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If you had black skin during the mid-1960s in South Africa, the white government kept you penned in by apartheid. Social fence posts were connected by nothing: no schooling, no money, and no representation in government. Captives in their own country, black South Africans made do on nothing, scraping together ground beans and all flavors of edible things from the earth to make a type of bread called mbquanga. With no formal training, three South African women scraped together all flavors of musical styles from the earth -- township jazz, mbube a capella, zydeco, rhythm and blues -- to make a musical style they named after the bread. They would be called the Mahotella Queens, and mbquangawould become the country's leading musical style, influencing bands like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Zap Mama.
"I have the strong belief that music comes from Africa," vocalist Hilda Tloubatla says. "Africans are born musicians. This is how God blessed Africans, even African-Americans. We've always believed in music... it's how our forefathers lived during apartheid. Even in the olden days, our great-grandfathers used to live through music. You would find them gathering around the fire and singing."
Tloubatla has called in from the Northwest days after arriving in the States. With an average age of 59, the Mahotella Queens are on a short tour supporting a CD they recorded in 2001 called Sebai Bai. Per usual, the tour will include a large backup band, colorful costumes in the South African tradition (beaded necklaces, raffia-fringed skirts), and dancing that the Mahotella Queens choreographed and will perform themselves. To commemorate the first anniversary of Fort Lauderdale's African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, they will present a program on their music, lives, and South African culture.
Tloubatla was only 22 when the group formed in 1964. She and bandmates Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu toured the African continent with musical legends Mahlathini, Marks Mankwane, and West Nikosi. Playing to sold-out crowds, the Mahotella Queens became one of the biggest acts in South Africa, but the group was little wealthier than those who came to hear them. Tloubatla remembers, "We were ripped off a lot of money because we knew nothing, so the white guys took advantage of it."
Not that money would have made much of a difference on the road. "Until 1994, we were not even allowed to perform in white areas or sleep in hotels. We would have to sleep in the truck or the van right in the bushes. Or we would ask for accommodations in people's houses."
Still, Tloubatla says the musicians felt grateful for their success. "We enjoyed it. Because there was nothing else you could do."
During apartheid, the Mahotella Queens appeased the wounds of black South Africans with the balm of music inspired by personal experience and became anti-apartheid champions in the process. In Africa, more than anyplace else in the world, musicians are warriors, brave souls who have used song to fend off death, evil, and sadness since the beginning of recorded time. Like warriors, the Mahotella Queens decided to continue their efforts even after the deaths of their comrades Mahlathini, Mankwane, and Nikosi in 2000.
Almost 30 years after the group formed, the women looked to a pool of younger, educated, and "modern" male musicians to fill the void. Many of these young men would, after being invited into the band, try to run things, Tloubatla says. As such, it took a few recastings for the Queens to find new musicians who would respect the trio's work ethic. They completed Sebai Baiin 2001.
"Now, there is nobody who really tells us what to do. We take care of ourselves," explains Tloubatla, who the group acknowledges as the leader. "I am very much careful. We are now very much awake."
That awakened consciousness is reflected in the title track of Sebai Bai. According to Tloubatla, "Sebai Bai" is the name of an only child who inherited all of her parents' wealth. "The song is warning her that men will come running and say that they love you for your money. All in all, we're giving a wake-up call to each and every woman that men can rob you of your money. The next thing, when your money's finished, he'll leave you."
As one of the few women in South Africa to be a public figure since the 1960s, Tloubatla is outspoken regarding the injustice of women's plight in forced traditional gender roles. "It used to be, days after having the baby, you were expected to get up, cook, clean, look after the man, dish out for him. You would work all day, and then the man would come home, and you would still be expected to work. My God," Tloubatla exclaims. "It was too much! Men have ruled women for so long. It's only now that we realize that this was real slavery."
It is the verve of self-sufficiency and optimism that drives the Mahotella Queens, who fight even in the September of their years. Dedicated to Mahlathini, Mankwane, and Nikosi, Sebai Baiis 13 tracks sung mostly in South African dialect to rally the people of South Africa. But the liner notes include French and English explanations of each track:
"This vigorous Mbquanga summons up the climate of insecurity that currently reigns in the great cities of Southern Africa..."
"This a cappella song is a call for unity and reconciliation in the new South Africa..."
"This wonderful a cappella in the great Mbube tradition... speaks to the women of Africa and encourages them to not give up."
As a black woman raised in South Africa during apartheid, Tloubatla fears neither sexism nor racism on the group's current American tour but confronts a new and universal prejudice: "For the people who saw this group during the olden days when the guys were still alive, the group is still the same with young boys behind us with their guitars. It's like we are 20 years old," says Tloubatla from her hotel room. "It's only the beginning."
The music of the Mahotella Queens is not a cultural artifact for Americans to appreciate from the remoteness of their theater seats. Something can be gained from the optimism of South Africans and their art. "Whenever there is something like war or something that is really disturbing people, you don't have to take it into consideration," Tloubatla offers. "Even now in South Africa, there is a lot of AIDS and drugs... things that never used to be there. We pretend like life is still the same, because, if you have to sit down and think about it all the time, you won't be able to go along with life. This is how we managed to live through apartheid. This is how we are still managing to live."