Urban Zulu R.I.P.

2010-06-19 12:29

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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

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