The Original Queen B

An ode to Busi Mhlongo, the South African singer, composer and danger.

Image via Bongani Madondo.

The writer, Bongani Madondo, who has been spending a lot of time with the singer, dancer and composer, Busi Mhlongo, sent us a long “conversational piece,” the first of three that he is “sharing with the world on Busi.” Bongani plans to bring out a book on Mhlongo’s career, “… a coffee table/hard book, with a working title: VoodooChild: Pictorial & Textual Essays On The Zulu Rock Queen. It would cover a wide set of themes, including on Busi “… as a rock/blues figure, feminism, style, healing the healer, the art of performance, aesthetics, liberatry lyrical writing, etc.”  For more on Bongani and his work: Go here, here, here and here). What follows is part status update on Busi’s health, confessional, music appreciation, and also very personal. Update: Busi Mhlongo passed away on June 15, 2010 – [Sean Jacobs]


“Sis Vicky” is, I reckon. fighting a very succesfull battle considering herstory with cancer going back a good 35 years ago.

The present flourish and resurgence, is the fourth in the battle after she successfully kicked it off in 1974 when she briefly lived in the US.

Her second was shortly after or before the release of Urban Zulu late 1998, then 2005 which she revealed in an exclusive and Most
Personal Ever Interview she has done internationally, which I happened to have conducted and wrote as a cover piece for the Lifestyle Section of the Sunday Times, my last mainstream gig.

We all thought she has managed to defeat that flourish as well or restricted it to one part, especially after she lost her breast in the interventionist chemo operation she undertook.

She had called me to drive six hours to Durban to witness, so she instructed over the phone in that soft but forceful voice, her “last” a performance ever alive, at the Bat Centre, for she thought she might not ever perform ever again after that.

By then -2005- I had already seen and travelled with her to , say over 150 performances locally and beyond South Africa over a ten year period.

The world famous Mahotella Queens opened for her and then immediately resettled themselves on the outer wings of the stage, where I spied on them hugging each other, eyes almost popping out of their sockets, eyes glued to the stage where the healer-diva Busi was conducting her high octane libation, via Princess Magogo, P-Funk and Igor Stravinsky 101.

Even her back up singers shrieked like abangoma or how Rick James would have shrieked had he explored his inner Zulu-healer initiate.

A few minutes into her second set, one of the Mahotella Queens, the veteran Hilda Tloubata and Nobesuthu Masombuka practically burst into tears; one full on and the other suppressed sobs…I have never seen anything like that before.

Well, that’s a lie.

Something akin to that happened, at least three times since Busi Mhlongo’s Live performances fell on my personal obsession’s time watch.

The most memorable one, happened fifteen years ago …

Fresh in Jozi, and making a name as a go-to-hatchet man on around the age of 23 or thereabouts, the Live SABC News feed anchor asked me to do a running commentary when Busi first performed at her debut album “Bhabemu” [ Sheer Sounds Records] at the Civic Theatre, Johannesburg.

In fact, for history’s sake, this was a marriage of the “Firsts” in more ways than any of us realised then.

Looking back: it was the fledgling company’s launch, Busi was the label’s first ever signing;”Bhabemu” was the artist’s first full album since she’s started performing professionally 35 years earlier!

Also, on a less significant scale, it was at this chance meeting and, that the young man from Hammanskraal bundus and the artists, who had just arrived back in the country after and on/off 25 year self imposed exile in Portugal, London, Netherlands, USA and Canada, first connected.

Am glad to say, it’s been fifteen years now, since we’ve been stirring this “muthaship” through challenging musical, and overlaps of mother-son seas, often threatening to overlap and blur the son’s critical observation’s

As it turned out: none has been so critical, so direct, so naysaying [ best example, I gave the Hugh Masekela produced album “Freedom” a huge thumbs down, publicly] and exposed the insincerity and duplicitous behaviour on the use of weed/dagga, again in print.

For me it was a simple choice and not a moral one: if she wanted to smoke in peace, well let her say so and let her do it, than say to society she’s quit, when basically, she has made it impossible to live her life without weed.

If it is good for her well, so be it.

Also, we had loooooong discussions and differences on how the impact of her then not-so-great relationship with her daughter was impacting on her inner peace and, alternately her illness with the disease.

Our “relationship” was not made of disputes, all the time though: A good 80% we basically saw, listened to and interpreted music and artists
in an eerily the same manner, impossible though it might be.

The deal breaker was how surprised I was that she was as obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and Bootsy, as I was.

Her eyes popped out when she got it that I am hopelessly in awe of the Senegalese cat Thione Seck, Joni Mitchell , Santana and Ali Farka Toure as she was.

She taught me the art and calming breath-in-breath out technique of listening to Eve Cassidy, and Edith Piaff, I reconnected her to Bob Dylan, shared with her the cultuarl capital of Massive Attack, the classical similarities between Nusrat Ali Khan’s Sufi-Pop Qawalis and Peter Frampton’s talking guitar.

We both listened to Moses Molelekwa and Osibisa [which she once fronted as a lea singer] and planned and even went on to scribble sheets of notes on a joint collaboration we wanted to do with Moses Molelekwa.

At different times we shared small talk on how we wished to o or hop along Cassandra Wilson’s “Last Train To Clarksville” but both agreed The Monkeys version was tighter,

We exchanged Prince’s albums in the way the young guns now exchange MP3’s and blooth Rihana’s “Umbrella” to death . . .

We gossiped about whether it was alright for Sam Cooke’s brothers to beat the daylights out of Bobby Womack once it got clear he was down with his mentor, Cooke’s, ex-wife, and even better, debated if Womack’s music “125th Street” is not the Blues, then what it is.

We explored the sort of biblical love and ADORATION Janis Joplin had for Jimi, and if indeed the reason why she OD’d under a week of Jimi’s death had anything to do with that love, or was it just rock’n roll’s blues wretchedness?

It should be said that Busi Mhlongo was also a huge fan and encouraged a lot of young ones such as Thandiswa [“Ucimpi” in the second Baambatha album.”], Simphiwe Dana [the raw-vocals on “Zandisile], Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground, and a whole lot of others.

But she reserved the greatest respect for a mixture of the dearly departed and alive:

Letta Mbulu [alive, really impacted on her] Sophie Mncgina, Margaret Singana [Mcingana], Sipho Gumede, and the entire pantheon of KwaZulu Natal’s maskandi top marksmen: Mfaz’Omnyama, Sandile Shange, Baba Mokoena, Shugela of Phuzikhemisi and Shugela fame, Phuzikhemisi, and her fellow band members, some of whom co-composed tracks on “Urban Zulu”, like Spector Ngwazi, Themba and Ngcobo.

Like all sages and alchemists in years yonder, Busi was the ultimate fan. Which means, she knew a blast of talent when confronted with one. In Hip-Hop parlance “real knows real.”

Usually, we would play all these other artists music a good 11 hours of the day or whatever parts of night we would catch by the tail. Nobody hates listening to her own music on the stereo than Busi, though that should be ascribed to her shyness and retiring nature than anything.

Often, sensing we were both treading on the rather darker side of musicians would play her Ahmir QuestLove’s beats in “Things Fall Apart” and ” The Roots Live In Switzerland” ’s feroricious beats, not knowing if a Zulu granny woman in her late 50’s would “get” hip-hop:

“we got the “haat” muzek, the “ha ha muzek, sweet sixteeeeen . “[ Next Movement]

She got ‘em and compared the drum beat and pattern with Eddie Hazel and Bootsy’s guitar riffing. She responded to my “Roots Live” set with Fela’s “Waka Waka,” and nothing would be done…we would miss our lunch and the other people in her apartment would just leave us to our madness.

We sometimes, together with her older sister Beauty and her grand daughter, listened to long bouts of silence . . .nothing on the stereo, just Music In Our Heads.

Oh, we got side tracked…side winded more like it. Have I ever experienced the sort of impact Busi Mhlong “Live” had on other artists? As we were saying on point 3.

Although the Bat Centre experience touched us, especially seeing The Mahotella Queens sobbing in delight, Busi’s debut album launch gig offered us future glimpses earlier on, back in 1995.

I had just been shooting the breeze with record company types when Hugh Masekela and the now late Bheki Mseleku rolled into the auditorium.

A quarter of an hour watching the still, then, unknown healer-diva snake dance, piercing vocal, soft-whisperish verses, and a strange ritualist expression as though she’s burping, but basically an umgoma-rites of ritual way of feeling the spirit, Hughie was visibly shaken.

And we were all.

As though hurried by ants in his inner pockets, Masekela jumped out of the front row in the middle of the set, beckoned to Bheki and both doffed their hats.

He went on to drop his black woolen Ayers cap on the floor and threw in a R100 note in appreciation and deference to the healer.

Bheki followed and soon there was a bee line…ah indeed Aerto was correct: this felt like the “Return Of The Healer Bees.”

Totally oblivious, Queen Bee was buzzing on, wailing, holding an isiZulu aria over extended periods, voice altering between a piercing Callas “Casta-Diva” soprano, Nina’s voice back when she worked the joints in Liberia, and a straight up beautiful take on Letta Mbuli and Margarett Mcingana …both Busi’s friends and mentors at some stage.

Thing though, is, Busi could not have been mimmicking them- no: she was so uncategorizably pithy, her voice so clear as water, and pain sipping and leaking through the vowels, like Chernobyl gas before it claimed the thousands.

Any attentive listeners would have heard a multiple voices and influences swirling in beautiful purple and mauve colours as the Zulu woman sang and prayed to her gods.

It was that intoxicating, that “bad!” …”bad” as the blues/jazz/hip-hop expression of highest beauty, than bad as in bad-ass.

Back to the Mahotella scene and Busi at The Bat Centre: she finished her third set and everyone, including the Mahotella Queens in the audiece, refused to leave.

I swear I spied several KZN bigwigs there like the then Transport MEC, now national Police Commissioner, Bheki Cele: they all refused to leave and insteat howled “Buuuuuusi Buuuuuuusi Busi Busi Busi ” it was madness.

She never returned to the stage .

Why? She was spent.

somebody forgot to inform the audience the obviously Zulu blues smacked audience that in all rituals performances and undertakings, it is the conductor of the intricate libations, the channel to both ancestral, surrealist worlds and our aggressively ordinary worlds [ a nod to Germain Greer’s 1973’s comments on Jimi Hendrix’s arrival in “aggressively normal” white London scene, 1968]:

so, it’s the channel that gets taxed and drained, exhausted, and washed up, spent and basically hers/his spirit is left hanging between this and the out of body world.

That is a dangerous space [ one Andullah Ibrahim has long mastered through a combination of the disciplines of Islam and Karate]:
it’s actually the crossroad in which many artists are killed by their fan’s love, the very same fan’s adoration intersecting with early signs of burn out.

Luckily, Busi is and has always been aware of it. Same can’t be said of us, her ever demanding fans.

At her best, the performer Busi Mhlongo blurred the real and surreal. The Durban show was an acute testimony to that.

A total “mutha!”

Since then, and at personal level, the fiercely private artists basically oscillated between her treatment and small, unexpected gigs and medication, while working at reconciling with her daughter, now a 40-something married and based in West Palm Beach, USA.

All along, unbeknownst to her millions of fans and music lovers, she was waging a huge and sometimes losing fight against the big “C”.

Cancer became a byword in her life and she hated that. Out of the blue, one day, she burst out , called me to the kitchen and said in a very nagry tone:”
you know, my child, I do NOT want to be a poster girl for the anti-Cancer or positive living helps you deal with cancer kind of talkshow and alternative healing industry. I don’t, I don’t… a ngi funi nix!”


Before then I was not aware Busi in fact can speak and do speak in that post-mod kind of break-beat sentences.”


Although privately, I am aware she read all these cancer-healing books and was, at times, confused and repulsed by all these well wishers each bringing their own theory and medicinal tips and all that to her, totally unsolicited, therein, crowding her space and impacting, she once said, on her need to make a decision on how she chooses to heal.

It was hectic.
She told me all. And far more which she requested me not to print, a wish I keep forever.
What I have detailed here is really survivor-lite.

The woman has really struggled. I am in total awe of her her big heart and fighter’s spirit.

Since then -since 2005- she’s basically bebopped and woved up and down till where she is right now; which, looking at it is not a pretty picture at all.

Must say that considering her journeys with the illness, you can but wonder at the size of heart stored in that tiny body, not to mention the sea-size of her world spirit.

It’s against that backdrop that I prefer to see it – Busi’s fight against the illness– as a victory, and that’s not the Oprah-Deepak Chopra cop out, but observations of someone who basically talk to her once a day and see her a good 10 days a month, since she’s in Durban and I am in Jozi.

Sean please tell you readers the good news, though I believe Busi is beyond petty awards, but this is the wassup:

Busi’s hugely underplayed, video-less, no radio airplay, and erratically distributed new album [recorded exactly a year ago this week], “Amakholwa/The Believers” has been nominated a staggering four times and together with a new Durban kwaito-house band, Big Nuz, is leading the 2010 SAMAs [ South Africa’s mainstream music awards]!

The final night is due in two weeks and all eyes and ears are wide open . . .

For now, let’s pray for her. On a much more disturbing and ever flactuating level: as a friend I have begun to make peace with whatever outcome.

As a music critic, I can never make peace with whatever outcome. As a son, I have left things to the good spiritual balancing forces of this earth: let it be.

This happened a week ago as I was walking with Busi’s daughter Mpume and her beautiful daughter, Inga, on Mitchell’s Park [ the city of Durban’s miniature Central Park].

In the middle of the park, we stopped and looked at each other, and I heard Mpume say: I don’t know if South Africa will still be my home anymore after Mama goes . . . ”


Further Reading