Ye gods! There’s so many angles to approach this from. Like how come it takes a BRITISH label to produce this sort of compilation of South African music? There’s all sorts of historical angles to cover as well. Some reviews make the point that the time spanned here is from 1963 to 1976. 1963 saw the introduction of the Separate Amenities Act, which forced venues to be White or Black and the audiences to follow suit. 1976 saw the Soweto uprising, after which things got considerably darker.
This was probably the best-selling music in South Africa over that time span. The “official” hit parades were on government radio stations. First Springbok Radio, then the new Radio 5 (now 5 FM). But under the then government those stations would have been aimed at and catered for white audiences. So the official charts were usually going to reflect a minority taste.
Mbaqanga was the sound of rural vocal styles and tunes juxtaposed with a contemporary beat and arrangements. The music developed as more and more people migrated from rural areas to the townships that served the big white cities. It was a wildly popular style, but because of time frame that’s already been mentioned it largely stayed in the townships and on black radio stations.
I know only a couple of phrases in isiZulu, so I have very little idea of what these songs are about, That these songs were played on the radio probably means that they aren’t overtly political.
I finished school in Durban in 1975. A my best school friend was dating an Afrikaans girl, Surita du Plessis. Surita’s dad spoke good Zulu and was employed by the SABC in Durban. His job was to sit in a room and monitor what was being broadcast. There was a cutoff switch, and if anybody started saying or playing anything with political overtones then Mr du Plessis would hit that switch. No rocking of the Apartheid boat was permitted.
(By the late 70s most South African record labels had their own in-house censors to avoid a money-losing situation where they would put a band in a studio, pay for the recording, print the records and then the record would fall foul of the state censors. But the system wasn’t foolproof. In 1987 Cape Town band Bright Blue went to the top of the charts with their song “Weeping” which rather obviously referenced the 1985 declaration of a state of emergency and also included a few bars of the banned ANC anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.)
This music, then, was made during a time of increasing oppression of the majority of South Africans, and was conceived and performed in the townships that served as dormitory towns for disenfranchised black labourers.
So what was the deal then? And what’s the deal now?
I am of the Bruce Springsteen school of thinking. Springsteen has said that rock ‘n roll doesn’t change a lot of things in the real world, but it can provide moments of transcendence that lift you out of the mundane for a while. Music seems to thrive under the most extreme conditions and regimes, even where there is considerable state censorship and amongst people living in unhappy conditions. I believe it is for that very reason – music is a balm on the sores of life, an escape from the mundane. An equaliser too – kings and commoners get the same kick out of music.
And this is brilliant pop music. Great rhythms, hooks, charming performances.
Which is still the deal now. Fashions come and go, but these musical attributes stand up to time a bit better.
This is also the music that inspired Paul Simon and would eventually inform his famous Graceland album. Not the exact same compilation of recordings, but the same music that entranced him and which he pursued all the way to Johannesburg.
Although it’s a local music, in an another place and time it may have broken out of it’s own territory and influenced other styles and artists, much as musics conceived in New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit did. But with South Africa even more segregated than the USA, and with the segregation more rigorously enforced that hardly happened. The aforementioned Bright Blue walked their own variation of the path walked by so many white musicians on both sides of the Atlantic in the 60s who soaked up the guitar licks and the mannerisms of American negro artists (even Pink Floyd started off as a blues band, and took their name from two obscure rural blues singers – Pink Anderson and Floyd Council). Bright Blue steeped themselves in the sounds of Mbaqanga, South African white boys idolising South African rather than American black men. Listen to this compilation and you can hear guitar licks that Bright Blue guitarist Tom Fox later re-purposed. I thought I also heard a horn line that Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse used in his 80s hit “Jive Soweto”. Certainly you will notice the roots of Graceland.
But it’s not just clues to some musical crossword puzzle, not just a museum artifact. The enthusiasm and infectiousness of this music is still intact, still available to us today. Best of all are four tracks featuring (some times by another name) the greatest and best-selling of them all: The Mahotella Queens. You’ll wonder at all these names that you’ve never heard before, and you’ll wonder what the heck they’re singing about (and maybe how they even found anything to sing about), but you’ll also have a whole bunch of fun. Transcendence? I wouldn’t rule it out.