The Once and Future Queens

The Mahotella Queens are back on the road.

The ecstatic singing of the Mahotella Queens is the sound of life. Coalescing in the 1960s alongside South Africa's nascent anti-apartheid movement, the trio's mbaqanga style (literally, "a home-cooked dumpling") rose above the ugly political strife. The Queens became both the country's favorite dance band and symbols of the racial struggle.

"From the beginning in South Africa through apartheid, we couldn't perform for white audiences," explains Hilda Tloubatla during a tour break in West Virginia. "So when we started playing internationally, the only difference was that we started performing for white people. It was beautiful. They were asking why the government didn't allow us to perform in white areas."

The Mahotella Queens (Tloubatla, Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu) based their sound on the township jive vocal style that also spawned Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Contrasting the solo voice with a chorus of complex vocal harmonies, the Mahotella Queens worked up a melange of traditional and contemporary styles. In 1965, legendary South African producer West Nkosi teamed them with singer Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde, the "Lion of Soweto." Mahlathini provided a growling basso profundo counterpoint to their angelic harmonies. Elaborate choreography and colorful native costumes enhanced their live performances and are still a centerpiece of their shows.

"Our music is genuine," Tloubatla asserts. "It's something good to listen to. We've got a most beautiful music. We believe we are born with the whole spirit of it."

After a decade on the road, they disbanded to marry and raise families. They regrouped with Mahlathini in 1986 to meet the post-Graceland demand for African music. They are currently touring with a four-piece band of young musicians.

"When you see us, you're not going to believe that we are now in our 50s, Tloubatla says jubilantly. "It's like we're in our 20s. It's like we only started yesterday. We love this music. It keeps us young and strong every time. We are only beginning."

Sadness has touched their lives, however, with the death of Nkosi in 1998, followed by Mahlathini's death in 1999. Those events should have diminished the group. Instead, the Mahotella Queens redefined themselves and kept on singing, stronger than ever. In a review of their latest album, Sebai Bai, BBC Music Magazine praised the trio for "having kept township music in the international ear" and admired that they "seem to have made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra."

Tloubatla notes, "The first shows that we did after Mahlathini's death, it was so difficult because we could still hear his voice in our ears. It was really, really difficult. But all in all, we had to say, 'Life must go on. They have passed away and there is no way that they can come back and play for us again. We have to get used to this.'"