Review Summary: While My Thumb Piano Gently Weeps1 of 1 thought this review was well writtenGraceland
is oftentimes credited as being one of America's earliest and most prominent entry points into the vast, disorienting world of modern African pop music, but more than 20 years later, sometimes it still feels as if we never really dug much past it.
Sure, you could spit in any two-bit record store and hit about a dozen assorted world music compilations, each more "African looking" than the next, but let's be honest: aside from a few scattered gems, most are really only skin deep excavations into genres with too much depth, too much historical and regional significance, too much variance to be fully surmised over the course of one CD. And yet, more often than not, they end up used less as resources to branch off of and more as quick-and-easy supplements to fulfill the fleeting "world music" salivations of people too far removed from these cultures to really give much of a shit
about what that implies.
As a result, it's really easy to convince yourself that world music compilations are actually handcrafted by a long-dicked spawn of White Satan, back again to steal yet another sacred tradition from the indigenous peoples of the non-white world. And, for the most part, you'd pretty much be right. But sometimes, a compilation comes along, and as time passes, it proves itself to be more than just a quick cash-in mixtape of Ladysmith Black Mambazo bootlegs -- it proves itself to be a loving, personable, definitive summary of a genre or style that can't otherwise be easily explored by Western ears, even in an age where "half-way across the world" means only about a few extra mouse clicks away. Every once in a while a compilation like Soweto
comes along, and every once in a while, it changes everything.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of mbaqanga comps that followed in the wake of Soweto
, and there's one simple reason for it: when Graceland
drove up interest for South African pop music, people rediscovered this then-year-old comp and, because it was so immaculately researched and painstakingly crafted, were able to trace back the roots of Paul Simon's infectious cracker bullshit right down to their native beginnings. It wasn't westernized, it wasn't a cheap toss-away pander-fest manufactured by underpaid griots in some sweatshop Paris studio -- this was real mbaqanga, the best of it, sorted through and pulled from the best mbaqanga albums during a time when South African culture in its entirety was being boycotted by the Western world. Soon, it grew in stature. It grew heavily in status. Eventually, it was on track to become one of the most respected world music compilations ever
-- and if they could just shave off even a small bit of its newly gained cachet for themselves, they stood to pull away with an assload of cash, just before the world music fad dried up and came crumbling back down. Simple, right?
So in poured The Indestructible Beat of Soweto vols. 2-489, and, to be fair to them, the sound is mostly the same. Mbaqanga is distinct: the breezy, upbeat sway of the rhythm, the deep, driving bass just below bursts of twisted, tangled up guitar lines, shifting forms at the tip of a hat, all on top of gimmicky 80s synths and the occasional misplaced accordion or jerky violin arrangement. Its the sound heard in compilations both new and old, sincere and not, and a quick run through of The Indestructible Beat of Soweto Vol. 1 will pretty much confirm this. Sputtering, tick-laden tribal vocals bellowing over boppy, funkless afrobeat. It's gorgeous, weightless, free-form stuff, don't get me wrong, but the sound is familiar. So why the big fuss about this record?
It's simple: because unlike its imitators, and even unlike Paul Simon, Soweto
made a statement. It hit the shores in a blaze of glory at a time when touching it was taboo, and yet, through word of mouth (critics' or otherwise), it still managed to cement its influence deep in Western music, and it's never quite let go since. Soweto
was the first crack in the cultural boycott. Soweto
made the impact, opened the floodgates. Soweto
's the reason those vast swaths of imitators, respectable or not, even exist. It essentially paved the way for the entire Western world-music market to flourish, but you'd be forgiven for not knowing that: once Graceland
blazed on through and slapped its imperialist strip malls and street signs on the sides of the track, that paved out pathway became so trafficked and so built up that it was rendered almost unrecognizable. Yes, interesting albums have come and gone since -- memorable, important stores have hustled and bustled and fallen into disrepair all atop this single street -- but at the end of the day, when you clear back the brush and bits of chipped off brick still sprinkled in the dirt mounds, all that's left is the cool, tempered foundation that is Soweto
, still bopping away 30 years later. Is the music good? Definitely, but that's not why it's important. It's important because it spurred a generation of music fiends to check out artists and styles from places they had never heard of. It's important because it gave us the tools, and the inspiration, we needed to discover places and people from faraway lands on a level deeper and more personal than just dots on a map, pictures in a textbook, lines on a page. It's important because of what it built -- because of what it allowed us to build.
It's important because when you hit play, these jams grab you by the balls and throw you in a pile of horse shit. Eat my cock.