Busi Mhlongo wears pain and joy in the folds around her eyes. Time’s natural lines tell as much about her otherworldly live performances and gender-defying role in the traditionally patriarchal maskanda musical genre as they do about love, losing love and the difficult decisions that make our lives messily human.
Sitting in a coffee shop on Durban’s Windermere Road, the diminutive Mhlongo, with dark shades, high-heeled boots and droopy earrings, looks every bit the “hip grandma” her grandchildren tease her of being. Having recently returned from a three-month residency in Holland, where she performed with Nigerian vocalist Yinka in 28 African Diva shows, she is crying.
Memories of Holland highlight the void left by Spectre Ngwazi. A co-composer on 1999’s triple South African Music Award-winning album, Urban Zulu, Ngwazi died last year, following Mhlongo’s other maskanda guitarists, Mshaks Gasa (last year), M’faz Onyama (2003) and the legendary Doc Mthalane (1997). “I was so stressed out with the music, and with the death of Spectre,” says Mhlongo of her time in Holland, where she believes she was not in the best physical condition as a result.
“All the guitarists that I have played with on my albums are gone, all of them! It’s like you give birth to children and your kids are dying. When I listen to [my first album] Babhemu, it gives me pain when I listen to Doc. When I listen to [my second album] Urban Zulu, I listen to Spectre and I listen to M’faz Onyama and it’s always on top of me.”
Mhlongo has always felt deep emotions, sometimes to debilitating levels. But then her music and her powerful vocal range possess those aching qualities that strip every emotion down to its most primal and raw. She has yet to reach closure on her mother’s death in 2001, she says, and the cumulative effects of seeing personal and musical friends die is taking its emotional toll. Mhlongo didn’t realise Ngwazi was sick until he fell ill while they were touring in Japan last year: “Maybe that’s another thing; they die and I don’t know what they die of; they never really tell me what they are dying from. We made beautiful music together, music that means so much to my heart, that will stay with me,” she says.
Despite sometimes still getting “desperate for answers that are not there”, Mhlongo reassures: “I am getting better, dear, I really am. And I’m enjoying every minute of my life — the ups and downs, the excitements, the sadness.”
Mhlongo cannot be drawn on the cause of Ngwazi’s death, but we do later talk about the stigma still attached to HIV/Aids and the need, especially in the local music industry, to get rid of denial and euphemisms: “It’s a very hard thing, especially for the families, but we are suffering because people are not free to talk about it. It has been made into a dirty, dirty thing, which I don’t understand. If I have Aids and I am scared to tell you and go ‘Oh, what is the world going to say?’, then I’m dying and we’re not helping each other. That even your child at home is dying and too scared to tell you is hard. This is also happening in my family and that is very, very hard.”
Born in Inanda, north of Durban, in 1947, Mhlongo’s life has been very much like that of the maskandi — the roving troubadour. A few months after she left South Africa for the first time in the Sixties her husband, Early Mabuse, the drummer for Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), died. Unable to return for the funeral, she spent the next two decades in the club and casino circuits in Europe, the United States (where she overcame cervical cancer) and Canada.
In the late Seventies, she returned to a South Africa bathed in the fire and brimstone of township revolt. The June 16 massacre in 1976 was still an open wound and the state’s repressive apparatus was flexing its muscles.
For someone accustomed to Europe’s liberalism, Mhlongo admits it was a suffocating time to return: “It was a horrible, horrible time to come back. I had never seen anybody [stabbed and] whose insides you could see. And the little kids coming and saying: ‘They are doing this to him now, they are doing this to him now, they are stabbing him now. Haa, ah ah ah,” she says.
“And also, me, in my head, I knew freedom. You couldn’t just say anything to me. I was really heavy and I was angry. I had lived with my mum who was a domestic worker and I was really protected there, always, always. Nobody called me a kaffir, then, all of a sudden, I was coming back and hearing kaffir. I was going ‘Hey kaffir is you!’ straight away and I threw it back,” she laughs.
But the Eighties are also filled with fond memories for Mhlongo. She reminisces about the musical bond shared with her band Twasa, of which Mthalane was a mainstay; of riotous nights at the Blue Note in the Hotel California, where they became the resident band, and of finally releasing her debut album, Babhemu. A reflection of her travels, it combined elements of jazz, R&B and funk with the marabi, maskanda and mbaqanga of South Africa.
While Urban Zulu, the follow-up, is widely considered to be one of the finest albums to emerge from this continent, Mhlongo’s last album, Freedom — recorded four months after Mhlongo was released from a rehabilitation centre she had admitted herself into for marijuana addiction — has been either panned or ignored by critics.
About her next studio recording, Mhlongo says: “I’m just going around now because I think I’m going to use more voices of KwaZulu-Natal. I want to use voices and traditional songs. I’m at that stage where I am picking what I really like and, personally, I’m practising different things with my voice — spiritual things, things that I didn’t know I could do, like using male voices that I didn’t know I had.
“I don’t have anyone in mind [for the musical arrangements] at this time. I want to just collect the material. If there will be a band or musicians, let them come after my voice, not the music first. I would like that, to let whoever listen to the voice and try this, or try that and see. Just like Urban Zulu,” says Mhlongo.
Warrior Woman, the Busi Mhlongo documentary in SABC3’s Unauthorised series, screens on May 10 at 9.30pm. Mhlongo performs at the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club in Pinetown, Durban, on May 28 at noon. For more information, call 083 463 8044