Letta Mbulu

Letta Mbulu was born and raised in Soweto in South Africa. As a teenager toured to England with the musical ‘King Kong,’ which ran for a year following a highly successful two-year run in South Africa. On returning to South Africa the policies of Apartheid forced her to leave for the United States in 1965.
She was quickly befriended by fellow South Africans in exile in New York, including Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa.
Her performances at the Village Gate Club attracted the attention of Cannonball Adderley and she toured with him for several years.
During this tie she began writing her own song, and several of these were recorded by Miriam Makeba (Akana Nkomo, uShaka, Jol’inkomo, uMngoma and Magwala Ndini).
With her husband, Caiphus Semenya and Jonas Gwangwa and his wife Mamsie, she formed Letta and the Safaris. In 1966 their single, ‘Walkin’ Around,’ was issued by Columbia Records but made little impact.
Letta and Caiphus soon relocated to the American West Coast where Hugh Masekela was fast becoming a fixture of the California jazz scene.
Signed by David Axelrod to Capitol Records she released her debut album, ‘Letta Mbulu Sings’ in 1967. The single ‘Ardeze’ gained little airplay in America because it was not sung in English.
The following year Axelrod produced the majestic ‘Free Soul’ album. Letta toured often and made many recordings in her own right and as part of musical aggregates put together by Hugh Masekela, including the anonymous collective known as Africa ’68.
Letta was one of the first artists to be signed to the new Chisa Records label formed by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, and in 1970 Chisa issued her new album simply called Letta. She continued to tour, often with Harry Belafonte.
Lekker Links
Biography by Doug Payne
Biography on Music.org.za Abdullah Ibrahim; Dolly Rathebe; Hugh Masekela; Miriam Makeba
In 1973 she played the part of a singer in the Sidney Poitier’s film, ‘A Warm December.’ The same year Cannonball Aderley’s Fantasy Records label issued her next album, Naturally.
She was subsequently signed by Herb Alpert to the A&M Records label where he made two albums;. The first of two albums, ‘There’s Music in the Air’ (1977) and ‘Letta’ (1978) – her second album simply called Letta.
Between these two album, Letta was recruited by Quincy Jones to sing much of the music in the mammoth TV series, ‘Roots’.  Another album recorded around this time was not released until 1980 as ‘Sound of a Rainbow.’
In 1984 Letta sang on a second Quincy Jones soundtrack for the Whoopi Goldberg film, ‘The Colour Purple.’
In 1986 she was a founding member of South African Artists United (SAAU). This organisation launched the musical ‘Buwa’ that carried a political and historical theme with Letta in the leading role.
Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya returned to South Africa in 1991, after 26 years in exile. The following year she released ‘Not Yet Uhuru,’ her first album recorded on South African soil. It was arranged and produced by her husband, Caiphus Semenya, who also composed most of the songs.
In 2001 Letta Mbulu was honoured by the South African Music Awards for lifetime achievement.
In April 2004, together with Caiphus Semenya, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, and Sibongile Khumalo, she formed the Creative Collective, which co-ordinated the musical and artistic programme for South Africa’s ‘Ten Years of Freedom’ celebrations.

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