Old school’s cool

Lloyd Gedye reviews From Marabi to Disco: 42 Years of Township Music, an album that celebrates some of SA’s best music over four decades.

Various Artists
From Marabi to Disco: 42 Years of Township Music (Gallo)
This album could have been titled South African Music for Dummies. Not because it is simplistic, but because it offers a wonderful snapshot of the different styles of South African music between 1939 and 1981, in one easily digestible dose, with great comprehensive liner notes. Although its intentions might be broad in scope, it manages to deliver a great mix of the marabi, mbaqanga, kwela, African jazz and disco styles that have populated South African music.

It begins with the 1944 marabi number Zulu Piano Medley No 1, Part 1 by Thomas Mabiletsa. Marabi is a raw blend of indigenous harmonies and American ragtime and this example is a great little rollicking piano number. Track three is a great 1939 a capella recording of Solomon Linda’s Mbube, which most listeners would know as The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Other early highlights include the 1955 protest song Meadowlands, about the forced removal of tenants from Sophiatown, recorded by Nancy Jacobs and her sisters, and Dorothy Masuka’s 1956 hit Ufikizolo, an African blues number that has the intensity of blues greats such as Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie.

The kwela/pennywhistle jive is represented here by two numbers: one by the Solven Whistlers and the superior Goli Kwela by Kippie Moeketsi and the Marabi Kings. On the jazz front you get songs by the Jazz Dazzlers and the Elite Swingers, but the best of the lot has to be the Ten Troubadours, led by Ntemi Piliso, with their 1961 song Umbuzi.

In the mid-Sixties township music underwent a drastic change with the introduction of electric instruments and a harder beat. The new style was coined mbaqanga and this compilation includes hits by the Big Four, the Boyoyo Boys, Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje and the Mahotella Queens, but the highlight is the Makgona Tshothle Band’s 1968 song Ngikhala ngiya Baleka, which features the Simon ”Mahlathini” Nkabinde, who went on to join forces with the Mahotella Queens.

In the mid-Seventies mbaqanga started to fuse with elements of American soul and disco. The leaders of this new wave were the Soul Brothers, who spawned hundreds of copycat acts and are represented here by their 1978 hit Bayeza. Two other popular groups from the disco-soul movement were vocalist Mpharanyana and his backing band the Cannibals, which featured Ray Phiri on guitar and Isaac Mtshali on drums, and the Shoe Laces, a Pietermaritzburg outfit that never really fulfilled its potential.

Add to these great recordings by South African music legends such as Dolly Rathebe, the Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba and Spokes Mashiyane and you easily have the best South African compilation album ever released. Every household should own a copy.

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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