When boss leaves the workshop

Imagine for a minute that the cast of Friends was not a bunch of yuppie, espresso-swilling New Yorkers.

Well, if you were watching television in South Africa in the 1980s, they weren’t; they were a bunch of mechanics who couldn’t wait for their boss to leave so they could down their tools for a good old mbaqanga jam. The show was called Mathaka (friends) and the musicians were the band who backed everyone from Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens to Amaswazi Emvelo.

Now, thanks to Gallo archivist Rob Allingham, the music of these behind-the-scenes music legends has become available once again.

Allingham has in the past few years reissued a substantial amount of the Mavuthela catalogue with a focus on Mbaqanga.

As the house band for Rupert Bopape’s Mavuthela stable, the Makgona Tsohle Band is central to this story.

Bopape was a crucial figure in the popularisation of mbaqanga through his work with the Dark City Sisters in the early Sixties (while still at EMI) and later his work with Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje and Abafana Baseqhudeni.

Allingham says Bopape had an incredible nose for talent and made some important developments in African vocals with the Dark City Sisters, before Gallo poached him.

“The way these producers used to work is they used to accumulate a pool of musicians, both instrumentalists and vocalists,” says Allingham. “When he got to Mavuthela Bopape immediately started recruiting musicians, because all his old musicians were contracted to EMI and so it was at that stage that the Makgona Tsohle guys were brought in and became the new Mavuthela house band.”

“When the Mavuthela acts would go out on the road, what would happen was that the Makgona Tsohle Band would open the show; it would just be them playing,” says Allingham. “Then maybe West Nkosi would come on and they would do a couple of sax jive numbers and then maybe the Mahotella Queens would come on and perform and then maybe Abafana Baseqhudeni would come on. So the whole time the Makgona Tsohle band would be doing all the instrumental backing.”

Most of the Makgona Tsohle Band met in the mid-1950s when they were working as gardeners in the white suburbs of Pretoria.

West Nkosi, Joseph Makwela and Lucky Monama formed a penny whistle band dubbed The Pretoria Tower Boys. In 1963, after recording a few sessions for Troubador they, with Marks Mankwane, a rival Pretoria penny-whistler, were earning a living in Johannesburg as professional session musicians. By 1964 they were all working at Mavuthela as the house band recording on sessions for Mahlathini and the Mohotella Queens, Abafana Baseqhudeni and many others.

“There were three real pioneers in the band,” says Allingham. “First of all Joseph Makwela was the bass player and he was the first African to take up the electric bass and play it in a completely new and African manner. Makwela was the first guy to grasp how you could sustain notes and he really changed the rhythm patterns, which before him tended to be very swing-based.”

“Marks Mankawne as a lead guitarist was the first guy to play a distinctly African-styled electric lead guitar and even the guys who came after him will acknowledge that Marks was the guy who set the template,” he says.

“A guy that often gets ignored but was a great innovator was the rhythm guitar player called Vivian Ngubane,” says Allingham. “Nobody had played rhythm guitar like that guy had.”

In the Eighties West Nkosi came up with the idea of a television show based on the Makgona Tsohle Band, in which they acted as mechanics, who jammed when the boss left the workshop. The show was a hit and ran for 120 episodes.

Allingham has reissued two CDs of the band’s recordings, the first a collection of their most popular hits and the second recordings that the band did for the television show.

Abafana Baseqhudeni
Abafana Baseqhudeni were one of the most successful and influential mbaqanga bands of the Seventies.

The two principle members were Robert “Mbazo” Mkhize and Elphas “Ray” Mkize and both were born in northern KwaZulu-Natal and moved to Johannesburg in their early twenties. Encounters with Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde led to them both to joining the Mavuthela stable, Mkhize as a groaner with the Mthunzini Girls and also as a guest vocalist on some of the early Seventies Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens records and Mkize as a singer with Abafana Bamagoduka.

In 1973 Mkhize, Mkize and two other vocalists, Potatoes Zuma and Joseph Mthimkhulu, were travelling together on a Mavuthela road show when their bus broke down in the Western Cape. The four men grew bored with small talk and began singing traditional songs to pass the time. The results sounded so good that one of the numbers was introduced at the next show as an interval surprise.

The reaction was so great that this new band featured on every leg of the road show. When they got back to Johannesburg Bopape got them into the studio with an extra vocalist, Paulos Mabunda, to record their first singles. Bopape had a new smash hit on his hands and the band toured the country to packed-out venues for the next six or seven years.

All 10 of the band’s albums have been remastered by Allingham with great detailed liner notes and the original album covers.

Amaswazi Emvelo
Amaswazi Emvelo were last in the long line of great mbaqanga bands on Mavuthela. After the student uprisings in 1976, mbaqanga was viewed by the younger generation as old-fashioned and politically suspect.

So it is surprising and a credit to the band that between the late Seventies and mid-Eighties they still managed to carve out a successful career with their 10 mbaqanga albums. The band’s leader, Meshack Mkwananzi, was a session musician at Mavuthela when in 1978 he joined Abafana Baseqhudeni’s backing band playing on two of their albums with brothers Albert and Philiph Motha.

After their commitments with Abafana Baseqhudeni ended, the three musicians recruited singer Sipho Madondo, drummer Andreas Ngubane, lead guitarist Joseph Thusi and his brother Big Boy Thusi on rhythm guitar to form Amaswazi Emvelo. The band went on to be a huge success, picking up Abafana Baseqhudeni’s mantle and running with it. They recorded eight albums before, in a strange turn of events, which saw Mahlathini Nkabinde approach the band to sing with them, eventually recording two albums with them, which are considered among the band’s best. All 10 of these albums have been remastered by Allingham and are now available.

The Basotho Dihoba and Johannes Mohlala reissues
Makgona Tsohle Band drummer Lucky Monama went on to produce a number of more traditional albums for the Mavuthela stable.

One of the bands he recorded for the Mavuthela stable was Basotho Dihoba led by Letsema Matsela.

Monama happened upon the band at a wedding in Welkom in 1976, signed them on the spot and soon had them in studio recording. Although Matsela’s music is based on traditional Basotho music, with circular call-and-response vocal patterns, his songs were unique in that they featured powerful chanting backing choruses.

Between 1976 and 1989 Basotho Dihoba recorded 10 albums for Mavuthela, all of which have been reissued by Gallo.

Another artist whom Monoma produced was Johannes Mohlala, a blind Pedi musician who played harepa, a vocal-centred musical style that uses the autoharp for accompaniment.

In 1975 Mohlala hooked up with producer Rupert Bopape, whom he had recorded with in 1961, to record for Mavuthela.

Having sampled Mohlala’s second album, Phalaborwa Ka Moshate, I can highly recommend this to the adventurous listener.

Mohlala’s harp is reminiscent of West Africa’s kora-dominated music and the vocals are hauntingly beautiful.

If you are interested, Gallo has reissued all of Mohlala’s records.

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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