Primary Instrument: Vocal
Letta Mbulu - South African vocalist, composer
Letta Mbulu was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa. Still in her teens, Letta began touring outside of Africa with the musical King Kong, which ran for a year in England following a highly successful two-year run in South Africa. When the tour ended, she returned to South Africa but soon the policies of Apartheid were to force her to leave her native land for the U.S.A.
She arrived in the United States in 1965 and quickly befriended such fellow South African exiles in New York City as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa - all alumni of the King King musical. Performances at New York's famed Village Gate club began to attract attention to her talents, particularly from jazz legend Cannonball Adderley, who invited her to tour with him (which she did throughout the remainder of the decade).
Letta Mbulu also displayed an early gift for writing joyful, memorable songs. These were showcased by no less an authority than Miriam Makeba on the singer's albums THE MAGNIFICENT MIRIAM MAKEBA (Akana Nkomo), ALL ABOUT MIRIAM (U Shaka, Jol'inkomo) and MAKEBA (U-Mngoma, Magwala Ndini).
Letta first made herself heard on records as part of Letta and the Safaris, a group featuring husband Caiphus Semenya and the South African husband and wife team of Jonas and Mamsie Gwangwa. A single, Walkin' Around was issued in 1966 by Columbia Records, but lack of publicity failed to garner much attention to the clever little R&B swinger.
Letta and Caiphus soon relocated to the West Coast, joining Hugh Masekela, who became a fixture of the California concert and recording scene. While there, producer David Axelrod fell under Letta's spell and had her signed to Capitol Records, where Axelrod himself was scoring big hits for Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley.
Axelrod produced Letta's debut “Letta Mbulu Sings”(Capitol/1967), an immediately attractive collection of Township-style pop mixed with American R&B. It was a hugely enjoyable style that Ms. Mbulu and her collaborator/husband Caiphus Semenya could nearly patent as their own.
Even though a single was released (the magnificent Ardeze b/w Pula Yetla), radio stations wouldn't play the record out of fear that no would understand the words. As a result, hardly anyone ever heard the record and, worse, sales were slight.
Axelrod convinced Capitol to give Letta another chance. The following year he produced the singer's majestic, “Free Soul” as near perfect a collection of afro-pop as has ever been waxed, this time dropping Letta's surname, but in odd contrast, featuring the beautiful young Letta on the cover swathed in colorful afro-centric clothing.
Meanwhile, she toured often (fronting a piano trio led by fellow South African exile Cecil Barnard) and recorded frequently as part of musical aggregates put together by Hugh Masekela - most spectacularly as part of the anonymous collective known as AFRICA '68.
When Masekela and business partner/producer Stewart Levine first formed their Chisa Records label, Letta Mbulu was one of the first artists they signed. In 1970, Chisa issued the first of two Mbulu albums bearing only her first name (the second is from 1978 on A&M).
“Letta” is a magnificent sample of African-American soul, bearing the UK dancefloor classic Mahlalela (written by husband Caiphus Semenya), Mbulu's great Use Mncane (an amazing song that beautifully showcases Mbulu's gorgeous vocal capacities), I Need Your Love (which could've easily been a hit), Masekela's fine Macongo and a Mbulu perennial in husband Semenya's anthemic Jigijela.
Unfortunately, the Chisa label lost its independence in 1971 and was unable to issue another album Letta Mbulu had recorded that year. Mbulu continued to tour, often with Harry Belafonte. In 1973, the singer accepted a part in the Sidney Poitier's film A WARM DECEMBER (as a singer!) and issued the album “Naturally”for Cannonball Aderley's label, Fantasy Records. Indeed, Adderley and Mbulu were finally paired for the first time on record for several of the album's songs. It's here that the L.A. stamp on Mbulu's still-true take on African township pop starts to reveal itself. Songs like Kube (covered recently by South African singer Lebo M), Noma Themba, Hareje and Zimkile reflect how comfortable - maybe a little slick - Mbulu could be at the crossroads of African and American music.
Mbulu raised the bar even higher when Herb Alpert (through Hugh Masekela) signed the singer to the trumpeter's high-profile A&M Records label. The first of two albums, “There’s Music In The Air,” is a another Afro-soul masterpiece that should have made Letta Mbulu a household name. Each song is a wonderful, intoxicating concoction that yields such endless aural delights as Joan Armatrading's Let's Go Dancing (featuring Lee Ritenour and Richard Tee), Caiphus Semenya's Mara A Pula, Rainy Day Music and There's Music In The Air.
Composer and inveterate hit-maker Quincy Jones then recruited Letta Mbulu to become the voice of ROOTS. Contributing to the historic 1977 soundtrack, Mbulu is best remembered for interpreting husband Caiphus Semenya's moving Oluwa (written several years before for another project).
The 1978 album LETTA (A&M) yielded several wondrous performances, including Buza, Baile Baneso, Hareje and Mamani, but sadly no big hits. Another album recorded for A&M ended up coming out in 1980 on several different label(s) throughout the world as”Sound of a Rainbow” yielding a sizeable disco hit in Kiliminjaro. However, there was no album in the United States and, in fact, no album under Letta Mbulu's name has been issued in the United States since 1978's LETTA.
But Letta Mbulu continued a busy - and diverse - career here in the states. In 1981, she narrated the documentary film YOU HAVE STRUCK A ROCK about African women's campaigns of non-violent disobedience. In 1983, she worked on husband Caiphus Semenya's first recording under his own name, “Listen to the Wind” which yielded a huge dance hit in the lovely Angelina.
In 1984, Letta Mbulu sung on Quincy Jones's soundtrack to THE COLOR PURPLE. Later, Mbulu appeared in such musical plays as husband Caiphus Semenya's BUWA (which was a presentation of South African Artists United (SAAU), of which Mbulu was a co-founder) and Mbongeni Ngema's SHIELA'S DAY. Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya finally returned to South Africa in 1991, after 26 years in exile. The singer also returned to records in 1992 with the remarkable “Not Yet Uhuru” her first album recorded on South African soil. It was arranged and produced by Mbulu's multi-talented husband, Caiphus Semenya, who also composed most of the material. Check out Letta challenging any contender on Not Yet Uhuru, Semenya's brilliantly arranged Home Brew (showcasing Letta Mbulu rapping) and Kushukiti.
Mbulu released two more fine albums in the nineties with “In The Music The Village Never Ends,”(’94) and “Sound of a Rainbow” from ’99. In 2006 Caiphus and Letta released “Music in the Air.”
In 2001, Letta Mbulu was honored by the South African Music Awards for lifetime achievement. She has continued to sing on husband Caiphus Semenya's many projects - that continue to earn the couple a legendary and royal status in South Africa.
Source: Doug Payne