THERE'S NO other experience in pop music quite like it. South Africa's Mahlathini takes the stage wearing a studded crown, fur leggings and an animal skin apron. He does a Zulu warrior dance, crouched over and chopping the air with his legs and arms, and sings in deep-throated growl that explains his nickname, the "Lion of Soweto."
He is answered by the three Mahotella Queens -- dressed in rainbow aprons, pink-and-blue hula skirts and trumpet-bell-shaped hats -- whose sweet harmonies explain their nickname, the "Supremes of South Africa." They answer his warrior dance with a sensual, regal dance of their own, spinning around with shoulders lowered and hips raised. Meanwhile the renowned Makgona Tshole Band stirs up the township jive rhythms with guitarist Marks Mhangwane playing skipping soukous arpeggios that recall Ray Phiri's work with Paul Simon.
Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens have been one of the top Zulu township jive acts in South Africa since 1965, but only now are they making their first U.S. tour. They come to the Birchmere Monday, and they have three new albums here in North America.
Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens "Paris-Soweto" (Polydor/ Urban Africa). This album was recorded in a Paris studio during Mahlathini's 1987 breakthrough tour of Europe and provides most of the repertoire for the group's current North American tour. West Nkosi, the group's longtime music director and producer, took advantage of France's state-of- the-art technology to capture the infectious sound of Mahlathini's live shows better than any previous album. Most infectious of all is the sing-along melody of "Kazet" (presented in both a township jive version and in Nkosi's inventive dance mix) and the lilting dance beat of "Melodi Ya Lla." Least infectious is the guest production by Art of Noise on the industrial cut-up mix of "Yebo."
Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens "Rhythm and Art" (Shanachie). This group usually sings in Zulu, which is a great disadvantage for most North Americans. This recent album, recorded last year in South Africa, is the first dominated by English-language songs. Their big hits, "Kazet" and "Melodi Ya Lla," become "Won't You Sing Along" and "Sing This Song" respectively, with lyrics explaining their music and inviting English-speakers to join in.
"I'm in Love With a Rastaman," with its reggae seasoning, Nkosi's penny-whistle solo, the Queens' arresting leads and Mahlathini's droning harmonies, is one of the group's best tracks ever. "Pray the Good Lord" is a gorgeous a cappella hymn that reminds one of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, while "God Is on Your Side" sounds like an Afro-American gospel hymn.
Mahlathini and Amaswazi Emvelo "You're Telling Tales" (Shanachie). West Nkosi is South Africa's leading producer, launching not only Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens but also Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Soul Brothers and Amaswazi Emvelo. This last act is a male vocal trio that brought the distinctive sounds of the Swazi tribe to the Zulu-dominated township jive scene. The beat is much the same, but strumming acoustic guitar, bleating accordion and country-blues melodies give it a different feel. This recent album is the first collaboration between these two big South African acts.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo "Two Worlds One Heart" (Warner Bros.). All the previous albums by this 10-member a cappella male harmony group have been gorgeous, but each one has sounded pretty much like the next. Joseph Shabalala, the group's leader, has attacked that problem on this album by collaborating with three outside producers who added instruments to the group's harmonies.
The oddest partnership pairs Ladysmith with George Clinton and his P-Funk All-Stars, but "Scatter the Fire" proves lean, sinuous and seductive. Ladysmith joins the Winans for the lush Afro-American gospel harmonies and synth-driven township rhythms of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm." Ray Phiri, the music director of Paul Simon's "Graceland" tour, produced the two best tracks, including "Township Jive," the song that opened the "Graceland" shows. The other nine tracks are lovely a cappella Zulu songs in the usual Ladysmith style.
Various artists "Urban Africa: Jive Hits of the Townships" (Polydor/Urban Africa). This compilation of recent hit singles is a superb overview of the post- "Graceland" music scene in South Africa's townships. Twelve songs by eight different artists are included and the emphasis is on catchy hooks and danceable grooves.
The two hits from Mahlathini's "Paris-Soweto" album are included as are the two hits from Miriam Makeba's "Welela" album. Lucky Dube, a reggae artist who has emerged as South Africa's biggest star in recent years, is represented by the title track of his "Slave" album plus his more recent "Together as One" smash single. Ray Phiri leads his own band Stimela through two rock-oriented tracks.
The album's biggest revelations are the interracial band Peto, who sound like Johnny Clegg, and the young singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who sounds like a Mahotella Queen backed by a group of Mahlathinis.