Today I am revisiting the “Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Vol. 1” that I got in the mail last year. Released in 1986, it was a document of the vibrant and rocking music scene from the shanty clubs and party spots in the black villages and “homelands” of Apartheid-era South Africa. As I have said here before, I believe that the Civil Rights Movement in the US is one of the greatest struggles for human justice and dignity in the history of the Western World. The soul and R&B of the late ’50s and the ’60s is the soundtrack of this amazing story. The same goes for this music and its relationship to the struggle for justice in South Africa. Looking back, I remember that there was a time when I found it difficult to imagine a world without Apartheid in South Africa.I boycotted acts who played Sun City, wrote letters of support for Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu on behalf of Amnesty International, and I bought ALL of these records when I could find them. The music, like the music of the American Civil Rights movement, was amazingly positive, almost giddy with its skittering guitars, sinewy basslines and pounding acoustic disco drums. It was the vocal harmonies that lifted this music into the sublime, though. Not being any more of a musicologist than the average record buying nerd, I can only guess that this is a logical extension of the strong vocal music tradition of South Africa. All of the demonstrations I saw on television and read about in the copies of the Manchester Guardian I found at the library seemed to be accompanied by unison dancing and chanting, often with songs sung in these amazing harmonies. This flawless vocal stratification comes through loud and clear in the pop music of the era. Speaking of record nerds, here is our king, Robert Christgau, reviewing this same record:
At once more hectically urban-upbeat and more respectfully tribal-melodic than its jazzy and folky predecessors, marabi and kwela, the mbaqanga this compilation celebrates is an awesome cultural achievement. It confronts rural-urban contradictions far more painful and politically fraught than any Memphis or Chicago migration, and thwarts apartheid’s determination to deny blacks not just a reasonable living but a meaningful identity. Like all South African music it emphasizes voices, notably that of the seminal “goat-voiced” “groaner” Mahlathini, who in 1983 took his deep, penetrating sung roar, which seems to filter sound that begins in his diaphragm through a special resonator in his larynx, back to the studio with the original Mahotella Queens and the reconstituted Makgona Tsohle Band. But with Marks Mankwane’s sourcebook of guitar riffs hooking each number and Joseph Makwela’s unshakable bass leading the groove rather than stirring it up reggae-style, it’s also about a beat forthright enough to grab Americans yet more elaborate than the r&b it evokes. The defiantly resilient and unsentimental exuberance of these musicians has to be fully absorbed before it can be believed, much less understood. They couldn’t be more into it if they were inventing rock and roll. And as a final benison, there’s a hymn from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A+
This is not just one of those “important” records, it’s a FUN record. See if you don’t find yourself dancing around the living room if you put it on.
Also, as Christgau mentions, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a song on this compilation. They inspired Township Vocal Band tradition which later flourished in the culture of the South African workcamps. Men in these camps toiled ten or more hours a day, often working in the horrible conditions of the South African diamond mines. They had been bused hundreds of miles from their families and they largely lived in barracks. When they weren’t working they grouped together by township and had contests to pass their off-time to see which band could sing most sweetly. Imagining music this entrancing and gorgeous being created by people living such desperate and hardbitten lives often brings me to tears. This is the music of the waters being parted so that people could come up out of slavery and degradation.
You really should own this record.