Here's the story behind the national anthem, Sister Bettina

2018-09-16 00:00
 

In 2005, a young Mgarimbe jumped on the mic in a club to sing over a Fruity Loops track created by his friend Jabu Mgeni. Embarrassed by the dirty lyrics, the next day he asked Jabu to delete it. Luckily that didn’t happen because, 13 years later, Sister Bettina is as beloved as ever - South Africa's unofficial national anthem. Grethe Kemp puts the track's history to paper.

Johannesburg - The first time I heard Sister Bettina was late in the song’s long lifespan. It was 2014 and I was in Great Dane, it was around 01:00 at night and the Braamfontein venue was at peak capacity – sweaty bodies jostling against each other. The deejay dropped Mgarimbe’s track and we all heaved in unison, bumping, grinding, getting down in a frenetic bundle.

Since its inception in 2005, this track by Mgarimbe (real name Nkosinathi Mfeka) has reached cult status, with many calling it South Africa’s national anthem.

Perhaps due to the catchy Aaliyah sample, its unpolished production or Mgarimbe’s strained belting of the dirty lyrics, Sister Bettina is like a siren call to the masses to dance.

Bettina was birthed from late producer and deejay Jabu Mgeni mixing the song on music programme Fruity Loops from the 2000 Timberland-produced Aaliyah sample Try Again. The sample came preloaded on the programme, and was labelled “fair use”, so no copyright was ever needed.

How Mgarimbe came to sing on the track is another story. #Trending reached the notorious singer via a phone call, and he spoke to us from his home in Durban after picking his children up from school. He’s animated, infectious and laughs a lot – a bona fide entertainer to this day – and the gruff tone that made his singing on Bettina so famous comes through over the phone.

“Jabu was a resident deejay at Action Bar [a downtown Joburg venue that no longer exists], and one day he called me to come through to the club for his girlfriend’s birthday that night,” he tells me. “I went there at around one or two in the morning and the place was packed. I remember I was wasted by that time, and then Jabu started playing the beat that he had made. I just took the mic and started singing. He had a PC there and recorded it – that’s how the song came about.”

Mgarimbe says the next morning he phoned Jabu and asked him to delete the song.

“I begged him, please my man, delete that thing! I was embarrassed by the lyrics,” Mgarimbe laughs. Bettina’s lyrics are a mix of hype and talk about flashing your money so that the woman you’re interested in will finally let you have sex with her.

Jabu said he would, but a few weeks later Mgarimbe was sitting in his flat in Hillbrow and heard a taxi drive past.

“It was playing this song!” He says, imitating the tiri-ti-ti intro of the track.

Jabu hadn’t deleted the track. In fact, it was spreading like wild fire.

Music writer and author of Born to Kwaito, Sihle Mthembu, is well aware of how local music can gain popularity through taxis, events and word of mouth. He remembers hearing the song when he was in Grade 10.

“The track spread through Explosion, one of Durban’s biggest annual music events. They were giving out CDs of it, and people started playing it in the taxis. I remember my taxi driver Fresh had it – and he wouldn’t give it to anyone. Sharing music wasn’t as easy then as it is now. If you had a hot song, you held on to it.”

Bettina also hit at a time when what is referred to as the Bacardi House sound was becoming big. #Trending music writer Phumlani S Langa calls it “taxi house” – a mix of vernacular, kwaito and dance. As always, the US sound was popular, and R&B-influenced hip-hop like that from Aaliyah would have fitted right in.

Radio star

But despite the track’s spreading popularity, Mgarimbe wasn’t earning anything through record sales. It’s a fact he now laughs about.

“A few months down the line it was huge – from the streets to being people’s ringtones. But here I was still staying in this dingy place in Hillbrow. People would come knocking on my door and say ‘Hey! Here’s the guy who’s singing this song!’”

Because of the dirty lyrics, it wasn’t getting any radio play. Yfm’s Azaria Khehla “AK” Tshabalala was the first deejay to put it on air.

Says Mgarimbe: “AK said on radio, ‘My man, if you’re listening – whoever sings this song – please come through to the station; we’d like to interview you.’ I asked my friend to drive me to the station in Rosebank and he interviewed me on the spot. Lance Stehr from Ghetto Ruff record company [now Muthaland Entertainment] phoned me after the interview and offered to record the song.”

The track then got a clean version, shortened from its original eight minute-running time to make it more radio-friendly. Though the official version went gold, Mgarimbe admits that it went out too late for him to get many royalties from it.

UkhoziFM’s DJ Sgqemeza remembers playing a radio edit of it and the response he got.

“People related to the song because it had been playing in their social circles. It was on the UkhoziFM top 20 for a month,” he says. “It’s a streetwise song. It’s what guys say when they are drinking; there’s no social scene without that song. The song is so rough, and if it hadn’t had support from the streets it would never have made it on radio. The guy singing is all over the place. You know, it’s the complete opposite of a Vusi Nova with his polished way of singing – the guy is just drunk in a club. Mzekezeke was also doing something along those lines. And you can’t say Mzekezeke was a good singer, but you could relate to it and the kasi it came from.”

Mgarimbe doesn’t hesitate in declaring that the track changed his life. In fact, with the song’s income he’s able to support his fiancée and four children.

“I have a meter taxi business, but my main source of income is still the song,” he tells me. “And it became big again this year with its re-release and the #SisterBetinaChallenge last year. I’m getting lots of bookings again. In December last year I had 30 gigs all over the country.”

The #SisterBetinaChallenge on social media saw people dancing wherever they were whenever the song came on, proving that it’s impossible not to dance when it plays.

Bettina is beloved even outside our borders, and Mgarimbe’s been booked in Botswana and Zambia. He says his biggest moment was performing in London in 2009. “It was my first time going overseas and both venues were packed. People in the UK were singing along to the song!” he says.

Though nominated in 2007, Sister Bettina never won a South African Music Award.

Lastly, I ask him what his family thinks of Sister Bettina.

“They know the lyrics now and it’s not good. My three year old has now started singing it,” He says and laughs uproariously. “It’s just unique. The fact that it was recorded at a club. I get more bookings than artists who release new songs now.”

FAST FACTS

  • The song’s title is in reference to Lillian Dube’s Soul City character of the same name. Many people don’t know there’s a follow-up track called Sis Khetiwe, which sounds almost the same, but never did as well as the original.
  • Mgarimbe says he doesn’t know why he called it Sister Bettina. “I was wasted and we were just fooling around.”
  • Last year DJ Twitty asked people via Twitter whether he should do a remix of the song. The response was a resounding no. “Have you ever heard of someone making a remix of the national anthem?” said one Twitter user.
  • A 2007 article about the University of Limpopo bestowing on Mgarimbe an honorary doctorate for his contribution to music was later revealed to be fake news.
  • Last year, Idols SA hopeful Sithabiso Mkize auditioned by performing Sister Bettina, but he didn’t get through.
  • Also last year, Twitter petitioned for Mgarimbe to be the opening act to US trap artists Migos for their performance in Durban. Mgarimbe didn’t perform, saying he and the organisers couldn’t reach an agreement on payment.
  • Mgarimbe has two albums, Sister Bettina (2013) and Mgarimbe (2013). And he had a single with Cassper Nyovest called Gologo No Beer.

(Photos: City Press)

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