Letta Mbulu: Changing with the Times

It’s early in the morning. I find myself playing out the ultimate fangirl fantasy of calling Letta Mbulu, Grand Dame of South-African jazz and pop music. She picks up the phone – a calm, strong voice at the other end. Nervously, I ask her how she’s doing, three times in a row.

“I’m excited,” Mbulu replies with a perceptible smile. “I’ve been to Amsterdam before. I really liked the trams and the bicycles; I can’t wait to revisit the city this summer.”

The touring started during the sixties when she was still a child, after she had joined the cast of the South-African jazz-influenced musical King Kong. With Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela as her mentors, Mbulu rapidly gained recognition within the community of Black South Africans. But being an influential Black singer in a country torn by apartheid was a dangerous matter. Since she was not afraid to use her beautiful voice politically, she was left with no other choice than to leave her beloved motherland in 1965 for the United States. What followed was a 30-year period in exile. She’s lost count of the many places she’s seen during her long and outstanding musical career.

“New Zealand, Japan, Senegal, Ivory Coast – I’ve even been to Cuba,” says Mbulu. “As you can tell, I traveled a lot; I still love it.”

I ask her where she currently resides. “Home, at last,” Mbulu replies, sounding very relieved. It was the South African town of Soweto she had to leave behind that welcomed her with open arms upon her return in 1997.

“Honestly, I’d always hoped to come back. I mean, America was good, because I was able to do my work. Going in exile gave me the opportunity to improve my artistry. But I’d always wanted to come back, come back home, and I’m glad I’m back now.”

While honing her artistry, Mbulu wasn’t shy of collaborations; on the contrary, those years in the States were very fruitful. Mbulu toured with Harry Belafonte, lent her vocals to the Michael Jackson song “Liberian Girl” (1987) and recorded under the supervision of Quincy Jones. She gladly picked up new inspirations, and inspired the people around her. The music had helped her feel more at ease in her new surrogate country.

“When you leave home to live in another world, you’re exposed to a lot of new influences. This forces you to come up with your own sound,” explains Mbulu. “Despite that, I’ve tried not to lose my roots. You can’t help but keep some of the music that is yours, that you grew up with. It’s the music that has become a part of your soul, and it’s something you will always gravitate towards, I believe. It’s simply who you are.”

After a lifetime of being in motion, performing for sold-out venues, and waiting in hotel lobbies the plane finally brought her back to South Africa in 1992, right after the official abolishment of the apartheid legislation. She had missed the hills, the people of this country and their smiles, but her long-awaited return also bore a very painful side, as her absence had made it impossible for her to attend the funerals of her mother and brothers.

“Coming back, I was hit with the realization that all the people I had grown up with were all gone. It was a very, very emotional return,” says Mbulu. “But I don’t regret going to the States, because it was what I had to do. I was able to grow and now I’m sharing with my people all my experiences gained outside the country, to show them that sometimes it’s good to leave what you love, and go, and learn. That’s what I did and I learned a lot.”

What she had not known, was that her music had been everything but absent in South Africa. Still amazed by the event, she recounts the first time she performed back in her country since the exile and how people were singing along loudly to all of her songs. She still wonders how they were able to access her early music, which was forbidden by the brutal apartheid regime. That her own songs were appreciated by her own people meant a lot to Mbulu. But singing for an audience that looks up to her as their cultural icon brings on new tensions between developing one’s artistry and satisfying the audience’s need for singing along to classics.

“It’s a very difficult issue,” says Mbulu. “Sometimes you put your set list together, and you want to perform new songs, because that is what artists do. But your audience is like, ‘yes, it’s very nice what you are doing and all, but I have a favorite song. Can you please play my favorite song?’”

Laughing, she continues: “I had to get used to that in the beginning after my return. But of course you end up doing all the old songs, because that is what people want. And you have to comply, for you would like to keep them satisfied. And to be honest, I’m more than happy to give them that experience. I’m always really grateful to be among my people. But you also have to find a way to infuse something new, so they’d know that you are still relevant.”

The connection with the Black community in South Africa has always been present in Mbulu’s music. She prefers singing in Zulu – her mother tongue, and remained doing so throughout her exile. This led to an unusual situation where she would teach the lyrics of her songs phonetically to her American backing vocalists, due to the lack of native Zulu speakers available while recording in New York. The native language makes education through music an effective means, as she demonstrates by translating into Zulu the Helen Reddy song “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” (1973). She never expected this song would still be an anthem for self-respect and women’s strength in South Africa, one that often slips into her packed set list. But she reassures me once more that she never grows tired of performing the same songs repeatedly.

“When you start reaching into yourself and the roots that make you who you are, you become a different artist: you become who truly you are.”

“When I sing my songs over and over again, I feel them, because they are real, they’re present in the soul. There is a sincerity that shines through; they expose who I am emotionally. I’ll never tire of that feeling.”

Post-apartheid, Mbulu’s fan base continues adapting to the changing times, growing bigger and spreading across different social classes in South Africa. She feels much more relaxed these days, having awakened the desire to sing about less loaded themes. Songs about happiness, love and life in general. Songs that you can play at your wedding, just like her sweet classic “There’s Music In The Air” (1976).

“You know, I want people to have a good time, so I don’t want to constantly remind people of the struggle that was going on while I was writing some of my songs. Of course, when people request for such a song, I can accommodate their wish by singing it for them. But I know that times have changed, and you have to change with it. Things are way better now.”


Letta Mbulu will be performing at SSFB Weekender on Sunday June 24. Tickets are available here.