How mbaqanga shaped Bulawayo’s cultural life

The other music genre that was exported by South Africa just when rumba was finding its way into east and southern Africa was mbaqanga, which means soft porridge in Zulu.
Just like kwela music, mbaqanga was a result of South African shebeen culture in the 1960s.
Unlike kwela, which relied mainly on the pennywhistle, mbaqanga had quite some instruments like jazz.
Music researchers believe that mbaqanga was a direct creation of marabi and kwela.
Author and music researcher, David Coplan in his piece titled “Sounds of the Third Way: Identity and the African Renaissance in Contemporary South African Popular Traditional Music” published in the Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 21. No 1 in 2001 says mbaqanga music as ‘musical daily bread’ for the artists who could neither make it in the urban area where kwela was big nor in the village where traditional music was popular.
The South African Information website for tourists describes mbaqanga as “the cyclic structure of marabi with a heavy dollop of American big band swing thrown on top”.
This is a fast beat accompanied by equally fast vocals. Most mbaqanga groups had three or four female singers and one male vocalist.
The first group to popularise mbaqanga was Makgona Tsohle Band led by West Nkosi that was made up of domestic workers in Pretoria.
Apart from Nkosi, there was Joseph Makwela and Lucky Monama. Initially, the group was called Pretoria Tower Boys. The three later relocated to Johannesburg in 1962 where they played as part of Gallo Record Company’s session musicians together with Reggie Msomi’s Hollywood Jazz band.
In 1963, Msomi toured the then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where the group was held up for six months because of a tense political situation.
On their return to South Africa, the group found that their sessions at Gallo had been taken over by Bopape who had been tasked to set up a label for black music – the Mavuthela Music Company.
Nkosi, Makwela and Monama joined Bopape’s boys – Vivian Ngubane and Marks Mankwane – who later became the Makgona Tsohle Band under the stewardship of Bopape.
Mankwane, the first known black South African to play an electric guitar, was a deft performer whose up-tempo style gave birth to mbaqanga.
This group also backed up one of the man who later rose to be mbaqanga and simanje manje’s greatest ever artist – Simon Nkabinde and his Mahotella Queens.
Other major groups and artists who played mbaqanga were the late Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Letta Mbulu.
In fact, Nkabinde earned himself the nickname the Lion of Soweto because of his growls during performances.
Mbaqanga made its way into the then Southern Rhodesia where it found roots in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city where the Ndebeles who speak a language similar to Zulu stay.
Unlike in the then Salisbury (now Harare) Bulawayo’s culture had a lot in common with most South African townships.
Shebeens in Bulawayo meant that South African music had to be the order of the day.
It is also important to point out that Bulawayo never real caught on to the rumba fever the way the then Salisbury did.
The few Congolese rumba groups that set up base in the country were comfortable in the then Salisbury and other smaller towns such as Umtali (now Mutare).
Even kwela was more popular in Bulawayo than it was in Salisbury. In any case, the shebeen culture, which spawned kwela music, was also very alive in Bulawayo.
Once in Bulawayo, mbaqanga was taken up by youthful groups that included the Cool Four and the Golden Delicious Rhythm Crooners in the early 1950s.
A star born of this mbaqanga explosion in Bulawayo was the crooner, Dorothy Masuka, who later left school to pursue a music career in South Africa.
Masuka wrote the internationally acclaimed song “Pata Pata” that was made famous by Makeba.
When the war of liberation for Zimbabwe started, the two groups disbanded with some of the members leaving for Zambia to join the struggle.
Today, the remnants of the Cool Four and the Golden Delicious Rhythm Crooners got together to form the Cool Crooners, which is still very active and has had several tours internationally.

April 2013
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