in the late Eighties and very early Nineties Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg were the two most commercial South African acts in what one could loosely call the rock field. Both of these acts in succession sold out the Good Hope Centre, then the premier (and only) large venue in Cape Town and surrounds for such popular entertainers.
Not so coincidentally both Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg were proponents of a style that combined the best of "international" rock or pop and local flavours. In Clegg's case it was Zulu guitar music and mbaqanga and in Mango Groove's case it was marabi, a South African twist on big band jazz and with the colouring of a penny whistle as sweetener. Claire Johnston, the petite blonde vocalist for Mango Groove, was a kind of pop sex symbol who went solo when the band had more or less run its course but this solo career was never as successful as Mango Groove had been.
I believe there has been a fairly recent attempt to resurrect Mango Groove without much apparent success.
Mango Groove was the Freshly Ground of its day: a group of White and Black musicians mixing up a potent brew of indigenous music combined with pop sensibilities, hit singles and management that could package the image and the sound into a commercially viable package. Sadly for Mango Groove they hit their stride and peaked locally before the great cultural thaw that came with the democratisation of South Africa and, unlike Freshly Ground, did not have much of an opportunity to expand into international markets.
I never saw Mango Groove live. The closest I came was at the Three Arts somewhere in the early years of their career, when the band had already made a splash in Johannesburg and was an unknown quantity way down south. The Quibell brothers had refurbished the Three Arts in an attempt to make if more of a money spinner than it had been for a while. The main theatre had been refurbished and an enclosed bar venue was built in the old lobby. Somehow, and well before Mango Groove had any kind of radio hit, their management booked them into the Three Arts for a week of shows, Monday to Saturday.
I had no idea what this allegedly hot new band sounded like. When I'd read about them in Vula magazine I thought that the band name suggested a tropical, Caribbean sound, perhaps salsa perhaps calypso. Then I read about "Big Mickey" Vilakazi and the make-up of the band from young White musicians pairing up with veterans of the Soweto music scene and thought the concept was something like disco mbaqanga with a White female vocalist and this idea did not attract met at all.
It made no sense to me for Mango Groove to be playing at the Three Arts for 6 nights throughout the week. They were not that well-known and the Three Arts was hardly a hip and happening venue, out in Diep River. Capetonians do not like to travel that far. A week at the Baxter Theatre would have made more sense, but I guess the choice of venue was forced by the then lack of popularity of the band. The way to do it, should have been what all Jo'burg bands did at the time: come down to Cape Town for 2 weeks and play a bunch of weekend gigs at the club venues in town.
I was kind of interested in checking out Mango Groove just for the hell of it, particularly as I did make an effort to catch all the local rock gigs I could get to but I was not going to drive to Diep River during a week night.
As it happened, on the Saturday night I decided to make the trek to the south, The Flaming Firestones were also playing at the Three Arts. I thought they were the opening act and this contrast struck me as quite weird. The Firestones were a blues band; Mango Groove was African pop. Who the hell had thought this up?. The Firestones were a must see for me because Nico Burger was then their lead guitarist and so I thought, given that the entry fee to the venue covered both bands, that I could kill the proverbial two flies with one swipe.
When I walked into building Claire Johnston came storming past me in a very tight fitting,low cut strapless evening dress. The first impressions was that she was small, had small breasts, a funky haircut and was steaming mad about something. She could not really stride in that tight dress but she was motoring as best she could. Ii never knew what had annoyed her and I never saw her again.
On enquiry I was told that The Flaming Firestones were playing in the bar in the lobby and were not opening for Mango Groove at all. Okay, that made sense. The problem was that the two bands would be performing concurrently. As the Firestones were more of a priority for me I never did get to the main hall to check out Mango Groove.
It had seemed to me, even at the time of 21h00 I pitched up at the Three Arts (in those days one hardly ever went out earlier than 22h00 and mostly much later), that there was an altogether sparse audience for Mango Groove. The venue, which could accommodate about 3000 punters in the main hall, was not in any way buzzing with young trendies out to witness the ascent of an imminent local pop phenomenon. The Firestones had attracted the usual number of usual suspects who were by no means the the typical Mango Groove would be fan and in the main part of the building there was no sighting of anybody else. Perhaps more people came in after I entered the bar but for ever after I felt sorry for this band to have been subjected to this ignominy. Never in my wildest dreams at the time would I have foreseen that they would become as big as they did.
And they did become big. Not long after the stand at the Three Arts, and after their return to Johannesburg, Mango Groove started having chart hits with their African pop amalgam and then found themselves in the position of being able out to sell out the 8000 capacity Good Hope Centre.
For a shining couple of years Mango Groove was probably the biggest local pop sensation and Claire Johnston, who was the face and the voice of the band, became a celebrity. She was pretty and could sing. And fortunately for her the hits songs were great, memorable tunes.
Now, in 2011, Gallo Record Company has released a series of low budget compilations of the best tunes from various artists on their roster. Mango Groove is one of a group that included Lucky Dube, the Soul Brothers, Stimela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Jabu Khanyile. There may be more.
The Mango Groove compilation is not the first greatest hits set. This album contains 10 sure fire hit tunes. If there are any other of their well known songs not included here, I would not know.
I must admit I bought this CD because it was cheap. I had never been inclined to buy any Mango Groove product, whether the original records or the later greatest hits album that is still out there as well. This collection is a bit of a delight. I know all of the songs, except for their version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Together As One" which sounds like an anthem for the 1995 Rugby World Cup (or it could be for another similar event) and I have to acknowledge that each one of them is a pure pop gem. John Leyden's tunes and Claire Johnston's voice, alternately breathily sexy and gleeful, and the swinging backing of a bunch of relaxed pros, make for great, exhilarating fun. The sum of the parts is far more powerful than the individual contributions, wonderful as those assorted elements may.
Mango Groove managed truly to make a gleaming alloy from the best of both worlds and to give us classic and classy pop.