Busi Mhlongo, Goddam!

The final weekend at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, 2009. Busi Mhlongo is headlining the Saturday night main programme at the Guy Butler Theatre in the 1820 Settlers Monument. 

Towards the end of her performance, Mhlongo unfurls Ntandane (Orphan), a song about loss and lost fathers, that is as excruciating in its pain as in its beauty. It’s a deeply personal song, too — despite her childhood adoration for him, Mhlongo’s musician father abandoned her and her domestic-worker mother. He had other wives and children. Her love had often felt unrequited. 

On stage, Mhlongo is moving around with her sangoma stick, yet she is directing the sold-out crowd’s emotions with her voice, which flits and whispers in conversation, but also aches and arches and wails with a heavy pain. Her eyes speak of that pain; they say it is always with her. The lines around those eyes run deep, deep into her soul as Mhlongo sings about an abandonment from which she is rarely released. They are also riven by other relationships, and more anguish — both physical and emotional. 

The audience is mesmerised; people’s feelings are exposed and raw.

Then the rhythm guitar, bass guitar and accordion kick up Ntandane’s tempo, taking it from a lament into a driving mbaqanga hip-shake in a split-second shift that confirms how tight the band is. It is a defiant, insistent mbaqanga that reflects Mhlongo’s change of mood — also apparent in her face and her soaring voice. 

The vocalist looks imperious as she sings, and the sweat of performance adds a supernatural sheen to her face. She is unbowed and unconquerable: despite the scars they leave, no man will ever get the better of her.

The audience members are in paroxysms. This is public ecstasy. Mhlongo proceeds to not just close the festival; she shuts, the, mutha, fucker, down! And no one escapes. 

Finally. Victoria Busisiwe Mhlongo is crowned nationally by her own people for her staggering virtuosity. After an almost 40-year career, she had only in the past four or five years begun to receive the kind of local acclaim that was her due. Finally.

Busi Mhlongo, captured on stage in the 1970s in Yorkville, Canada (Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

For, despite the crowds that Mhlongo  and her then group Twasa drew to the Blue Note on Durban’s Florida Road in the 1980s, the three South African Music Awards (Samas) she won for her 1998 album Urbanzulu, or the adulation she bathed in on the Rainbow Restaurant and Jazz Club’s stage in Pinetown in the 2000s, the Inanda-born vocalist was, for most of her career, more appreciated and lauded in Europe and the United States than in South Africa. 

This country’s generally somnambulist approach to local genius had extended to a diminutive woman, with a roaring voice and temper, who had claimed and subverted the patriarchal space of the wandering Zulu troubadour, the maskandi.

Mhlongo, too, sang of societal ills and the blues, of loves and losses. She did it using a vocal range that was breathtaking in its scope. One that hurt people, or drove them to joy, but always captured their souls, in, paradoxically, the release they found in her music. And that was just the audience. Pity the people who knew her. 

Neil Comfort, the owner of the Rainbow and her manager for a long period, probably summed up what a lot of people who knew Busi Mhlongo felt towards her when, this week, he told me: “She defined my life.”  

At the end of the performance in Makhanda (then Grahamstown) the audience rose as one to applaud the maestra. People talked of a divine experience, of being transported to pasts and futures and other worlds. Of having never previously experienced anything like this.

It was a bittersweet triumph, however. People who have survived cancer know their bodies in an acute, irrefutable way. Mhlongo knew that she was ill again; that the breast cancer she had been diagnosed with in 2005-06 had returned, despite a mastectomy. And she fretted about how long it would take to summon the mental and physical strength to fight this battle for a third time, having previously also survived cervical cancer while living in the US in the 1970s.

She would eventually defer starting treatment until December. Just a few weeks short of a year after that performance in Makhanda, on June 15, 2010, Busi Mhlongo would succumb to cancer at the age of 62.  

“Perhaps she left it too late to start her treatment,” says Susan Barry, Twasa’s keyboard player, who had known Mhlongo since 1985 and had shared a house with her and other band-members for six years in the early ’90s, “but I know she never wanted to die. She always said there was still so much more music to make.”

This became apparent as Mhlongo threw herself into recording another album, Amakholwa, and embarked on a collaborative music and environmental awareness project with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and sculptor Andries Botha for the Human Elephant Foundation.  

“MamBusi believed she would win the fight [against cancer]”, says Thandiswa Mazwai, another stellar South African vocalist, and someone close to Mhlongo’s heart. “She was relentless and felt that she had been resilient against it before and would not lose against it now … As it progressed she felt personally attacked by it. As though it was some punishment she didn’t deserve. Anyone who knows MamBusi knows that her tears were always nearby.  She cried a lot — about years she had lost with her family, about what was owed to her by audiences and record companies [who she felt never paid her the money due to her], about death.”

But she never gave up. Even as her body wasted away, her hair fell out and a chemical pain dominated the other toxicities she had accumulated over the years, especially the pain of abuse inflicted in the name of a so-called love that so many women in South Africa experience at the hands of men. Men who say they love women, but are intent on breaking them.

Barry says: “She was an extremely angry person, with deep pits of pain. She was wracked by pain, but she also had an incredible freedom of spirit, an extraordinary ability to connect with her deeper self in a way which then allowed her to connect with an audience with so much love, a great humanity and a childlike ability to tap into the feelings of others.”

Mhlongo was progressive and open to fusion, as evidenced by her 1991 album with Twasa, Babhemu. Barry talks about how Mhlongo had been taught to sing jazz standards by the Blue Notes’ Chris McGregor in Johannesburg in the ’60s. She had also developed an openess to myriad popular genres during her travels in Europe and the US in that decade and the ’70s. Yet, she was also firmly rooted in Zulu culture with a musical line connected to Princess Magogo, the daughter of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. 

Magogo was a breaker of patriarchal traditions, playing isigubhu and isitolotolo (a small harp played with the mouth and hands) and, in the early 1900s praise singing — quite possibly one of the very first females to do so. “Busi was playing gigs at the Ulundi Holiday Inn in the 1980s with people like Pat Matshikiza and bassist Steve Neil, and Princess Magogo attended every performance,” says Barry, “She gave Busi a suitcase of tapes with recordings of hers which was eventually confiscated by the security branch.”

“To me it seemed she had always been aware of her genius. She knew exactly what a song needed. She worked a song with such precision and skill — ‘ubuchule’ — but she also worked it with a reckless abandon,” says Mazwai.

Chemotherapy stains you from inside out. It darkens your skin and your mood. It twists your mind as it seeks out and plays with the worst aspects of your lived experiences and your imagination. It heightens the contradictions that make people human — the light and the dark sides — and pushes you to the latter, the bits we all try to repress through liquor, or drugs, or religion, or work, or a loving family.

Busi Mhlongo at her Innes Road flat in 2005. (Rafs Mayet)

Busi Mhlongo’s contradictions were always close to the surface. She was a narcissist, but also empathetic, open-hearted, deeply loving and generous to a fault. Her humour was impish and flirty; her rages uncontrollable. A punk diva, but the guardian of an ancient Zulu culture in modern times. A fashion icon. A fucking genius.

And she never shied away from the dark side, because this fed her art.

I know this from my own experience of being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2001 and the conversations with Mhlongo in 2005, especially, when she was going for cancer treatment. Photographer Rafs Mayet and I would sometimes head to her small Innes Road flat with the takeaway north Indian curries and naan bread that she loved for restoring her sense of smell. 

Her lounge was Spartan, with few signs of the internationally renowned star she undoubtedly was. A few couches, the three Samas for Urbanzulu — for Best Female Artist, Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best African Pop Album — on top of an oversize television, and a clock on the wall. 

She would talk at whiplash speed about her life: playing the casino circuit in Europe in the ’60s, about her time in the US and Holland, about being mistreated by men, about her music. She would accentuate emotions and events with bits of song, whispers and growls. She would show us the cigarette burn marks under the curtain of bangles on her forearms. 

We would laugh and cry together. The food would often remain half-eaten because her storytelling had taken us into another world where it nourished us. 

Mhlongo’s music nourished every audience she played for. I’d like to hope that it sometimes nourished her too … for often it felt like her demons were never far away. It must have, because those connections between Busi Mhlongo and her audiences truly were singular experiences. Her performances and her art came from a place where she had, a long time ago, realised that black lives didn’t matter. Especially the lives of black women. She had realised that broken men were breaking women, children, families, democracies and all the bonds that connected us as humans. 

Busi Mhlongo had realised that she too was broken, and this is what compelled her to sing: to try heal what she saw fracturing around her, inside her, just a little bit.

* Urbanzulu has been reissued on vinyl by Matsuli Music. It’s been 10 years since Busi Mhlongo died.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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