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
Hugh Masekela and
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.