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V/A - Next Stop… Soweto Vol. 1: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga / Vol. 2: Soultown. R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976

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Artist: V/A

Album: Next Stop… Soweto Vol. 1: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga / Vol. 2: Soultown. R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976

Label: Strut

Review date: May. 11, 2010

Soweto is an abbreviation of South Western Townships, a large area within the municipal boundaries of Johannesburg. In the 1880s, it was settled by black gold-miners in slum-like neighborhoods. Under apartheid, Soweto would later become a hotbed of oppression, violence, struggle, and as these Strut compilations prove, incredible music. But the Separate Amenities Act of 1963 dictated that racial mixing at music venues was impermissible, and by 1970, black performances in Joburg nightclubs were outlawed all together. So it goes without saying that the mbaqanga music scene of Soweto was an underground one, relegated to township halls where artists cut their teeth, demonstrated on Vol.1. Later, it was only a matter of time before Tamla soul, screeching Hammond organs, and James Brown would seep into their musical ethos, as demonstrated on Vol. 2.

Coming to shape in the 1950s, mbaqanga is the music of Soweto, which is why it serves as the first volume in Strut’s three-part Soweto series. It is often described as traditional Zulu folk spliced with Western jazz, taking the rhythmic inverse of American music by emphasizing the upbeat. Herky jerky 8/8 rhythms are also endemic to the mbaqanga township swing, differing from popular West African highlife. The drumming has a lighter touch, too, played with brushes or simple rim-shots.

Posted on DJ/rupture’s blog in March, the morose tone of “Jabulani Balaleli (Part 2)” and unique song structure leaves a lasting impression. Its handclaps, ad-libbing, whistles, and powerful choir meld into a charming two and a half minutes. You can hear the catharsis of a struggling people here — and throughout this collection of songs.

Often these mbaqanga tunes are led by harsh, road-worn male voices, accompanying female variants of the sweeter, more mannered cadence, exemplified on "Umkhovi" and "Umaduna Omnyama." In fact, many of the comp’s most uplifting songs are underpinned with walls of matriarchal harmony and swaying choral lines—the ladies really shine on Vol. 1.

Vol. 2 isn’t as original as the first, in a sense, because the musicians incorporate even less of their native music, replacing it with American assortments. There are tight 4/4 grooves with prominent basslines, funk wah guitars, crisp drums, and Hammond organs emblematic of Jimmy Smith and Booker T. The sound brings to mind Blue Note’s funkier alumni, (the bassline of “Intandane” sounds dangerously close to Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”), but it’s coming from a different, troubled place. Many of the songs on Vol. 2 were recorded around the time of Soweto’s Uprising in ‘76, so there is a sense of tension (the dark instrumental piece “Funky Message”), but also distraction (the playful “Soul Time Nzimande Go”). The music was a reflection of their hell, and a sanctuary from it.

There really aren’t too many “psych” sounds here, contrary to Vol. 2’s title. The instrumental “I Am There” has a persistent plodding bass and dizzy piano line, punctuated by smoldering organs, and “Soul ‘Imbaq’” is a slow-burning bossa-tinged track led by a lush brass section. There is some non-instrumental face-twisting funk too, sung in English or Zulu, but none of the singers reach the heights of fellow African Fela Kuti. For more enthralling African funk of this era, you’re better off looking to Nigeria, Ghana and Benin.

Strut has put a lot of effort into sequencing, wedging instrumental interludes between actual songs. And with most cuts less than three minutes in length, both volumes go down easy. However, the fidelity of these digital transfers can be scratchy — a few songs were originally recorded in the red. Considering how obscure these songs are though (many remain unlicensed), their existence in any form is a feat, thanks to the efforts of compilers Duncan Brooker and Francis Gooding. The exhaustive liner notes and accompanying photos are further proof that the heyday of the Soweto sound was long before Paul Simon or Vampire Weekend, and is still as captivating.

With the 2010 FIFA World Cup taking place in Joburg this summer, the world’s attention will yet again be on South Africa. For the occasion, national broadcast radio CEO Solly Mokoetle recently stated, “[We] have taken this decision to play only African music during this period, in order to further promote our home-grown music…” This mandate should serve to expose those unfamiliar to the music of Soweto, while highlighting the progress that the nation has undergone since its dark days of apartheid. But for those not making the trip, the authentic township sounds on Next Stop Soweto will more than suffice.

By Jon Dempsey

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