Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde established a royalty of South African music when he formed Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens in Johannesburg in 1964. The band's music was rooted in mbaqanga, which literally means "cooking pot," but it is popularly known as township jive. By the decade's end, the group's members were luminaries in the townships, bringing their exuberant music, with its deep anti-apartheid message, to much of southern Africa, and recording more than 20 albums. Frontman Mahlathini -- also known as "king growler" -- passed away last July due to complications from diabetes, but his legacy lives on in other artists who continue to spread the music and culture of South Africa. Amandla Poets have inherited Mahlathini's torch and have taken on his mission of bringing the message to the masses. The group lays claim to international roots -- with musicians from South Africa, Suriname, Israel, and the U.S. -- and dresses in colorful traditional garb onstage, belting out its own kind of mbaqanga, which melds American R&B, world beat, and African reggae. The Poets spice up this eclectic mix with soulful vocals, a teaspoon of rap, and catchy yet politically weighted lyrics.
Though apartheid is officially over in South Africa, it is far from forgotten by Amandla Poets. Reconciliation is strong on the present agenda, and the building of a new kind of nation remains a priority. With songs like "Come Together" ("Come together black and white, skank it slowly so that you can feel it") and "E.B.'s Prayer" ("My chain is Reagonomics for Sandino, my chain is apartheid for freedom"), the band's most recent album, Makube Njalo (Make It So), espouses political mantras that might seem naive, but will nevertheless inspire thought -- and a little booty-shaking. Still, the Poets' lyrics, in both English and Xhosa, are not all activism; they leave room for reggae standards in the one world-one love vein.
Amandla Poets take their groove to the stage on Friday, Nov. 12, at 9:30 p.m. at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo (at Gilman), Berkeley. Tickets are $10; call (510) 525-5054. The Poets also perform at Herbst Pavilion as part of the Afribbean '99 Music Festivalon Saturday, Nov. 13, at 3:30 p.m. The festival spans two days and includes international acts like soca/calypso musicians krosfyah, Cameroonian reggae master Prince Eyango, and over 20 other performers and DJs. Also featured will be African storytelling, puppet shows, and international food and knickknacks, all at Fort Mason Center, Buchanan & Marina, S.F. Tickets are $10; call (650) 964-2056.