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Book Excerpt: Bongani Madondo's Hot Type

Hot TypeBongani Madondo’s pursuit of African celebrities – one of the most literate and dogged crusades our newspapers and magazines have witnessed over the past many years – has been conveniently packaged into a single book, Hot Type (subtitle: “Icons, Artistes and God-figurines”), out now from Picador Africa.

It is by all accounts a firecracker. To my knowledge, the reviews have yet to point out even the faintest blemish – and praise for it is travelling the CPT-JNB grapevine like greased lightning.

BOOK SA is pleased to bring you this excerpt, from an essay on KZN songbird Busi Mhlongo.

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from “Life is a Funk: Busi Mhlongo Says I Can Retire anytime I Want Not”

Cold facts first: one of the truly gifted singers, and ritualistic performers of our age, the subversive torchbearer of contemporary black, female pop, Victoria Busi Mhlongo is suffering from breast cancer.

It’s supposed to be a hot newsflash, but it isn’t. The African telegraph to the sky -

to pilfer jazz poet, Sandile Dikeni’s lyric – has been riding a whirlwind of rumour for months running. But then again, who has seen proof? Rumour mongers?

Over her dead body! And that’s just a figure of speech.

Inasmuch as it’s hosting a deathly illness – hers is a body quite alive, and yet, at peace with its own fragility. Even as write this, I am uncertain, as to how the negative phrasing suffering from breast cancer best expresses how she feels about herself at this very moment. Thus, long after the interview I rang her up, to ask: how are you feeling?

She’s quite adept at the question-deflecting game. Months before the interview and days after she would ignore it, at best, or, at worst, opt to tell me about everybody else’s life, but hers.

One day, just after her initial chemotherapy, and on the eve of a major concert she was billed to star in, the façade could hold no longer. With her voice lowered conspiratorially, she dropped the mask and broke down – “oh bandla, oh baba, I am very sick. I am in pain. My feet, are yellowing underneath, the pain in my nails is excruciating. Sometimes the headache just won’t go away.”

It’s around this time that her older sister – and her boulder to lean on, at her Morningside, Durban, home – Mam’ Beauty, told me: “she’s sometimes vomiting and sleeps quite a lot.” And, yet days are not the same. If you are lucky, you’ll catch her and her three-year-old niece, little Andiswa, getting down to Fela Kuti’s and – yes – Jimi Hendrix records at home – that’s only if you have her house number. If you don’t, tough.

Her home is located in a block of flats impossible to access. You cannot even pass the foyer gate without somebody coming down to escort you. Even then, you’ll have to explain how you made it past the remote controlled main entrance gate.

Like most artists worth their salt, Busi Mhlongo is a fiercely private soul. Yet, still

- based on an assumed closeness, a closeness forged on such arbitrary mutual pastimes, such as a shared love of Taiwa Moses Molelekwa’s, Prince’s and Bob Dylan’s music – I miscalculated.

I had thought she would be tripping over herself to unburden herself, as she had previously done about other things. Weeks morphed into months while all she could ever utter was “I am very sick,” without a thread of a clue as to what was going on.

By the time she eventually spoke to me, I suspect she had known about her condition for months, prior to the official diagnosis. And that like all of us, she was just afraid of checking with the doctors, in case she got more than she bargained for.

Like all consummate artists, blinded by an inner, obligatory sense to serve others, whatever it is that’s eating her could wait. She has fans to satisfy, and a forever beckoning stage to continue her live rituals on, in the full glare of photographers.

Still, the questions persisted: who is Busi Mhlongo? How sick is she? How does she deal with cancer, or any other malady? If the cat’s out of the bag and the rumour mill has spun out of control, how long does she intend to hold out?

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The danger with writers being too close to their subjects – especially, enigmatic souls like Busi Mhlongo, whose swell of dedicated fans often assumes they know her – is that you end up blurring that sacred line between art, artist and the watcher.

Though most hardened scribes will lie about this, for a real fan – and that includes critics, folks the masses (mis)trust for critical arbitration – watching, meeting, or being in the personal or creative orbit of an artist with abilities to transport them beyond their bodily limitations, is, my friend, akin to falling in love.

Being a fan, is at best, an infantile project. Like a child, you throw your trust unto someone who has never asked for it. At its most honest, fan-dom differs not from any religious belief.

The fan undertakes a personal oath, an article of faith – just as long as your desired artist continues delivering what you like, or creating artwork that opens up channels for escape, or reconnection with the self. Thus, every time a true fan meets the artist, it feels like falling in love for the first time.

Attending a countless number of Busi Mhlongo’s gigs – over fifty, at the last count; from her Civic Center launch, where audiences witnessed Hugh Masekela and Bheki Mseleku bowing before throwing notes into an on-stage hat, to the Union Buildings Millennium Festival show, in which the heavens opened up to release shit loads of rain in the middle of her grand finale, the then unknown songstress TK, vice-clinging my hand, tears, sweat and rain soaking up her oversized top – I have seen Mhlongo’s art, breaking and reconfiguring people’s to their core.

Not so long ago, at the Urban Voices Festival held at Bassline, Newtown, her third show that I attended in a month, I marvelled at individuals rushing the stage, dancing trippy-ly, mad swaying of dreadlocks, and karaok-itschly attempting to sing, note for note, with the master shaman on stage.

My eyes followed the movements of a young man who’d pushed his way right to the front of the stage, upper body shaking in a robot-type dance, as though dismembering his own body parts, and then jumping one beat a second for a good thirty minutes. This was a man evidently lost in a charged-up atmosphere akin to religious surrender, water baptism, sexual release, a mind trip and meditated loss of personal sense, for the sake of being in a shared communion with the artist on stage or with the gods and demons this artist provoked in him.

Later, I would understand why audiences react this way, after driving with a friend for six hours from Johannesburg to Durban, through unforgiving darkness, to attend a Woman’s Month gig which she co-led with Mahotella Queens at the legendary Bat Centre. “This is where I first played when I returned home after twenty years in foreign lands. And this is,” I remember her pausing, to let it sink in, “where I will retire.”

For days preceding that show, we have been in a marathon exchange of telephonic chats. Again, she has not being feeling well, and for somebody who once “interviewed” her, in which she only uttered three words, on the eve of the launch of Urban Zulu, and another, four years later, in which she spoke right up to 4 am – I was kinda’f attuned to her unstated pain by now.

Showtime! The Durban dockside-located Bat Centre is packed like sardines the ocean it harbors has long ceased throwing down the beach. Near the entrance, a push-and-shove show takes place, government types and the holloi-polloi, angle for better seating inside the dance hall.

Busi Mhlongo takes the stage after an impressive all-women Zulu dance and song troupe set the audience on high alert. What ensued, I don’t think the audience was prepared for.

In my daily hustle – in the name of work – scavenging shows locally and around the world, from rock band Skunk Anansie at Madiba’s 80th birthday bash, to 1997′s Fugees Live at The Brixton Academy, backed by The Wailers, to Salif Keita live at Vista Soweto Campus, add BoomShaka’s all-time edgy, experimental at the Rosebank Fire station, circa 1996 – I make for a pretty jaded live music fan.

Yet Busi Mhlongo’s show conveyed the message with hard-hitting beauty: blessed are the jaded, for they, too – ‘pon experiencing a musical baptism of this nature – shall inherit the earth, or the grooves, or both.

The band was on a deep funk, and gospel-meets-lounge music element. Syrupy bass, sparse, spaced out keyboards that out bass’ed the bass, and the guitars wailing in tandem with the drummer, who seemed to be keeping the center holding, but was not in fact. Though the intent was noble, there was something annoying about the sound. People didn’t seem to notice though, or care.

Ever alert, Mhlongo’s body language conveyed a bit of displeasure but the problem persisted, at which point something other than her mere self, took over as the band settled onto the third track. She took control. Her usually shriek-ful vocals blended, and then rose a whisper above the guitars.

She stood there, dead still, heat, make-up, sweat and the reddish lighting giving her a face a bloodied Aztec or West African mask resemblance, and with all the power she could summon from her belly, and every pore in her body the artist let rip into “uMethisi”, from her debut album Bhabemu, in the most beautiful voice I have ever heard sung live.

Her repertoire and choreography, halted only with occasional, teary announcements – “I love you, let’s appreciate love, what God gave us” – was of an initiate performing an abangoma ritual, a passage into the world of healers and marabouts. The audience was there but not aware of her: she belonged to some other time.

Busi Mhlongo the wailer gave way to the balladeer, the artist gave way to the healer, the healer beckoned the priest, who led us to a brothel, where body and soul merges, even if it’s for a five-minute duration of the rhythmic snake dance, back to the stage where the tame Zulu woman about to celebrate her 60th birthday, gave way to a rock-star chic, an Afro alien-Funk Goddess on a futuristic mission to convert the non-believers.

How then should an objective writer extract himself from (such) an artist’s creative grip? How are you expected to separate that piercing note, that uplifting piano mastery, that magical body contortion, that poetic verse, that blinding energy that blurs the person (artist) from the personality (fans’ objects of creative desire)? Just how?

Rightly or misguided, I do not posses the requisite skills to separate a writer’s professional objectivity, and the art-induced affection, whenever the fan is summoned to their hero’s inner walls of solitude, even the most ardent fans are barred from.

For, you see, danger lurks round the shadows here. At worst, such access can, unwittingly reveal your hero’s viciousness – their true self, or their otherness. And yet, sometimes it can be an ironical, perhaps, ethically un-allowed blessing. I mean, how does a warder fall in love with a prisoner? Oi, Oi ’tis pushing it too far.

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