Howdy. You might have noticed something that something fairly big is about to start in South Africa, and as a European I am duty-bound to spend the next month waffling on and on and on about it. It’s great, though, because the World Cup offers us a chance to do many things, like laugh uncontrollably at France, get drunk at 2 in the afternoon, tell a room of journalists to ‘suck it and keep on sucking it’, and research other countries in the hope of finding another stereotype to chant about. So why not do it here? I’ll bet that 95% of the people on Sputnik own songs from, at most, 6 of the countries participating (and that’s accounting for your token J-pop albums and weirdly popular outliers like Laibach).
So where better to start than the hosts?
South Africa’s music is unique amongst that of Africa in the way it has permeated American culture, largely thanks to Paul Simon and his massively successful Graceland; indeed, when the average person tries to imagine African music, from any part of the continent, it’s almost certainly the monophonic vocal harmony of Ladysmith Black Mambazo they picture. It’s an odd stereotype, for sure, but it’s one that’s ensured that they were, and perhaps still are, more famous in the US than they were in their home country.
Yet Ladysmith are a one-dimensional representation of a national scene varied and vibrant enough to make Guardian columnists get all hot and bothered about it – a scene that has contributed the biggest jazz act in African history, the most acclaimed alternative rock band currently plying their trade in the continent, and one of a small handful of reggae acts to truly break out from Africa into European and American markets. For the latter two, do some searching for the name Parlotones – fans of The Killers and Snow Patrol will find much to enjoy about them, particularly if they enjoy an occasional splash of early Radiohead – and Lucky Dube, a legend of socio-political reggae who was tragically murdered by car jackers in front of his own children in 2007. Here’s the former, though; a man named Abdullah Ibrahim, who often recorded and released material under the name Dollar Brand. He’s just about famous enough to have snuck into the much-derided 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die as one of a few token African representatives, but don’t hold it against him too much.
Some mind should be paid to the dance music currently enjoying much success over there, too. It’s an interesting switch into unusual territory for a country with such heavy and such recent history weighing upon it. Generally, it’s been music of a political bent that’s found favour – whether that bent is an outright display of dissent against racism or the government, or a more subtle roots revival that harks back to a time before apartheid – but the recent outburst of dance acts have been almost entirely apolitical. It makes sense, of course – the regime ended in 1994 and there is a whole generation of young adults now who can’t remember apartheid ever existing. Why continue to reference something hand-on when it was never an up-front, inescapable part of your life? So the club sounds of SA, while still retaining some of the nation’s musical character in both its percussion and its sunny disposition, opt for hedonism and escapaism – in a way not entirely dis-similar to the post-Vietnam US pop in the ’80s. DJ Bongz – a multi-platinum selling artist in SA – is a key proponent; here’s the blissed-out “Sobuye S’bonane” from 2007.
Oh, and if we’re talking about South African music, I suppose there’s also the vevuzelas….but I won’t get into that. If you plan on watching the World Cup, you’re going to be hearing far, far too much of them over the next four weeks.