to American ears, South African pop sounds utterly blithe. It lilts along with harmonies that are always consonant, and it revolves around the three major chords -and, usually, the 4/4 beat and four-bar phrases – that are also basic to rock-and-roll. British, East Indian, European, North African and American music have all had a continuing impact on South African pop
Zulu choruses, for instance, made connections with hymn-singing (via British missionaries), jubilee songs (from black American minstrels) and more modern gospel and soul music, while retaining vocal interjections and a rhythmic sophistication that are unmistakably African. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the a cappella Zulu-Swazi chorus that recorded with Paul Simon and that has three albums available in the United States, won’t sound alien to anyone who’s heard the Five Blind Boys, the Four Tops or the Persuasions.
Within South Africa, the music carries mixed meanings. Under Apartheid, the Government worked to segregate blacks into tribal groups, as if decades of urbanization and shared culture had not occurred; separate, state-controlled radio stations, for instance, broadcast in Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho. Explicitly and implicitly, performers are steered away from political songs. So when a group sings in Zulu about the perils of urban life, it can be seen as endorsing a return to some rural homeland, away from the wealth and power of the cities.
Yet the sound and form of the music itself represent a triumph of African styles – call-and-response singing, overlapping instrumental lines, traditionalist melodies, the accents and rhythms of indigenous speech – as they continue to transform foreign influences. Outside South Africa, local symbolism recedes and the dignity, originality and sheer moxie of the music come through.
Mbaqanga (literally, in Zulu, ”maize bread”) is dance music that reaches blacks who work in cities but still have ties to rural life -migrant laborers and others who don’t identify with the ”sophistication” of American-style pop and jazz.
It’s citified rural music. Call-and-response vocals mix traditional melodies with the imperatives of pop catchiness; tinny electric guitars, and sometimes fiddles or accordions or pennywhistles, recall the the sound of African instruments above saxophones, keyboards, electric bass and American trap drums. While the bands vamp, the vocal melodies expand and contract; familiar as the music sounds to rock-trained ears, singing along isn’t easy.
excerpts from an orginal article
SOUTH AFRICAN POP BREAKS OUT
By JON PARELES/New York Times
Published: Sunday, February 8, 1987