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Afrika Underground is a heavily funkified, “souled,” thickly grooved compilation of South African classic acts that uttered their “underground” musical cries under the defunct apartheid system. Hence, therein one gains access to musical material from the 70s and 80s, whereupon funk, fusion rock and particular brands of fusion jazz had their heyday. South African musicians have always looked to the U.S. for inspiration and it was inevitable for them not to dwell on such developments while generating their own take on them. The groups and songs represented in this anthology, however, dwell fairly close to North America, although with a distinctive South African accent in their inflections.
“Lament,” as interpreted by the group Movement in the City, is a mid to slow tempo groove laden cut that would sway a crowd with a laid back bass heavy beat and its steadfastness, while allowing the soloists to do their thing. “Chapita” is the vocal chorus for the first of two cuts from Dick Khoza and a vocal exception to the instrumental rule in this compact disc. The guitars and the rhythm section provide the sturdy foundation for floating soulful sax lines, supported by an equally soulful line of horns as occasional background. “Half’n Half” is a clearheaded funky piece featuring organ lines that drive the saxy and stringed funk home with sustained power and fun. It is one of two tunes included by Zacks Nkosi. In the 6/8 “Thunder Into Our Hearts,” we encounter one of the most jazzified tunes in the record, with characteristic African percussive tinges by the group Jabula. “La I La I La,” is another vocalized tune featuring a flavorsome role for the piano and a romantic saxophone postlude. “I Remember You” can easily pass as a tune by a Brazilian ensemble with Mike Makhalemele and his buddies burning a delicious stew of harmonic cool from the piano, as well as a searing saxophone work worthy of the best rodízio. The trippy “The Way It Used to Be” is offered by the group Pacific Express and you will relive the good times of the 70s for sure. The keyboarding and the guitar statement are up to par with some of the best period work of its kind, in spite of the song’s brevity. Khoza then returns with the danceable “African Jive” with its inviting horn punches framing some more solid solo work. Nkosi returns with “Wilderness,” a short groovy foray into good tuneful funk taste. “Musikana,” by Harari is another tune with vocal interventions and rockish-jazzy moods driving through it all as the trumpet gets a break to shine in this compilation. “Blues for Yusef,” with Lionel Pillay, closes this compiled treat with a kind of love talk that would seduce any smooth jazz audience with its testosteronic lines of steady attack, without alienating mainstream listeners.
Afrika Underground is just good ol’ funky musical pleasure as fresh today as it ever was when originally served.