Getting down, township style
Before Paul Simon’s Graceland became a pop phenomenon and went on to sell 14-million records, there was The Indestructible Beat of Soweto.
Graceland may be largely responsible for introducing South African music genres like mbaqanga, maskanda and is’cathamiya to the international pop world, but it was the Earthworks compilation, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, that inspired it.
Released in 1985, it was this compilation that opened Simon’s ears to the township sounds of South Africa. The Village Voice rated it in the top 10 albums of 1985 and its star music critic, Robert Christgau, called it the most important record of the 1980s. The compilation eventually spawned another six in the series, although none managed to reach the heights of the first.
Fast forward to 2010, the year that South Africa is hosting the largest sporting spectacle in the world and, conveniently, the music researchers are back in business, this time for the Strut label. After years of research and vinyl archeology in South Africa, compilers Duncan Brooker and Francis Golding have put together the Next Stop Soweto series, three compilations that take a look at South Africa’s township music, from mbaqanga to jazz, soul to organ-driven funk and everything in-between.
The first in the series is titled Next Stop— Soweto Volume 1—Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga and it picks up where The Indestructible Beat of Soweto left off.
Released overseas in February this year, it hit shelves in South Africa only in May; while the May released Volume 2 and June released Volume 3 have yet to arrive on South African shores.
Opening with Tsonga disco track, I Sivenoe, by the Melotone Sisters featuring the Amaqola Band, Volume 1 wears its heart on its sleeve. You get what you expect—a solid 20-track dose of mbaqanga greatness with hints of jazz, gospel, rumba and funk woven into the mix, all recorded between the late Sixties and the Soweto uprising of 1976.
The Mgababa Queens’ Maphuthi is a highlight, with its jubilant guitar work and the gorgeous vocals of the Queens—Vampire Weekend eat your heart out!
The Tempo All Stars’ shuffling mbaqanga track, Take Off, features some riveting horn work that is reminiscent of Hugh Masekela’s work in the late Sixties and early Seventies, while the Mahotella Queen’s Zwe Kumusha is another highlight.
Other notable inclusions include Zed Nkabinde’s Inkonjane Jive, the Lucky Strike Sisters’ Mr JS Mpanza and Amaqawe Omculo’s Jabulani Balaleli (Part 2).
It’s not quite better than The Indestructible Beat of Soweto but fans of that compilation will lap this one up, too, especially considering that mbaqanga superstar Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde is the only act to grace both albums.
The second in the series, Next Stop ... Soweto Volume 2—Soultown. R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976, delves into some territory that the Indestructible Beat series never managed to explore and provides some real revelations.
Focusing on the Soweto and Alexandra soul scenes that flourished between 1969 and 1976, this compilation includes the movers and shakers of the townships who took Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Smith and Booker T and the MGs as their role models.
Again opening with a Tsonga disco track, this time Khubani by JK Mayengani and the Shingwedzi Sisters, Volume 2 springs into gear pretty early on.
Volume 2 can be divided largely into a few groupings. There are the organ-driven funk tracks, inspired by Booker T and Jimmy Smith, which include The Klooks’ jazzy Nkuli’s Shuffle, The Monks’ acid-fried Blockheads and The Heroes’ Funky Message.
Then there are the straight soul tracks, like Bra Sello & His Band’s Soul Time Nzimande Go and the funk monsters like Phillip Malela’s Tiba Kamo and the Anchors’ fuzzed out Last Time.
But it is the tracks that fall between the cracks of these genre definitions that offer up the most interesting moments, such as the gentle psych-soul of The Mgbaba Queens’ Akulalwa Esoweto or the psych-funk of The Toreadors’ Gwinyitshe and Bazali Bam’s self-titled, rough and ready Zulu-rock number.
One has to wonder why the greats of the genre like The Beaters, later to become Harari, and Mpharanyana were not included in this compilation, especially when their back catalogue has been so poorly reissued by Gallo Records.
The final compilation, Next Stop ... Soweto Volume 3 — Giants, Ministers and Makers: Jazz in South Africa 1963-1984 is due for international release on June 21 and includes material recorded by the cream of South Africa’s jazz musicians.
Featuring tracks by Winston Mankunku, Chris McGregor and Malombo, it promises to be a fitting addition to this fine series from Strut Records.
Let’s hope that this is not the end of the anthologising of South Africa’s rich musical heritage and that Strut has further plans, that make commercial sense outside of an African World Cup year.