This is World Music Network’s second Rough Guide to South Africa. The first one came out in 1999 and was represented by a stock photograph of distant men fishing on an amber beach. The new one has a mid-shot of a woman in decorative beadwear standing in front of a hut. Is it my imagination, or do the redesigned Rough Guides like to use closely-framed shots on their front covers a lot more than the old ones ever did? Does it matter? Not really, I suppose.
If you’ve already got the first compilation and you enjoy it then you’ll be pleased to learn that half the artists from that album have reappeared on the new one. The bubblegum pop princess Yvonne Chaka Chaka is back, and so are Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, the Soul Brothers, Lucky Dube, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks, and Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds. All of them have switched to different songs except the Evening Birds. They’re singing “Mbube” all over again so that no one ever forgets where “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Wimoweh” came from. Heave-ho, go their voices, and then that high ooo-eee, sounding shriller and more foxy-infernal than its foreign descendents. By the way, the blurb on the back of the case calls this compilation an “all-new second edition.” Not quite it isn’t.
I’m sorry to see that we’ve lost Spokes Mashiyani and his kwela pennywhistle (the happiest noise on earth; Disney could bottle it), but glad to see that we’ve gained Bhusi Mhlongo. The lineups of these compilations tend to change depending on the groups that become popular in the UK, where World Music Network is based. The Boyoyo Boys made a name for themselves there in the 1980s, and so we had them on the first South African Rough Guide; Mhlongo released a strong album in Europe during 2000 and here she is on the new compilation. She sets this Guide going with a bullish full-throated yell that can drop to speaking level or shoot upward into an excoriating shriek. At the end of the song it drifts down as innocently as pigeon feathers and then lifts into the shriek again.
After that we need the Mahotella Queens’ rhythmic chorusing and a low-key pumping mbaquanga melody just to get over all that extreme Mhlongoness. Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde comes in on top of the Queens, singing in a style that is known with prosaic accuracy as groaning. He didn’t invent groaning but was the first to make an international success of it after the inventor ruined his vocal cords. That inventor, a man named Big Voice Jack, turns up playing a saxophone later in the album. Big Voice Jack died in 2003. He and the doctors disagreed about the cause. They said it was throat cancer, he said witchcraft.
There are some acts that were inevitably going to be on here. Mahlathini and the Queens is one, Miriam Makeba is another. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a third. Leave them off and people would grumble. More interesting, because less familiar, are the newcomers. The Ndebele singer Peki Emelia Nothembi Mkhwebane lets her voice loose in sharp exclamations, accompanied from below by a male chorus and a twang that sounds like a thumb piano. Mtabhane Ndima’s “Thandabantu” is a piece of accordion jive that thrashes itself against the wall, the floor, everything. In an alternative universe noises like this might have evolved into punk. Lesego Rampolokeng performs a piece of spoken word poetry to the sound of the Kalahari Surfers. “Blood is a rain shower, the mind cowers,” he says. “Humour in a tumour, take these chains off my brains.” Shiyani Ngcobo jumps in with a working man’s maskanda number from his 2004 album, Introducing… Shiyani Ngcobo. Introducing… was a World Music Network release as well, but the song is so good that I can’t dispute his right to be on here.
No South African compilation can do everything. There are too many musicians, too many niche markets, too many different groups inside the one country, and not enough time to cover them all. The major black genres are covered (except gospel, which has its own Rough Guide), yet there’s nothing here from the white South Africans. That wouldn’t seem strange if Phil Stanton hadn’t included a jokey Afrikaans number from Lucky Dube going under his Oom Hansie pseudonym. The song, “Waar’s My Pyp?” first came out on a 1986 cassette album called Help My Krap, and it’s nothing special, just a jaunty 1980s keyboard pop piece about smoking dope and messing around. Why it should have been chosen above any other Afrikaans party song is a mystery. Why an Afrikaans party song should have been chosen at all is a mystery. Why, if an Afrikaans song had to be chosen, it shouldn’t have been sung by an enormous Boer from Bloemfontein as nature intended, is a mystery. Mysteries all round, really. I have the idea that Stanton just likes Lucky Dube.
The township dip-and-heave rhythm that runs through most of these tracks, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly, unites them, making this one of the more coherent Rough Guides. There’s a disconcerting moment when the Soweto String Quartet come in with their version of Sting’s “St Agnes and the Burning Train” and the rhythm changes completely; we’re thrown, but the dip-and-heave reasserts itself. The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa succeeds in the simplest way that a compilation can succeed: that is, it makes me want to buy the source albums. I listen to Busi Mhlongo and mutter, “Damn, I should have picked up that Urbanzulu of hers.” The popularity of Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo makes parts of this compilation redundant, and yet the whole thing is so lively and good that it doesn’t really matter. And one of the useful things about a South African compilation is that finding more of the same is not difficult. Germany’s World Network label came out with a big two-disc set of relevant artists only a few months ago.
Last weekend my sidekick borrowed Clerks II from the video store and what came on over the opening titles but that familiar dip-and-heave? “Who’s that?” I asked. It was Talking Heads. The rhythm? They’d borrowed it.