Today, we revisit our Spotlight on… series that began last year with a focus on the legendary Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde. In this, the second post in the series, Electric Jive looks at the life of one of the most successful South African music producers, Rupert Bopape, who died on Friday 15 June 2012 aged 86.
|RUPERT BOPAPE, circa 1969|
He was uniquely sharp at spotting a talented musician or singer, and possessed a long-honed talent for mining the gold. Bopape was astoundingly active at forming bands of instrumentalists and teams of vocalists that would go onto have enormous national success. Indeed, it is Bopape’s groups that are remembered far more than those of his rival producers. These groups also outlived the competition. Two of his creations – the Mahotella Queens and the Dark City Sisters – were still active in the 21st century. As talented as he was at forming groups and watching them shoot to stardom, he was also very active in the songwriting department. Thousands of songs credit Bopape as the composer, the majority of them in conjunction with another writer, but many registered only under his name. Since Bopape was not a musician in his producing years, it is highly unlikely he “wrote” the instrumental songs that credit him as sole composer. A case in point is “Tom Hark”, a pennywhistle song recorded under his production around 1956. Its main performer, Elias Lerole, has notably claimed the ownership of the song over the years, but to date has never benefitted from the extensive royalties the song reaped.
It is more than likely right to assume that “Tom Hark” is not an isolated case. However, it is important to underline that Bopape was not an out-and-out criminal. During the salad days of his Mavuthela stable, he was fully immersed in constructing songs for the company’s artists. He would write song lyrics based upon a particular subject (often topical but not always), and then work with one of the Mavuthela musicians to complete the song – hence the hundreds of compositions that give credit to “R. Bopape and S. Piliso”. Other times, he would come up with a particular melody from imagination and ask one of the musicians to turn it into a full-length instrumental. It is true that Bopape claimed much more than he was entitled to, but he was not alien to the concept of writing songs. Towards the end of his career in the music industry, he expanded his contribution further to focus solely on composing material for the artists of Mavuthela’s various producers, a roster he had built himself.
Sebatana Rupert Bopape was born on 15 December 1925. His early life was somewhat erratic. A move to Pietersburg was then followed by a sudden relocation to Magoebaskloof, and then back and forth between the two until the young Rupert was sent to live with his aunt at Vaalkop. He grew up in Pietersburg, where – like so many young music lovers of the time – he learnt to play on a homemade guitar played at parties throughout the night. Aged 19, Bopape came to Pretoria to seek work. He found employment at a plumbing company, working for them until he decided Johannesburg held better prospects. In 1950 he became a pressman for Record Industries. One particular day Bopape was called in by the management, who wanted the opinion of somebody from the target audience of their black music product. They noted Bopape’s unique attitude and he became an assistant talent scout. After showing his aptitude at gathering together good musicians that would go on to make a profit for the company, Bopape was promoted to main talent scout. These were the first few steps on the road to success.
|RUPERT BOPAPE, circa late '50s|
The rise of the all-male close-harmony vocal group prompted producers such as Matumba to buck the trend and reverse the situation. In 1958, Bopape began his own efforts at contributing to what was to become a new craze, the African girl group. Fronted initially by Francisca Mngomezulu, Nunu Maseko and Kate Olene, the Dark City Sisters were at the forefront of the new jive style. It was raw music, performed by instrumentalists who couldn’t read notation and sung by girls from the rural areas. But it was a new craze that seemed to grow and grow and become more cultivated with the recruitment of more musicians and vocalists to EMI. Pretty soon, EMI dominated the market with its electric jive sound, and rival companies began building up a roster of new stars modelled on Bopape's successful stable. It was under a slightly newer membership in the early 1960s that the Dark City Sisters – now controlled by the excellent Joyce Mogatusi in combination with Irene Mawela, Esther Khoza, the Mngomezulu sisters (Ethel and Francisca), Grace Msika and others – became the most popular female group in the country. This “mbaqanga” music – so-named for its tendency to sound raw, unrefined and homemade – had been developed more or less aggressively by that team of musical players orchestrated by Bopape at EMI.
Gallo’s turnaround was insanely momentous, and with Bopape’s hand, Mavuthela grew to be the biggest player in the indigenous African market – within a year or two, dominating the market entirely. The main reason for this was the combination of groaner Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde with the Mahotella Queens – that name proving to be the most popular of the dozen or so pseudonyms – together with the instrumental accompaniment of the Mavuthela house band, who Bopape later christened the Makgona Tsohle Band. There were three real innovators in the band who, after Bopape had combined them together, managed to develop mbaqanga music as it is generally known worldwide today. These were: Joseph Makwela, who had displaced the tea-chest bass by becoming the first black electric bassist in the country and playing his meticulous notes based on the lower registers of vocal groups; Marks Mankwane, who began transferring the ‘ukupika’ of maskanda music players onto the electric guitar and pushing the instrument to the spotlight; and Vivian Ngubane, an often-underrated musician who was the very first to play rhythm guitar on an electric guitar (until now, the rhythm had been provided by an acoustic guitar or a banjo) and played it in a very distinctively “bouncy” style. The Makgona Tsohle Band were naturally popular within their own right, and provided back-up for Mavuthela’s sax jivers including West Nkosi (with whom the nucleus of the band had originated back in the mid-50s), Lemmy ‘Special’ Mabaso, Shadrack Piliso, Mario da Conceicao and (briefly) Spokes Mashiyane. The team of horn-blowers was expanded in the late 1960s and well into the 1970s to include the likes of Roger Xezu, Sipho Bhengu, Thomas Motshoane, David Khanyile (aka “Fastos The Great”) and Sello Mmutung (better known as “Bra Sello”).
|SHADRACK PILISO, 1972|
|Left to right: LUCKY MONAMA,|
WEST NKOSI and MARKS MANKWANE
|RUPERT BOPAPE, circa 1974|
Bopape had withdrawn from his industry responsibilities, although his interest in songwriting certainly persisted. He also parted ways with second wife Irene Mawela around much the same time. Mawela, for many years a faceless voice of the studio, decided to return to her roots and record Venda-language music, in spite of market pressures that material in this language would not sell as highly as Zulu and Sotho-language songs. Traditional producer Lucky Monama put her under his wing and Mawela recorded some brilliant material for two or so years until motherhood forced her into an abrupt but graceful abdication. Her much-remembered recordings of this era include her Venda-language LP Khanani Yanga (1982), as well as three EPs of Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa and Venda material. Mawela made a surprise return to the industry in late 2007 with the gospel album Tlhokomela Sera, recorded once again for Gallo.
After his retirement from the music industry, Bopape settled permanently in his home village of Mogapeng outside Tzaneen, with an extended family of children and grandchildren. He became something of a prominent businessman in the area, establishing a number of successful businesses. During the 1990s, Bopape’s health failed further as he entered his old age. He had a long-standing diabetic condition (which contributed to the loss of his eyesight later in the decade) and also developed cardiac problems and hypertension. In spite of these health troubles, Bopape's fondness for music and songwriting never left him. In early 2012, he wrote five new Sotho songs for his ex-wife Irene Mawela, all of which she set melodies to, recorded and included in a brand new studio album titled Africa 5 (2012). In a lovely throwback to the heyday of Mavuthela, the elderly Bopape provided poetically spoken words on two of the album's tracks. Aside from little forays into his old life like this, Bopape lived in solitude until his death in June 2012.
Regardless of his personality or nature, Rupert Bopape’s stature within South Africa’s music industry cannot be underlined enough. Even so, the songwriting section of his career is at times confusing. He simply could not have written those instrumental songs that give him a sole composing credit. This points to an individual who seems to have wanted to build up a library of songs that portrayed him as a multi-talented star. This wasn’t the case. But it is important to note that those songs listing him as a co-composer indicate some effort being put in by the producer - he certainly wrote lyrics for songs, which were then arranged into a melody by a team of his musicians. Bopape also had an often-forgotten talent for storytelling, and his beautifully poetic style of chanting was a distinctive feature on hundreds of successful songs. He was a smart individual who, ostensibly, seemed to be very talented at getting the right singers and instrumentalists together. The fact that Mavuthela spent much longer on its mbaqanga productions – producing slightly less material than those of its rivals – but still managed to dominate the black market is a testament to that strongly creative team of people assembled by Bopape. He had a true talent for forming the best possible teams of music makers in the studio, and this perhaps killed two birds with one stone – these teams were able to work together to make remarkably creative music that shifted copies in numerous quantities.
|A 1960s compilation LP released|
on the iconic MOTELLA label
In conjunction with this Spotlight post, Electric Jive presents a compilation of 30 songs from Rupert Bopape’s career at Gallo. These include songs he produced, composed or contributed to in some form or another. By and large, this equates to something of a “Best Of” collection for the Mavuthela stable. A variety of styles are included here, from the somewhat unorthodox soul and pop right down to the staple jive sound that the company excelled at.
SPOTLIGHT ON… RUPERT BOPAPE
1. WOZA JIVE SOSOLO – MTHUNZINI GIRLS (1967)
2. VULA BOP’S – WEST NKOSI AND HIS ALTO SAX (1967)
3. UNYAWO LWABASHA – MAHLOKOHLOKO STARS (1966)
4. IZULU LIYADUDUMA – IZINTOMBI ZO MGQASHIYO (1967)
5. UKUTSHELWA – MTHUNZINI GIRLS (1967)
6. THEOGEDI – MAHLOKOHLOKO STARS (1967)
7. SESHEGO – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1970)
8. JIVE MGQASHIYO – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1965)
9. GIJIMA – IZINTOMBI ZO MOYA (1968)
10. LEUKANA – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1971)
11. PHOROKGOTLHO – DIMA SISTERS (1967)
12. KGAREBE TSA GA MOTHUSI – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1971)
13. MARABI BLUES – MAKGONA TSOHLE BAND (1972)
14. STOP SHOUTING – ZWINO ZWINO BOYS (1971)
15. THONTHODI – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1971)
16. PHEPHETHA – S. PILISO AND HIS SUPER SEVEN (1971)
17. UNGANGIBIZI BUTI – MAKGONA TSOHLE BAND (1971)
18. LAKHALA IQHUDE – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1971)
19. LILIZELA – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1969)
20. CHOPSTICKS – S. PILISO AND HIS SUPER SEVEN (1972)
21. DITHOTA – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1972)
22. UMCULO KAWUPHELI – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1973)
23. QAQA MLALELI – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1973)
24. SHILUVANI – THE BIG BAG BOYS (1973)
25. 1815 SPECIAL – WEST NKOSI NABASHOKOBEZI (1973)
26. HAFAMBA – DIKWAIKWAI (1975)
27. MOLODI WALLA – AMAKHOSAZANA (1978)
28. MPULELE – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1980)
29. LEBOWA LE LEGOLO – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1981)
30. MMA GA A GONA – MAHOTELLA QUEENS (1982)