By the mid-1960’s, the musical style known as Mbaqanga in South African townships, had become well established. The name was initially given as a derogatory reference to ‘homemade’, its various interpretations relating to a kind of dumpling or porridge. Subsequently, this title has become affectionately appropriate in describing this mixture of all that had come before – from traditional roots to pennywhistle kwela, and through African-American styles of jive and swing.
At this point a vocal element, which drew directly from African-American gospel and soul, was added to the sound.
A couple of local producers spearheaded this movement, by putting together female session vocalists, often accompanied by a male groaner, and presenting these as live performances. To this day this genre is still known as Mbaqanga, but more specifically this vocal style became known as Mqashiyo.
One of these top producers, the late Hamilton Nzimande of GRC achieved overwhelming success with his group Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje [The Modern Girls].
This Mqashiyo vocal group started in late ‘60’s as Hamilton Nzimande’s answer to his rival Rupert Bopape’s Mahotella Queens and eventually managed to overtake them in popularity stakes in the ‘70’s.
It was during this time that the 18-year-old Jane Dlamini became a core member of the group, and to this day she carries the flame of an outfit that has since boomeranged the ‘modern’ girls into a symbol of progressed heritage.
It is through her experience that this legacy can be best exemplified.
Coming from a musical family, Jane’s father was an iscathamiya [Mbube] singer, who attended shows or competitions on Saturday nights. Inspired, he would wake his 9 daughters and 2 sons up on Sunday morning, urging them to sing.
Her mother’s passion as a member of the church choir, led to the formation of a family choir, and with what Jane describes as a family that could “fill a soccer team”, its no wonder they could turn away any other aspirant singers.
Around this time, Jane saw a show featuring the original Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje, led by the legendary Sanah Nguni and through this experience, her own vision came forth…
Coming back to the township, she was impelled to form an Mbaqanga group, which under the direction of the late Mandla Sibiya, became known as The Soweto Queens. As Jane describes: “We wanted to be better than [the already existing] Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje, and the Mahotella Queens… meanwhile we didn’t know anything, we even took their songs and thought we could beat them!”
Ironically, it was her mentor, Sanah Nguni, who saw the Soweto Queens performing at Mofolo Hall, and invited them to join her own newly formed group Sweet Sixteen. Here Jane gained invaluable experience for two years, until in 1970, Hamilton Nzimande urged Sanah to return to Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje, bringing with her, the 18 year old Jane Dlamini.
In 1972, Sanah left the group again, but Jane stayed:
“When they said they’re moving out I said no, I’m not moving and inch, because I love Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje. Even though at this point there was no group – only myself and the background.”
With the strength of this vision, it was no wonder she was soon joined by another three talented maidens, Nobesuthu Shawe [currently a famed Mahotella Queen] Lindiwe Mthembu and Ruth Mafuxane. It was with this core that the group really blossomed, gaining popularity not only at home, but also throughout the continent.
They toured through the neighbouring countries of Swaziland, Botswana and what was then Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]. Through to Malawi, onto Mauritius, and then further to the Ivory Coast and Nigeria. They were also invited to Zambia, by the government as part of a cultural exchange, and performed for President Kaunda himself.
The response was so great that they’d find themselves performing three shows a day – morning, noon and night, for fortnightly periods at a stretch.
As Jane reminisces:
“All over it was wonderful…when you went to a show it was really a show! We can’t rewind ourselves or time, but it was very nice.”
Regardless of the brutal apartheid regime and the barbaric pass-laws, they also performed extensively at home.
Jane describes how, on returning home from a gig in Witbank, a city a few hours from Johannesburg, just before 2am, the group’s bus was stopped by the police, and they were ordered to present their “night special”, a document which they did not have.
They explained that they were just returning from a show, and were subsequently ordered out of the bus, with the police demanding an impromptu performance. At this point they would have to present the entire show, including the dance routines with the accompanied saxophones and guitars. The police would respond with shouts of “repeat, repeat!”
The following weekend, on their way to another gig, now equipped with their
night-passes, and decked out in their fancy white trousers the police van once again approached and demanded identification. After two hours at the Hillbrow police station, they once again had to oblige an ‘exclusive performance’, before being allowed to return to the stadium for their booked show.
All in all, these were regular occurrences and Jane says:
“It was painful, but we didn’t feel it because it was just a part of life…even though we’d danced for nothing, we’d feel happy, and just sing and smile…”
Ultimately, for groups like this from the early 70’s, it was about the love of the music, and Jane describes how: “We never said we must get money… sometimes they would give us nothing. And sometimes if we got R15 each, we’d feel so rich, we could buy mielie meal or something for home.”
But she praises the fact that in those days live performances were supported by numerous recording possibilities and frequent radio airplay, which promoted the groups’ popularity. Unlike these days, where Mbaqanga receives little, if any support from promoters and the media, and this is amplified by an increasingly materialistic culture which, as she says, “rushes into new things”.
Their last album was recorded in 1993, however these days a project like this would have to be self-funded, even though the legacy continues, with the incorporation of young women who’ve approached Jane, asking to be in the band.
With this re-issue of Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje’s archival material, we find a collection of songs that talk of everyday concerns, rooted in a specific period they still manage to express timeless themes of social living and moral responsibility.