The Malopoets: Mining the seam of people’s music

It’s almost 40 years since the Malopoets’ debut album disappeared, as apartheid and the music industry tried to erase their radicalism. Now we may finally have a chance to hear it.

From the Malopoets’ 1982 album, Fire, Siqhub’ingolovane (We push the mine-trolley):

Leader: Down here under the ground
Where the cold wind blows
Siqhub’ingolovane, siqhub’ingolovane
We work for our children
Down here under the ground
Where the sun doesn’t shine
Siqhub’ingolovane, siqhub’ingolovane
There’s no time for pardon
Down here under the earth
Where the gold is dug 
Siqhub’ingolovane, siqhub’ingolovane 
Back home, the children crying: Mama, where’s daddy? 
Mamawe silambile  (Mama we’re hungry) 
And the women don’t know what to say to their children 
‘Cause they know their husbands are digging for their lives 
Deep down in the mines because they’re trying to survive 
Siqhub’ingolovane, siqhub’ingolovane”

Search online for information about historic South African band the Malopoets and you’ll find very little: an excellent research paper on two members; a handful of YouTube tracks from their latter years overseas and a bunch of discographical information – much of it inaccurate. You’ll read, for example, that they “failed to make any impact on the burgeoning African music scene in Europe, however, being adjudged too pop-orientated by white audiences craving ‘roots’ sounds.”

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European audiences explaining African roots to black musicians is a familiar racist trope. Yet the Malopoets, as much as their younger musical colleagues Sakhile, asserted South African neo-traditional culture as a powerful voice in the struggle against apartheid. They fused languages and genres, exploring combinations of traditional sounds, poetry and jazz. Long before the EFF and red overalls, their aesthetics foregrounded workers’ attire. They made music, and gathered fans, across the ethnic barriers the regime built, seizing the time just before Inkatha’s ethnic nationalism colonised the hostels, to engage with mineworkers’ traditions.

For that, every member paid a heavy professional and personal price. South African authorities suppressed and sabotaged them. Commercial music structures found their collective working style impossible, demanding hierarchies and “leaders”. When they travelled, European producers attempted to flatten the band’s uniqueness into a generic Afropop style.

Restlessly shaping new sounds

The Malopoets were founded on 7 July 1978, on the 11th anniversary of the death of saxophonist John Coltrane. The band’s multi-instrumentalist co-founder, Pat Sefolosha, said: “Coltrane is the godfather of the group. We get much of our inspiration from his records, although he played jazz and our sound is closer to African traditional music.” Its members came together out of two earlier bands, both established in townships that were cauldrons of activism and creativity: flute player Abbey Cindi’s Afrika from Mamelodi, near Pretoria, and Third Generation from Durban’s KwaMashu.

Cindi had scouted for players to form his own band after splitting with Malombo pioneer Philip Tabane. Eventually, the new outfit settled on the name Afrika, and personnel including Sefolosha, bassist Patrick Mokoka and later a young guitarist, Samson ‘Sam’ Tshabalala. Their first show as Afrika was in Durban, at the Milk Africa Festival, and there they encountered drummer Bruce ‘Madoda’ Sosibo and another guitarist, Duze Mahlobo, both playing in Third Generation.

All were restless about the authoritarian and sometimes exploitative relationships they encountered in other bands, as well as the limited scope for musical innovation. And “people wanted to do something more explicit politically,” remembers poet Eugene Skeef.

All the band members were creative in other areas, such as poetry and art. Through journeys and conversations between the two cities, the Malopoets came together: those five, plus an orbiting constellation of other activists, musicians, students, artists and poets, including lawyer Mafika Mbuli, Black Consciousness militant Skeef, law student and South African Students Organisation (and later KwaMashu Youth Organisation) coordinator Ben Langa and others, many associated with the newly founded radical literary journal Staffrider. For a time, Langa and Mbuli managed the band, whose chosen name merged malopo (“spirit”) and poetry.

Sounds of the mines and solidarity

“A lot of young bands at that time,” remembers Mokoka, “were trying to play African music … [We] didn’t want to sound like those others. We were listening to Manu Dibangu, Fela, Osibisa. We thought, no, if we can combine something from malombo, and poetry, it can sound a bit different.

“So we made researches. We listened to Pedi music, Zulu music, Shangaan music and that’s where we got new ideas. We thought, if we can work around all these tribes together we can make something that reflects us.”

Skeef recalls: “We’d do concerts to promote the miners’ cause and raise money; we’d go and listen to music in the mine hostels and play with them”.

Mahlobo told researcher Sazi Dlamini: “I had been introduced to [bow music] while I was in Johannesburg, by the mineworkers … We used to visit them in the compounds and they had come to trust us because we showed them respect.”

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At that time, apartheid’s retribalisation policy was enforcing difference and fomenting antagonisms at every level from residence to SABC playlists. It wasn’t just the Malopoets’ lyrics that challenged the regime, but the syncretism of their musical form, bringing together diverse elements that the apartheid government wanted to split. As Mokoka says: “We were two Pedis, two Zulus and a Shangaan. And in those days, that was important – that we were together.”

The group’s growing support in radical, artistic and labour circles meant there was work, but it was intermittent, and always constrained by apartheid restrictions. In what is now Kwazulu-Natal, they played shows at Ongoye (the University of Zululand – sometimes with a young Kaya Mahlangu, pre-Sakhile, on saxophone), at teachers’ training colleges and a few private clubs.

Lacking equipment and dogged by debt, they slept on floors and stayed with friends, including the Langa and Skeef families. Skeef remembers performing at the Stable Theatre: “Cassie Govender gave us a carpet to sleep on. We had an old primus stove … and all of us would lie down, like the spokes of a wheel, with the cooker as the hub at our feet to keep warm.”

In Gauteng, the mix of venues was similar – Mahlobo remembered the L’Chaim Club in Hillbrow – and so were the residence rules. Mokoka describes staying in a disused garage in Crown Mines “where we had to lock the door from the inside, to make it look like no one was in there”.

Higher profiles and harassment

By 1979, the group had secured an engagement at the Market Theatre and the press were beginning to profile them. Percussionist Moses Manaka and reedman Martin Rachabane joined the band for stage performances, and promoter Ray Nkwe offered them a recording deal. Skeef persuaded artist Charles Nkosi to create cover art for the album, to be called Rebirth. It was, says Mokoka, “a beautiful, raw African sound … it had our touch, who we are. You’d hear it and say: this is Malopoets [especially in] Duze’s deep African touch on the guitar … and then Ray said: ‘It’ll come out; I’ll contact you.’”

“Malopoets is a concept far greater than the individual members of the group,” wrote Langa. The group adopted a consciously collective style of work. “I would be playing around with a bassline,” says Mokoka, “and then somebody – Pat, maybe – would say: ‘No, man we can do something with this.’ Then Duze would come with an arrangement and somebody else with lyrics. We didn’t think of anybody as ‘owning’ a song. We were one: we were like brothers so [whatever the hardships] we had to stay together … And we always liked to pray in the dressing room before the show, asking the ancestors to guide us.”

The band went bare-chested, wearing traditional wraps and ornaments. It was also during this time that Sosibo added a miner’s helmet, initially to accompany the song Siqhub’ingolovane. Sosibo drummed on his headgear to add percussion and, Skeef remembers, “some of our fans used to sneak helmets from the road gangs and wear them to our concerts to show they were with us”.

During their time at the Market Theatre, Sefolosha met a visiting Swiss artist, Christine, and the two fell in love. Violence and harassment followed whenever they were together in public. “They suffered,” remembers Mokoka.

The missing master

But the album never appeared and Nkwe proved elusive. The reason why remains unexplained. Some band members, and then manager Eleanor Hermann, say they were simply swindled. Others suggest the Gallo label was pressured to “lose” this radical music, or that the album’s defiance of SABC norms and inevitable future censorship – the tracks deliberately mingled South African languages – made it a bad bet for the company. Mokoka suggests that Nkwe “hoped to get it to Hugh Masekela in the United States [where it would be] easier, with less pressures, to get it released – then he couldn’t make it happen.”

For the 40 years since, everyone connected with the project has believed the master tapes to be lost forever. It turns out they were mistaken.

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MINC released the group’s second album, Fire, in 1982. But by then pressures were beginning to pull the group apart. Skeef had gone into exile in 1980. Mahlobo had left for Zimbabwe, where he worked with mbira master Ephat Mujuru at the Nongoma Training College. Sefolosha and Christine travelled to Botswana and then Switzerland. Fire received little airplay or media attention. The cover artwork (still by Nkosi) had been modified to focus on art objects and remove text about African leaders, but the syncretic lyrics and political messages remained. “Our music is our guns,” Sefolosha told the Sunday Tribune.

Mainstream music organisers hinted that a more “commercial” stage presence was needed. The police intervened more directly. Hermann told Dlamini: “We had lots of problems. At these festivals … as soon as Malopoets came on stage, suddenly the police were tampering … all of a sudden, when my band came on stage, there was no sound. [The PA people] would just shrug and roll their eyes and say: ‘It’s the police’.”

South Africa was getting too hostile and dangerous. But in the following year, when the band got the chance to travel, Europe proved harsh in different ways, threatening the group’s identity.

Part two:

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