The legendary singer passed away yesterday at the age of 76, after a long fight with kidney failure.
Nobesuthu Gertrude Mbadu was born on 26 April 1945 in Durban’s Umkumbane Township. A singer since her primary school days, her first gigs were with a local band called Amangeyami, which sang and performed Zulu dances at community functions. At one such function, she was recruited by tour manager Max Gcaba, and was in fact performing with Gcaba’s group in the Transvaal (now Gauteng) when record producer Rupert Bopape invited her to join a new vocal group with the name of “Mahotella Queens”. When Mbadu agreed, at the age of 19, she did not know yet that alongside Hilda Tloubatla and Amanda Nkosi, she was about to be part of an enduring South African musical phenomenon.
Not many musical groups can lay claim to defining an entire genre. When the Mahotella Queens arose in 1964, they became the country’s premier mbaqanga ambassador and vocal harmony group, probably the most popular musical attraction in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. The sweet, joyous close harmony and energetic dances of the Queens, counteracted by the deep bass groaning of Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde and the lilting guitar backing of the Makgona Tsohle Band, became one of the most iconic sights and sounds in the country. Hits such as “Gazette (Kazet)”, “Melodi Ya Lla” and “Uyavutha Umlilo” became soundtracks of an era. The band quickly grew into one of the most active live performance acts of South Africa, while a number of crossover projects in the early 1980s, such as Paul Simon’s legendary Graceland or Harry Belafonte’s Paradise in Gazankulu, led to regular visits of the Queens to Europe, North America and Asia. Carrying strongly the spirit of mbaqanga into the 21st century, Mbadu only truly retired from music in 2017 due to her deteriorating health, after a collaboration with rapper Cassper Nyovest.
“She was very quiet, very meek and humble, always in the background. But on that stage, she came alive, she became somebody else, she was just incredible to watch. She had this alter-ego, almost,” family spokesperson Vanessa Tloubatla said yesterday on national TV. The colourful performances of the Queens will indeed never be forgotten, and their sheer joyful music has accompanied many generations of South Africans. Lala ngoxolo (rest in peace), Nobesuthu, and long live the Queens.