This Piece Was First Published in the Print Edition of MusikMag when Busi Mhlongo was still alive
Words by Leeto Thale
During the euphoric early years of post apartheid South Africa a number of albums were released that enticed the human spirit and sparked it into dance.
Busi Mhlongo’s Urban Zulu is one of those and stands out as a recording whose magic has survived the hell-fires of populist greed that is so rife in the music industry. That’s more than enough reason to celebrate the album’s tenth birthday. Mhlongo has been a jazz performer, lived abroad for many years and manages to blend all those experiences while keeping her African prowess intact.
She describes the time she lived in Holland as a time of baptism.
“I saw how other Africans were so proud of themselves. They played their music to the world and I was also inspired to bring out the African in me. I was lucky to have grown up around the Shembe spiritual community, it infused me with something that makes my music come out the way it does”.
“Oh, and my mother”, she adds hastily, “I learnt a lot from her about singing. She taught me so much”.
The star performer and singer says she has recently been seeing dances and hearing rhythms she never knew existed. Notably, she mentions a television music show called Roots, one of the few domestic shows that promote traditional South African culture on local television.
“I am always surprised and encouraged by what I see. I do believe that we are with the best in the world when it comes to music and dance. One of the things though that holds us back as South Africans, is that we do not travel. Some people live in Inanda but have never been to Pietermaritzburg for example, while they know so much about America.”
In Urban Zulu, Mhlongo’s vocal harmonic structures seem to be all over the place but are actually spot on. “It is like that with us. You recognise the same phenomenon when listening to Negro spirituals. That era of Negritude influenced me as well. In that style of worship, which is very African, someone starts a song and others join in as they feel. Even in prayer, each one takes the prayer to whichever direction they wish, in other words: according to their personal feeling. And thus the prayer finishes when the last person says Amen. My approach to harmonies is naturally like that.”
‘Yehlisan’Umoya Ma-Afrika’, the opener on Urban Zulu, sets the album’s mood. The song implies that a calm spirit among Africans will unveil their greatness.
Will Mowatt, Urban Zulu’s producer, who also worked with Angelique Kidjo, and Soul 2 Soul, describes recording the album as an “absolute privilege”.
Mhlongo spent some time with Mowatt in London adding vocals to the bulk of the album that had already been recorded at Downtown Studios in Johannesburg.
“We recorded in my studio in the evenings between 11pm to about 2 am daily. Some days Busi would say she is tired and I would not push her too much. She definitely was a challenge to work with and one did not want to hurry her. Recording Busi was definitely being in the presence of God”, Mowatt beams.
“Her voice just came out. There seemed to be no filter between her body and her voice. She gave you what was inside of her.”
“I was not recording a Maskandi album. I was hired as a producer and thus my instinct was what I was really going with. I respected the musicians I worked with but was certainly not in awe of them. I had a job to do and that’s what I was going with”, Mowatt enthuses. “I had to do a lot of manipulation to ensure that this album would work.” Mowatt justifies this approach by mentioning what he calls the ‘tiredness, of South African music’ which he finds in much of the music that comes out of the country.
Mowatt suggests the lengthy bass grooves and the scarcity of dynamics in most of Maskandi is what keeps many artists in the genre within the borders of South Africa. This kind of music is not easy on the ear of the Western listener, hence “the manipulation of that sound”, as he puts it. Mhlongo describes Maskandi as a difficult art form. “You have to be really alert and sharp to be able to do Maskandi.
Brice Wassy, who was in the running to produce Urban Zulu, speaks quite vehemently of how Westerners generally do not understand African music. “We are able to play our music and master it but the reverse is generally not true. Will was not easy to work with but I still put my whole heart into that album. In all fairness though, “Urban Zulu did rise to the occasion. I still have some songs I made with Busi which are incomplete.” When I arrived at Chris Lewis’ home studio in London he was remixing Yehlisan ’Umoya Ma-Afrika.
Lewis is a seasoned sound engineer who recorded most of Melt 2000 – Mhlongo’s recording company at the time. He reminisces quite comically on how musicians would come late for recordings and think nothing of it. “Will would get so angry because he was not used to working like that. I have worked in South Africa for years and was quite used to this. I often had to calm Will down, I remember at one point”, he laughs. “We couldn’t get the instruments tuned right”. We even had to buy a new bass guitar because the one the band brought was beyond repair”
Part of Will’s mission was to make Urban Zulu’s sound as global as possible which did not come about without challenges. Busi recalls: “While I was recording the vocals, Will wanted to get singers from Mali and that didn’t go down that well with me. We ended up sticking to my voice as it was powerful and fresh melodies and harmonies came out of me in droves.”
Mhlongo’s needs to affirm herself and to release the turbulence she felt within her, appear to be the elements that made the album “shouty,” as Mowatt describes it.
“Should I ever record Busi again, I will definitely vary the tones and the colours of the album.” Mowat hastens to mention that Busi insisted on choosing her co-writers in the making of Urban Zulu. Mhlongo describes her co-writers, Themba Ngcobo and Mkhalelwa Ngwazi, with spine-chilling admiration. “You know, some people call me the queen of Maskandi. People like Ingani Zoma, Amatshitshi Amhlophe; those are the true Maskandi artists”.tag
Miriam Makeba, in Mhlongo’s books, is an inspiration for having been bold. “Her natural hair – that Afro – inspired us and of course she said a lot of things that men could not gather enough courage for. I don’t mean that in a negative way”, she cautions.
Urban Zulu’s songs like Nguye Lo, Zithin’izizwe and Ukuthula take the bull by the horns. They echo pleas for tolerance and accentuate the consequences of lack of Ubuntu. We Baba Omcane present an African setting where the law is laid down by the family and not the government. The parent or the guardian is the one responsible for the upbringing of the child.
Mhlongo continually speaks about children being safe and her being grateful for never being harmed or abused during childhood. ‘We Baba Omncane’, tells the story of an uncle chastising a child while the child questions why she has to be disciplined so harshly. The uncle explains: ‘nothing will turn out well for you if you don’t respect your elders.’
Mhlongo understandably shies away from naming her favourite song on Urban Zulu.
“Each song carries its own story”. But she does point to Yise Wabantwabami (Father of my children) – as a revealing song she recorded with Lokua Kanza –
“You know older people also do thrive on affection. It’s just that we tend not to show that aspect of ourselves in front of our children. That song resonates with that idea”, she giggles.
There’s some doubt that the latest South African music can ever make it big-time in the global music scene without someone from Western countries first having to pave the way, by way of producing, collaborating or promoting the music.
“South Africa is arguably the African country that has been most affected by western influence. A lot of South African music feels like a poor version of what we do here (UK).”
“There is kwaito which is slowed down hip hop; you have watered down R&B and just music that degenerates into jazz. The music is just not exotic enough, especially when you compare it to that of countries like Senegal and Mali. Those societies took time to develop their instruments and the character of their music,” Mowatt argues.
“The world hasn’t seen anything yet”, says Mhlongo. “We do not need salvation. If Africans stopped pointing fingers at each other, we could use our energies more positively.”
What could have kept Mhlongo from breaking into various other markets like the US with Urban Zulu?
“Busi is a very sensitive person and tended to say what she felt and maybe that did not go down well with other people,” suggest Wassy. “In her case, luck may not have been on her side. I think she is the best voice to have come out of Africa.”
Mowatt puts some of the blame on MELT 2000: “Urban Zulu was not even released in the USA; that was a major mistake. The album received fantastic reviews here (UK) and Busi was on Woman’s Hour on BBC radio. Record companies and music labels literally play God. “They distort the market”, he laments. “Urban Zulu, I believe is the most important album to have come out of post-apartheid South Africa but it got a raw deal.”
Chris Lewis, who’s just mastered unheard live material by the late Moses Molelekwa, mourns over how one hardly ever hears South African music in Mzansi. “Being from London myself, I notice it. But as soon as you jump the border into Mozambique, they pump their own music. That’s partly why talents like Busi will struggle to make it even in their own country. She definitely deserves to be a superstar. The same league as the late Miriam Makeba.”
Mowatt mentions Neil Comfort, the production co-ordinator in the making of Urban Zulu, as a person who did all he could to manage Busi’s affairs but his efforts did not appear to have been reciprocated by Melt 2000.
“I am thankful for Melt 2000 for having given me the opportunity but of course sometimes music labels forget that they are nothing without musicians. Robert Trunz, the owner of Melt 2000, put a lot of money into this project. I have no qualms there. Creatively Urban Zulu was an achievement, yet commercially it was a let down.”
Mhlongo cautions younger musicians about the music industry.
“It’s a dirty business”, she cautions. “There are things that you may not be willing to give or share.”
She maintains that a person driven by God survives. “I survived a lot because I was not there for those things that could have harmed me. I was there to sing and that I did.”
Her tone of voice carries a sense of humility.
“Being a role model is tough. I always tell kids to be their own role models,” she says. “For me music is sacred. When I sing I feel something moving inside of me. When it comes to music, the person ‘Busi’ disappears. It is us – me together with the audience. Some people say they sing for themselves but I sing for the people. I find no satisfaction in singing for myself. Think of how beautiful it is to sing for a child. When you sing to please yourself, you sing until you un-please yourself”, she says with laughter.
Mhlongo is grateful she is still alive and is working on her next album with saxophonist Steve Dyer. The great spirited African singer has undoubtedly presented the world with a legacy that inspires and reawakens the senses.
*Leeto Thale, a South African, is a podiatrist by profession and works in London. He is also a poet, songwriter and singer. He first came into contact with Mhlongo’s music when he worked at CAN-I community radio in Sandton – at the time American soul and r&b were his musical preference. He describes Busi Mhlongo’s music as having introduced him to a realm of enchanting melodies, harmonies and subtle remedies. “My encounter with Mhlongo’s vocal virtuosity, distinctiveness and power, was definitely a staggering awakening. Her collage of dizzying vocal harmonies got the body beautifully numb. I froze, and once I had had sufficient time to defrost, a new direction was there for me.”