Friday, September 02, 2011

Soul Brothers: mbaqanga for the people

On a 2011 Gallo Records compilation Soul Brothers are referred to as the kings of mbaqanga and there is a statement that they have sold 4 million records in South Africa. Even when I first heard of them back in the late Seventies, the basic statement about the Soul Brothers is that they were probably the most popular South African act of the time, white or black.

My first exposure to local Black music came in about 1979 when I started listening to Radio Xhosa because I was fed up with the terrible disco centric format of Radio 5. I happened on the radio station while I was turning the dial on my radio and was immediately captivated by the wild music I heard. A trebly guitar played a weird, fast, repetitive pattern, the bassist played a fluid bass line low on the neck that is a co-equal lead instrument (and is reminiscent of the more bottom heavy reggae style), and a horn section played stabbing interjections. It sounded wild, crazy, out of control. It was The Other. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. I was hooked.

Radio Xhosa's playlist not only included this type of wild music, for which I had no name at the time, but the programmer also included a lot of current American R & B and, completely bizarrely, Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way." I could not understand what the announcers said and therefore had no idea who I was listening to unless they were foreign acts. I truly wanted to be able to buy the records I was hearing but had no idea how to identify them or where to find them. My local record stores, Sygma Records, Adrian & Don's Record Bar or, later, Ragtime Records, did not stock this type of music. I was not about to venture into KayaMandi, the Black township outside Stellenbosch, to look for this music, however much I wanted to have it.

Somewhere in the period 1977 to 1981 the SABC very surprisingly broadcast a documentary on Mahlathini "The Lion of Soweto" and the Mahotella Queens, as backed by the Makgona Tsohle Band (featuring West Nkosi and Marks Mankwana). This was as much an eye-opener as listening to Radio Xhosa for Mahlathini and his three female backing vocalists were portrayed as superstars in their community and in South Africa, and yet I had never heard of them before. It dawned on me that there must be an entire segment of the music industry in South Africa to which the White population is not exposed and which aims straight at the largest demographic in the country. On pure numbers alone even a moderately successful Black artist would have a far large audience than the most successful of White artists.

The Makgona Tsohle band played the stuff I wanted to desperately to hear yet I had no idea where to find their records.

My opportunity to acquire local Black music came when I noticed from the discount bins at the record bar of my local OK Bazaars that they were selling some records by local Black artists cheaply. Somehow I was expecting exactly the same wild sounds as the bands I heard on Radio Xhosa. In fact the first handful of records I bought by bands like The Grasshoppers sounded more like an African take on the Stax soul sound of Booker T & The MGs, with a prominent electric organ and no wild lead guitar.

It was still interesting music but not quite what I had hoped for.

A few years later OK Bazaars really started dumping records by local Black acts. I bought a stack because they were cheap even if I had no idea what I was buying. There was little description of the style of music or who the musicians were. Some of the albums would state that the music was Sotho vocal or Zulu vocal but that meant nothing in particular to me. I wanted the weird piercing guitar and fluid bass that I had heard on Radio Xhosa. What I mostly got was a bunch of vocal groups with a kind of plodding backing that was far removed from the wild excitement of the sounds that had attracted me to local Black music.

Amongst the best albums was a gospel record by the Rustenburg Boys; there was a very strange, almost completely percussion free album by Boyoyo Boys, who seemed to have only guitar between them; there was the Abaqondisi Brothers whose harmonies I liked; and various others. The only record that came close to the mbaqanga I wanted to hear, was called Tshungu Hits and, as I later gathered, was a compilation of tunes from the then Rhodesia. Although there were no Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens albums among the cheap records, there was one Soul Brothers album.

The best stuff, though, came from a series of audio cassette albums that seemed to be compilations of single tracks by various artists. I thought of them as the Mabone series, as some of the album titles featured this word, preceded by a number that suggested it might be a series number. This music was the mbaqanga in the style I'd heard on Radio Xhosa: fast beats, lots of sharp guitar and honking saxophone playing off each other in call and response patterns. The cassettes had no information other than the track listings. It would have been great to know more about these groups, the songwriters and producers. My guess was that the Black audience for whom this music was intended, did not care much about this type of information.

What I learnt from these records was that South Africa must have a significant Black recording industry and that a small band of writers and producers ran it to the extent of putting out the product. I guess the actual record companies may well have been White owned.

Anyhow, I thought that the Soul Brothers record was quite a find as they were legendary. Yet the music was that same tame backing of so many lesser bands with strict, metronomic four on the floor percussion that had no syncopation or poly rhythmic effect at all. It seemed that the drum kit consisted of only a bass drum and maybe one cymbal. The guitar was subdued. Usually the only interesting part was the agile, fluid bass playing. Obviously the emphasis was on the vocal harmonies but it would have been nice if the music added some excitement to the mix.

During the Eighties and Nineties I had the opportunity of watching a good deal of Black music television, mostly the fairly traditional stuff, and almost all of it had that same lethargic effect produced by the staid, though solid drumming. It seemed to me that the harmonies, the matching clothes and the dance routines were more important elements. The musicians had the simple job or providing backing music and they were not stars in their own right nor were they expected or required to be more dynamic than the vocalists they served.

The traditional Black music was only part of the entirety of the Black music industry. There was township pop, there was hip hop, more sophisticated R & B and jazz styles and, biggest of all, kwaito., all of which also had their share of exposure on the SABC but for a long time it seemed to me that the SABC was making an effort to preserve and promote the traditional music, perhaps beyond demand, in the same way the old SAUK Afrikaans Service had promoted "boeremusiek" far beyond what I thought of as necessary. Perhaps, as is the case with "boeremusiek", there is a far larger audience for traditional Black music styles than I knew.

From the late Nineties I started buying CDs of local Black acts, first a series by band leaders that played what was called "saxophone jive" that resembled the music on the Mabone cassettes. Some of it was pretty dull and some of it was exciting. One of them was a selection of Wes Nkosi tunes. He'd been the saxophone player in the Makgona Tsohle Band and I hoped the compilation of alleged hits would be something but over the length of the CD it just got wearying. I would imagine that the songs made sense as singles heard in different contexts. As album tracks the tendency was towards too much of the same thing. Something similar happened to the Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens greatest hits CD I bought. I knew a couple of the songs and they remained interesting but on the whole the set dragged a tad. It was just not the crazy mbaqanga music I wanted to hear, particularly as these greatest hits tended to favour the late Eighties revival of the Queens. There has to be a proper compilation of their early hits somewhere.

I guess it must be difficult selecting appropriate tunes by such a prolific recording unit as the Soul Brothers. How does one summarise a 40 career in 10 songs?

"Imali Yami" is a good example of the mbaqanga sound of the Soul Brothers starts off with a swirl of electronic organ, followed by a wiry bass that serves as a second lead instrument after the organ, with guitar way down in the mix and the drums supplying a solid, bass drum heavy foundation. It seems to me that the typical mbaqanga is the least technically able of all the musicians. He simply and only has to count out a strict, unvarying beat and stomp the bass drum pedal on that beat. There is some saxophone riffing to add an extra texture. The guys weave their harmonies over the top.

Damn it! I know this tune! Was it on the sole Soul Brothers album I used to own?

Anyhow, that is the template. Fortunately there is a lot of variety within patented style and the benefit of cherry picking 10 tracks is that each one sounds like prime Soul Brothers. There are variations in the musical palette from tune to tune though the prominent bass and metronomic drumming remain constants.

I cannot read the Soul Brothers' song titles and I have no idea what the lyrics say. Frankly I do not know whether the Soul Brother sing in Zulu (as I suspect) or in isiXhosa. All I can say for sure is that they don't sing in Tswana or Sotho.

Back in the day when I listened to Radio Xhosa a lot the fact that I did not understand the language were no hindrance and very much a plus factor, as far as I was concerned. The music was the universal language the cliché has it and it was a boon not to know what the many advertisements were about, though the jingle punch lines were often understandable enough, or what the radio presenters were saying. Call in shows were prominent during the times I tuned in and some of these calls seemed to last forever but because I could tune out to what was being said because I could not understand it, it was not that much of a bother and certainly not as irritating as similar shows on Springbok Radio had been. The only negative was that there seemed to be an incredible amount of talking and advertisements between tunes.

So for all I know, the typical Soul Brothers song is nothing more than a bunch of heard-it-all-before platitudes about love. Maybe they sing about social conditions and advance arguments for socialism and poverty alleviation. Perhaps the songs are calls for revolution (though I guess this is probably just a fantasy) and retribution. It does not matter much to me. The fact is that the tunes are great to listen to, move the heart and the feet and just seem generally like top of their game South African soul music by two veterans of the showbiz game.

The "soul" part of the group name could come from the soul in their music; it could be a reference to Sam & Dave, who were not brothers at all, but were kind of brothers in soul and soul brothers as well, at least until the one guy shot his wife and the other one no longer talked to him. Anyhow, my guess is that the Soul Brothers chose their name to reflect all these interpretations of the name.

Apart from the rather inflexible drumming one could well imagine that the basic mbaqanga sound was modelled on the Stax house band, with a resolutely African twist. The instrumental line up behind Soul Brothers is just about the same as with Booker T & The Mgs but the Soul Brothers band does a whole new thing with the same tools. The bassist is less about locking in with the drums and more about a solo voice and is generally played at a higher register. The keyboards do vamp behind the singers but the keyboard player also has the opportunity for wild intros and various flourishes within the songs. The guitar plays less choppy rhythm like Steve Cropper and more of his solo style, continuously throughout the song. The horn section does not always play simple stabbing riffs but present a kind of African jazz sweetening. It would have been nice, however, to have an Al Jackson understudy on the drums. I am not a musician but it seems to me that the basic mbaqanga drummer eschews the back beat and drums strictly on the one, which is funk or disco thing, and not really the soul thing.

My experience of listening to African music, from anywhere on the continent, sung in the vernacular is purely visceral, as I do not have to understand or analyse the lyrics. The totality of the song, words and music and beat, is the enthralling package. The words do not distract, as they are simply an element of the whole, equal to everything else and the vocals could easily be just another instrument.

This is very true of how I experience and appreciate the Soul Brothers. This compilation of 10 top tunes is a delight and a pleasure. Will I seek out more Soul Brothers records? I do not think so, unless it is yet another compilation of 20 of their best tunes that I see mentioned on the Gallo Records website. As I've said, I think the Soul Brothers would be best in the context of a hits package. On reflection I would say, musically speaking, that mbaqanga is not about drums at all; it is all about the bass. I can get behind that.

Give the bassist some!


























1 comment:

Nick Lotay said...

Hi there, I've just come across your post. Fascinating to hear of your personal story and efforts to try to seek out black music during that particular era in SA!

I'm part of a team of five people who share just the kind of music you may be looking for - the classic mbaqanga jive sounds of the '60s and '70s which you perhaps heard on Radio Xhosa (and a whole lot more). Check it out!

My recent post "Christmas Jive" may well be what you are after? 35 numbers by the likes of Mahotella Queens, Mahlathini, West Nkosi, and a range of similar artists.
Here it is:

I hope this was helpful - and thanks once again for sharing your stories! I would love to hear any more specific tales you have to share.

Best regards,
Nick Lotay