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Culture, Music

Mugging Mbaqanga

by Dave Durbach / 26.04.2010

Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens

Here we continue our story of how Malcolm Mclaren and a whole host of European and American musicians pilfered the creative production of impoverished South African artists and rode the money train without even crediting them, let alone paying for the music they stole.

Shortly after McLaren, French punk chanteuse Lizzy Mercier Descloux traveled to Africa. She started in Ethiopia and ended in South Africa, where she performed at the famous Pelican nightclub in Soweto and teamed up with local artists to record as Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles (“But where have all the Gazelles gone?”), later re-released as Zulu Rock. Though little known and almost impossible to find in SA, the album made a splash in France, until then unexposed to international sounds.

Descloux called on members of Brenda Fassie’s backing band, the Big Dudes: Desmond Malotana (organ), Sammy Klaas (guitar) and Fats Mlangeni (drums). Also involved were jive saxophonists Javas Magubane and Thomas Phale, guitarist Richard “Bugzie” Hadebe and percussionist Hayward “Maichala” Mahlangu, among others. At Satbel Studios in Joburg they laid down a startling hybrid of mbaqanga and avante-garde punk, on songs like “Abyssinia”, “Queen of Overdub Kisses”, “L’Eclipse,” “Wakwazulu Kwezizulu Rock” and the French title track, an obvious rehash of Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens’ “Kazet”, Descloux later wanted to take the musos overseas, but they were denied visas by apartheid authorities.

Behind the scenes, South African producer John Galanakis was credited as the album’s musical co-ordinator. He remembers Descloux as being “worse than a snob… Even though I was in the studio every day with her, she hardly said five words to me!” Though hired for his knowledge of local sounds, Galanakis had very little creative freedom, with Descloux’s management maintaining a tight grip on proceedings. “They didn’t know what they were doing.” he recalls. “They had fixed ideas of what should happen. But they weren’t musicians at all themselves; they were managers, business guys. And they seemed to know what the market would take in France, or Europe, or wherever it was they were looking to sell it.” Afterwards, Galanakis never heard from Descloux again. “They promised to send me an album when it was finished, but they didn’t. The musicians got a session fee, but they didn’t give me royalties or anything. I did all the arrangements and the musical direction, and in the end, I didn’t get paid for it.” He admits, however, that he never signed a contract, “I’m very bad with that kind of thing. I take people on their word.”

Around the same time, Paul Simon was given an mbaqanga mixtape that included “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys. Undaunted by a UN cultural boycott, and with the backing of the black musicians’ union in SA, as well as Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte in the US, Simon headed to Johannesburg for two and a half weeks in Ovation Studios. For Graceland, he roped in musicians from groups like Stimela (guitarist Ray Phiri, bassist Lloyd Lelose and drummer Isaac Mtshali ), Thetha (bass supremo Bakithi Kumalo and Makhaya Mahlangu on percussion) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as well as established township jazz saxmen Barney Rachabane, Mike Makhalemele and Teaspoon Ndela, and a host of local, West African and American session players.

Unlike McLaren and Descloux, Simon shared songwriting credits on most tracks – including with Forere Motloheloa (“Boy in the Bubble”), LBM’s Joseph Shabalala (“Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes” and “Homeless”), Tsonga musician General “MD” Shirinda (“I know what I know,” based on his song “Nkata Mina”), and Lulu Masilela and Jonhjon Mkhalali from the Boyoyo Boys on “Gumboots.” Phiri was credited as the album’s arranger.

Simon faced protracted accusations – of breaking the boycott (a view not shared by the UN); of “musical colonialism,” appropriating African influences without really engaging with them; and of exploiting South African musicians. Blacklisted briefly by the UN until he agreed not to perform in SA, Simon toured the world with Graceland, adding exiled stars Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela to the line-up. The Grammy Award winning album eventually sold 16 million copies.

Says Richard Mitchell, a prolific engineer from that era who worked closely with Phiri, among many others, “There was some exploitation, let’s face it, but some of the guys have certainly benefited from it as well. It put them on the map.” Besides proving advantageous for a few big names, however, Graceland didn’t make things any easier for most SA musicians on the international stage. Says Mitchell, “I think initially everybody thought, ‘OK, that’s the floodgates opening. We’re gonna have this deluge of local talent flooding the world markets.’ But it didn’t happen.”

Since introducing the world to Zenzile Miriam Makeba on the Grammy-winning An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba in 1965, “the King of Calypse” had been an outspoken critic of apartheid, and as such, persona non grata in SA. In 1988 he recorded his first new album in fifteen years, a showcase of South African music and politics entitled Paradise in Gazankulu. Unable to enter the country, however, Belafonte had to add his vocals in an American studio after the music was first recorded at Powerhouse Studios in Joburg.

Belafonte drew from an equally, if not more, impressive line-up of local talent, including members of the legendary Makgonatsohle Band like Marks Mankwane (guitar) and West Nkosi (pennywhistle). Pennywhistler turned saxman Lemmy “Special” Mabaso, also came on board, along with members of the mighty Soul Brothers, singers Marilyn and Tu Nokwe, and Tsonga guitarist Obed Ngobeni, whose hit song “Kuhluvukile Ka Zete” supposedly first inspired the album (the same “Kazet” usually credited to the Mahotella Queens and rehashed by Descloux). Bakithi and Vusi Khumalo returned from Graceland, while younger talent included Brenda Fassie, her ex-husband and keyboardist Dumisani Ngubeni, and Hotline guitarist Alistair Coakely. American songwriter Jake Holmes shared the credit with various local contributors. Though neither as trendy as McLaren and Descloux’s projects, nor as successful as Graceland, Paradise addressed the political climate of the time with defiance, pride and anger, effectively blending local and western sounds, without screwing over any of the South African artists. Standout tracks include “Amandla”, “Sisi wami” and “Monday to Monday,” an upbeat duet between Belafonte and MaBrr.

Rather than outstanding musical abilities, McLaren, Descloux, Simon and Belafonte shared a career-long curiosity with “world music” eclecticism. McLaren anticipated the future in terms of sampling and hip-hop, and unwittingly exposed the world to South African music in the process – leading the way for three others, at least, to follow. While some SA musos managed to cash in on the exposure, others remained sidelined. The global mbaqanga revolution never materialized, though Mr. McLaren might have thought otherwise.

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