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 Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory 
 
 Simon Nkabinde Mahlathini 
Simon Mahlathini
July 27, 1999
Age 61 
 
 
Diabetic Condition 

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OBITUARY 
        
       
 
NY TIMES
 
     
  Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde, 62, Zulu Singer
                
          By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. 

              JOHANNESBURG -- Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde, a singer better 
              known as the lead groaner of the Zulu music group Mahlathini and 
          the Mahotella Queens, died Thursday night, the national radio network 
          reported. He was 62.  

          Few details were available, but Mahlathini had been sick for some 
          months and the group had not performed for about two years.  

          The group, together from 1964 to 1997, was one of the most enduring in 
          South African music. Watching the Queens' combination of jubilant 
          harmonies and choreographed dances was, an American critic said in 
          1996, like what he imagined a Zulu version of the Supremes would have 
          been two decades after they stopped fitting into their silken gowns. 
          Mahlathini, sometimes called the Lion of Soweto, wore 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 bald pate.  

          Into his 50's, he could still leap and kick, and his "goatlike groaning" was 
          compared to the style of Howlin' Wolf. The Queens, who provided a 
          chirpy, cooing counterpoint, wore huge red circular Zulu hats, skirts of 
          leather and beadwork, leotards and sneakers.  

          Mahlathini (pronounced mah-shla-TEEN-ey) and the Queens 
          popularized mbaqanga music, which was the post-jazz rage in black 
          townships in the 1960's. It faded, but was revived after Paul Simon's 
          1986 "Graceland" album popularized South African music in the West. 
          Mbaqanga (pronounced mm-bah-KAHNG-guh, with the K formed by 
          popping the tongue off the roof of the mouth) is from a Zulu word for 
          steamed cornbread. It fused songs of several tribes and, by one 
          description, blended kwela, which began as jazz played on children's 
          pennywhistle flutes, with Zulu guitar, which was played on 5-gallon 
          oilcans with wires strung along wooden necks, and translated the whole 
          for brass and electric guitar. Like most South African dance music, it is 
          fast and almost relentlessly cheerful.  

          The group, which toured 40 American cities in 1990 and played with 
          Stevie Wonder and Sting, had a hard beginning. West Nkosi, the band's 
          saxophonist and producer who died last year after a car crash, said in 
          1990 that Mahlathini had gained attention in the 1950's as a young 
          wedding singer. He worked with choruses up to 60 strong in a 
          call-and-response style sometimes called "isicathamiya" or "sneak attack" 
          for the way the gentle lead vocal is answered by deep chords, often 
          swooping up an octave or breaking out in a birdlike ululation.  

          When Mahlathini's teen-age voice deepened and Nkosi pulled the group 
          together, three women and electric instruments replaced the chorus, but 
          the style remained. It was so hard to get radio time that they played 
          outside record stores, asking listeners to buy their albums.  

          Their lyrics, mostly in Zulu, were serious, about bringing up children or 
          solving marital problems. They were not overtly political like those of 
          later defiant youngsters like Brenda Fassie, but sometimes alluded to the 
          miseries of apartheid, recalled gospel melodies like "We Shall 
          Overcome" and had some lyrics that praised Nelson Mandela. Nkosi 
          expressed some disappointment that their audiences in America were 
          overwhelmingly white. Speaking of black Americans, he said: "We've 
          given their music tremendous support in our country. Never mind that 
          they're American. It's about time they took a very important step and 
          started learning about their origins."  
 

    
  
 
        
 Simon 'Mahlathini' Nkabinde 1938-1999

                    It is with great regret that we at Gallo Record Company and Gallo Africa 
                    mourn the passing of Simon 'Mahlathini' Nkabinde who died late on 
                    Wednesday, July 27th from complications relating to a longstanding 
                    diabetic condition. One of the seminal figures in South African music 
                    history, Simon will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues and fans 
                    throughout the world.  

                    Simon Nkabinde was born in Newcastle in 1938, but grew up in 
                    Alexandra Township. He began his music career whilst still a teenager, 
                    leading a traditional choir that performed at township weddings and 
                    celebrations. He was introduced to the music industry in the late 1950's 
                    through his older brother Zeph, the leader of one of the most popular 
                    pennywhistle bands of that era, and there began developing a reputation as 
                    a vocalist. After forming a close professional relationship with record 
                    producer Rupert Bopape, Simon began recording for Gallo Record 
                    Company in 1964 as part of the band of studio musicians that would later 
                    become known as 'Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens'.  

                    Simon's trademark bass 'groaning' counterpointed by the intricate close 
                    harmonies of the Queens with instrumental backing by the influential 
                    Makone Tshole Band, became one of the most popular and influential 
                    attractions in African music in the 1960's and 70's. This stellar combination 
                    for many years produced hit after hit record and kept what was in reality 
                    the country's first super-group busy touring the whole of Southern Africa to 
                    fulfill the demand for live appearances.  

                    After disbanding in the late 1970's, the group reformed in 1984 under the 
                    leadership of producer West Nkosi and became an attraction around the 
                    world with their hit 'Yebo'. The highlights of their later international career 
                    as 'Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens' included their appearance at the 
                    Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert in the UK in 1988 and their live 
                    performance before 500 000 people in New York's Central Park in 1991. 
 



 

                       Mahlathini and the Queens enjoyed their first wave of 
                    power and popularity in South Africa during the middle 
                    1960's through to the early 1970's but their history really 
                    begins even earlier in the 1950's.  
 

                       Most of the musicians who 
                    later provided the Queens' 
                    instrumental backing as the 
                    Makhona Tsohle Band, including 
                    present day lead guitarist Marks 
                    Mankwane and bassist Joseph 
                    Makwela, then worked as 
                    domestic servants in Pretoria who 
                    would gather together informally to 
                    play pennywhistle and guitars in 
                    their off-hours.  

                       The very first line-up of the 
                    Queens, joined early on by Hilda 
                    Tloubatla, then later by Nobesuthu 
                    Shawe Mbadu and Mildred 
                    Mangxola, began recording for 
                    Gallo Africa in 1964. Initially, they 
                    sang a slightly updated variety of 
                    the all-female close harmony which 
                    had been a feature of the South 
                    African musical landscape for 
                    several decades.  
  
 

                       Then an extraordinary collection of talent at Gallo combined to create a 
                    totally new style, mqashiyo. The former amateur musicians from Pretoria 
                    were already Gallo studio regulars when veteran producer Ruper Bopape 
                    joined the company bringing with him Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabine, who 
                    had begun his career singing traditional wedding songs in Alexandra 
                    township, and Shadrack Piliso, a trumpeter and composer with a great gift 
                    for harmony. In a team effort orchestrated by Bopape, male vocal lead and 
                    female chorus were integrated with up-tempo electrified instrumentation 
                    and some of the greatest song writing and arranging to come out of South 
                    Africa. This stellar combination for many years produced hit after hit 
                    record and kept what was in reality the country's first super group busy 
                    touring the whole of Southern Africa to fulfill the demand for live 
                    appearances.  

                       Gradually, in the later 1970's, the team disintegrated. The original 
                    Queens left to perform under a different name. Mahlathini departed for 
                    another record company, the various instrumentalists went their own 
                    separate ways, Shadrack Piliso died and Rupert Bopape retired. IN 1986, 
                    Gallo producer West Nkosi, another one of the original pennywhistlers 
                    from Pretoria, temporarily reunited the group in the studio to provide 
                    backing tracks for a Harry Belafonte album. Two French music scouts 
                    dropped in on the recording session and were sufficiently impressed by 
                    what they head to invite the band to play at a festival in France, albeit only 
                    with Mahlathini on the vocals as there were insufficient funds to bring the 
                    ladies along as well.  

                       The fire and originality of their performance immediately produced an 
                    invitation to another French festival, this time with the full vocal 
                    complement, and the word was soon out amongst worldbeat music 
                    enthusiasts about "the fantastic band from South Africa". In 1988, the 
                    Mahlathini & the Queen / Makhona Tsohle Band combination played for 
                    the Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert at Wembly stadium in the U.K. The 
                    television publicity resulting from a broadcast of this event which reached 
                    some 60 countries successfully spread the mqashiyo message and firmly 
                    reastablished the band on a full time basis. Four musician, Teaspoon Ndelu 
                    on saxophone and pennywhistle, Marubini Jacome on rhythm guitar, 
                    Joseph Mabe on keyboards and Philemon Hamole on drums, all 
                    mbaqanga era veterans, joined up to take the place of original members 
                    bringing the band up to a full complement of ten.  

                       Simultaneously with the band's revitalization as a live phenomenon, their 
                    recording career has also resumed, producing to date four new studio 
                    albums. Mqashiyo -the beat and the harmony- is alive and vital. Two 
                    decades after it was born in the Gallo studio, great recordings of the music 
                    are still being made and the band that makes them now travels the world as 
                    roving South African musical ambassadors. 

                    Rob Allingham, Gallo Archive Manager 

 
 
 
       
 

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BIOGRAPHY
 
 
All-Music Guide
 
Born: 1938
Simon Nkabinde Mahlathini (nicknamed "the Lion of Soweto") came to international attention via the 1985 sampler The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. He began to tour internationally with female singers the Mahotella Queens, although he has been playing and singing his brand of mbaqanga (Zulu pop music, heavily influenced by traditional singing styles) since the early '60s. Mahlathini started singing on street corners, graduated to men's choral music, and went on to form his own smaller group in the mid-'60s. When he "went electric" in the mid-'70s, his new sound caused a sensation, and much controversy. With the Mahotella Queens supplying their dynamic backing vocals and fancy dance routines (think of a South African version of the Supremes) and Mahlathini's primal groaning filling the air, you don't have to understand the language to get the message, although the group has occasionally recorded in English. Another part of Mahlathini's success is the backing supplied by West Nkosi and the Makgona Tsohle Band. "Makgona Tsohle means 'Jack-of-all-trades'," says Nkosi. "Our mbaqanga is a blend of traditional styles with modern instruments, a music anyone can relate to." -- J. Poet & William Ruhlmann, All-Music Guide 

 The Queens, often heard in concert and on record with deep-voiced "groaner" Simon Mahlathini,  represent the South African township style with absolute perfection. Established in 1964 as a session  harmony group, they came to prominence in the '70s with their tough vocal style and rock-solid mbaqanga backing band. Some of the original Queens have toured the States with Mahlathini recently, displaying their sprightly dancing and gutsy harmonies to appreciative Western audiences.   They are also heard to great effect on the collection album Soweto Never Sleeps - Classic Female  Zulu Jive (Shanachie 43041) with other sister groups. -- Myles Boisen, All-Music Guide
 
 
  
 
 

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