Going through different blogs yesterday, I came across a person who said she was sorry she did not have a more vivid idea of Africa: it was, she explained, a country she had never visited. The idea that Africa is a single country, where everyone behaves in more or less the same way, is one that doesn’t seem likely to die any time soon—it turns up in the mouths or keyboards of sincere-sounding people who don’t realise what they’ve said. At some time they must have come across evidence that should have convinced them that the idea was wrong, perhaps some article that compared South Africa with Zimbabwe, letting them know that the continent has at least two countries in it. Perhaps a map, perhaps a piece of news about the strife in Somalia, bringing the number of countries up to three. Perhaps something about Fela Kuti in Nigeria, bringing the number of countries up to four. But whatever it was, it didn’t stick.
If I wanted to make the point to that blogger, and do it in a visceral rather than theoretical way, I think I’d bring out a bit of South African township music and then music from another part of the continent and ask her to compare them. There’s nothing else like it in Africa, or in any other part of the world, the extended mbaqanga dipping heave followed by a thump, as if the musician has picked up a huge weight, carried it for a short way, then slung it back to the floor. That heave-thump, heave-thump swings through this album like a rocking horse. The story of each track is the story of the more direct African-American sounds of funk, groove, soul, and so forth coming up against another kind of music that is alien to them.
How does each musician cope? How do they manage the integration? Some of them speed up the heave-thump and wind it around funk percussion. Some of them alternate mbaqangaesque parts with other parts. J.K. Mayengar & the Shingwedzi Sisters move quickly and fling ideas outwards. Bazali Bam distracts you from every possible flaw by making its singer sound as if his throat is being pinched, as if the group hopes to ward off or counter the deep groaning style of Simon Mahlathini by producing its opposite. The Heshoo Beshoo Group undulates through “Wait and See” on a wave of adroit unified brass. “Intandane (Part 1)”, by the versatile Philip Malela and a band called the Movers, sets an American-style guitar spinning and meets it with a chorus of Zulu voices. The South African love of jazz provides a useful bridge.
The tracks seem less fierce, less exaggerated, generally, than 1970s American funk. The heave spaces things out, the humming shimmer of the Mahotella Queens, and their ex-members moonlighting on “Akulalwa Soweto” as the Mgababa Queens, is soothing, and the jazz cools the mood down. Cool is the word for this album. Big-band saxophones are not the feature that they are in compilations of West African funk and funk-variant culled from the same time period. Big bands themselves were difficult to arrange. Conditions between the two ends of the continent were different not only culturally, musically, but also socially. There were opportunities for government sponsorship in the more northern ex-colonies that were not open to the South Africans, who were still under the apartheid thumb. The townships where the musicians played were under attack.
The music went on though, and the groups persisted, they prevailed, they recorded their songs, a generous 22 of them reissued here, including Bra Sello and His Band with “Soul Time Nzimande Go”, the Klooks with “Nkuli’s Shuffle”, Electric Six with “Lovey-Wami”, and the flirty-dirty Soul Throbs, growling out their intimidating kisses. “Hey”, they sing, “little girl! Can’t you see that it’s cold outside?” The guitar has a forward-looking swagger. Soweto 2 comes with notes by David Coplan, author of a deeply researched history of South African black popular music, In Township Tonight.