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Culture, Music

Urban Zulu Royalty

by Neil Comfort / 26.07.2009

In my Tuesday Natal Mercury Beat column I indicated that today I would explain why watching Busi Mhlongo perform in the Sipho Gumede Hall at the BAT Centre last Saturday evening “was such an emotionally draining and yet spiritually uplifting evening for my wife Nicola and I.”

It all started the previous Wednesday when Mhlongo came for a sleepover with great niece Andiswa. It was a chance for us to catch up with her and find out how 2009 has progressed. We knew that the first half of the year had been taken up with development and recording of her new album. This coming on the back end of intensive chemotherapy. She is currently staging her second battle with breast cancer, having first been on that frontline in the 70’s when she was working out of North America.

Over dinner, talk turned to the cancer. The tears flowed. The raw emotional scars from the passing of Nicola’s mother in 2007, to a particularly virulent form of the disease, were being opened once again. Mhlongo consoling like the wise woman she is – in spite of her own battles.

Gumede’s Faces and Places played in the background as we remembered all those musicians and people who have been part of Mhlongo’s South African life and music career since returning in the late 80’s from Holland to be closer to her beloved mother. Gumede, John Walker, Doc Mthalane, Mshaks Gasa, Bruce Sosibo, Sandile Shange, Baba Mokoena – and the lists go on. Mhlongo knows that their spirits are with her; that she has some unfinished business to do for them. She would not have gotten through this recording without their strength.

It was towards the end of the meal, one that Mhlongo only picked at, that I began to understand what is keeping this beautiful woman going. Her burning desire is to leave a legacy for her granddaughters. Plain and simple. She wants a place in Africa for them that they can always visit and remember their “Granny Gogo” by.

Busi Mhlongo

There are three of them – Zoë, Syrai and Inga – and they live in Florida with her daughter Nompumelelo and her husband John Black. Mpume is Mhlongo’s only child with the late Early Mabuza, who was raised by his sister Felicia Mabuza-Suttle after Early was stabbed to death shortly after Mhlongo had gone into artistic exile in 1968.

As the coffee hit the table Mhlongo slid a CD with Amakholwa – The Believers written in Koki on it across and told me to put it on. I misunderstood and thought that this was a single off the new album. Nope, this was the second last mix of the new album.

The opening track is Baba Wethu Osezulwini Our Father, Who Art in Heaven done Busi Mhlongo style, with a young white rock guitarist laying down some riffs that had Mhlongo bouncing in her seat as she told us how Sven Blumer from Cape Town came to record on the album.

The young Afrikaans engineer riding the faders in the studio had asked her if he could invite a friend of his to the sessions as he thought Blumer would have something to contribute. Her eyes twinkled as she recalled how she egged him on with “Go White boy, go!” in the studio, as he continued to amaze her with what he was bringing to the recording, to Zulu lyrics that she had to explain to him.

“South Africa is so kak”, she says “We have so much talent, so much different music and wonderful musicians, but we don’t want to work together. We are still stuck in our Apartheid boxes.” Towards the end of the recording Blumer tells her he wants to be a part of the band to launch the album. Mhlongo is unequivocal about that – the musicians who recorded on the album will have to be on stage with her if she is to ever launch this album live.

The second track is simply entitled Africa, driven by a powerful rhythm section as laid down by Fana Zulu and Kwazi Shange who is from Pietermaritzburg. Shange is very ill as well, she tells us. He might not be able to do a launch tour but he certainly put his heart and soul into this recording. No time for melancholy as the sheer awesomeness of Amakholwa is revealed. I remember to thank my lucky stars and Rene Pennington for the wonderful sound system installed at the house.

All the tracks, bar one, were jointly developed or re-arranged by Steve Dyer and Mhlongo. She sang the words and Dyer worked on the melody. This process started in November last year before the project was handed over to Vusi Mchunu and his House of Memory production company in February. Mhlongo is the producer. “It was when I was really sick with the chemo that the music and the songs for the album came to me,” Mhlongo explains.

Dyer grew up in Pietermaritzberg and has gone on to be an accomplished saxophonist, band leader and producer. He is best known for his all star big band Mahube project and for his work with legendary Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi.

We learn that Mhlongo pretty much does all the vocals – lead and backing, male and female – on the album! Even I cannot believe this but after the second listen, I come to realize that this is the truth. I suggest that for the launch tour she might have to have the Soweto Gospel Choir or the Drakensberg Boys Choir backing her, as that is the only way that the sound and scope of the vocals on the album will be recreated live.

A truly spiritual album that some might want to pigeon-hole as Gospel due to its content. That is not a tag that Mhlongo wants, for the sound and meaning of this album is far bigger.

For me, I do not think the timing could be better because I am of the opinion that this is going to be the biggest album of 2010 in South Africa and that is not too shabby a year to have one of your albums charting all over the country – and chart it will.

Amakholwa is the proper follow-up that we have all been waiting for to Mhlongo’s ground breaking 1999 release Urban Zulu. Urban Zulu garnered, for this true blue Durbanite and Zulu, three SAMA awards and has gone on to achieve cult status locally. That is why every single person on Saturday sang along to every single song.

Despite topping the World Music charts in Europe for three months over the peak Festive season period in 1998, it never did reach the sales heights, internationally, that it should have, due to record label MELT 2000 not having the retail power to do justice to what remains one of the most expensive albums ever recorded by a South African artist.

With the world coming to us in 2010, I have a sneaky suspicion that this album will be global by the end of 2010.

Seeing Mhlongo hit the stage on Saturday to the roar of a capacity and adoring audience brought forth the tears, the tears of anticipated loss. Dancing and singing along to every track, knowing what is still to come with Amakholwa, inspires me to make the most of the time that I still have left with my second Mama. To play whatever small part I can in ensuring that justice is done to this masterpiece. To see this album delivered live on stage by the musicians that recorded it.

South Africa, in August Busi Mhlongo is set to deliver a wonderful gift to all of us. Be ready. Buy it. Support her and help her leave a legacy for her grandchildren.

* Mhlongo appears in Revel Fox’s feature film Long Street which is part of the Durban International Film Festival – www.cca.ukzn.ac.za

* She appears at The Playhouse’s Woman’s Day Celebrations in the gala concert to be staged on 8 August in the Opera. Computicket on 083 915 8000, the Playhouse Box Office on 031 369 9540.

All Pics by Rafs Mayet

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