It's kind of a legend, at least in pop music terms. Paul Simon is having the third or fourth of his mid-life crises, driving around in his car, when he pops in a tape someone gave him of South African music (Gumboots Vol. 2, I believe -- don't look for it, it can't be found). He gets deep into this music, called mbaquanga or "township jive" or "Zulu jive" or any of a hundred names; it is both deeply African and shot through with American soul and funk influences, and it's as beautiful as the people who make it. Simon once again has faith in the power of music to move people, and makes some phone calls to his friends. He gets some real South African musicians (and real Cajuns and real Hispanics) into the studio, and applies his neuropoetic antilinear lyrics to this irresistably funky music, and mbaquanga becomes the backbone of "his" best album, Graceland. Some carped and complained that he maybe shouldn't be doing a South African record at the height of apartheid, but when my activist friends built a fake Shantytown in the main yard of our college campus, they were blasting Graceland's South African tracks for all they were worth.
But I was more interested in the original inspiration for this music, to see what it was like before it turned into Paul Simon's backing track. One of my finest vinyl purchases was the Soul Brothers' Jive Explosion on Earthworks back in 1985. It's a 12-track best-of collection, and it blew me away. Remember how cool and original Graceland sounded? The Soul Brothers' take on mbaqanga sounds just like that, with the intertwining guitar lines, the funky stompy drumming, the huge booming bass loops, and the tightest horn section since Count Basie -- except without all Simon's selfconsciously ironic twaddle. The Soul Brothers also have two signature sounds that help them to stand out in the world of township jive: the beautiful tremelo voice of co-founder David Masondo, and the stuttering swooping Hammond B-3 sound of Moses Ngwenya, who joined in 1976 when the Soul Brothers had already been playing for two years.
Lemme see . . . do the math . . . that means that they've been a real band for longer than some of our PopMatters writers have been alive. They helped to invent mbaqanga music. They've also been through more personnel changes than the Rolling Stones; they survived the deaths of both of the other original founding members, the defection of ace rhythm guitarist American Zulu (I swear I didn't make up that name) who was later shot to death, a revolving-door policy in terms of horn players and percussionists, and -- most tragically -- the indignity of living in one of the most evil political systems to ever be propped up by the rest of the international community. Their music is joyful and uplifting in ways that we can never really appreciate, because it comes from such deep sorrow and horror. Like original 1950s rock and roll, like Motown and Stax in the 1960s and punk rock in the 1970s, mbaqanga is heroic music, world-beating music, music that I'm sure has kept a lot of suffering people going in the hard times.
Jive Explosion became my "oh my god are you playing that stuff AGAIN" record for much of the late 1980s, but I don't get to listen to my vinyl much anymore. That's why I was overjoyed that this CD was being released. The Rough Guide to the Soul Brothers contains 20 tracks: that's 78 minutes of South Africa's perfect sound. It's clearly the most beautiful-sounding CD to come out this year, and only my strict rule against compilation discs appearing on my Top Ten list is keeping this from being #1. (Okay, one other thing. More about that later.)
David Masongo might well be one of the world's greatest vocalists EVER -- I wouldn't say his voice is strong, but it is evocative without being "haunting", deep without even trying. He sounds like a regular guy, a factory worker (which of course he was), who happens to get possessed every once in a while by an angel. That's the way he sounds on the first crystalline tracks here, which date back to 1976's "Malume" and "Ogandaganda"; he sings the subconscious of an entire oppressed people, and makes it sound rebellious and wise and fun. Masongo's voice hasn't aged perfectly, which you can tell in the disc's final songs (track #20, "Intombi Yami", was released in 2000), but the Soul Brothers' renowned backing vocal choir led by Japan Sidoyi more than makes up for it.
And the musicianship is impeccable everywhere. Just about every track starts with a smattering from Moses Ngwenya's B-3, and then the band does exactly what it wants to do. Want a little blues-inflected shuffle? Check out "Indawo Yakulala", which steals the riffs from "Hang on Sloopy" and weds them to a mellow Booker T. and the MGs groove. Wanna try a little King Sunny Ade Afro-beat? Listen to "Buya Mama Wami". "Isigebengu" is a strong Caribbean lope and "Hluphekile" incorporates a harmonica-like keyboard line. But this is not idle genre-jumping; all the songs sound like the Soul Brothers, and you can hear them adding influences as they go along. This might be too much of a good thing -- 78 minutes is quite a bit to hear at once, especially when there's not much difference between track 1 and track 20 except more modern production values. Very consistent, but not very adventurous.
As for the lyrics: I don't really know what they're singing about, except by cheating; my old Jive Explosion album lists little synopses for some of the songs. "Isilingo" features, apparently, the following invocation: "I'm scared of the devil's tricks. Right now we can't be together. I blame your temptations, devil". Sounds like a Flip Wilson cop-out to me, but what do I know? The liner notes also mention that some of their later songs are focused on topics like wayward husbands ("Isigilamkhuba") and AIDS ("Intombi Yami"). Other than that, though, I have no idea. I'm not sure that these are all wonderful political anthems -- some of their other songs seem kind of backward and conservative, while others are simple and religious -- but who cares? This music is revolutionary by its very nature . . . and who exactly was it playing in Oslo when Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize? Damn right it was the Soul Brothers.
So they haven't really stretched themselves in their 28 years, and so they weren't fire-breathing radicals singing about burning down Johannesburg. The Soul Brothers are still one of the most perfect bands in the world, and more influential than we will ever know. And this is about the best collection you'll ever find of their wonderful music.