Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens

  • Thokozile [Earthworks/Virgin, 1988] A-
  • Paris-Soweto [Celluloid, 1988] A
  • Rhythm and Art [Shanachie, 1990] Dud
  • The Lion Roars [Shanachie, 1991] **
  • Mbaqanga [Verve World, 1992] Dud
  • Stoki Stoki [Shanachie, 1996] **
  • Music Inferno: The Indestructible Beat Tour 1988-1989 [Umsakazo/Gallo, 2023] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Thokozile [Earthworks/Virgin, 1988]
The great groaner's 1983 reunion with his greatest backup groups--not just the Queens, returned to the life after a decade of domesticity, but Makgona Tsohle, featuring nonpareil guitarist Marks Mankwane and ubiquitous saxophonist-producer West Nkosi--culminates for the nonce in this 1986 showcase. Not counting "I Wanna Dance," exactly the sort of "disco" that's supposed to be against his principles, it's unexceptionably indestructible, bottomless baritone flexed inexorably against stout sopranos, with Mankwane's licks and Nkosi's pennywhistle darting like traffic up top. Professional dance music at its finest and roughest. A-

Paris-Soweto [Celluloid, 1988]
He no longer sings as goatishly or as much, which is a loss, but until someone compiles his best-of, this will be proof he deserves one. The songs are new, many with far from embarrassing English verses and hooks you swear you've heard before, but it's production values that make it his first export album to soar. Soukous audio gives the beat bite. Strong support--not just Makgona Tsohle and the Queens, but West Nkosi second-stringers Amaswazi Emvelo--helps carry that weight. And I bet they took the time to get it right, too--blessed by the relief of a European tour, they waited till the spirit was more than willing. A

Rhythm and Art [Shanachie, 1990] Dud

The Lion Roars [Shanachie, 1991]
for his supper ("Masole A Banana," "Amaqhawe Omgqashiyo") **

Mbaqanga [Verve World, 1992] Dud

Stoki Stoki [Shanachie, 1996]
after 30 years, not everything (or everywho) they used to be ("Ilamba Lidlile," "Umgqashiyo") **

Music Inferno: The Indestructible Beat Tour 1988-1989 [Umsakazo/Gallo, 2023]
For 35 years, my go-to Mahlathini album not counting the classic multi-artist Indestructible Beat of Soweto comp itself (which you should buy first if for some reason you haven't already), has been the 10-track live Paris-Soweto. Recorded entirely in England and mostly in London, which gives Simon Nkabinde a chance to utilize the spoken English any Black South African knows enough to get a handle on, this belated 15-track sampler includes only six Paris-Soweto songs, and comes across somewhat sharper not just sonically but performance-wise--there's thumping and soaring, discipline and byplay, a whistle here and a saxophone there, queens adding byplay as well as support, and liner notes so encyclopedic they cry out for a magnifying glass. The epochal how-low-can-you-go groaner died at 61 in 1999. But he remains an artist to to be marveled at and a spiritual force to help you do so. A