Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde was born on 30 November 1937, in Newcastle. He grew up in Alexander Township. His father died while he was young, and later he was forced to leave school because he could not afford to pay for his fees. Mahlathini then found work in a soft drink factory responsible for delivering milk.
Nkabinde became a South African Mbaqanga singer; known as the “Lion of Soweto”. Nkabinde was the most prominent of the basso-profundo “groaners” of black South African music. He was the well-known musician of the Mbaqanga genre and acknowledged original of a Mbaqanga sub-style known as Mgqashiyo (the indestructible beat).On stage he wore a chief's regalia; a leopard skin over his chest; hair armlets and leggings; a skirt of animal tails and traditional beads around his bald pate.
His career in music began when he was still a young boy. Nkabinde would sing in choirs at Zulu wedding ceremonies. However, as he grew up his voice changed and became deeper than other teenage boys singing in the choir. Initially, Nkabinde’s parents thought he had been bewitched, as his voice became all but a growl. Subsequently, because of these fears, they took him to a Sangoma (Traditional Healer). They were unaware that this was nothing more than a bounded talent, as later Nkabinde turned his bass talent to a distinct and successful career as a musician. Subsequently, Nkabinde joined the choir of his brother, Zeph. The choir was named Alexander Black Mambazo (from which the Ladysmith group took its name). In the mid-1950s, Nkabinde established himself to the EMI Studios and began recording with female artists such as the Dark City Sisters and the African Jazz Queens.
In 1964 Robert Bopape recruited Nkabinde for commercial recording at the Gallo Record Company studios. At the beginning, Bopape paired him with a Mbaqanga instrumental section, the Makgona Tsohle Band, who have been acknowledged as having pioneered the Mbaqanga style of music. Bopape also recruited nine women to dance and perform behind Nkabinde and the backing band, calling them the Izintombi zo-Mgqashiyo (the Girls of Mgqashiyo). Later that year Bopape re-ordered the group, he recruited 22-year-old Hilda Tloubatla to sing backing vocals for Nkabinde and five other women to sing the main harmonies. The female group was named Mahotella Queens, and this was just a recording name for all female groups to record under.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Nkabinde, the Mahotella Queens and the Makgona Tsohle Band recorded tracks and hit songs throughout South Africa. However, in 1971, Nkabinde fell out with Bopape over his treatment and went back to EMI. The Makgona Tsohle Band moved to record with an all male group Abafana Baseqhudeni. Members of the Mahotella Queens retired to provide for their husbands and children. In 1975, Gallo Record Company decided to recruit five new women to create ‘Mahotella B’, a lesser group which recorded under the same names as the original Mahotella Queens. Nkabinde on the hand, recorded with a new group, known as The Queens (which was independent from Mahotella Queens) and the Mahlathini Guitar Band. The ‘B’ Queens also recorded with Abafana Baseqhudeni. Unfortunately, after a single album produced by the secondary unit, Izibani Zomgqashiyo, the group disbanded.
In 1986, after Mbaqanga had almost fallen out of favour, Nkabinde reunited with three of the original 1964-1971 back singers; namely, Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola. Together they produced and recorded the album Thokozile. Having reunited with the Mahotella Queens, with the three Queens and the original Makgona Tsohle Band, and with the album Thokozile in their midst they came to international attention. In France, the group became known with the single Kazet. The entire group contributed to the Art of Noise song Yebo!, in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, the band toured the United States, Europe and Asia with success. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in 1994 with the album Stoki Stoki.
Nkabinde was disappointed about the fact that many of those who attended his concerts in the United States were whites. He claimed that black Americans were unconscious of their history and needed to learn to appreciate their roots of blackness. Thus he stated''We've given their music tremendous support in our country. Never mind that they're American. It's about time they took a very important step and started learning about their origins”. This does not imply that his music was political as those of Brenda Fasie for an example. He did sing praises through his music of Nelson Mandela though.
Nkabinde and the group gave their last live performance in 1997. His health was in a debilitating state in the late 1990s. The result of this was that the group recorded their last album together in 1998. In April 1999, Nkabinde died of a diabetes-related illness.
When the world began with the new millennium, the Makgona Tsohle Band members had died. The Mahotella Queens stopped performing and retired, until 2001. In 2001 the group decided to return to help keep the music that Nkabinde had made alive. They formed a new backing band. The Mahotella Queens continue to record and perform, and they paid tribute to Nkabinde and the original Makgona Tsohle Band on their critically acclaimed album Sebai Bai (2001).
• The Presidency, Profile of Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde: Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze. [online] Available at www.thepresidency.gov.za (Accessed 09 November 2012)
• Last.fm. Mahlathini Biography, [online] Available at www.last.fm/music [Accessed 09 November 2012]
• Denselow, R, (1999), Mahlathini Known as 'the lion of Soweto', he dominated South Africa's pop charts, from The Guardian, 31 July,[online], Available at www.guardian.co.uk [Accessed 09 November 2012]