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DEATH OF MLAHLENI JAMES 14 SHABALALA (article first published : 2007-06-16)

Another great South African musician passes on ... Mlahleni James "14" Shabalala sadly passed away last week at his home in Bergville.

Neville Dube - 14's adviser and friend - called to say that the funeral will be held in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal on June 16 (Youth Day). 14 was much loved and admired by musicians and all who heard him perform were mesmerized. He was utterly unique... one of a kind and will be sorely missed by all. He will perhaps best be remembered for his amazing live performances and his trade-mark whistling words - personalising each song with a string of deep Zulu singing clicks and percussive whistles. 14 played his own style of guitar, 5 nylon strings, self-tuned with the top high E string missing.

In the true tradition of the Maskanda (travelling Zulu troubadour / minstrel), 14 would wander around the Drakensberg Mountains sharing his poetic observations and songs with the people, backed with his 5 string rhythms and sounds that he drew from a range of influences; American Country Rock (a percussive strum), to strains of Flamenco, mixed into the familiar Zulu walking-pick (with the main tune slapped out on the bass strings), across the rhythms of Hi Life (East African) and Zimbabwean Chimurenga. And 14 had never been to any of these places in person. He would travel, word-of-mouth with mind-and-heart, wherever he wandered.

He was the first Maskandi to be booked at Splashy Fen (1990) and only made one recording (with 3rd Ear Music in 1990 - which was never heard on radio.)

14, with his infectious sense-of-humour worked hard. He could not read or write and spoke only isiZulu and Afrikaans, but Neville Dube (a KZN School Headmaster), who, when he had the time, would drive 14 to events, festivals and meetings. 14 did feature on a number of recorded compilations, the most notable being his dedication for Nelson Mandela (uMandela uMose Wesibili - Mandela is the second Moses) which featured on the Mandela Peace Rally recorded at Kings Park Stadium in Durban on February 26, 1990 - not available commercially.

14 toured the UK as an opening act with Joseph Shabalala (no relation) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2002. Despite having recorded an album of songs produced by Joseph Shabalala (for Gallo Records) in 2002, the CD has never been issued.

Born and growing up on a farm in the Drakensberg area 25km from Bergville, Mlahleni James "14" Shabalala was given the name 14 by his grandmother, because he was abandoned by his mother when he was 14 days old. He acquired a love for music at a young age and bought his first guitar in Johannesburg in 1981. Advice from respected people in the industry, such as Blondie Makhene and Brenda Fassie, was return to KZN if he wishes to be a successful Maskandi musician.

In 1989, he appeared in the 1989 Maskanda competition arranged by the late Professor Bongani Mtetwa held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He won a recording with 3rd Ear Music who promoted and booked him at many festivals. Because of politics (at the SABC) and favouritism within the record industry, his music has not been heard as it was generally expected it to be. 14 Shabalala performed in many events and has written many new songs which he always wanted to record.

Tribute by David Marks of 3rd Ear Music Company (Est. 1969) / The Hidden Years Music Archive Project (HYMAProject) (Est. 1994). For more information visit www.3rdearmusic.com

The HYMAProject is supported by a National Research Foundation (NRF) grant-in-aid for 2004 / 2007 administered by the University of KwaZulu-Natal




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