Mabel Mafuya and Troubadour
By Siemon Allen
In the mid 1950s, Mabel Mafuya was one of South Africa’s top-selling jive vocalists. At Troubadour, she was only second to Dorothy Masuka, and during that period the company dominated the African market with at times up to 75% of sales. Remarkably very little material by this legendary artist has been available. To my knowledge, only one track — Nomathemba — has been reissued on CD. Moreover after searching the web, it appears that only two other tracks come up: one in the SAMAP archive, and the other, a late-career track at Soul Safari.
While Mafuya was still a student at Orlando High School around late 1955 or early 1956 Cuthbert Matumba, producer and talent scout for Troubadour Records invited her to make some recordings at their studios. There she would soon rub shoulders with one of her idols, Dorothy Masuka, who would also became a mentor to her in those early days.
At Troubadour, Mafuya became one of the regular artists brought in to record not only her own compositions but also as a group and/or backing vocalist with a number of other artists including Dorothy Masuka, Dixie Kwankwa, Doris and Ruth Molifi, and Mary Thobei. The company had a roster of artists who rotated and recorded under a number of different pseudonyms and the groups Mafuya performed with included the Girl Friends, the Satchmo Serenaders, Starlight Serenaders, Starlight Boogies, the Starlight Singers, etc.
Mafuya's career really took off with the hits Nomathemba and Hula Hoop recorded with her group the Green Lanterns in 1956. Rob Allingham describes Nomathemba as her masterpiece in that the “song’s narrative of broken ties […] encapsulated the dislocating experience of rural-to-urban migrancy for many township residents.” (CD liner notes, History of Township Music)
The social references in Mafuya’s Nomathemba were typical of a number of her songs from this period. In fact, where other record companies shied away from political or social content, Troubadour openly embraced it. Matumba often encouraged critical or topical commentary in the recordings during this period, and despite visits by the Police "Special Branch," remarkably the owners of Troubadour did not temper the activity.
Troubadour was initially founded in 1951 by three and then later two Jewish businessmen, Morris Fagan and Israel Katz. Their approach was to focus on material that appealed to working class urban blacks, a market that was going through quite a renaissance in the 1950s. Still, the political environment in South Africa at this time was particularly turbulent. Sophiatown, one of the key centers of cultural production for a multi-racial community, had just been dismantled in February 1955 by the apartheid government, making way for a new white area soon to be called Triopf. The Treason Trial had begun after 156 people including Nelson Mandela were arrested in December of 1956. Nevertheless, music that carried a political message was able to get through to the public, either by record sales or less frequently by way of the rediffusion service, a cable based radio system available to blacks in some townships. This of course was the case until the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960, which resulted in a severe increase in censorship and self-censorship of political content.
Mafuya's 1956 tune Regina is a homage dedicated to Regina Brooks, a white woman who had been arrested under the immorality act for having a child with a black policeman. In 1955 Brooks became controversial after she asked to be re-classified as coloured (or mixed-race) in order that she could live in Orlando, Soweto (some sources have it as Dube) with her husband, Sergeant Richard Kumalo, and child. Drum photographer, Bob Gasani captures Brooks and her child, Thandi, in this 1955 image sourced from the Bailey Archives. Read more about the story at IOL.
Mafuya’s homage to individual heroes was also not unique in the case of Regina Brooks. After the suicide of Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini on April 3rd, 1957, Mafuya and her Troubadour colleague Mary Thobei immortalised the boxing legend in their song King Kong Oshwile Ma. Unfortunately friends and family of the boxer interpreted the song as a mockery and subsequently both Thobei and Mafuya were badly beaten by his supporters one day at the Jeppe Railway Station — an assault severe enough to land Mafuya in Johannesburg General Hospital. (Molefe, Coplan) Before his suicide, Dlamini had been sentenced to prison for murdering his girlfriend and later became the subject of the famed musical King Kong in 1959.
At Troubadour, topical issues of the day were reported upon, sang about, recorded and out in the public often within 24 hours of an event. The company had a pressing plant in the same building as their recording studio and this along with some key marketing skills by Matumba (for example he used a mobile-unit to test new recordings at railway stations and other public venues), made turnover rapid and the company unrivalled by its competitors. In many ways Troubadour operated like a news service or as Mary Thobei refers to it: “We had our own ‘Special Branch,’ a sort of bush telegraph, and as a result we knew in advance what would happen in our communities, be it social or political.” (Molefe) This is also most apparent at the beginning of some records, which open with the announcement: “News in Record…” or “This is the Troubadour Daily News…”
Azikhwelwa (We will not ride), a kwela tune by the Alexandra Casbahs, is attributed to Mafuya and Thobei and operates as a form of news item alerting people to the bus boycott of 1957 in Alexandra. Thobei opens the tune saying: “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was on Monday morning, the 7th of January, 1957 when everybody was shouting Azikhwelwa…” The bus boycott had been implemented by residents of Alexandra against the Public Utility Transport Corporation (more commonly known as PUTCO) over a rate hike of 4 to 5 pence. This spontaneous action lead to the formation of the Alexandra People’s Transport Action Committee (APTAC). Of course, during apartheid in South Africa, blacks were segregated into townships that were some distance from city centers and places of work and thus bus and train were, for many, primary modes of transport. Rate hikes would deeply affect every household’s bottom-line. With the boycott, residents chose other forms of transport to get to and from work, but most walked the 30km roundtrip journey. At its peak, 70,000 residents refused to ride the local buses and the action also spread to other townships including Newclaire and Mamelodi. The boycott lasted for at least three months and was only finally resolved on April 1st, 1957, when the 4 pence rate was restored. The protest drew the daily attention of the South African press and is generally recognized as one of the few successful political campaigns of the apartheid era. Read more about the campaign at Dan Mokoyane’s Blog here and more here.
Likewise the track Asikhathali (We never get tired) by Ruth Molifi and the Starlight Singers opens with this annoucement: “This is the Troubadour Daily News! Many People are going to meetings everyday in Sophiatown and Alexandra. Some shout Azikhwelwa and some shout Ziyakhwelwa. It would be too cold to walk in winter. This is the song the people sing when they go to meetings… Asikhathali…” As Rob Allingham reveals, the tune features sisters Ruth and Doris Molifi, Mabel Mafuya and Mary Thobei on vocals with Cuthbert Matumba as ‘groaner.’ Thobei has an additional monologue where she states: “We don’t care if we are arrested. But we want our freedom. So pray people of Africa. We want our freedom.” Marks Mvimbe while coughing in the tune also moans “We are suffering going to meetings.” (Allingham)
Other political classics by Mafuya include the tracks Cato Manor and Beer Halls, probably both recorded late in 1959 or very early in 1960. Cato Manor opens with a whistle that emulates the opening pitch of a radio broadcast and Mafuya announces “Zulu… Zulu… This is Durban Calling… This is Durban Calling…” (Similar to the opening broadcast of the day on radio.) “Women are fighting in Durban. They don’t want their men to drink in Beer Halls…” On the surface the song appears as a feminist critique, but rather it is a call to action against the government.
Cato Manor was the official name of an area that become home to a vibrant, informal settlement just outside Durban. To the local resident Cato Manor was known as Mkhumbane. Read more about the place and Todd Matshikiza’s 1960 musical of the same name at Electric Jive.
The Durban City Council had long established a revenue system of selling alcohol to the black population exclusively through a series of beerhalls. The acquiring of alcohol from sources other than these official beerhalls was declared illegal for black South Africans and the residents of Cato Manor resented such control over what had been regarded as a tradition. Illegal brewing developed as a result, and in response the South African authorities regularly raided what were considered to be illicit businesses and made numerous arrests. Protests at such police action resulted and often led to violent clashes.
A nervous Durban City Council issued a proclamation in June 1958 to relocate inhabitants from Cato Manor to the more distant regions of Umlazi, Chatsworth and the newly developed township of Kwa Mashu. In 1959 the City Council declared Cato Manor a white zone under the Group Areas Act and in June began the process of forcibly moving residents.
At this time a response to the increased liquor raids in Cato Manor put into play a series of actions that soon spiraled into significant violence. It began on July 17, 1959 when a group of women gathered at the Cato Manor beerhall, threatening the men drinking there with sticks. This same group of women then proceeded to attack the central beerhall in Durban and a boycott of the beerhalls began. On July 18th, the following day, 3000 women gathered around the Cato Manor beerhall, and while clashing with police, set it on fire. It is significant to point out that these grievances were not over moral issues around the use of liquor, but rather the control of its production and sale. After more raids on January 23rd (some have it in early February) of 1960, an angry mob killed nine policemen at the Cato Manor Police Station.
In the song Beer Halls Mafuya announces in English: “They say do not buy potatoes! Do not eat fish and chips!” probably referring to the boycott of food items that were sold at beerhalls.
Although Troubadour was bringing in significant sales, Allingham points out, that the technical quality of the actual product was quite poor when compared to the other major competitors. Still the studio was able to maintain an edge by using some unorthodox policies. For example it was well known that musicians under contract with rival companies were welcome to record, under-the-table, with pseudonyms if they needed cash. Many took advantage of this grey approach including Kippie Moeketsi, Ntemi Piliso and others. Sadly, none of the recording ledgers have survived and very few songs can be accurately dated with the full personal. (Allingham) The company’s fall was as dramatic as its rise. After Matumba died in a car accident in May 1965, Troubadour began a rapid decline and by 1969 they were completely consumed by Gallo and ceased to exist.
Mafuya’s own singing career was severely affected after a botched thyroid operation in 1957. But still she was able to perform and towards the end of the decade formed a group with Thobei and Thandeka Mpambane known as the Chord Sisters. In 1958 the group was encouraged to join the King Kong crew and Mafuya played a small acting role in the classic 1959 play. After that success she was invited to travel with the cast to London and stayed there for a year. Mafuya eventually returned to South Africa and continued with her acting career. She would later perform in the hit TV sitcom Velaphi.
While her singing career turned out to be quite short, Mafuya was nevertheless prolific and the tracks listed in this archive reveal just a small part of her excellent output during a turbulent but also dynamic time. Visit Electric Jive to listen to some of these tunes.
MABEL MAFUYA AND THE STARLIGHT SERENADERS