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South Africa: A Rough Guide & Vusi Mahlasela

AAJ Staff By

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South Africa has fostered its own musical traditions since long before the earliest days of the colonial era, but the 20th Century saw an explosion of new styles and their widespread documentation on record.

The mass relocation of rural blacks to urban areas, where they sought mining and service jobs, led to the establishment of poor township communities and the concomitant development of iscathamiya, maskanda and marabi, then later on kwela, mbaqanga, contemporary gospel and kwaito—the latter a fascinating, massively hybridized style characterized by rapped lyrics, swaggering hip-hop attitude, house beats and production, and huge popularity among the urban poor in places like Soweto. (More information about these styles can be found in AAJ's South African glossary.)

In this article: a Rough Guide collection of South African music representing several of the local styles mentioned above, as well as an easygoing, upbeat folk-pop album by Vusi Mahlasela, who digs into his roots and invites various contemporary stars to join in on about a third of the tracks.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa
World Music Network

So-called traditional styles and mass-produced pop share space on this newly renovated Rough Guide (a similarly named predecessor came out in 1998), providing both a grounding in history and an update on who's hip in the modern era.

One could not ask for a more soaring, vibrant opener than Busi Mhlongo's "Yehlisan 'Umoya Ma-Afrika." Mhlongo's greatest strength is her wide-ranging voice, which easily shifts from serious, pensive meditation to emotionally piercing passages (her instrumental backing is sufficient but rarely notable, which matters not). This track comes from her UrbanZulu album (MELT2000, 2000), a pinnacle of modern SA pop and the high point of her career.

Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens present an example of classic mbaqanga, sometimes called South African blues, which is a usually guitar-driven style based on a repeating four-harmony cycle, often incorporating vocal harmonies which strongly echo the influence of the church. (At one point, Christian missions were more abundant in South Africa than any other place on the planet.) Indeed, gospel is probably still the most popular music in today's South Africa.

World Music Network founder Phil Stanton made three errors when he selected the tracks for this collection. First, he wasted time on Yvonne Chaka Chaka's dull, repetitive bubblegum pop; second, he failed to include any serious gospel or jazz (though each of which, it must be said, is the subject of its own separate Rough Guide); and third, he totally ignored the immensely popular, utterly manly kwaito made by Zola or Mandoza, to name two contemporary monsters of the genre. (Too much testosterone for an otherwise mellow mix? Even the more soulful Shaluza Max would have done quite nicely.) Instead Stanton featured a dated, repetitive, drum machine-driven kwaito-ish nugget by Chicco, once a dreaded bubblegummer in his own right.

Otherwise, there's some really great stuff to check out here: the highly melodic Soweto String Quartet, roots maskanda master Shiyani Ngcobo, the relaxed, keyboard-driven Soul Brothers, spoken-word poet Lesego Rampolokeng, reggae star Lucky Dube, and the rich a cappella styles of both Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Overall, the sound quality is top-notch, with the exception of a few historical pieces. The liner notes are exceptionally informative, covering both background and information about individual artists. Finally, a CD-ROM feature includes an eight-minute interview with the producer and some additional background about South Africa and its music.

Vusi Mahlasela
Guiding Star
ATO Records

Singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela has suffered no shortage of exposure on the international scene over the years: he appeared on screen and on the soundtrack to the influential 2002 musical documentary Amandla!; he also contributed six songs to the soundtrack for the award-winning 2006 film Tsotsi. Dave Matthews invited him in 2000 to sing on the title track of his Everyday album; Mahlasela has appeared twice at Carnegie Hall, including performances with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Natalie Merchant; and he recently completed an American tour along with Malian singer/guitar virtuoso Habib Koité. Closer to home, he performed at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994.

Mahlasela's strong international presence is justly deserved, given the accessible, festive, upbeat quality of his music. For the most part, this sixteen-track album—the last "bonus track" is a remake of Miriam Makeba's massive hit "Pata Pata"—dances steadily forward, relying on Mahlasela's lean, attractive voice (frequently thickened up by vocal harmonies), bubbly rhythms, and lush, mostly guitar-based accompaniment. This is his third album on the ATO Records label.

Anglophone listeners can enjoy Mahlasela's English lyrics on about half the songs; the rest fly by with a similarly uplifting spirit of discovery and meditation. The maskanda-influenced opener, "Jabula," nods to deep tradition with boot dancing and pennywhistle playing, but soon enough heads into richly percussive territory and assumes an aura of celebration.

Of the tracks with guests, the reggaefied protest song "Chamber of Justice" (with Xavier Rudd), the bluesy, slide guitar-adorned "Tibidi Waka" (with Derek Trucks), and the somber "Sower of Words" (with Dave Matthews, a co-founder of ATO Records, also incidentally one of the best-selling South African natives abroad) stand out strongly. The notable "Ntombi Mbali" takes abundant advantage of the slippery playing of "Black Moses" Ngwenya, the keyboardist for the legendary Soul Brothers.

Guiding Star is consistent from start to finish, a high point in contemporary South African folk-pop. At times I would have preferred a bit less lush instrumentation (and/or production), and a bit more edginess (as on the beat-heavy, rocking "Pata Pata") would have injected some welcome energy into the overall vibe. But that's not Vusi Mahlasela's style, which deserves respect for its warm, welcoming, highly personal qualities.

Visit Vusi Mahlasela on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa

Tracks: Yehlisan 'Umoya Ma Afrika; Umuntu Ngumuntu; Umagubane; UmQombothi; St Agnes And The Burning Train; Yekanini; Ndidiwe Zintaba; Thandabantu; Mama Ka S'Bongile; Blue V's; Crying Games; Waar's My Pyp; Akanamandl' Usathana; Mbube; Tsi Tsi No.1; Wawukhona Yini E New York.

Personnel: Busi Mhlongo; Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens; Chicco; Yvonne Chaka Chaka; Soweto String Quartet; Shiyani Ngcobo; Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks; Mtabhane Ndima; Soul Brothers; Lesego Rampolokeng & The Kalahari Surfers; Lucky Dube; Oom Hansie; Nothembi; Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds; Big Voice Jack; Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Guiding Star

Tracks: Jabula; Heaven in my heart; Moleko; Chamber of Justice; Tibidi Waka; Everytime; Sower of Words; Ntombi Mbali; River Jordan; Song for Thandi; Mighty River; Thula Mama; Our Sand; Tonti; Susana. Bonus: Pata Pata.

Personnel: Vusi Mahlasela: lead vocals, acoustic guitars; Ian Herman: drums, percussion; Sibusiso Victor Masondo: bass guitars, strings (6,11); Robin Auld: electric guitar (3,6); Roger Bashew: organ (4); Guy Buttery: acoustic guitar (13), mandolin (7); Wynand Davel: violin (2,7,10); Mandisi Dyantyis: trumpet (4,11,16); Pedro Espi-Sanchez: percussion (6,9,13), lekolilo (1,3); Albert Frost: electric guitar (16); Ephraim Gumede: backing vocals (8); Paul Hamner: piano, organ (6,9,11), electric piano (16), harmonium (9); Jem: vocals (6); Chris Letcher: strings (7) Mauritz Lotz: electric guitar (11); Moses Mafiri: acoustic guitar (1,4), backing vocals (5,13,16); George Marco Manxola: electric guitar (1,8); Dave Matthews: vocals (7); Kenny Mathaba: electric guitar (2); Laurence Matshikiza: acoustic guitar (3,9,15); Solom Motuba: backing vocals (5); Mathintana Ncobo: concertina (1); Steve Newman: acoustic guitar (4,14); Moses Ngwenya: Hammond organ (8,16) Lesego Rampolokeng: vocal recitati (7); Queen Ranyama: backing vocals (11,14,16); Lloyd Ross: acoustic, electric guitars (4,7,11,16), mandolin (6); Xavier Rudd: vocals, Weissenborn guitar (4); Julio Sigaque: electric guitar (2); Barry Snyman: saxophone (16); Warrick Sony: programming (13); Mabi Thobejane: percussion (3,5,7,13,14); Derek Trucks: acoustic slide guitar (5); Lani van der Merwe: cello (2,7,10); Jannie Hannepoot van Tonder: trombone, brass arrangements (4,11,16); Ollie Viljoen: Accordion (2); The Hlanganani Brothers (July Phakathi, Mthandeni Memela, Mzwandile Kunene, Musa Zungu, Jabulani Kweyama, Mzwakhe Dlamini, Themba P. Ndawo and Kwenza Majozi): vocals (6,8); The KCC Choir (Joseph Jili, Mimi Jili, Gugu Mzobe, Chris Faya, Meshack Xulu, Xoli Sikhosana, Pampam Ndlovu, Nokwazi Mchunu, Coco Dimba, Zinhle Dlamini, Lady Fair Zwane, Andile Ndlovu, Fikile Majola and Zinhle Mngadi): vocals (9,11); the children of the Angnes Chidi School in Mamelodi (Relebogile Mogale, Christolene Plaatjies, Grace Seqeel and Lebohang Mafiri): vocals (14).


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