Busi Mhlongo, who passed away on Tuesday night in a Durban hospital after a long struggle with breast cancer, was a spellbinding performer with an alluring stage presence. Blessed with a mercurial voice, her hold on her audiences was always total and magical. Her deeply spiritual and soulful renditions often expressed a range of emotions that sometimes overwhelmed both singer and listener. The Queen of Maskandi was one of the rare breed of artist who expressed herself fully and honestly without holding back. A uniquely gifted songwriter, her music expressed the pain of exile, lamented the destruction of African family unity by capitalist forces and pleaded for an end to civil strife. Back in the early 90s, when the country was engulfed by the flames of civil strife, she was largely unknown in South Africa, having only recently returned from exile. It was a sad homecoming which did not make headlines. Back in Holland, however, Busi Mhlongo was a revered name. A Dutch scribe once wrote: “Sometimes it is difficult to understand that a country so overtaken by violence can produce such beautiful music. South Africa at the moment may not be a homely place, but the songs of Busi Mhlongo are not any less sparkling for it.” Raised in an artistic family – her late brother Ndaba was a well-known film star and comedian – she was inspired to pursue a music career when she saw a young Letta Mbulu performing in the Durban City Hall in 1959 among the cast of King Kong. Mhlongo told former City Press jazz writer ZB Molefe in a 1993 interview: “For me it was Dorothy Masuka, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu. They sort of convinced me that I could make it as a musician.” Her determination saw her audition for another musical production in Johannesburg after the original had gone on to find international fame in London. Her voice soon became one of the most cherished on the jazz circuit in the 1960s, when she performed as a session musician with top bands. Her big break was in 1964 when she joined jazz drummer Early Mabuza at Dorkay House – a cultural mecca where she became acquainted with South Africa’s jazz élite. The man who was known as the Art Blakey of South African jazz later married her but died tragically young at 29. She left South Africa in 1968 on a tour to Mozambique with the African Jazz Revue. Their next stop was Lisbon, and this marked the beginning of her exile. In true pioneering fashion, Mhlongo was a singer of firsts. Before her return to South Africa she sang with Africa’s first world music band, Osibisa, to international acclaim. She was also the first artist to have signed with Sheer Sound, the country’s premier jazz label. This resulted in the release in 1995 of Babhemu – an album which spawned stand-out tracks like Tingi Tingi, Unomkhubulwane and Ntandane. Babhemu expressed her unique folk style and spiritual appeal and showcased the incredible guitar sounds of the late Doc Mthalane – whom she later eulogised in song on his posthumously released album, Respect. Her music has been described as a blend of maskandi, mbaqanga, marabi, jazz, rock and a potpourri of contemporary elements like rap and funk. The fact is that listening to her music was a revelation. Hers was like a magical sound from a distant planet. Sheer Sound founder Damon Forbes recalls: “Busi’s was the first album I ever released. She stayed with me in that early period and I got to know her essence well. She was a strong-minded woman who believed she should be heard.” Sheer recently released a compilation of some of her best songs under the title Busi Mhlongo – The Queen of Modern Zulu Music. Her second album, Urban Zulu, under the World Music label MELT 2000, became the first work to bring international attention to her signature indigenous sound and earned her commercial success. Barbara Masekela, whose brother, Hugh, directed the recording of her third album, Freedom (Chissa, 2003), aptly captured Mhlongo’s musical spirit and versatile artistry on the album’s sleeve notes: “She is a consummate musician who leads the band just like any male musician. She left these shores to run far and wide on the cruel streets of music in Europe and the US, foraging in the accents to give nuance to the insistent scent of the sangoma, which clings to her and dominates her performance.” Mhlongo’s uncanny artistry in capturing the essence of African experience and spirituality earned her the continent’s ultimate accolade, the Kora Award. She also scooped premier awards at the 2000 FNB Samas in the Best Female Artist, Best Adult Contemporary Album (Africa) and Best African Pop Album categories. Mhlongo will continue to inspire a younger generation of songbirds – notably Thandiswa Mazwai, Suthukazi Arosi, Simphiwe Dana and Camagwini, who have acknowledged her for inspiring them to be true to themselves. But she will be a hard act to follow. In death she joins the celestial choir of the likes of Thoko Mgcina, Dolly Rathebe, Anneline Malebo and Miriam Makeba, for indeed she belonged in their sublime league. She is survived by her daughter. You can follow us on Twitter for regular news updates, live scoring, weather reports and more.