In the decade-and-a-half since I discovered the landmark 1986 compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, the pop music of South Africa -- this year's Memphis in May honored country -- has become my favorite musical culture outside of my own. So if Memphis in May is going to give me the opportunity to rave about a bunch of ecstatically great records that most readers have probably never heard of, much less actually heard, you'd better believe I'm gonna take advantage.
The South African genre "mbaqanga" was introduced to the U.S. mainstream in 1986 with Paul Simon's Graceland, which appropriated the sound and many of the key musicians from the scene. This was followed by The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, which led to a flood of South African releases in the United States.
The mbaqanga that Indestructible captured has a lot of sonic connections to American R&B and rock, but it is also distinctly African. A hectic melding of rural and urban styles and attitudes (think Memphis soul or Chicago blues or Kingston roots-reggae --except brighter, faster, wilder), the genre played essentially the same role in the apartheid struggle that American soul and early rock-and-roll played in the civil rights movement -- not as overt social commentary but as a soundtrack to daily life under oppression and as a document of the irrepressible spirit and resilience that eventually won out. In other words, not "We Shall Overcome" but "Respect."
At the center of the genre was a core group of musicians: the Mahotella Queens, a rotating cast of female harmony singers; the "goat-voiced" groaner Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde; and the genius session group the Makgona Tsohle Band (led by sax player/producer West Nkosi and featuring stunning guitarist Marks Mankwane), the greatest of all mbaqanga bands and the ones credited with defining the style. (In American terms, think Booker T. & the MGs or Motown's Soul Brothers, except --blasphemous! --even better.) But the sound stretched back decades earlier, to small-band jazz ("marabi") and vocal harmonies ("mbube") and pennywhistle music ("kwela"). It's a rich tradition and if you want to investigate it, here are 10 places to start:
The Indestructible Beat of Soweto -- Various Artists (Shanachie, 1986): The album that opened the floodgates for South African pop in the U.S. and quite possibly the finest one-disc music-scene overview ever compiled: majestic, unstoppable, perfect. A snapshot of mbaqanga from 1981 to 1984, the record is heavy on the sources of the "indestructible beat" --Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens, and the Makgona Tsohle Band. On the opening track, Udokotela Shange Namajaha's "Awungilobolele," a clashing string intro materializes into a circular trance, greeted by groaning male lead vocals, then female backup (moaning "OHH! OHH!" repeatedly). As the groove winds tighter and tighter, the sounds of roosters and chickens issue a wake-up call. From that point on, the avalanche of nimble, pastoral guitar figures, sixth-sense call-and-response vocals, soaring, obsessive fiddles, (seemingly) spontaneous vocal interjections, and body-rattling rhythms coheres into a sound as joyous and intense as anything you'll ever hear.
The History of Township Music -- Various Artists (Wrasse, 2001): After you've become enthralled by mbaqanga, this 28-track scholarly overview is the perfect lesson in how the genre developed. Tracing the history of South African music from its recorded origins (with the lovely 1939 ragtime piano approximation "Zulu Piano Medley No. 1 Part 1" by Thomas Mabiletsa) to the exact moment when Indestructible picks up the groove, The History of Township Music earns its title but is much more fun than the lesson-plan concept suggests.
From the jazz-oriented marabi of the lead track to the genre-creating "Mbube" (source of the melody for "Wimoweh" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), Zulu string bands (with names like the Jazz Dazzlers and the Elite Swingsters!), pennywhistle jive (the Solven Whistlers' infectious "Something New in Africa"), and the proto-mbaqanga of early Mahotella Queens, you can hear an entire rhythm nation dance and sing its way through unspeakable struggles with a brightness and resolve that defies comprehension.
Township Jazz 'N' Jive -- Various Artists (Music Club, 1997): Subtitled "18 South African Urban Swing Classics from the Jivin' '50s," this buoyant comp does for the urbane small-band marabi (think jump blues and Dixieland and swing) and pennywhistle jive of the '50s what Indestructible does for the more rockin' mbaqanga that followed. Though it repeats a few tracks from The History of Township Music, Township Jazz 'N' Jive gives a fuller portrait of the scene: an elegant fusion of indigenous rhythms and melodies with the influences of American artists such as Count Basie and the Mills Brothers.
The Kings and Queens of Township Jive: Modern Roots of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto --Various Artists (Earthworks, 1990): After the success of The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, a series of sequels (all worth searching out) were released. But perhaps better is this collection that looks back at the first generation of '60s and '70s mbaqanga that preceded the music on Indestructible. Kings and Queens of Township Jive doesn't move with the singular force of Indestructible, but it may well equal it as a party record, especially on giddy "sax jive" cuts such as Lulu Masilela's "Six Mabone," Thomas Phale's "Platform 14," and West Nkosi's house- (or shanty-)rocking "Marabi Bell 800."
The Heartbeat of Soweto -- Various Artists (Shanachie, 1988): As '80s mbaqanga comps go, this is a folkier, more wide-ranging alternative to Indestructible, duplicating only Amiswazi Emvelo on the artist list. It's more rural-sounding, with almost country-blues equivalents such as Mlokothwa's "Thathezakho" and Armando Bila Chijumane's "Kamakhalawana." The result is a record with a more relaxed pace and possibly a calmer spirit --less of a joyous rush but perhaps just as rewarding.
Soweto Never Sleeps: Classic Female Zulu Jive --Various Artists (Shanachie, 1988): A definitive snapshot of mbaqanga's female harmony style, with seven of 12 tracks from the masters of the form, the Mahotella Queens. Most date from the mid-'70s, and the best cuts are as breathtaking as anything the culture has produced. This means: the opening "Umculo Kawupheli" by the Mahotella Queens, its title translating as "No End To Music" (amen!); the Mgababa Queens' "Sidl'imali Zethu," radiant guitar pop so hypnotic and utterly undeniable it might be the "Mmm Bop" of Afropop; and the Mgababa Queens' "Akulaiwa Esoweto" (aka "Soweto Never Sleeps"), swooningly sweet girl-group harmonies over a warm, insistent organ riff.
Dark City Sisters and Flying Jazz Queens -- Dark City Sisters/Flying Jazz Queens (Earthworks, 1993): The Dark City Sisters were a female harmony group that ruled the South African scene from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s before the Mahotella Queens took their crown. As this lovely collection attests, they had a more straightforward girl-group style (sweet marabi to the Mahotella Queens' forceful mbaqanga). The record also presents an early glimpse of Mahlathini, who groaned on a few Dark City Sisters songs before joining the Mahotella Queens.
Paris-Soweto -- Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens (Celluloid, 1988): Captured in a Paris studio during a European tour after the success of Graceland spurred a reunion, this is the classic mbaqanga sound (West Nkosi producing, the Makgona Tsohle Band playing) updated for state-of-the-art recording. The gritty quality of the earlier recordings is missing, but the beauty is all there: the shimmering, swirling guitars, the open-hearted vocals, the impossible brightness. (In fact, I often think that the second track, "Awuthule Kancane," may be the most beautiful thing I've ever heard.) There's even a healthy dose of English lyrics, and, sung in these voices, they don't embarrass.
Classic Tracks -- Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Shanachie, 1990): Made stars in the U.S. after given a showcase on Graceland's "Homeless," this great mbube group reminds American listeners of early gospel, but the vocal ticks and tricks here are all their own. I prefer other styles because I crave the music of South Africa as much as the vocals, but if you want to hear those spine-tingling voices unadorned, this is where you need to start.
Kwaito: South African Hip Hop -- Various Artists (Earthworks, 2000): The modern sound of South Africa. Not really "hip-hop" in the American sense, but a blend of hip-hop, house, R&B, and dancehall with indigenous sounds. On "Make 'Em Bounce," Jimmy B hooks a beat up to Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens' "Kazet" and converts it into Kwaito form the same way Dr. Dre or Kanye West might pay respect to '70s soul.