In 1996 Highlife magazine published a special edition that carried a Toyota-sponsored supplement titled South Africa’s 100 Greatest Musicians of all Time. The list included five decades from the golden era of township jazz in the 1950s to a new, post-apartheid period that was defined by a resurgence of the genre. It was the most impressive hall of fame about local performers ever displayed in print and reflected the rich diversity of homebrewed musical traditions including kwela, sax jive, mgqashiyo, township soul and isicathamiya.
These included pennywhistle pioneer Johannes “Spokes” Mashiyane, mbaqanga royalty Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, alto king himself Kippie “Morolong” Moeketsi, guitar wizard Allen Kwela, vocal harmony group the Woody Woodpeckers
and unsurprisingly, father of township theatre, Gibson Kente also made the list. The selectors had also made an effort for a fair representation of women in the roll of honour, notably Margaret “Lady Africa” Mcingana, Joy (Thoko Ndlozi, Felicia Marion & Anneline Malebo) and Brenda Fassie.
As far as black-and-white images of the Drum decade – the 1950s – are concerned, the picture of Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks is among the most iconic of the era and beyond. It shows four young and gorgeous women, their warm and bright smiles fixed at a Drum photographer. The ladies are Mummy Girl Nketle, Mary Rabotapi, Miriam Makeba and Abigail Kubeka. The lensman could have been Bob “Aerial” Gosani, nephew of Mr Drum himself, Henry Nxumalo. A selection of his jazz photos published in the book, Tauza: Bob Gosani’s People suggests that he could be the one.
Peter Magubane and the late Alf Kumalo are other likely candidates. And one of the three could have been responsible for this lesser known version of the Skylarks – photographed in 1964 at the old Gallo studios on corner of President and Troye Street, downtown Johannesburg.
From left the line-up is Mary Rabotapi, Viccie (later Busi) Mhlongo, Abigail Kubeka and Letta Mbulu. In 1964 King Kong was now history, Makeba was five years into exile in the United States, the continent’s first international star. However, back home a new generation of songbirds was making their mark. After Makeba’s departure in 1959, she was replaced by Letta Mbulu, at the time a seventeen-year-old singing sensation who was her understudy at King Kong.
Born to a singing mother on 24 September 1943 in Umzinto, KwaZulu-Natal and raised in Orlando East, Soweto, at the age of twelve Letta was already performing and winning talent contests with the vocal harmony sextet, the Swanky Spots. One of its founding members, James Mabena had noticed her talent and recruited her to the group. On the other hand, she was exposed to a number of strong role models of women singers – notably Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, the Dark City Sisters, Dorothy Masuku and Nomonde Sihawu, among others. The success of the Swanky Spots caught the attention of talent scouts after they took first prize at a talent contest organised by Union Artists in 1957.
They were subsequently recruited into African Jazz and Variety, a touring revue of concerts produced by a show promoter named Alfred Herbert. And that’s how Letta Mbulu and the Swanky Spots eventually hit the big time with King Kong, a trailblazing jazz opera and a global success based on the life and times of legendary heavyweight boxer, Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini. In December 1964 she would eventually follow in the footsteps of Mama Africa and her husband, Caiphus Semenya as an exile in the United States where she achieved global recognition before returning to her homeland in the early nineties.
The fact that her name is misspelled Mbuli speaks volumes about women entertainers and patriarchal attitudes among journalists and music industry executives. She says reporters seldom bothered to double check spellings of names with their female subjects.
White executives could change a black female artist’s name at the drop of a hat if they thought that her name wouldn’t roll easily on European tongues. Margaret Singana who was born Mcingana is a classic example. On the other hand, an African artist who was raised with a European name could affirm her African roots by dropping that name in favour of her African one. This became a common practice during the black consciousness era – the seventies. With regard to the caption, it explains why the Viccie Mhlongo of 1964 returned to the land of her birth in the nineties as Busi Mhlongo, the urban Zulu and queen of maskanda. She was born Victoria Busisiwe Mhlongo on 28 October 1947 in Inanda, Durban. When this image was taken, the vivacious singer had just arrived in the big city.
The youngest in the line-up, she was only seventeen in 1964 but had already achieved some modest entertainment experience in her hometown with groups such as the Durbanites and Gallo Kids. Sam Alcock, renowned talent scout at Gallo had brought her to Johannesburg with her brother Ndaba Mhlongo, Simon Mabunu Sabela and Doreen Webster because he felt that they could be involved in a production that could emulate King Kong. That was not to be but her brother went on to become a household name on Gibson Kente’s stage musicals and a popular comic actor in township films while Mabunu Sabela’s name and face had come to symbolise the black South African cinema.
Doreen Webster attained international fame as lead performer in Ipi’ Tombi, a 1970s spectacular hit musical on London’s West End. What is interesting about this version of the Skylarks is that Busi Mhlongo was never a member of the illustrious all-female group, a fact that the compilers of the top 100 list probably didn’t know. According to Letta Mbulu and Abigail Kubeka – the spelling that she prefers based on her Swazi roots – on the day of the shoot Mhlongo was also in the studio while another member, Mummy Girl Nketle was absent. She was invited as a guest artist and asked to pose with the rest.
Kubeka recalls that the music they recorded on that day with Letta Mbulu as lead singer was simply exceptional in terms of sonic beauty and quality. Sadly, the album was never released and Gallo never bothered to explain why. Meanwhile Mhlongo got involved in a number of recording projects with several high profile musicians like Gideon Nxumalo at Dorkay House. She was cast in Gibson Kente’s first play, Manana the Jazz Prophet. In 1966 she married fellow musician and drummer, Early Mabuza.
She subsequently headlined several jazz festivals across the country until 1968 when she left the country with the revue, African Jazz for Lourenco Marques (Maputo) in Mozambique. That was her gateway to Portugal and eventually other parts of the world. For the next twenty years the “My Boy Lollipop” singer lived and worked in countries such as the United States, Britain and the Netherlands. Her album, Babhemu (1994) was released in Holland by Munich Records and subsequently listed among the top ten World Music albums in Europe. It was then released in South Africa to critical acclaim under the Sheer Sound label.
The Skylarks were definitely not the original girlie group in the history of South African music but they were certainly the most successful, at least with regard to record sales. Nomonde Sihawu, Johanna Radebe, Mizpah Makeba (Miriam’s sister) and Helen van Rensburg were also members at some stage in the group’s seldom told story. A number of male musicians were also involved in the vocal ensemble’s success, notably the king of kwela, Spokes Mashiyane and bass singer, Sam Ngakane. His golden voice is more remarkable in Skylarks classics like Live Humble and the melancholic Miriam’s Goodbye to Africa.
Sihawu wrote Nomalungelo (1958), a hit song she recorded with the Skylarks as co-lead singer. It resurfaced four decades later as Thanayi, still a hit but only bigger. It’s the third track in Hugh Masekela’s landmark album Sixty, released in 1999. The song features another female singer, Thandiswa Mazwai in a poignant act of passing on this rich musical legacy to a new generation of female singers.
After 1964 Mary Rabotapi joined Gallo’s Mavuthela stable as an mbaqanga singer with a number of mbaqanga groups at the behest of legendary producer, Rupert Bopape. Mary was one of the original members of the Mahotella Queens but in 1970 after the death of her partner Sam Alcock, she quit showbiz to focus on raising her two children. Rabotapi passed away in 2010 at 72.
At a golden eighty, the forever elegant and ageless Abigail Kubeka is the veteran queen of jazz and the cabaret circuit with an illustrious career in film and television. Busi Mhlongo died in 2010 at 63 after suffering from breast cancer while Letta Mbulu is still involved in music with her husband, Caiphus Semenya from their Johannesburg home.
In the final analysis, it’s all thanks to Andrew Molefe. The late editor and publisher of Highlife magazine was a brilliant and passionate chronicler of South African music. His sense of the epic narrative delivered in irreverent style and earthy prose is lucidly illustrated in this top 100 list.