Various Artists: Next Stop... Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga

The 20 tracks of this frequently delightful anthology provide further evidence for the importance of the new vinyl archaeology in remembering the African popular past.

Various Artists

Next Stop... Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age Of Mbaqanga

Label: Strut
US Release Date: 2010-03-02
UK Release Date: 2010-03-01

When Paul Simon released his bestselling Graceland album in 1986, an international audience became familiar with the South African township music that had inspired Simon and that sent him to record in Johannesburg. However, while Simon's album represented a commercial pinnacle, the ground for the international exposure of urban South African music was being laid elsewhere. The South African Gallo label had compiled numerous compilations of township recordings by the mid-1980s (Simon's inspiration was one such compilation, the impossible to locate Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits). However, Earthworks' The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1985) probably made the most impact on the international market (honorable mention should also go to Zensor/Rough Trade's Soweto from 1982 and Earthworks' Zulu Jive from 1984). For many listeners, this was the ideal opportunity to be exposed directly to the music, rather than hear it filtered through the essentially American aesthetic of Simon's work.

For anyone caught up in the epiphany of the Indestructible Beat album and its successors, the appearance of Strut's Next Stop... Soweto, a three-volume project that kicks off with a compilation of mbaqanga music, is both an invitation to recall Earthworks' groundbreaking work and an opportunity to reflect on the changes that 25 years of "world music" have wrought on the popular music landscape. It's tempting to say that it is difficult to imagine a new compilation having the sort of impact that Indestructible Beat had because of the glut of anthologies on the market. But this would be inaccurate on at least two counts. First, there were plenty of compilations around in the mid-1980s. Secondly, there are doubtless a number of innovative anthologies covering emerging genres that will still have an important impact on certain sectors of society. It is just unlikely that a mbaqanga compilation will be one of those, given the genre's association with the past -- so many musical movements have come and gone in the intervening years.

But that's precisely the point of imprints like Strut, Soundway, Analog Africa, and Now Again. The real difference between the 1980s and now is that the anthologists of world music are as eager to explore the recorded past as they are to document the unheard sounds of the present. Indeed, given the labor of love put into the practice of "vinyl archaeology" by these compilers (evident in the locating, contextualizing, and packaging of the music), they are probably more eager to do so. It used to be said of world music fans who had "emigrated" from rock, folk, and soul music that they went looking for the new in the far away. Now it seems that the new is to be found in the long ago. If the past is another country, then how far beyond the borders of what we know must the past of another country lie?

The exploratory tone is emphasized by Strut themselves, who speak, in their promotional material for this compilation, about "recent forays into Nigerian and Ethio grooves" (referring to their Nigeria 70 albums and releases by Mulatu Astatke) and promise to "take the listener far beyond the accepted township jive template". The archaeologists who have exposed these musical fusions are Duncan Brooker and Francis Gooding, and their focus is on obscure releases aimed at the local market, which generally appeared on short run seven-inch singles. The featured artists are therefore likely to be unknown to the intended listeners of these compilations, though many will be familiar with the work of Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens, who appear here.

Mbaqanga (referring to a type of cornmeal or porridge but generally understood to mean "homemade") was the name given to the type of popular jive music that emerged in the townships of South Africa in the 1960s as a development of the pennywhistle (or kwela) music of the 1950s. As kwelas were replaced with saxophones and new electric instruments were introduced, the musical template of mbaqanga was born. The vocal aspect of the music was distinguished by a development of earlier harmony styles and focused on the combination of call-and-response vocal lines, often featuring a "groaning" male singer accompanied by a female chorus (Mahlathini and the Queens being a classic example).

"I Sivenoe", by the Melotone Sisters with Amaqola Band, serves as an excellent introduction to this selection, opening with a simmering electric guitar that, traversing the decades, wouldn't sound out of place on a Tinariwen album, then setting a groaning male vocal against an instantly infectious female response team. The only disappointing thing about the track is that, like most of the songs on this album, it seems far too short, fading out before the three-minute mark. The upside of this is that, as each track disappears, listeners are quickly thrown into another few minutes of pop bliss. The Mgababa Queens dispel any dismay at the loss of "I Sivenoe" with the fresh brightness of "Maphuthi", in turn giving way to the breezy instrumental "Kuya Hanjwa" by S. Piliso & His Super Seven. The latter track is reminiscent of the popular kwela instrumentals of the previous decade, except that the whistle has been usurped by the electrified sounds of keyboards, angular lead guitar, and driving bass. Accordion and harmonica are the dominant sounds of the Big Four's "Wenzani", though again the electric guitars keep the rhythm going as much as the percussion.

Mahlathini and the Queens are on fine form on "Umkhovu", their interwoven vocal timbres given warm support by a chiming electric guitar that refuses to quit throughout the tune. "Zwe Kumasha" finds the Queens without Mahlathini on a track that takes its additional voice instead from a keening horn accompaniment. Zed Nkabinde's "Inkonjane Jive", with its honking sax, is a reminder of the R&B and jazz influences that were important to the fused sounds of mbaqanga. Tempo All Stars increase the horns with the brassy "Take Off", the title of which could be interpreted two ways: it does sound rather like an imitation, but, then again, it does really take off in places.

The skillful interlacing of guitar and horn is heard to great effect on the instrumentals "Emuva", by the African Swingsters, and the ska-like "Soul Chakari", by Reggie Msomi & His Hollywood Jazz Band. And while any listener from outside of a particular music culture must be careful when comparing such music to more familiar styles, it is difficult not to hear an echo of the Byrds' take on Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere" in "Jabulani Balaleli", by Amaqawe Omculo. But where the whistles and whoops only add to this uncanny doubling, the massed voices (male and female) dispel any such speculation.

One of the great pleasures of this music is the way that the vocals are often delivered at a much slower pace than the dancing guitar lines; Piston Mahlathini & The Queens' "Nomacala" provides an excellent example, the vocal lines dragged out in marked contrast to the song's still eminently danceable overall sound. Even in such short tracks, there is much to listen for in terms of the variety of instrumental shades and rhythms. Many of the contributions are perfect miniatures, true nuggets of the pop past.

Next Stop... Soweto cannot hope to have the cultural impact of a record like The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. Contextualizing this music in the brutal situation of apartheid and in the era preceding the Soweto Uprising makes for a vital history lesson, but does not invite the kind of solidarity that the apartheid era compilations could. But that doesn't detract from the importance of the new archeological work being done on the African popular past. These 20 tracks make for a frequently delightful anthology. Here's hoping that the next two volumes -- focusing on soul, funk, R&B, and jazz -- will be at least as enticing.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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