Origine du Groupe : V.A South Africa
Style : World Music
Sortie : 1987
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the differences between the Real World and Earthworks labels is to understand the differences between socialism and populism.
The Real World label, as formed and popularized by Peter Gabriel, features recordings from assorted artists around the world. Listening to most such recordings, the phrase which might most easily enter the mind of the listener is "cultural displays". That is to say, the "art" frequently seems quite deliberate -- and, if not quite Westernized, nevertheless somewhat removed from street-level scene in the musician's place of origin. Some exceptions obviously exist, but the albums released in this series tend to have the same ethos about them as do government-funded art projects in North America.
From my perspective -- admittedly somewhat removed from the cultures in question -- the Earthworks label is a bit different. One frequently gets the impression, listening to these records, that the music would not be out of place in the casual venues of such cultures. In cruder terms, this might be more in line with the sort of music that profit-based corporations use for their day-to-day business (though, given the economies of scale in many Third World nations, the practical impact of this assessment is probably rather limited).
This reviewer will not take a side my favouring one side over another -- both have their place in the greater musical economy, and both promote forms of musical expression which the other is not likely to touch upon. Nevertheless, this distinction may be of some importance in understanding the impetus behind works on these labels.
One frequent characteristic of populism is a misleading "front" or "cover" for the substance of the entire thing. This is certainly the case with Thunder Before Dawn (a.k.a. The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto Vol. 2). The front cover of this release shows a group of South African tribesmen in a ritual dance, with one prominent figure in mid-air and possibly about to jab two spears into the ground before him. This cover suggests that the music on the release will be traditional tribal fare. As per the above description, this is not quite the case -- rather, the music seems more appropriate for a tavern or club atmosphere ... or perhaps even a specialized radio format.
That aside, this album does yield some interesting discoveries about black South African music in the dying days of apartheid (for the uninitiated, that is). Perhaps my greatest surprise, listening to the work, was the predominance of Hammond organ chops in the musical setting -- the vocal harmonies, rhythmic guitar lines and non-standard beats were all somewhat predictable; the Hammonds were extremely less so. I'm quite curious as to whether this was typical of most South African music at the time, or whether this sample is simply misleading. One way or the other, though, this certainly won't interfere with a progressive fan's take on the entire affair.
(Of course, given the ethnic distinctions within black South Africa, it may be inappropriate to make any blanket statements about the music of the area as based solely on this release. Although the musicians featured herein are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, all songs except one are sung in Zulu.)
In terms of song "form", the first track -- by vocal trio Amaswazi Emvelo and singer Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde -- is fairly typical of what one might expect of pop music of this sort. Thankfully, though, it's quite good in terms of content (not to mention rather catchy). The Hammond lick at the beginning gets this off on a fairly strong note, and there's nothing to fault the musicians for on this number -- the bass solo, in particular, is pretty good. The focal element of the song, however, would be the vocal harmonies; not too aggressive in their melodic style, they fit the tone of the quite well. In short, this is good pop music (and it grows on the listener with successive hearings as well).
Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo (hereafter "MNZ") is described in the liner notes as a mbaqanga (ie. "township") supergroup, featuring the aforementioned Mahlathini, the original Mahotella Queens, the Makgona Tsohle Band, and guitar/composer Marks Mankwane. "Thuto Ke Senotlolo" (the only song on the album sung in Sotho), features extremely deep lead vocals (presumably by Mahlathini) which are impressive enough to grant the song a fairly high rating on their own -- and, on top of that, we also have more Hammond organ coolness throughout the number. About the only problem with this track is the ill-considered "call and answer" vocal form -- the Mahotella Queens wear on the nerves somewhat, after a while (those familiar with Pink Floyd's backing vocalists should get the idea).
Dilika are cited as a Zulu-guitar group led by David Mtshali, and the introductory Tomorrow-esque guitar line would seem to verify his dominance in the group. This is a nice, infectious number which isn't terribly hindered by the fact that the drums sound somewhat canned. The guitar is the high point of this song, of course; the vocals, though good enough, aren't really superhuman. Still, we're easily three for three, so far.
Abafakasi (featuring Osiaz Ntsele on vocals) then follow with "Wakwami", perhaps the most immediately memorable vocal line on the album. The Hammond chops which begin the track seem quite proggy in this particular instance (believe it or not), and the bass line throughout the verse is quite nice as well. This group is apparently known for its saxophone performances, one of which makes a good enough appearance in mid-song. This track might seriously confuse some progressive fans, but it shouldn't disappoint them.
Johnson Mkhalali, according to Trevor Herman's liner notes, is a "prominent accordian jive specialist" (one wonders if accordion fans in this part of the world engage in Mkhalali/Rossy debates). "Sunshine Boots", the track featured here, some JM's skills in the foreground, with some nice guitar flavouring as well. This is clearly good stuff, though a tad repetitive.
Jozi, another zulu-guitar group led by Moses Mchunu, provide the first true masterwork of the album with "Phumani Endlini". The drums sound rather canned here as well, but that's hardly the point -- the acoustic guitar and amazingly urgent vocal delivery are strong, strong points in this song's favour. The harmonious bass sound is pretty damned good as well, as are the vocal harmonies (I have no idea what the spoken word bit is actually communicating, but it sounds fairly impressive nonetheless ... actually, the lack of information about the actual songs is another distinction between this label and Real World).
From here, we go back to MNZ, and their "Kwa Volondiya". The airy guitar lines and heavy bass performances go well with Mahlathini's deep voice (but where's the Hammond?). This is probably a more developed number than the previous MNZ track, though the unfortunate problem of the backing vocalists is common to both. The guitar soloing between the verses is rather impressive.
As this stage, the Makgona Tsohle Band step out on their own with "Vula Bops", a shuffle-driven number that's probably about as good as "good-time" music can be. ;) The prominent horn delivery over this danceable number might draw a few similarities to Louis Armstrong in terms of "musicality which prevails in spite of restraint", though the content of the track is something rather different. One way or the other, though, this is a thoroughly enjoyable number.
And, following this, it's time for Amaswazi Emvelo to step out of their own. "Jabula Mfana" features some good electric soloing at the beginning, and a drum line which is fairly interesting in spite of its apparently canned nature (some sudden shifts make it worthwhile). The vocals are, obviously, the lead element once again, and are notable for a strong element of chaos therein (the complexity of the arrangement is fairly impressive in its own terms). A guitar solo follows afterwards; the entire track seems somewhat longish.
How ironic is it that "Siwuhambile Umhlaba", by Amaswazi Emvelo & Mahlathini, sounds quite similar to the Talking Heads? This is a somewhat more poppish number than some other tracks here, with the deep vocals and guitar lines appearing as expected. The vocal arrangement, once again, is quite impressive here; moreover, this track actually improves by virtue of its length and use of repetition.
The third and final MNZ track is, unfortunately, the least impressive number here. This is something of a ballad, and not completely removed from the stigma which is normally associated with that term; the fact that this is also the only track sung by a female lead vocalist may be proof that some demographic arranging is cross-cultural. The instrumental elements of the song are proficient enough, and the vocals themselves aren't terribly obnoxious ... but, really, this just isn't that great of a song. Rather, this is one of the few occasions in which Thunder Before Dawn seems rather ... well ... ordinary.
Thankfully, the next song is something completely different, and easily the most bizarre thing on this album. If there is a such thing as "mbaqanga psychedelia", I would suggest that Malombo should probably be regarded as the godheads of the movement. A rather minimal guitar presence (vaguely akin to "Sweet Jane") sets the musical tension, and a rather odd (and somewhat undermixed) vocal line might easily make the listener wonder if this wasn't improvised ... late one night ... at the tail-end of a lengthy festivity. The sheer sonic arrangement of the entire thing dominates over any single element of musical performance (which isn't a bad thing, of course). This track alone might be enough to recommend the album for fans of bizarre musics.
Thankfully, though, there are other tracks to impress listeners with adventurous tastes. There may be better albums of this sort of there, but this one shouldn't disappoint.
The Christopher Currie
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 30 Jun 1998)
1 Amaswazi Emvelo and Mahlathini - Utshwala begazati
2 Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo - Thuto ke senotlolo
3 Dilika - Amazimuzimu
4 Abafakasi - Wakwami
5 Johnson Mkhalali - Sunsine boots
6 Jozi - Phumani endlini
7 Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo - Kwa volondiya
8 Makgona Tshole Band - Vula bops
9 Amaswazi Emvelo - Jabula mfana
10 Amaswazi Emvelo and Mahlathini - Siwuhambile umhlaba
11 Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo - Ngasebenza ngedwa
12 Malombo - Motshile