b. 1937, Natal, South Africa, d. 27 July 1999, Johannesburg, South Africa. Mahlathini (‘The Lion Of Soweto’) was the most distinguished of the basso-profundo ‘groaners’ of black South African vocal music - and the acknowledged originator of a mbaqanga sub-style known as mqashiyo (‘indestructible beat’). As a teenager he played at wedding ceremonies as part of his brother’s Alexandra Black Mambazo band, alongside the original ‘groaner’ Aaron ‘Big Voice Jack’ Lerole. In the 60s, with his voice now having deepened considerably, he toured townships in package shows that often featured the Mahotella Queens, with whom he frequently recorded, and using the Makgona Tsohle Band (led by the saxophonist West Nkosi) for back-up.
A dynamic dancer, Mahlathini (named ‘the Bull’ on account of his stage presence) created a frenzy of joyous mayhem in beer halls, the venues for many township concerts in the 60s and 70s, and was on several occasions arrested for ‘inciting unrest’ (despite the apolitical nature of most of his material). His music fused traditional township styles, marabi, kwela and pop, and during the 70s he broke from the Mahotella Queens to record mbaqanga with another band, Ndlondlo Bashise/The Mahlathni Guitar Band. His career dipped during the early 80s, but after reuniting with the Mahotella Queens and his original band he began to rebuild his profile. He toured Europe in 1987, in the wake of the international profile achieved by Paul Simon’s Graceland guest artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and played more international dates than any other current South African star. As a result Mahlathini also secured Western recording contracts, making his breakthrough with Thokozile, a phenomenally expressive distillation of his many influences. In 1988, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens appeared alongside many western music stars at the Nelson Mandela tribute concert. Further albums followed including 1996’s Shoki Shoki, which marked their 30th anniversary. Mahlathini died in July 1999 following complications arising from diabetes.