Various Artists, A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Earthworks, 1992) and Voices from Mother Africa (African Cream, 2007)

While a lot of indigenous music from across the globe has reached international audiences in the twenty-three years since Paul Simon released Graceland, the music of South Africa remains the most familiar form of world music to most mainstream listeners. South African music is dominated by two styles. One is called mbaqanga or "township jive," and is characterized by smooth, melodic guitar lines, simple major-key chord progressions, and steady but infectious rhythms. The other is a variant of a capella choral music performed by large groups of singers, as best exemplified by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Here I review a pair of compilation albums featuring multiple performers of both styles. The first, A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto belongs to a series of similarly themed compilation albums of mbaqanga music, while the second, Voices from Mother Africa, is a recent assortment of South African vocal music.

Originally released in 1992, A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto is exactly what the album's title claims it to be. It continues a string of sampler albums compiled by a man named Trevor Herman to promote South African music internationally. (The first of these albums was simply called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. Released in 1985, it generated a significant amount of press even before the arrival of Graceland.) The album contains twelve songs from a number of different performers, the most frequently recurring of which are Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens. Mahlatini's endearingly distinct bass voice was a national treasure for nearly forty years, and his vocals really stick out on this CD. Virtually everything on the disc is fun, groove-oriented guitar music, and the album as a whole demonstrates the considerable depth and flavor of the mbaqanga style.

Voices from Mother Africa was released in 2007, and consists of fourteen songs from five different groups singing without accompaniment. The one common act to both these CDs is The Mahotella Queens, who have continued to perform on their own since Mahlatini passed away in 1999. The performances include all-male, all-female, and mixed choral arrangements. Ladysmith Black Mambazo do not perform on this record, but their influence is felt throughout, especially on the cover of "Homeless" performed by The Aba Khibesiwe Choir. The other song with a readily recognizable element is "Mbube," performed by Amaryoni. This song is a variant of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," except the jungle is vanishing and the lion is angry and now keeping his eyes wide open.

Either of these discs would serve as a satisfactory introduction to the music of South Africa, or a basis to explore further if your knowledge of the music doesn't extend beyond Graceland. I'd also recommend any of Johnny Clegg's music you can find, and if you like the sound of the group vocals you should also get your hands on some of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's own CDs.

Overall grades:
A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto A-
Voices from Mother Africa B+

reviewed by Scott

No comments: