced by Will Mowat, who enjoyed success with the 1980s group Soul II Soul, Urban Zulu earned Mhlongo three Samas in 2000, including one for best female artist. A track from the album, We Baba Omncane, was used for a global Adidas campaign in the early 2000s.

“Urban Zulu came about when Busi was rehearsing at the BAT Centre in Durban in 1997 and 1998,” Comfort explained. “In the room next door, Maskandi group Phuzekhemisi would be rehearsing, and over time Busi got to know two of the musicians — Mkhalelwa ‘Spectre’ Ngwazi and Themba Ngcobo. Paris-based drummer Brice Wassy was also very much a part of her life at this time, and with these musicians the material for Urban Zulu began to take shape.”

In 2005 Mhlongo began to feel ill, while working on a world music revue in Holland. On her return to South Africa, she plucked up the courage to visit a doctor and learned the breast cancer had returned.

A mastectomy and extensive chemotherapy followed, but not even this would stop her from getting up on stage or working with musician and producer Steve Dyer on what would be her last album, Amakholwa, and recording two tracks with Ladysmith Black Mambazo to help the Human Elephant Foundation, brainchild of sculptor Andries Botha.

Through her music, Mhlongo touched many lives, and her death leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of South African music.

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