Royal voices three

The Mahotella Queens know hardship, though their full, sweet voices are like a trio of joyous bells.

In the early 1960s, the group Mahlathini and The Mahotella Queens surfaced in urban South Africa, a light in the dark, dark years of apartheid. Backed by the Makgona Tsothle Band (“The Band Who Knows Everything”), the group almost singularly evolved the exalting mbaquanga genre, pitting different forms of traditional music against marabi (South African jazz) and American R&B and gospel.

The Queens (Hilda Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu) took a hiatus in the ’70s, reuniting with the band during the next decade. And once again, those glorious harmonies were bolstering up bull-frog voiced Simon Nkabinde Mahlathini (aka “The Lion of Soweto”), and gliding atop the trend-setting guitar of Marks Mankwane (thank him for that tinkling Graceland sound).

But tragedy struck hard in 2000, with the back-to-back deaths of Mahlathini, Mankwane and multi-instrumentalist/band director West Nkosi.

Following a period of mourning, The Mahotella Queens have returned to performing in full, glorious voice: The funky, reggae-flavored album Sebai Bai (Harmonia Mundi, 2003) showcases their uncanny, unstoppable exuberance.

Fans of world music, take note: These amazing ladies are a must-see.

— Frank Rabey

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