They have spent the last fifty years playing and singing from the soul of South Africa and its people, but they still the energy to jump on stage and dance like if they were young girls.
During their fifty years of performing the Mahotella Queens have become one of the most sincere and radiant faces of their country. Since 1964, when they started to accompany Mahlathini, the Queens have helped spread the Soweto-born musical style called mbaqanga, and they haven’t stopped since, reaching the four corners of the world.
This year, after touring those four corners, they called by at the Siam Tent in Charlton Park to cheer WOMAD’s audience with one of their usual outstanding performances. We had the honour of interviewing the trio minutes after their show. We began our interview in the same way that they introduced their concert, talking with Amanda Nkosi (the youngest member of the trio) about Nelson Mandela, one of their main inspirations.
“Nelson Mandela will forever live in South Africa and South Africans’ memory, and every year in July we commemorate his life. He was a great man who taught us a lot, especially about the spirit of Ubuntu, which is the spirit of humanity in a give and take situation. We will forever cherish him, and his legacy will live forever.”
Mahotella Queens’ music and their way of singing is a direct message of Mandela’s words.
“In South Africa, the way you sing is also the way you convey your messages to the world. So we want to show people the integrity and humanity of Mandela, because he touched the soul of many people in our country.”
Hilda Tloubatla, the leader of the band since 1964, was really keen to add:
“Mandela was a man full of love. He was imprisoned by white men for 27 years.
However, when he was released he still decided to include white people in the reconciliation process. One side can’t do anything without the other, while together we can make it indefinitely!”
Like Mandela, the Mahotella Queens’ are today an icon of South Africa. Their talent has been recognised worldwide. However, South Africa still is still closest to their hearts. Hilda told us:
“South Africa has lately changed a lot and things have changed a lot. We are finally living together with white people and there’s no more segregation. But now, ever since we took over the country, we are living together. Our lives are going differently because of that!”
The South African music scene has changed a lot too during last decades. But, in the band leader’s words, not necessarily for the better.
“The young generation is so much taken up with pop music. It happens all over the world and South Africa is no exception. In South Africa young guys are too much into Western styles of music. They try to copy it, and that’s when they’re damaging the whole music thing because in this way they’re ignoring their own culture and taking somebody else’s culture. This thing is turning around, because our music is so much appreciated internationally. Also at home it is still listened by old people, while the young are messing up the whole thing. They would be shocked and amazed to see how the young artists from England and America are coming over to South Africa for our music”.
Hilda also gave us a practical example. She mentioned a band which was going to play few hours later at WOMAD on the Ecotricity stage.
“We recently played in London with a band called Count Drachma: three white guys playing zulu music. They were playing our music and they were white!
Can you see what I am saying? South African guys are going to be shocked!”
At the same time there are still some brave musicians who want to preserve South African tradition. Amanda, herself from the younger generation, defended her generation’s cause.
“I’m young, but I grew up listening to Mahotella’s music not knowing that one day I’d be performing with them. This music still has the same impact on me as it did the first time I listened to it. So even if we are a minority there are still some who respect and love their musical roots, who the musicians are and where they come from”.
Hilda promptly added:
“When young people see Amanda singing with us, when they see a 29 year-old young lady singing this music, some of them are finally starting realizing that they are messing things up and they follow her example.”
So we asked Amanda what the young generation can add to a meaningful music style like mbaqanga and what her contribution to the Mahotella Queens project is. When she answered her voice was full of reverence for her sisters in music and the significance of the genre they play:
“I can only bring my energy and my spirit to mbaqanga. Also I feel that when years go by, I don’t want to change anything or try to make mbaqanga music different. I’m just going to leave it the way it is. That’s because I believe that if you want to know where you are going, you need to know where you come from. So I will always keep singing my music in this way, because there are a lot of people who still appreciate it abroad and in South Africa too.”
It’s the love of their country which helps Mahotella Queens keep going with mbaqanga music after so many years. Amanda was really transparent about that:
“Since we receive so much love from our audience and have just been recognized for an award from the Cape Town Jazz Festival with the support of our President and PMs, we have understood that mbaqanga is still relevant and it is definitely here to stay. It our heritage!”
Another secret behind their success is the appeal they have abroad. We tried to understand through their words whether they have ever tried to discover what people outside South Africa feel when they listen to their music. Hilda, after years spent enthralling fans all over the world easily explained that:
“People abroad can see the difference between their music and ours. The beat itself is the main difference, and people are engaged by our beat: they simply love it.
Then there are the dances that we do. Each choreography is different. These are the most important things, the beat of the songs and its choreography”.
In their career Hilda, Nobesuthu and more recently Amanda have spread different but always inspiring messages, and Womad’s stage was no exception:
“Through our music we want to spread a message of love. The Mahotella Queens have been together for 50 years, doing shows since 1964 because we love each other. Hence, the message we want to send through our songs and dances is love more than everything else”.