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30 Years And Still Grooving

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Emotions run high as Mango Groove celebrate three decades of one of their biggest-selling albums. The mixed race band, formed during the apartheid era, reflected the pain and politics of the time in their music. 

South African music has evolved over the years but its African authenticity remains in the notes of the 35-year-old pop band Mango Groove.

FORBES AFRICA shared a few moments with them as they rehearsed in their North Riding studio, 40kms north of Johannesburg, one glorious summer afternoon in February.

To celebrate 30 years of their 1989 eponymous hit album, the band will be performing a one-off anniversary concert at Teatro in Montecasino, Johannesburg, in March.

Vocalists of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

We first speak to Claire Johnston, the lead singer of Mango Groove, who has been with the group for 34 years. Johnston started at the age of 17 when still in school.

Those memories are still fresh. 

Born in England, she had moved to South Africa when she was three with her parents at the height of apartheid. 

“In 1989, things went big for us [Mango Groove]. Prior to that, we had been playing around clubs and small venues. We had a few singles on the radio between 1985 and 1989, and then we had this lovely record deal that got us to all South Africans and huge exposure at the right time. South Africa was ready for a mixed race band called Mango Groove,” Johnston recalls.

In one year, the band sold out six shows at the Standard Bank Arena.

“The album had just come out – we were all over radio, television, and magazine covers; it was very exciting and we were putting on a show at the arena which accommodates about 6,000 people.

We sold the one show, then the second, then the third, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eventually we had to do the seventh, but because tickets were pirated, we had to put on a show for free for all the people who had been conned.


Claire Johnston

That was the night Johnston saw ‘the Mexican wave’ for the first time.

It wasn’t easy being in a mixed race band, because of the racial segregation laws that existed in South Africa. It was during this tense period that they released their Another Country album with a song written by group founder John Leyden about the state of the country. It was an overtly political song, however, their African tunes saw them through. 

There were also instances when the band couldn’t play together at certain venues. They would play in downtown clubs in Johannesburg where black and white South Africans would jam and interact as if restrictive apartheid laws did not exist.

Post democratic elections in 1994, Johnston says she was proud to be South African. She recalls the band’s performance at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration that year as one of her most memorable.

“That experience was amazing. It was just an amazing sense of optimism and possibility. South Africa was on the world stage for a positive reason and for change. Then, we performed for a massive crowd at the Union Buildings, it was black and white South Africans, it was the best time, it was mostly emotional,” she says.

The band, nonetheless, has lost a few members over the years and Johnston sobs as she remembers the late Mickey Vilakazi.

“When I joined the band in 1985, Mickey was 64 and he passed away prior to 1989 and he missed all the excitement, he missed the changes in the country, he missed the wonderful release of The Hotel Room.

John Leyden of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It makes me sad that he wasn’t around to have seen that, and of course Banza Kgasoane who’s the father of Mo T (band member of popular South African house band Mi Casa). He was our trumpeter for many years. Phumzile Ntuli has also passed on. We ultimately had to keep going, move on. I imagine if I go, I hope Mango finds someone to replace me,” she says.

As the conversation flows and the band rehearses in the background, a cheerful man wearing khaki shorts appears bearing a glass of whiskey, walking towards a water container to mix his spirit. He is Sydney Mavundla, a trumpet player and one of the new members.

“I joined the band in February 2008, just after getting married. The trumpeter before me was Johnny Bower; I used to play for him when he was not available. He got a full time with an orchestra, that’s how I got the job,” he says.

Mavundla describes the band as family. He used to listen to them growing up; little did he know he would be a part of it. He was fortunate to work with legendary artists such as the late Hugh Masekela.

“We recorded two albums with Bra Hugh and then an album with the late Oliver Mtukudzi. If we are talking about Mango Groove, I want to believe it is different from the beautiful energy the old-timers had. Now it’s a bit youngish in terms of the horns, it’s not the original horn players who started the band,” he says.

Playing a tune, Mavundla talks about the freedom they now enjoy as newer artists.

“I am very excited about the upcoming concert. The first time you heard Mango and the very last time you heard Mango – that is what you should expect to hear. Thirty years is a long journey and that is 30 years of what you are going to hear. Better than that, you are going to see a very energetic, groovy Mango Groove. Come with your dancing shoes if you want, you won’t be disappointed,” he says.

The trumpeter wishes Africans would read more about South African music instead of western artists and their music, and recalls Masekela’s quote:

One day, our kids will be asked ‘who are you’ and they will respond ‘we used to be Africans, they used to call us Africans’.

The band’s founder Leyden also joins the conversation, saying he just wanted to be in a band as a teenager.

Leyden is Zambian-born but came to South Africa at the age of eight. He lived his life through the political transformation of South Africa and as an artist, never affiliated himself with politics. Instead, he started a band.

“In terms of the influences of Mango and what drove me, it was a pop act but we were very easily influenced by South African urban music forms from the 1950s and 1960s like kwela music, marabi music and African jazz sounds. They were music forms we loved.

“Mango was a funny little group of people, some came, some went, it was totally an organic process and we did what we did. When the first album broke big, we were more surprised than anyone.”

Sydney Mavundla of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

For the upcoming concert, Leyden and the gang are working on a huge production. They want the event to be about memories of the late band members, as well as celebrating the band’s journey.

Elaborating further, Johnston says the big night will be about nostalgia, energy and emotion.

It will be the eighties all over again in a country that has neither forgotten its bitter apartheid past nor the music that defined the long hard years of pain and political fervor. 

The post 30 Years And Still Grooving appeared first on Forbes Africa.

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