Words by Bongani Mahlangu
NO adjective appears to be good enough to describe the essence of Busi Mhlongo’s creative aptitude.
Her unique and abrasive vocal pyrotechnics can please even the hardest customer leaving them under a spell. Mhlongo’s voice tears through some of her timeless songs like Uganga Nge Ngane, We Baba Omncane and Intandane. Her traditional yet hip music blends a variety of styles including reggae, maskandi, mbaqanga, contemporary, funk and some West African music. This Sama award-winners’ musical influence can be heard in the work of many young female singers from Siphokazi Maraqana to Thandiswa Mazwai.
We learn from Mhlongo’s files that as a child her musical family encouraged her to sing her heart out at weddings, in church and at school. At Gallo’s King Kong Contest, she left the judges spellbound with her youthfully riveting rendition of the song My Boy Lollipop. The singer from Inanda, Durban initially went by the name Vicky and performed with Alf Herbert’s band called African Jazz in the early 1960s. A voyage to Portugal with Mozambican group Conjunto Juan Paulo introduced her to an international audience. Based in Europe, she worked with among others Dudu Pukwana, Julian Bahula and Lucky Ranku in the early 1970s. At one stage Mhlongo’s lead vocals were of great benefit to Ghanaian group Osibisa who’s Afro-rock singles climbed the British charts in the early 1970s.
She also played the lead in a Canadian stage production Reefer Gladness. It was only in the 1980s that she formed her own band Twasa. Mhlongo’s debut album, Babhemu (1993) set souls alight and laid a perfect foundation for Urban Zulu (1999) that conquered a vast young audience. She received several awards including the Sama Best Adult Contemporary and Best Female awards (2000). Freedom her 2003 album did not quite match the magic of Urban Zulu. The endless list of festivals she has dazzled audiences at, includes the Africa Roots festival in Amsterdam, Grahamstown Arts Festival and the M.E.L.T 2000’s Outernational Meltdown concert in London’s Africa Centre. Mhlongo’s impressive artistic flair drew the attention of artists like Madala Kunene, Max Lasser, Jabu Khanyile, Mfaz’omnyama, Doc Mthalane and Sipho Gumede who all collaborated with her.
AYANDA NHLANGOTHI –Singer, Songwriter.
“Oh! ugogo … umama wethu. I respect her a lot for the work she does and has done. Young people like me) wish to find out who we are. We need to see people like Mom Busi more on stage and hear them on radio. I get, from her, a sense that I should not apologise for my roots or where I come from. She is about the authenticity of our culture and I look up to such people. Mom Busi helps me get closer and closer to who I really am. I often wish I could be like her especially when I see her perform. As a person, she is just so sweet and not embarrassed about who she is. Groovy is the first thing that comes to mind when you mention Urban Zulu. It’s happening. It’s a cross culture/ generation album, there’s a young feeling to it. It has elements of different cultures but it’s still very Zulu. It’s impossible to say which song stands out but I like the arrangement of Uganga Ngengane. I always put the song Yise wa Bantabami on my repertoire whenever I perform.”
KHANYO MAPHUMULO-Singer (former backing vocalist for Mhlongo)
“Uma’ (mother) is a shy person off stage. She cries a lot, uyazwela (she’s sensitive.) But on stage she’s wild, it’s like there’s some one driving her. I remember once when we performed in Italy, for a moment I had forgotten that I was working and found myself watching her spellbinding performance of the song Intandane as if I was part of the audience. That was the best show I have ever worked with her on. Uma drives you (with her energy) on stage and you forget you are tired (if you were.) Her presentation is lively from the beginning of her act, there’s no sleeping song with her. She also has a good ear, you tell her about your problem and she will be saying… ‘Awu mntanami…’ Working with her is more like being in the company of your own mother because you are afraid to do something out of order. There was a time she thought of going back to Holland (she stayed there for several years) because she felt her music was not appreciated here at home.”
RAE KWENZEKILE NHLABATHI –Singer and songwriter
“Busi Mhlongo can be best described as a cultural warrior, an inspirational entertainer, the greatest musician and a true living legend of our time. I have been touched by her timeless sound, and felt her awesome energy through her incredibly engaging performance. She is the most talented, artistic and expressive yet very humble performer I know. Her music, especially from the album Urban Zulu, has inspired many young artists like me to pursue an afro soul and traditional music career. I had not been properly introduced to her music before sampling the whole album while chilling with friends. I was blown away and became an instant fan. I was inspired by the fact that her style of presentation was fresh and unique. I saw myself in her. Thanks to the greatest artists like Mama Busi Mhlongo who paved the way for us, in spite of all odds stacked against them, they kept their heads up and followed their passion. Today young artists are able to do what they love and get paid way better than the pioneers did. From her courage and determination, I have learnt how to spread my own wings and trust the wind.”
KHULULIWE SITHOLE -Singer (former backing vocalist for Mhlongo)
“I have worked for Mom Busi for more than ten years from the days when she still used the name Vicky. “I don’t think I can ever get tired of working with her because her music is not strenuous on the ear. Mom Busi’s music heals. Even in countries where people don’t understand a word of what she is singing about, individuals get really touched by her music. I have learnt a lot from Mom Busi especially since I love traditional music. Her music has brought me up. Take me as a singer that has sucked a lot of beneficial knowledge from working with her over the years. I would want to be part of a set up where her songs are sung just to show my appreciation for the seed she has planted. On a personal note she is a mother that I can share my pain and sorrows with because she is warm just like a caring mother. She can be playful at times and be firm when there’s a need to be. But she’s not the kind of employer or person that makes you get scared when she enters the room.”