Various ‘Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4. Zulu Rock, Afro-Disco and Mbaqanga 1975-1985’ 2LP/CD/Dig (Strut) 4/5

next-stop-sowetoAs this series progresses in-depth and intensity, the listener is able to build up a more complete vision of the South African music scene. Indeed, this latest edition may surprise some, especially those who grew up with the wonderful Earthworks compilations of the mid-1980s and beyond because one does not immediately associate South Africa with disco grooves, and yet the country has always followed closely new musical trends among the African diaspora in the United States and some of the music contained within simply mirrors that. Moreover, music rarely if ever exists in a vacuum and one should not be at all surprised that South African musicians fuse contrasting genres with consummate ease.
In comparison to volumes two and three that were more narrowly focused, this is by far the most diverse thus far and will appeal to an audience well beyond the confines of world roots. Strut have wisely chosen to focus attention on the more danceable side and in the process have unearthed a few gems and a majority of musicians and singers who are totally unknown on these shores. With a heavy bass line, the instrumental ‘The things we do in Soweto’ has all the feel of a 1970s jazz-fusion track and one where the main riff bears a resemblance to the classic Latin-Soul of Joe Cuba which in turn pays homage to ‘Never go back to Georgia’. For more traditional sounds, the infectious mbaqanga of Elias Maluleke and Mavambe Girls on ‘Khombo Ranga’ will appeal while funk meets Afro on the vocal chanted ‘Khomo tsaka beile kae?’ by Marumo with some intricate guitar riffs over a throbbing disco beat. What really makes these numbers interesting is that traditional influences such as gospel phrasings in the vocals are combined with other, seemingly disparate musical styles and yet still come out sounding cohesive and fresh. Fans of early 1980s boogie will marvel at the lo-fi production on ‘1, 2, 3’ by Saitana which has a simple, yet effective chorus sung in English. Bob Marley and Johnny Clarke helped pioneer reggae in South Africa (the former never set foot there, but of course famously performed live at the neighbouring Zimbabwe Independence celebrations back in 1980) and so we should expect South Africans to incorporate these intoxicating rhythms into their own musical experience and this is precisely what happens on ‘Soweto Disco’ which has a reggaefied beat by the Movers that can best be described as Sly and Robbie meets Manu Dibangu, and is in fact a delightful jazzy instrumental. Elsewhere there is synth-disco from Harari on ‘Give’, Latin-fusion from Xoliso on ‘Manano’ and a somewhat misguided funk-rock on the keyboard layered ‘Ain’t sittin’ doin’ nothing’ by the Drive to conclude matters on a thought-provoking note Sleeve notes come courtesy of Francis Gooding who has more recently worked on projects for Jazzman among other labels.

Tim Stenhouse