Subverting and owning maskanda
Vocalist Busi Mhlongo has died. The 62-year-old battled with breast cancer for several years and died in a Durban hospital on June 15.
She was more than just a singer—she was one of a handful of supreme, singular musical superstars produced by this country.
Her creativity, the breadth of her vision and her gymnastic vocal range set her apart as someone who danced in the pantheon inhabited by the Beatles, Fela Kuti and other musical innovators. There was no one like her before and it is difficult to imagine anyone like her to follow.
Mhlongo’s musical output was seminal. Maskanda music—characterised by the Zulu troubadour wandering the Earth reflecting social blues—is a patriarchal space that, as a woman, she subverted and then came to dominate.
Her first album, Babhemu (1991), which was recorded with her band, Twasa, was a reflection of her own earlier travels in the United States and her experience of working the European casino and nightclub circuit in the 1970s and 1980s. It grasped maskanda by the horns and jerked it forward into the 20th century, infusing it with R&B, jazz and other music genres. It also placed maskanda, and her, firmly on the international stage.
Her follow-up, Urban Zulu (1999), was an excruciatingly beautiful album, possibly one of the best to emerge from this continent. It won three South African Music Awards the next year: Best Female Artist, Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best African Pop Album.
Produced by Will Mowat, it stripped the everyday experience of simple joys, unrequited love, abuse in the name of love and the month-end blues to its barest and most raw.
That was Mhlongo’s forte: taking our ordinary experience and crystallising it into the sublime with every high note she hit—with every tender whisper and primeval growl.
Her live performances were extraordinary, staggering in virtuosity and supernatural as an experience. Last year, having been in remission after several treatments, she threw herself into recording her fourth album, AmaKholwa (The Believers) and began performing again.
At what was to be her final performance at the legendary Rainbow jazz club in Pinetown, Durban, late last year—a place Mhlongo called her “spiritual home”—and despite starting to feel weaker again, she refused to get off the stage. It was blistering, emotional and pure Busi: there were both tears and laughter in the eyes of many present.
Born in Inanda, north of Durban, Mhlongo grew up in the home of her domestic-worker mother’s employees. She was a Drum pin-up, going by the name of Vicky (the shortened version of her Christian name, Victoria) and as a teenager appeared in Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety revues.
She also remade the song, My Boy Lollipop, for the Gallo Record Company—a massive hit across the continent—before leaving for Portugal in 1968.
She had, before leaving, married Early Mabuse, the drummer for Abdullah Ebrahim (then Dollar Brand) and they had a daughter, Nompumelelo. Mabuse was stabbed to death just after she left and she couldn’t return for the funeral—a scar that never really healed.
Mhlongo was deeply intimate with life’s vagaries. She felt both the pain and the joy profoundly—sometimes to debilitating effect—but that is what made her music so resonant to her audience.
She was at one stage estranged from her daughter, which she confided had pained her considerably. But they were reconciled and there was no more touching a sight than seeing the glow in her eyes as she spoke of her granddaughters, Zoe, Suraya and Inga.
Returning to South Africa in the 1980s—a time when the townships were bathed in the fire and brimstone of revolution and state repression—the bloodshed she witnessed was at times unbearable for this world traveller.
She was first diagnosed with cancer in 1978 while living in the United States and had been in remission for many years before undergoing a mastectomy in 2006.
It is perhaps a deep irony that, before the latest diagnosis, she was more lauded overseas than in her own country.
The diminutive Mhlongo was the epitome of that intoxicating, exasperatingly complex mixture of contradictions that make us human. She was both punk diva and gogo; proud of her Zulu heritage, but a modernist who didn’t believe in the rigidity of culture.
During one of the last evenings I spent with her, she spoke out strongly against the increasing trend of polygamy in South Africa and what it meant for the liberation of African women. In her typically no-nonsense fashion she thought it was a mere ruse to satiate male sexual urges.
Mhlongo was impish and mischievous, yet carried profound wisdom in her soul. She sometimes spoke like a pinball machine, moving from topic to topic with bewildering pace and had a manic laugh to go with that wildness.
She was a regal and proud woman, but tender and sensitive to the core. It would be easy and reductionist to characterise Busi Mhlongo as some sort of musical “Mother Africa”. She was greater than that: a forward-looking child of both this continent and the world.
Mhlongo was headstrong, complex and supremely talented. Through her music and her very being, she reminded us of our humanity in all its complexity.