Thursday, 19 November 2015

Leopard skin, sneakers and great pop songs

So there I was sweating in the Camden Palace moshpit, dancing to someone whose name is Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo. Oh, and he groaned. So far, so obscure. But it’s one of the top five gigs I’ve ever been to. It was 1989. And this morning I realised that I feel so grateful that I got to see this band. 
Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
Obscure? I’m here to tell you that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were totally funky and danceable, with wonderful, joyful pop songs.

Try this one for size: Melodi Yala 

They were one of the first bands introduced to me by Charlie Gillett (see previous blog). If Paul Simon encouraged the world to listen to South African music - and I still love Graceland - then a much bigger influence for me were Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and other bands.

If you don't know where to start, try the three Indestructible beat of Soweto albums. Here's a link to information about volume one. Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens featured heavily on these albums. 

It was the late 80s and all this was being played against a backdrop of Apartheid coming to and end. Some preferred the bullet. These musicians preferred the penny-whistle. Oh, and the guitar. Because these were really accessible pop songs. And here's my Spotify 'best of' playlist.

But I maintain that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were nothing without each other. Here was a strange man groaning away wearing a chief's regalia on stage – a leopard skin over his chest, fur armlets and leggings, a skirt of animal tails and beads around his head; with three women who danced around in huge red circular Zulu hats, skirts of leather and beadwork, leotards and sneakers. 

And when Mahlathini died in 1999, that synergy died too. I'm sure the Queens are amazing on their own and they still tour. 

It's just that I got to see the Real McCoy. I'll never forget being at that gig, staggered that so many other people loved them, and were singing along: "This music is produced from the same pot, the same pot. Everybody knows". 

The style of music is called Mbaqanga. But if you're not bothered about that, then at least do give them a go. And I hope you, like me, start tapping your toes and feeling good the moment their songs start. 


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