Letta Mbulu was raised in Orlando East in Soweto and was already singing at age 12, performing with teenage groups and winning talent contests, especially with the teen group The Swanky Spots, from which she was recruited into the musical King Kong.
Letta arrived in the United States in 1965 and was quickly welcomed in the South African exile community in New York City which included Miriam Makeba, Hugh Maselela and Jonas Gwangwa – all alumni of King Kong. 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 next decade.)
In 1973, Letta accepted a part in Sidney Poitier’s film, A Warm December, and issued an album called Naturally for Cannonball Adderley’s label, Fantasy Records, on which she performed together with Caiphus. Letta also did extensive tours with Harry Belafonte, who was a strong voice in the civil-rights movement and in this way added her contribution to the freedom struggles of the time.
Quincy Jones recruited Letta to be the voice of the blockbuster television series, Roots (part 1 and part 2), enabling her to contribute to the historic soundtrack, singing songs written by Caiphus, including the memorable Many Rains Ago.
In 1984, Letta sang on Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film The Colour Purple and in 1987 she was heard on Michael Jackson’s Librarian Girl from the album Bad. She was an impressive discography of over 20 albums, and in 2001, she was honoured with a South African Music Award (SAMA.)
The importance of Letta Mbulu’s music to young South Africans over the years cannot be overemphasised. Since the runaway success of I Need Your Love and Kukuchi in the Seventies (both Christmas releases), there was always a palpable buzz in the townships around the festive season, every partygoer wondering when the “next Letta” would be released. Caiphus and Letta obliged time and time again, racking up an impressive repertoire of iconic township favourites which included There’s Music in the Air and the party evergreen, Ndiphendule.
Caiphus Katse Semenya is one of South Africa’s foremost musical directors and composers, and is a member of that iconic group of great South African musician in exile which includes Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Abdullah Ibrahim, who all flew the anti-apartheid flag abroad so effectively. Together with Jonas and Hugh, Caiphus was a member of the Union of South Africa, a band considered by many to be the best South African musical export of all time.
the top of the music entertainment world of the time. Caiphus and three of his friends formed a group called Katzenjammer Kids, who became one of South Africa’s top teenage groups. He was invited by Gibson Kente, the father of the genre that became known as the “township musical”, to join his production “Manana the Jazz Prophet”, and met Theo Bophela who encouraged his emerging song writing talents. With no formal training in music, Semenya wrote in tonic sulpha and “doodled” on self-taught piano.
Caiphus left South Africa for New York in 1964 with the musical Sponono, and remained in New York when the rest of the cast returned to South Africa. He stayed at the home of Miriam Makeba, who encouraged him to send for Letta, which he did. He continued composing, penning such classics for Hugh Masekela as Bo Masekela, Halese le dikhanna and Caution. It was in New York that he received formal training in music writing.
The couple later took up residence in Los Angeles, where Caiphus’ writing talent resulted in work with the top range of American artists and producers of the time, and saw his compositions being performed by Cannonball Adderley, Harry Belafonte, The Crusaders, Lou Rawls, Nina Simone, Herb Alpert, Stanley Turrentine and of course, Letta Mbulu.
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