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Uncovering the history behind icon Busi Mhlongo: a Webinar Review

By Phethagatso Motumi

What stays with us after a musician has passed?  Celebrating the life of the late, great Busi Mhlongo – Brenda Sisane facilitated a conversation with Thandiswa Mazwai, Mfana Mlambo, Xolisa Dlamini and Zoë Modiga as guests, which answered in a way that spoke volumes to tradition and musicianship.

When reminiscing on the life and time of Busi Mhlongo through the webinar hosted  by Brenda Sisane, featuring a panel made up of Thandiswa Mazwai, Mfana Mlambo, Xolisa Dlamini and Zoë Modiga as guests, one thing stood out. There are people who know artists in person and those who know them through their music yet both carry an intimacy that can stay with you for a lifetime.

Painting her character through anecdotes, I now know that Busi Mhlongo, affectionately known as Mam’Busi, was warm. Had a gift of making everyone feel welcome. Was someone who laughed unrestrained with a hi-5 to solidify a joke. Cooked in abundance, especially fish and chicken, because she knew breaking bread brought people together. Was in touch with her spiritual self. Both undeniably cool and effortlessly stylish, like the glasses she hardly left the house without and the intricately beaded outfits she wore on stage. And, she told stories in a way that opened you up to her world.

As the facilitator of the webinar, Kaya’s The Art of Sunday host Brenda Sisane highlighted the importance of music being a language of the masses. “Busi Mhlongo chose to be conscious, this is why she left a powerful impression.” By making us reflect not only on what we listen to but how we listen to music, Brenda led a robust conversation that began with introductions to Mam’Busi and ended in song.

Affectionately called ‘munthuza’ by the mother figure, the amazing vocalist Xolisa Dlamini looked back on meeting Mam’Busi as a student. It became a masterclass. “She had a way of teaching even though she never went to [music] school. It was being in her presence, walking with her,” Xolisa says. Often left in awe wondering how Mam’Busi sang the powerful way she did, Xolisa recalls it was a product of indalo, of nature. “She would tell me to just listen to the trees, the waves, the animals since they were the first instrument.” Mam’Busi’s unwavering faith in her ability made her a better singer, “Her belief that I could do it, made me believe that I could.”

For the magnetic Thandiswa Mazwai, Busi Mhlongo belonged to a generation of artists – like Hugh Masekela, Dorothy Masuka, Miriam Makeba and more – who didn’t take themselves seriously. “They didn’t just give music. They gave hugs, they gave love.” Meeting Mam’Busi for a gig, the two became fast friends. She got to see her in her element in a way that felt ethereal, ‘like getting into church’. Mazwai notes it as the reason she chose to create sacred spaces on stage. “It’s not just burning impepo,” Mazwai said, “it’s shifting spaces so something beautiful and spiritual can happen.” Bearing witness to both, it’s easy to see how performances can feel cathartic.

Jazz musician and longtime friend Mfana Mlambo, agreed. “People would cry when she sang, she was that kind of person.” For him, Busi Mlongo’s contribution felt so much bigger than we realise. “She has so many phases, so many levels.” From using her pen to write on her life experience, consciously making her art her activism, to becoming the Queen of Maskanda. Mlambo’s hope is that Mam’Busi’s legacy sparks an active approach to sharing the history of African music. A sentiment that songstress Zoë Modiga agrees with.

Introduced to Mam’Busi after being asked to perform at her tribute concert, Zoë Modiga remembers feeling unknowledgeable before then. Doing a deep dive to explore the music was where she began. “It felt like sitting at her feet through stories, even though I haven’t in real life,” Zoë says. For her, Mam’Busi’s music felt like finally having context to a part of her identity. “She married being masterful with feeling, very few people can do both.”

As the conversation drew to a close, they all praised Busi Mhlongo’s technique and vocal prowess, the poetry in her life’s work, the respect she gave heritage and the magic in how she could put music together. There was a call for her musicianship to become the start of decolonising music education. Listening to her craft, interrogating the state of our nation 44 years after June 16 1976, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree.

 

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