JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Simon Nkabinde, a singer who became a legend in South Africa while popularizing Zulu music internationally, has died after a long illness. He was 61.

Nkabinde, better known as Mahlathini, was the gravel-voiced lead singer for his group, Mahlathini and the Mhaotella Queens. He had performed his music alongside such internationally known artists as Stevie Wonder and Sting.

Gallo Music Co. announced Nkabinde's death this morning and said that he had been ill for some time with diabetes. He died Wednesday.

Nkabinde grew up in a township in Johannesburg and began singing at an early age, performing at weddings and parties.

He began his association with Gallo Music in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, popularized Mbaqanga music, a fusion of dominant African rhythms, pop and jazz that started in the black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg.

President Thabo Mbeki said today that Nkabinde's death was a tragic loss and paid tribute to his contribution to South African culture. The president said Nkabinde would always be remembered through his music.

Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens produced hit after hit in the '60s and '70s and became one of the most popular bands in Africa. The group was often regarded as South Africa's first superband. The group disbanded in the late '70s but reformed to record the hit Yebo in 1984.

Mbeki's office called Nkabinde a legend in South African music and culture who was seminal in the development of indigenous music.

Nkabinde's death comes at a time when Mbaqanga music is experiencing a revival, with pop groups remixing it in various forms.