The Manhattan Brothers was one of the most influential vocal groups in the history of South Africa's music. During the late '40s and '50s, the group appeared regularly on South African television and radio and influenced succeeding generations with their style of dress, speech, attitude, and lifestyle. The first South African group to have a record in the Top 100 chart compiled by Billboard -- "Lovely Lies," which reached number 45 in March 1956 -- the Manhattan Brothers have continued to influence the music of South Africa. A celebration of their first CD, The Best of the Manhattan Brothers, at the Blues Room in Sandton in October 1999, featured a performance by a group calling themselves, the Junior Manhattan Brothers.
The origin of the Manhattan Brothers goes back to the early '30s when four vocalists -- Joe Mogotsi, Rufus Khoza, Ronnie Majola Sehume, and group leader, Nathan "Dambuzza" Mdledle -- were attending the Pimville Government School. Recording their first singles in 1948, the group quickly became superstars in their homeland. Despite their fame, however, the four singers struggled under apartheid. Although they attempted on several occasions to perform outside South Africa, the state government denied them permission to leave. In a 1999 interview, Mogotsi recalled, "We were victimized because we refused to perform in the Van Riebeeck Festival in Cape Town."
The Manhattan Brothers were accompanied by the finest musicians in South Africa. Their band, which was led by composer and saxophonist Mackay Davashe, featured saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, drummer General Duze, and pianist Sol Klaaste. The band later added Hugh Masakela and Jonas Gwangwa and was renamed the Jazz Dazzlers.
In the early '50s, the Manhattan Brothers expanded with the addition of female vocalist Miriam Makeba. Their first recording with Makeba, "Lakutshona Ilanga," was released in 1953. Five years later, the group appeared in a musical, King Kong, with Mdledle in the role of black African boxer Ezekiel "King Kong" Dlemani, Mogotsi as a gangster, Khoza and Sehume as gang members, and Makeba as the female lead. The musical was extremely successful and the troupe traveled to England for performances in 1961. A change in the South African government while the Manhattan Brothers were in England, however, prevented them from returning and they remained in England. While they initially continued performing, Sehume left the group within a few months and was replaced by Walter Loate.
By the 1990s, the Manhattan Brothers had faded into the past. Although Mogotsi remained active as the leader of a London-based band, Joe Mogotsi and the Manhattans, Khoza and Sehume had retired from music and Mdledle had died.
Interest in the Manhattan Brothers was revived when they were the subject of a documentary video, Songs From the Golden City. A 20-tune album, The Best of the Manhattan Brothers, which included two previously unreleased songs ("Hlompa" and "Be My Guest"), followed in 1999. Shortly before the album's release, Mogotsi and Khoza returned to South Africa. ~ Craig Harris