Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa

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.

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa

Label: World Music Network
US Release Date: 2006-10-20
UK Release Date: 2006-10-23

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.


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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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