Mbaqanga: Your Daily Bread

We’re sticking with our music theme of the last week or two, but this time with a focus on mbaqanga.

With its roots in the 1960s, mbaqanga is a style of music with a number of different influences. At a very simplistic level it can be described as an African style of jazz, with western instruments accompanied by African vocals. It’s a sound that matured in the shebeens of South African townships, most notably those found in Sophiatown, which during the ’50s and ’60s was a hotbed of musical creativity, producing some of South Africa’s most famous writers, musicians and artists before forced removals destroyed the area.

Many mbaqanga scholars consider mbaqanga to be a mix of marabi and kwela, both genres also heavily influenced by American jazz and swing, with marabi a keyboard style of music, and kwela focusing more on the pennywhistle. The traditional Zulu ‘war dance’ of indlamu also features prominently in mbaqanga performances, with dancers lifting their legs high over their heads, and then bringing them down with a thud, adding to the rhythm of the music.

Simon Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens
Simon Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens

Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde is probably South Africa’s best known mbaqanga musician. Known as the ‘Lion of Soweto’, Nkabinde’s deep-voiced groaning style came to symbolize mbaqanga music in the 1960s. Originally an isicathamiya singer, Nkabinde’s voice became strained as he entered adulthood and was reduced to a low growl. Initially Nkabinde’s parents thought he had been ‘witched’, and took him to see a sangoma. When the healer provided the simple explanation that Nkabinde was only growing up, Nkabinde’s parents put their minds at rest.

Nkabinde joined the kwela group, Alexandra Black Mambazo, (from which the Ladysmith isicathamiya choir would later take its name), before signing with the the ‘black music’ division of EMI. Despite achieving both local and international success – Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens were among the artists playing at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988 – Nkabinde was relatively poor when in July 1999, at the age of 61, he passed away as a result of complications from diabetes.

Visit Electric Jive to read more about the father of mbaqanga music, and to listen to some of Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde’s greatest performances.

P.S. In Zulu, the word mbaqanga refers to cornmeal porridge, with the inference being that mbaqanga provides a staple form of musical and spiritual sustenance, a ‘musical daily bread’ if you like

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