The next logical step after you've gone to Paul Simon's Graceland, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto is a classic. Out of the bleak and dusty streets of Soweto, South Africa's largest black township, springs music that's joyous and proud — and you can dance to it.
Trevor Herman, an expatriate white South African ("I left for the obvious reasons"), compiled these twelve tracks, which were recorded in the early Eighties, when a resurgence in township music, known as mbaqanga, and consciousness about apartheid propelled the music out of South Africa and won it international acclaim.
Mbaqanga takes its name from a doughy cake sold on township streets — it's very workaday music that deals with everything from drunken husbands to gossips to hard-working miners. "In most parts of Africa," Herman says, "music is more than entertainment — it's part of life. Everything is celebrated in song, in the rhythm of living."
An alloy of several tribal styles as well as jazz and reggae, mbaqanga shares a number of similarities with the blues, and not just because it is a music born of oppression. Like modern blues, mbaqanga came about when workers flooded into major cities, bringing their local music with them. And like the blues, mbaqanga got electrified when it came to the city.
One strand of mbaqanga music comes from hymns learned from missionaries, very evident in Ladysmith Black Mambazo's stirring "Nansi Imali" ("Here Is the Money"). There's a lot of reggae in the two tracks by the legendary Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, and a country & western sound pervades "Sobabamba," by Udoketela Shange Namajaha.
In the early Sixties, several township styles — jazz, penny-whistle music and marabi (honky-tonk music) — coalesced into a dance musïc that became known as township jive. With a steady beat adorned by droning acoustic guitars, tinkling electrics and rich vocal harmonies that are joyous, gritty and real, mbaqanga became party music played in shebeens (illegal bars ignored by the government), at workers' parties, on the street and in the recording studio, where groups often united for one-shot recordings. Herman theorizes that the strong beat came from American groups such as the Supremes. "Also, a lot of players were listening to the Beatles," he says. "Not so much the music but the instrumentation."
Since many mbaqanga bands are ethnically mixed, their music brings together different black ethnic groups; if South Africa's black majority hasn't prevailed because it is a house divided, it's not the fault of mbaqanga.
In the final analysis, it's inspirational music. "Maybe they're living in hell," Herman says of the mbaqanga players, "but when they get down to the music, it's something from themselves, something from the heart, something that gives them strength."