Various ‘Next stop Soweto. Township sounds from the golden age of Abaqanga’ (Strut) 4/5

Coinciding with the forthcoming hosting of the football World Cup in South Africa this summer, Strut have wisely decided to take an in-depth look at the wealth of musical sounds on offer in the country and as part of a three volume series (with volumes two and three to follow during spring and summer devoted to soul, funk and hammond grooves, and jazz respectively) comes the first instalment which focuses fairly and squarely on the township music of Soweto, known locally as Mbaqanga. A variety of styles fused to create this sound and of the twenty songs on offer one hears gospel, rumba, folk and even jazz inflections condensed into the tasty singles that were released back in the 1970s. From listening to the uplifting sounds one would hardly realise that this music, predominantly from the seventies era, came at a time of major political unrest during the apartheid regime, yet it was precisely because of the extreme harshness of the then conditions (not that present daily economic conditions at least have improved a great deal from that era) that people from the townships needed music to heal the soul. Gorgeous female harmonies dominate from groups of the calibre of the Mahotella Queens and Mahlathini Queens. For the former the horn-led ‘Zwe Kumusha’ stands out while for the latter veterans ‘Umkovu’ impresses. Among the lesser known acts, the Mgababa Queens 45, ‘Maphtuthi’, contains a killer chorus and sensitive use of guitars and is unquestionably a highlight on the compilation. Jazzier hues are heard on the instrumental ‘Kuya hanjwa’ by S. Piliso his Super Seven with piano vamps and a super bassist, seemingly taking a leaf out of the innovations of Abdullah Ibrahim outside of his native country at the time. Rhythm guitars are to the fore as well as honey-toned harmonies on the opener by the Melotone Sisters and the Amaqola Band, entitled ‘I sivenoe’. With the compilation weighing in at just over fifty minutes even for twenty songs, one would ideally have liked to hear a few more examples of this joyous sounding music, but what the compilation lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in the actual quality of the sounds. Without requiring any use of synthesizers, Soweto township music nonethless succeeded in creating a deep layered sound based around terrific musicianship and this is one of the most impressive aspects of the music heard here. No details of the individual artists or songs contained therein with the promo copy reviewed. Strut are to be congratulated for unearthing these hard to find 45s in the first place and the re-mastering is crisp and clear while not taking away the earthier production skills that were an integral part of music at this time.

Tim Stenhouse