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The South African sound of Mbaqanga | reviews, news & interviews

The South African sound of Mbaqanga

The South African sound of Mbaqanga

Joy out of suffering: the music of 1970s Soweto

On a new CD compilation from Strut Records out this week, Next Stop... Soweto, we’re back in Soweto in the 1960s and 1970s and it's the dark, dark days of apartheid; an era in which it was actually against the law for a black South African to even be a musician, and live music was banned from most public places in black areas.

There were also no cinemas, bars, hotels, shopping centres or electricity and death was an everyday fact of life. Yet only fifteen miles away, white Johannesburg’s skyscrapers glistened; an affront to the asbestos roofed, poverty-steeped insult to human dignity that was the townships.

So appalling and oppressive did conditions become that the most famous South African musicians of the period, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, both fled into exile (the former after she testified against apartheid before the United Nations.) So you wouldn’t be at all surprised if the music produced by a people who would soon rise up and fight in bloody battles with the authorities, was brimming over with bitter anger and aggression. And yet the sound that came out of 1970s black South Africa was something quite different.

It focuses on this period of bloodshed and upheaval, a time when black South Africans must have needed their own music more than ever. In recent years there has been a plethora of CDs celebrating Africa’s musical past, covering everything from Ethiopian funk, through Malian desert blues, to Congolese rumba, but there has been very little put out from this country, during this period, where necessary change could perhaps be smelt in the air, even though hopelessness and death must have been constantly threatening to stamp out such dreams. As the end of apartheid seemed to become an achievable goal, to my mind the music of the black townships became more intense, although, astonishingly, it never lost the joyful exuberance that it had always had.

The sound of urban South Africa is often grouped together under one vague heading; African Township Jazz. But its basic form had been gradually metamorphosing throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. And what can be heard on this compilation are concentrated bursts of energy which became known as mbaqanga music. This is the Zulu word for dumplings and was originally used by the conservative populous as a term of abuse to sum-up a music they felt was crude and basic. But as so often happens, those it was aimed at adopting it as an affectionate label for their beloved new style. Because prior to this period, American jazz – an arguably more sophisticated form, and gospel – most certainly a more dignified form, were the main ingredients that fed into black South Africa music, having been experienced via imported vinyl.

The Mahotella Queen's classic 1974 track "Umculo Kawaupheli (Our Music Will Never End)"

The uplifting jazz style that resulted centred on gospel piano chords, acoustic guitars and double basses, and a groove that swung with an easy rhythm. Quartets of hip-swaying female vocalists tackled their harmonies with the pizzazz and restrained sensuality familiar to fans of the American big bands of the 40s and 50s. Those sweeter-than-honey close-harmonies were one thing that was thankfully retained when the electric guitar and bass revolutionised the township sound in the mid 1960s. And with one change, another was forced: The drummer had to start hitting that snare a lot harder, rather than just brushing it, in order to compete with the increased volume of amplified instruments. A further change was the addition of male lead vocalists who became nicknamed "moaners" (although "growlers" would be more accurate.) And it was the juxtaposition of these low-pitched monotonal front men (which anticipated the approach to vocals of both hip-hop and ragga singers) alongside the high, smoother chords sung by the women, that almost became the formula sound for a good part of the 70s, and a ton of vibrant 45s that came out during this period.

This is music that rolls along on its fat, bubbling bass lines and metallically chiming guitar riffs

But bearing in mind the horrors that were perpetrated by the white minority during this turbulent time, why isn’t this pain even hinted at in this music? For example, there is none of the anger, ennui, resignation or self pity we hear in the blues of the American South. In fact mbaqanga music is so fizzing with melody and energy that it could have been produced by a hit factory such as Motown or Stax. My theory is that it doesn’t have the kind of emotional resonance we might expect it to, because its power - for the people that made it anyway - lies elsewhere. This is music with great forward momentum. This is music that rolls along on its fat, bubbling bass lines and metallically chiming guitar riffs. It’s essentially covert marching music with added soul, powered by the pleasure the musicians took in playing it, and getting lost in it. So, not music for music’s sake, as much as music for sanity’s sake. As previously mentioned, jazz and gospel are often the first words to come up when township jive music of this period is discussed. But it’s the rebellious energy of rock that comes across most strongly to this critic’s ears in many of these guitar-led songs.

On Next Stop … Soweto you can hear the Big Four’s “Wenzani Umora” with it’s galloping “Gloria”-like riff, wailing harmonica, and repeated refrain of “War!” which has a veiled anger to it which could never have been expressed by the more sophisticated and elevated forms of jazz or gospel. Then on “Maphuthi” there’s the thrilling juxtaposition of hard-edged rhythm guitar with the ecstatic vocal harmonies of the Mgababa Queens. Yes, there are arrangements and chord progressions that stem from these older and more dignified genres, but it’s rock and pop that are the souped-up motors powering ninety percent of mbaqanga music. Music that the people would have danced the night away to, hoping that their illegal gathering wouldn’t be closed down, or even that they wouldn’t be dead before dawn. The sound of insurrection and rebellion has never sounded so heartbreakingly beautiful and infectiously danceable as it does on these old 45s gathered together here.

So why did this vital form fizzle-out? Because apartheid certainly outlasted the 1970s. Well it didn’t exactly. It just followed the same course most popular music followed at the beginning of the 1980s. It got polluted and diluted by new technology and new styles. The kitsch sterility of the digital synthesizer and the four-to-the-floor tyranny of disco meant that these great bands had to adapt or die, so the majority of them adapted. But its sonic signal lingered on. This was proven by the fact that in 1983 a certain Mr Malcolm McLaren flew into Soweto and then flew out again with the makings of one of his biggest hit “Double Dutch” (a reimagining – as they say these days – of the Boyoyo Boys song “Puleng”). One of the Boyoyo Boys was subsequently able to get married on the royalties he earned.

Then in 1986, Paul Simon also cultivated a symbiotic relationship with township musicians. This resulted in both his Grammy-winning, multi-million-selling Graceland album and a highly successful and sustained international career for the band that inspired him and guested on Graceland, Ladysmith Black Mambaso. And then in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island, and apartheid finally disintegrated in 1994. But that of course is another story.

Malcolm McLaren's "Double Dutch" video


Music from this era of South Africa's life has not been released on recent compilations, but there was a whole series out in the mid-1980s - the "Indestructible Beats of Soweto" volumes. To many, including myself, these were the first inroads into discovering the hard-hitting and rocking music made in the South African apartheid towns. Later South African music seems to have lost its edge and excitement - too synth-based and overproduced, trying to mimic the latest disco or diva trend. The struggles in South Africa have greatly changed from the evils of the Apartheid times - maybe the music has now got soft as a result? Until it gets its edge back, I'll be glad to revisit and celebrate its past glories. I'll be getting this one, Howard - thanks for the review.

indeed our original mbaqanga music is not made available while we're still around, which is unfair to us for that music form a part of our history.

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