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INDEPENDENT MUSIC EXPORTERS SOUTH AFRICA: IMEXSA is is proud to offer its export-ready musicians, managers and company representatives export ready training and showcase opportunities: A moving trailer of hope, lead by passion to change lives and make dreams come true, this right here is a movement challenging perceptions of what it takes to be a successful independent musician in South Africa. 
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Irene Mawela

The name may not ring many bells, but the sound of this great lady’s voice is most likely lurking in the minds and memories of a huge amount of black South African people today. The sound of the voice is soft, sweet and yet resilient. It is a voice that is somehow very well known, even if the name is not. The amount of groups that this lady made beautiful music with is astonishing. We couldn’t possibly list every single group – but here are some of the best: Dark City Sisters, Killingstone Stars, Black Sea Giants, The Sweet Sixteens, The Telegram Specials, Brit’s Sweethearts, Young Stars, Radio Stars, Pretty Dolls, Beauty Queens, Irene and The Sweet Melodians, Mgababa Queens, Izintombi Zomoya, The Zebras, Mahabula Joza, Mahotella Queens… and the list rightly goes on and on.
It is Electric Jive’s honour to proudly present to you the life story of a supreme talent – Irene Mawela, one of South Africa’s finest and most distinctive female singers. As well as being a tremendously gifted vocalist, Irene is also a prolific songwriter and has composed some of the most memorable mbaqanga songs of the last few decades. A couple of months ago, I had the wonderful honour of making contact with Irene herself. To be able to converse with this humble lady and then prepare a biography has been nothing short of overwhelming. My thanks go to Irene for her remarkable and prolific work completed over the course of a near-60 year career.
Irene Mawela was born into a Venda family in 1940 in Moroka, Soweto. Before Irene’s birth, her parents had moved from Limpopo to Soweto in order to find work, but the destructive political situation of the time meant that the family could never reveal their true Venda identity outside of their own home. The joyful sound of music was embedded into Irene right from the start. Whenever the infant Irene started to cry or become unsettled, her mother would sing a particular song to keep her calm. ‘Ndiala, ndiala… ndiala, ndiala…’ crooned Irene’s mother to her baby. It worked every time and Irene always quietened down to listen to the beautiful tune. By the time she was learning to speak, little Irene began humming the song herself.
In order to hide her Venda identity, Irene was enrolled in a Sotho school in her childhood. She spoke fluent Venda at home but never outside it. At school, she learnt to become fluent in Sotho but also had the opportunity to learn and become familiar with Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi and Shangaan. Raised in a Catholic family, Irene regularly attended church where her keen love for singing grew. By her teens, she was a singer in the Sweet Voices, a chorus that sang at wedding ceremonies in Soweto. It was with this group that Irene began perfecting her uniquely sweet lead harmony, a talent that earned her many followers. 17-year old Irene was at a wedding party in Soweto singing with the Sweet Voices when the well-known talent scout and producer Rupert Bopape, at the time the head of EMI South Africa’s black production unit, approached her.
Bopape had recently formed a trio of female singers who he recorded as the Dark City Sisters, so-named after the township of Alexandra and its lack of electricity at night (although only one of the three singers actually hailed from Alexandra). The three founding members of the Dark City Sisters were Nunu Maseko, Francisca Mngomezulu and Kate Olene. Once their popularity kicked off in a big way (culminating in their hit Christmas/New Year 78 rpm featuring the songs “Umnyezane” and “Mntwana”), Bopape wanted to expand the group and begin recording the large team of singers under a variety of recording names (a practice already being perfected by rival producer Cuthbert Matumba at Troubadour Records). The reason usually given by producers for recording the same team of singers under different group names was because the industry only allowed a certain number of recordings by artists per year. The new strategy of recording under various names increased production and therefore increased profit for the record company.