All aboard the Soul Train

“Wat ’n gekerm waarna ons moet luister – asseblief man! [What a whining we have to listen to – please man!]” read one SMS to the feedback line of the pleasantly progressive Afrikaans public-service radio station, Radio Sonder Grense (RSG). It was during the last programme of a 13-week series on soul music, Die Soul Trein, which I presented on RSG’s Monday night specialist music slot.

Named after Soul Train, the famous series syndicated on United States TV from 1971 until 2006, I played mainly classic soul and funk from the genre’s golden era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Fortunately most other SMSes to RSG were quite flattering and came from a wide range of listeners. It indicated that soul – the rich style of music that metamorphosed in the 1950s and 1960s from R&B, gospel and jazz – is still popular even in 2015.

The fact that I could, with no difficulty, play at least one contemporary track in the 50-minute-long weekly programme told me the future of soul was bright and stylistically diverse.

There are broadly four directions soul is taking these days:

Classic soul
Charles Bradley (74) grew up rough on Brooklyn’s streets. When work was scarce as a chef, he performed as a James Brown impersonator. It was at one such performance that Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records, discovered him. The label released his brilliant, gritty debut in 2011 and the subsequent ­Victim of Love.

Daptone has been a pioneer in keeping the retro-soul flame alive, with other mature artists such as Sharon Jones and Lee Fields following authentically in the tracks of conscious-soul superstars such as Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.

Classic soul is at an apex again with releases by new soul artists such as Leon Bridges (see “The Future of Soul is here”), Curtis Harding and Alabama Shakes, who are in a similar groove to Amy Winehouse and Duffy, who introduced accessible soul to new generations four, five years ago.

Then there is also D’Angelo, who incorporates funk, R&B and rock – and innovative studio trickery – to sound fresh and unpredictable. Still, his music can be traced back to the roots of raw soul.

Soul sampled
Soul is probably the most sampled genre of all time, including by such major hip-hop and R&B stars as Beyoncé and Kanye West. Sampling keeps soul alive by hopefully making new listeners interested in the source material.

It also pops up in electronic dance music. Fêted DJ/producer Hudson Mohawke, for example, electronically manipulated an obscure 1970s soul track by DJ Rogers, Watch Out for the Riders, which morphed into Ryderz on his brand-new album, Lantern.

Famous crate-diggers such as DJ Shadow also use arcane soul samples to create new music.

Hyphenated soul
Soul also gets rejuvenated by hybrids with other genres: the list of artists and styles is endless, but the best place to hear funk-soul, jazz-soul, Afro-soul, disco-soul and all sorts of other hyphenated versions is on British DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson’s magnificent must-listen radio show on BBC 6 Music every Saturday afternoon, or online afterwards.

Underground/blended/experimental soul
This genre is related to “hyphenated-soul”: its soul-ness is just wider, more unpredictable, blended, merged and sometimes unintentional.

Take early 1990s’ trip-hop as described by as example: “Trip-hop was coined by the English music press in an attempt to characterise a new style of downtempo, jazz-, funk- and soul-inflected experimental breakbeat music …”

These blends are still dominant in today’s dance and electronic music – soul’s roots show, but it has been so permissively coloured, interwoven, assimilated and usurped by other styles and genres that you can only say with certainty that soul is a forebear of sorts.

A good example is this year’s appropriately titled release, In Colour, by British musician Jamie xx. It is a broad musical umbrella, reflecting his interpretations of a myriad British dance styles, many of which were once spawned or influenced by soul or its offspring, disco, or grandchild, house.

There are also a number of experimental risk-takers who use elements of soul in their sound, many incorporating adventurous jazz – Thundercat, Nosaj Thing, Flying Lotus, Fatima and Taylor McFerrin are all worth investigating.

The risk with definitions is semantic entanglement – the best is just to listen, dance and celebrate that soul, in all its incarnations, is still with us. 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Charles Leonard
Charles Leonard is a journalist, editor, broadcaster, DJ and record collector. For more than 30 years, he has edited and written for a variety of South African publications and broadcasters, including the Mail & Guardian, Business Day, SABC, Vrye Weekblad and the Sunday Times, as well as Channel Four News in the UK.

Related stories

How tasty Delicious is depends on your taste

There are many positives about the festival, but the organisers need to step up when it comes to, well, the organisation of the event itself

The aunty we all never had

Aretha Franklin was special, but in Detroit she was a family member who never abandoned them

Rising star Leon Bridges brings the soul back

Leon Bridges was washing dishes a year ago – today he’s a fast-rising star

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday