The Beat of Soweto Proves to Indeed Be Indestructible
Everyone should have a friend with musical tastes like my friend Andrew. By no means is his collection or tastes all encompassing, nor would I feel right calling it random. I think it would be right to call it unconstrained by era, fidelity or language. Through various phases, he has cajoled me into listening to reggae, The Grateful Dead, and hissy, tinny recordings of musicians from six decades ago. Some of it has stuck, namely the Dead, some of the genres of reggae were not so lucky (thank god.) But seeing that he has sent me cds, occasionaly just identified by a single word, is always an interesting experience. When seven or so albums turned up the other day, I knew that something worth writing about would come of it.
Indeed it has. The CD labeled "Soweto" has turned out to be The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, a compilation of South African artists that was released in the mid 80s. According to Andrew, this CD is "What Paul Simon wishes that Graceland had sounded like." Heavy words. I'm a big fan of Paul Simon, and don't think Graceland bashing is territory to enter into lightly. However, I was aware that Simon's usage of South African musicians on a good number of the tracks for the 1987 album was controversial at the time. Since I was six when the album came out, I was oblivious to the controversy, and only vaguely aware that I liked the song about the guy called Al. I don't care to learn about the controversy, nor do I think i would be the one to definitively explain it. If Paul Simon exploited the explosive political climate in South Africa in 1987 to generate publicity for his record, this "hype" has been forgotten by now as the record has proven that it stands the test of time on its own musical merits.
What does sort of irk me is this sentence from the Amazon.com description of The Indestructible Beat of Soweto.
Before Paul Simon, Sting, and Peter Gabriel started their explorations and exploitations of African music, this stunning set of music was already out there showing the world how it was done in South Africa's townships.
Now when you lump Paul Simon in with that "illustrious" crowd, it sort of makes you do a re-evaluation of things. Both of these guys have used South African sounds? Sting of I Used To Be Cool Once fame? The same Peter Gabriel last seen trying to get the entire Olympic village to never listen to "Imagine" again? Are there people out there, snarky people who probably call the album "Dis-Graceland" (like they were the first one to think of that), who think of Paul Simon as one of those types of musicians?
Graceland - Still OK by me
My musical taste is not very subject to revisionist history. As a big Graceland fan, hearing The Indestructible Beat of Soweto compilation makes me feel a bit like I did when I learned that Dr. Dre had pretty much lifted all of the music for "Ain't Nuthin' But A G Thang" directly out of someone elses song. It's disappointing at first, but then I feel glad that I didn't know the music was lifted from somewhere before I heard the derivative work. Had I heard the original first, I might never have been able to appreciate the derivative/homage work, and then I would be deprived of the memories and associations I had with that work. And who knows if I would have been open to listening to these African musicians singing in a strange language, making wierd vocal inflections, and using bizarre instruments to create a joyous mix of acapella, bluegrass and zydeco had not Paul Simon eased me into it when I was six years old?
Well the answer to that is probably that I would have still appreciated the music on the Soweto compilation. It's about as infectious good time sunny day music as you can get. The instantly recognizable harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are of course represented on this compilation, but you also get a wide more variety of artists that you've never heard of. Standing out instantly is the unique "Groaning" voice of Mahlathini. Deep, gravelly and unlike many things you've heard before, this guy sounds like he would be the kind of guy that would sing part of a song and retreat to the side of the stage, but you'd be unable to take your eyes off him for fear that you'd miss him do something awesome. You've also got the fiddle playing of Moses Mchunu, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Cajun Zydeco record. I had always assumed that Simon incorporated disparate elements of South African music and Creole on his record. Now I realize that this South African sound just had many more elements to it than just what you could identify as South African on the surface. Also standing out is Johnson Mkhalali's Joyce No. 2, incorporating squeezebox, bass and stacatto guitar all so familiar sounding that even the most ardent Simon supporters couldn't help but feel that he pulled a fast one on them.
This album is far from under the radar. It was evidently named Album of the Year by the Village Voice in 1987, but I would be surprised if it had sold 1/50th the copies that Graceland had. Well now is your chance to check it out for yourself. I don't see how you could lose with this baby. If you like the music of Graceland, you'll love this album. If you're a hipster who wants to bemoan Graceland's obvious accomplishments in favor of something more esoteric at parties, this is perfect. If your tastes fall somewhere in the middle, in that foreign realm that we simply call "fans of good music," you win as well. Highly recommended.
Buy it at Amazon: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto