The Soul Brothers – Kings of Mbaqanga – Live in Johannesburg (2005)

If I had to deliver a list of the best live shows I ever witnessed then Bruce Springsteen in Harare would be on there. So would be Bright Blue at Wits University. I actually can’t remember the year (but it was late 80s, after “Weeping” had been a hit for them) but I remember the show well.

A trap with writing about, talking about or listening to music is to get too intellectual and concerned with artistic merit. We can forget that one of the points, especially of popular music, is just to get in the groove and have a good time. Which was what happened at the Bright Blue show as along with the political comment in their lyrics they served up a big helping of irresistible rhythms and grooves.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Bright Blue were a South African rock band who had some success in the 80s with a couple of hit singles and a sound that borrowed heavily from the Mbaqanga music of the townships and especially from the organ-powered groove of the Soul Brothers. Amazingly they were the first South African act to top the official (IE “white”) pop charts in South Africa, and with a song that featured a not too disguised metaphor for PW Botha and the state of emergency in the lyrics and a not disguised at all quote from the then banned “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” in the music, Like so many before them they were white boys who had been listening to and loving black music, but instead of the blues they chose or happened upon something closer to home.

The Soul Brothers were for decades the biggest name in Mbaqanga with a big reputation as a live act and who sold records in large quantities in the township market (which was bigger by far than the local white pop and rock markets) throughout the 70s and 80s. Their trademark sound, over the more usual distinctive bass and guitar components of Mbaqanga, are the quavering tenor vocals of David Masondo and the syncopated organ parts of Moses Ngwenya.

What I hadn’t realised until I listened to this album was the debt that Bright Blue owed to the Soul Brothers. I am not, by the way, suggesting plagiarism here. Nobody makes that accusation against, for example, Eric Clapton even though he is so obviously influenced by American bluesmen and especially Albert King (whose influence seems to be very pervasive). It’s about inspiration, not imitation. But the tricks and licks of the inspiring artists are present, and like Clapton they always acknowledged their influences.

So here is the source, the inspiration for the great grooves that Bright Blue could lay down. And a genuinely, uniquely South African groove which made Bright Blue so much more interesting and fun than if they’d decided to pay homage to BB King or Muddy Waters instead.

The lyrics are in Zulu. I have no idea what the songs are about (thought the opening “Mama Wami” is clearly a tribute to somebody’s mother, or everybody’s mother). The attraction here, once you get past the oddly countryish first track, is the inimitable brand of energy this band can still serve up after so many years. Masondo and Ngwenya are the only two original members left but really they to all intents and purposes were the Soul Brothers. As late as 2005, as this live recording reveals, they still had their powers intact and could deliver the crowd pleasing numbers without phoning it in.

And they could still kick up a really strong, lively, hard to resist dance groove.

I couldn’t listen to this solidly every day for a week as I do with some records I report on here. It’s not that kind of record that offers a deep and introverted listening experience. But it is massive fun, and I can see how that small gang of Cape Town boys could fall in love with this music.

In the meantime if your curiosity is piqued there are elements of Mbaqanga, enough so you can get an idea, on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Notably on the tracks “I Know What I Know” and “Gumboots”. But if that floats your boat maybe you want to drink from the font.

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