National Orders awards
27 September 2005
Mahlathini Simon Nkabinde (1938 - 1999)
The Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze for outstanding contributions in traditional music
Mahlathini Simon Nkabinde – known in the South African popular music industry by his first name Mahlathini – was born at Newcastle in 1938, but grew up in Alexandra Township , the breeding-ground of generations of singers, composers and musicians. One of these was his brother Zeph, who was to found and lead one of the most popular penny-whistle bands of the time.
Mahlathini's musical career started while he was still a teenager, singing in church choirs and leading a traditional choir which performed at township weddings and other celebrations. Then, in the late 1950s, he became involved in the music industry through his brother Zeph, and began to build a reputation not only as a vocalist but also as a unique stage personality. Audiences were instantly wowed by his strong, unforgettable bass voice and enigmatic traditional dance steps.
In 1964 Mahlathini's career took a major step forward when he began recording songs with a group of studio musicians who would later be known as “Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens”, South Africa 's first super-group.
Mahlathini's trademark bass voice, combined with the Mahotella Queens' harmonies and the instrumental backing of the Makgona Tsohle Band, took the country by storm. The group spent the next decade producing hit record after hit record and touring all over Southern Africa in response to an unflagging demand for their music: “mbaqanga”, as it was called, lush and exciting, with a heavy beat, but always linked to its traditions of origin.
The phenomenon came to an end in the mid-1970s, when the Mahotella Queens disbanded so that the band members could pursue their lives outside the band, such as marrying and having children. Then in 1984 the group was revived under conductor-composer-musician West Nkosi .
Although many South Africans had moved on to disco and soul music in the meantime, the group re-ignited interest in the classic “mbaqanga” sound, which now intrigued music-lovers abroad as well, and the group became an international attraction with hit songs such as “Yebo” and Kazet”.
By 1988 their fame was so great that they were invited to perform at the Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert in Britain , which was televised to 60 countries. This concert cemented the group's international reputation, and in 1991 they performed before an audience of 500 000 in New York 's Central Park .
Mahlathini Simon Nkabinde's four decades of music-making ended with his premature death, due to a long-standing diabetic condition, in July 1999. But he will live on in the memories of the thousands of South Africans who were captivated by his unforgettable stage presence. Through the group's many recordings, Nkabinde has bequeathed a priceless cultural gift to generations of South Africans.
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