Whether a new album release is greeted with rave reviews or completely ignored, its full impact becomes visible only with time, especially in the case of a career-defining album.
In 1998, when the record label Melt 2000 released Busi Mhlongo’s Urban Zulu, her second album, it was widely acclaimed, later winning three South African Music Awards and spending two months at the top of the Billboard world music charts.
With a reissue of Urban Zulu about to hit shelves, looking back at this significant moment in South Africa’s cultural history, those awards and chart positions do not even come close to showing the impact of Mhlongo’s masterpiece. The album didn’t just change South Africa, it changed music.
Urban Zulu packs an emotional power that is undeniable, an urgent, raw document of everyday life in the violence-ravaged KwaZulu-Natal of the 1990s, where women had to exist in the shadow of men.
By subverting the patriarchal genre of Maskandi, Mhlongo delivered one of the finest albums ever to emerge from South Africa, an album that towers above the rest of her recorded work.
Journalist and arts editor Kwanele Sosibo wrote the liner notes for the Urban Zulu reissue. He describes the album as “ensconced in its own, solitary league”.
“This album has an invisible currency; one that marks it as a work of globally relevant social consciousness and yet, uniquely stitched to South Africa’s cultural fabric,” writes Sosibo. “What is undeniable is this recording’s continued seismic impact in the global musical underground, evidenced in no small measure by this reissue for the first time on vinyl, and the ongoing stream of South African singers that proudly identify themselves as being Mhlongo’s musical progeny.”
From Vickie to Busi
The tenth anniversary of Mhlongo’s death on 15 June 2010 recently passed as the world was mourning another artist, Jamaican singer Milly Small. Small’s 1964 recording of the song My Boy Lollipop was a global smash hit. It is this song that would later give a young Busi Mhlongo her big break too.
Born in Inanda near Durban in October 1947 to a mother who was a domestic worker, Mhlongo first began singing in groups led by her older brother. After they won a Gallo Records talent competition hosted in Johannesburg, singing My Boy Lollipop, Mhlongo would go on to record and release the song for Gallo under the stage name Vickie Mhlongo, creating a hit across the continent.
Mhlongo acknowledged during interviews later in life that it was the apartheid censorship of Milly Small’s version of the song that opened up a gap for her localised version.
In 1968 Mhlongo left South Africa to tour Mozambique and Angola with a Portuguese cabaret act. After the tour she traveled to Lisbon in Portugal, spending many years living and performing in Europe.
In the mid-80s, Mhlongo returned to South Africa and formed the band Twasa with the late Robert “Doc” Mthalane. They played to packed houses in Durban, but apartheid South Africa was under the brutal whip of the PW Botha-led National Party and the townships were ablaze with violence.
Mhlongo would leave for Holland in 1988, only returning to South Africa in 1993 to record Babhemu and perform alongside Twasa. This new body of work was a product of her experiences and overseas travels over the years.
While Babhemu is a great album in its own right, it could never have prepared the world for Mhlongo’s follow-up, Urban Zulu.
A career-defining album needs all the stars to align. The artist needs the right producer, the right musicians, the right record label and the right studio. However, the most important element is the songs, and on Urban Zulu Mhlongo delivered knockouts.
Album opener Yehlisani’umoya Ma-Afrika is a perfect example. While the guitars of Mkhalelwa “Spector” Ngwazi and Umfazi Omnyama interlock over a rhythm track laid down by Cameroonian drummer Brice Wassy and bassist Themba “Ntshebe” Ngcobo, Mhlongo delivers an angry, pained plea for the political violence to stop.
Then Mhlongo switches from regional politics to personal politics with Yaphel’ imali Yami, a plea to an uncommunicative lover. Mhlongo’s performance over Ngcobo’s infectious rolling bass line is mesmerising and will leave no listener untouched.
On Uganga nge Ngane, Mhlongo again has the patriarchy in her sights, questioning the power of money in relationships between women and men. It’s a song of fierce resistance, as relevant today as it was in 1998.
“What is clear, even for a cursory listener, is that Mhlongo did more than merely embody the urgency of the album’s lyrical themes,” writes Sosibo. “It was as if she had intuitively willed them into her own consciousness and then transferred them to the listener so they could never be dislodged.”
In the liner notes, producer Will Mowat describes his own “interventionist” impact on the recording of Urban Zulu at Melt 2000’s Brownhill Farm studio.
“I recorded the album with all the musicians and then pulled it apart and rebuilt it,” he recalls.
Mowat says the “jazz intelligence” that Wassy brought to the album was a key element. Mowat says recording the vocals for the album was a painstaking process, where he would record multiple ideas and then use them as a painter would a brush. Mhlongo stated that Mowat had pushed her so hard in studio that he had brought her to tears.
The finished album leaves the listener with no doubt that the stars definitely aligned for Mhlongo on Urban Zulu.
Two more gems
Matsuli Music has two more archival releases this June for South African music fans. Released on the same day as the Urban Zulu reissue is Dudu Pukwana’s 1968 album Dudu Pukwana and the “Spears” and 1971’s Jump Uptight by the Zorro Five.
Pukwana’s debut album, produced by Joe Boyd, was recorded in London, but released only in South Africa. The Zorro Five featured legendary South African jazz guitarist Johnny Fourie alongside bassist Johnny Boshoff, guitarist Archie van der Ploeg, keyboardist Zane Cronje and drummer Tony Moore.
Matsuli Music’s reissue of Dudu Pukwana and “The Spears” has been paired with a second vinyl of mostly unreleased 1969 recordings featuring Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention, Joe Mogotsi from the Manhattan Brothers and Pukwana’s fellow Blue Notes Chris McGregor, Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo. The unreleased recording sessions are great listening and offer up an early version of Andromeda, which would be re-recorded for the 1970 self-titled album by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.
Jump Uptight won Best Beat Group at the 1971 South African Recording Industry Awards, while the lead single Reggae Shhh! was an underground hit in the UK and Italy. It is not hard to see why. The album is jam packed with grooving compositions that are reminiscent of Booker T & the MG’s sound. It also includes the band’s take on Duane Eddy’s Rebel Rouser, slowing the song down to a funky stroll.
Jump Uptight, alongside Urban Zulu and Dudu Pukwana and the “Spears”, now join classic albums by Bheki Mseleku, Johnny Dyani, Batsumi, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Ndikho Xaba and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa on Matsuli Music, which is fast becoming one of the most impressive and important outlets for reissuing great South African music.