Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens [extended]

  • Izibani Zomgqashiyo [Shanachie, 1986] A-
  • The Lion of Soweto [Earthworks/Virgin, 1987] B+
  • Thokozile [Earthworks/Virgin, 1988] A-
  • Paris-Soweto [Celluloid, 1988] A
  • You're Telling Tales [Shanachie, 1990] B+
  • Rhythm and Art [Shanachie, 1990] Dud
  • Marriage Is a Problem [Shanachie, 1990] Dud
  • The Lion Roars [Shanachie, 1991] **
  • Mbaqanga [Verve World, 1992] Dud
  • King of the Groaners [Earthworks, 1993] A-
  • Women of the World [Shanachie, 1993] Dud
  • Stoki Stoki [Shanachie, 1996] **
  • Music Inferno: The Indestructible Beat Tour 1988-1989 [Umsakazo/Gallo, 2023] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Mahotella Queens: Izibani Zomgqashiyo [Shanachie, 1986]
Associated in an earlier incarnation with Mahlathini, a woman-group trademark gets the billing on this 1977 album, but various kings get the good parts, groaning or just singing lead calls or embellished responses on every one of these reported hits. This is mbaqanga at its catchiest. The structures are varied just enough to keep you on your toes, and the beat is indomitably alive. A-

Mahlathini: The Lion of Soweto [Earthworks/Virgin, 1987]
Recorded in the late '70s, with tough mgqashiyo mbaqanga out of favor among cultural as well as assimilationist blacks, this proves Mahlathini's staunch loyalty to the style he originated, his total lack of alternatives, or both. The notes say its "refusal to compromise" delivers "Mahlathini at his very peak"; I say that without Makgona Tsohle and the Mahotella Queens it sounds almost as generic as late Toots, even though (and probably because) the man carries the lion's share of the music himself. But I'll add that the glosses make me wish I could follow along more closely. A city "where women have got no mothers," a challenge to witch doctors, and a greeting to the spirit of his own youth all seem to transgress ever so slightly against the traditionalism that is mbaqanga's chief strength and most daunting limitation. Good. B+

Thokozile [Earthworks/Virgin, 1988]
The great groaner's 1983 reunion with his greatest backup groups--not just the Queens, returned to the life after a decade of domesticity, but Makgona Tsohle, featuring nonpareil guitarist Marks Mankwane and ubiquitous saxophonist-producer West Nkosi--culminates for the nonce in this 1986 showcase. Not counting "I Wanna Dance," exactly the sort of "disco" that's supposed to be against his principles, it's unexceptionably indestructible, bottomless baritone flexed inexorably against stout sopranos, with Mankwane's licks and Nkosi's pennywhistle darting like traffic up top. Professional dance music at its finest and roughest. A-

Paris-Soweto [Celluloid, 1988]
He no longer sings as goatishly or as much, which is a loss, but until someone compiles his best-of, this will be proof he deserves one. The songs are new, many with far from embarrassing English verses and hooks you swear you've heard before, but it's production values that make it his first export album to soar. Soukous audio gives the beat bite. Strong support--not just Makgona Tsohle and the Queens, but West Nkosi second-stringers Amaswazi Emvelo--helps carry that weight. And I bet they took the time to get it right, too--blessed by the relief of a European tour, they waited till the spirit was more than willing. A

Mahlathini and Amaswazi Emvolo: You're Telling Tales [Shanachie, 1990]
Mbqanga maestro West Nkosi long ago commandeered the above-named male vocal combo to inject Swazi traditions into his basically Zulu product. They're movers on Mahlathini's definitive Paris-Soweto, and get numerous leads and writing credits on this robust exercise as well. The track where their backing resembles barking will frighten Arsenio. B+

Rhythm and Art [Shanachie, 1990] Dud

Mahotella Queens: Marriage Is a Problem [Shanachie, 1990] Dud

The Lion Roars [Shanachie, 1991]
for his supper ("Masole A Banana," "Amaqhawe Omgqashiyo") **

Mbaqanga [Verve World, 1992] Dud

Mahlathini: King of the Groaners [Earthworks, 1993]
Powered by studio stalwarts who know their own strength, the music he's aimed for since his early-'80s comeback has been a runaway train, as unwithstandable as a prime metal anthem. And the late-'70s stuff on The Lion of Soweto often seems despondently formulaic. This early-'70s music is spare, exploratory, feeling its cornmeal--always less luxurious than the songs of his maturity, sometimes more fun. And let's hear it for Alfius Madlokovu, whose bass has strings. A-

Mahotella Queens: Women of the World [Shanachie, 1993] Dud

Stoki Stoki [Shanachie, 1996]
after 30 years, not everything (or everywho) they used to be ("Ilamba Lidlile," "Umgqashiyo") **

Music Inferno: The Indestructible Beat Tour 1988-1989 [Umsakazo/Gallo, 2023]
For 35 years, my go-to Mahlathini album not counting the classic multi-artist Indestructible Beat of Soweto comp itself (which you should buy first if for some reason you haven't already), has been the 10-track live Paris-Soweto. Recorded entirely in England and mostly in London, which gives Simon Nkabinde a chance to utilize the spoken English any Black South African knows enough to get a handle on, this belated 15-track sampler includes only six Paris-Soweto songs, and comes across somewhat sharper not just sonically but performance-wise--there's thumping and soaring, discipline and byplay, a whistle here and a saxophone there, queens adding byplay as well as support, and liner notes so encyclopedic they cry out for a magnifying glass. The epochal how-low-can-you-go groaner died at 61 in 1999. But he remains an artist to to be marveled at and a spiritual force to help you do so. A