o the growling groans of a Hammond organ, the insistent thud of a bass guitar and the relaxed shuffle of drums, the five men in flaming-red trousers, matching floral shirts and white takkies arch their backs, lift their arms to the skies as if in supplication to the gods and launch into a frenzied synchronised dance.
They gyrate to the right, then to the left. Left-left, rightright. Their arms stretch out like the wings of birds that are about to take flight, quivering with excitement.
The diminutive man in the middle rushes towards the microphone and starts singing: “Mama Ka’Sbongile, awuyek’ukuthi uma usuphuzile bese uyangiphoxa (Sbongile’s mum, stop humiliating me when you are drunk).
The crowd explodes into thunderous howls of approval at the recognition of their all-time favourite song.
It is April 1990 and the place is the Rufaro Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, where South African supergroup Soul Brothers are giving a concert as part of that country’s celebration of its 10 years of independence.
Lead singer David Masondo has the crowd eating out of his tiny hand, his quavering falsetto taking his audience on a sentimental journey.
He is singing about misplaced love (Ngakushelelani Ngidakiwe – I now regret having proposed to you while I was drunk); abusive men (Isigilamkhuba); and political aspirations (Bazobuya – our heroes will come back from exile).
A long journey
The group’s songbook traverses all the emotions known to humanity – and more.
Welcome Bhodloza Nzimande, the group’s manager, in an interview conducted just after a memorial service in honour of Masondo, said: “It has been a long journey for them, and a sometimes troubled one – especially for David, who had to carry the load and pressures of fame for such a long time.”
The lead singer and face of the band that came to be known as Ogandaganda baseNingizimu Afrika (The Tractors of South Africa) – the name coined by Radio Zulu announcer Cyril “Kansas City” Mchunu, who believed the Soul Brothers had steamrolled all competing wannabes into stunned silence – had come a long way.
Born in Howick in 1949, David Mbuso Masondo later went to live in the relatively new township of Mpumalanga in the Natal Midlands.
There he hooked up with Zenzele Mchunu, Tuza Mthethwa and Themba American Zulu to form a band called the Groovy Boys. They immediately succumbed to the lure of the City of Gold, where the band was expanded and renamed the Young Brothers.
Legendary producer Hamilton “Vala” Nzimande helped them with their first single, Mshoza, which became an immediate hit after it was released in 1975.
They were thereafter known as the Soul Brothers and had been joined by Moses Ngwenya on organ. Masondo, previously confined to playing drums, was catapulted into the role of lead singer, taking over from Mthethwa. This mirrored the career move made by Teddy Pendergrass, who joined Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes as an obscure drummer to later emerge as a powerful lead singer.
The marriage between Masondo’s keening soprano and Ngwenya’s groaning-growling-groovy organ gave the group an instantly recognisable sound.
The rhythm section was augmented with a brass section, guitars and multiple vocal harmonies. The Soul Brothers’ live performances were a feast. Unlike many band leaders who sang, then stepped aside for the dancers to perform their magic, Masondo himself led the dance moves.
A unique sound
While the costumes, choreography and a few harmonies echoed the American soul music that inspired the Soul Brothers – yes, they did rip off some Dobie Gray harmonies note for note, but changed the lyrics – the group created a sound uniquely rooted in the lives of working class black South Africans.
Then tragedy struck. In 1978 Mthethwa died in a car crash. Two more band members died in 1979, including Mpompi Sosibo, one of the earlier members.
With each death, the band released songs paying tribute to their fallen ones, tearfully asking God to stop the carnage.
In 1983, the group travelled to Botswana, where they worked with then exiled Hugh Masekela to bring an mbaqanga sensibility to the trumpeter’s seminal Technobush album.
Then in 1984, Mchunu, the bassist, also died in a car crash. The band released the song Hamba Kahle Mfowethu, bidding him farewell. I was in matric at the time. I know that I cried. Not that I knew Mchunu personally, but it was a song that made me cry.
The Soul Brothers had their fingers on the emotional pulse of the common man. They made you laugh (Ushel’umkami – You’re Making Moves on My Wife) and cry (Mama Wami).
With their albums notching up hundreds of thousands in sales and winning awards, the Soul Brothers became the biggest music set-up in the country – even later, when Brenda Fassie exploded on to the scene with her popular sound, they