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Veterans of South African Pop on the Comeback Trail

June 28, 1989|DON SNOWDEN

NEW YORK — Paul Simon's "Graceland" did more for South African pop music than just introduce the vibrant Mbqanga style and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the international audience.

Simon's 1986 tour also sparked the re-formation, as a performing unit, of the musicians who created Mbqanga 25 years ago. Vocalist Mahlathini, the female vocal trio Mahotella Queens and the Makgona Tsohle Band--who make their local debut tonight at the Music Machine--are as fundamental to South African pop as Chuck Berry is to rock 'n' roll. But after a decade of popularity, they went their separate ways in 1973.

Saxophonist-producer-manager West Nkosi, encouraged by the audience response when he traveled with Ladysmith on the "Graceland" tour in 1987, reassembled the original band and persuaded the Queens, who had married and were raising families, to return to the stage. Nkosi also revived the spirits of Mahlathini: The preeminent South African male vocalist had grown discouraged by his lack of recognition outside his country.

"This man came and took me over," said Mahlathini, 52, nodding toward Nkosi the day after the groups' American debut at the S.O.B.'s club here. "Today I feel happy because I was already gone, and had given up."

The lean, shaved-headed singer's restrained demeanor contrasted sharply with his animated performance the previous evening, when he prowled the stage in a leopard-skin tunic, the plumes of gold hair at his elbows and knees evoking his nickname "The Lion of Soweto."

Mahlathini (pronounced Mach-la-teeny) began his career singing in vocal ensembles at South African wedding celebrations. But when he was just 12 his voice began to deepen into what he described as his "deep goat's voice." Many observers liken him to American bluesman Howlin' Wolf.

"I was still young and I didn't know what had happened to my voice," said Mahlathini. "Other people wondered what was happening because when I talk, it's just talking normally. But when it comes to singing, my voice changes."

Mahlathini was paired with the Mahotella Queens in 1964, and the interplay between the gruff, male "groaner" and the Queens' pungent harmonies became the model for South African pop. The contributions of the Makgona Tsohle Band were no less vital--the group was reportedly the first in South Africa to use electric guitars and bass, and their sound mixed elements of indigenous styles with outside sources like British rockers Cliff Richard & the Shadows.

According to Nkosi, 47, another key element was political. Mbqanga (the name is derived from a native mixed-vegetable dish) developed in part as a response to the South African government's decision to break up Johannesburg's vast Sophiatown township into a number of smaller ones divided along racial and tribal lines in the early '60s.

"We created this Mbqanga music, aiming that people should come together and share their views in this music," said Nkosi. "When we first released this music, it was very, very big because all these different ethnic groups that live in South Africa managed to enjoy themselves with it."

But by 1973, the three groups were no longer recording together, although they remained prominent in the South African pop scene.

They reunited for some studio albums between 1983 and 1985, and "Graceland" provided the catalyst for the next step. Late in 1986, Mahlathini and company re-recorded many of their early hits on the "Thokozile" album (released by Earthworks/Virgin in America last year). Live appearances have reestablished them on the South African scene and extended their popularity throughout Europe.

The sparkling New York performance indicated the South African veterans haven't lost much snap and power. Even with the propulsive dance-beat of the music and the crowd-pleasing stage routines, the most powerful moments came when Mahlathini's astonishingly powerful voice set off spirited vocal exchanges with the Mahotella Queens.

While Nkosi acknowledges that there is a nostalgia element in the group's resurgent South African popularity, he is confident that the freshness of the classic Mbqanga sound will win over international pop fans.

"It is going to develop slowly but it's going to be very big because the rhythm and melody stays in someone's memory. Each time you listen, you can still hear the melody ringing in your mind, so that is the advantage of our music."

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