Review #497: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Various Artists

Karla Clifton
3 min readDec 26, 2023

#497: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Various Artists

This looked like a much more intimidating album than it turned out to be, probably because I’m completely unfamiliar with South African languages and dialects and I despaired of spelling anything correctly. Also, I don’t think a single song has its lyrics online, making it impossible for me to translate them.

But you know what? This ended up being one of my favorite albums on the whole list.

Soweto: a township of Johannesburg, South Africa. Relevant because at the time, not all parts of South Africa were created equal, thanks to apartheid. The racially charged political policy made it difficult for artists from certain areas (and of certain skin colors) to break through and attain success. The idea for this record came from two South African expatriates who wanted to celebrate the music of their homeland, and they were able to release it first through a UK label, then a US one. It covers several different South African styles, but it’s mbaqanga that’s most prominently highlighted: a style that combines traditional music with modern blues and jazz styles.

There seems to me to be two crucial elements to this record: guitars and vocals. Nothing is in English, but this is one of those albums that you don’t have to understand in order to get some joy out of. Listen to the call-and-response happening on songs like on “Holotelani” and “Qwahilahle,” and see if it doesn’t get stuck in your head. (Though not every song features singing — see South African square dance “Sobamba” and “Joyce №2.”) And the guitar sounds are impeccable: South African melodies given a distinctly Western treatment. Check out the slide guitar on “Qhude Manikiniki,” the pretty acoustic intro of “Sini Lindile,” and the straight-up shredding on “Thul’ulalele.”

There are nine different artists featured on this album, and all of them are great, but there are two standouts. The first is Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, which is really a combination of three separate and distinct musical acts. There’s Simon “Mahlathini” (loosely translated as “the main man”) Nkabinde, the bass singer at the helm. You can hear him do an old bluesman impression on “Emthonjeni Womculo.” Then there’s the instrumental Makgona Tsohle Band, which provides them with their indestructible beat. Finally and most importantly, there is the trio of backup singers, the Mahotella Queens, who are still recording and performing to this day. They take the lead vocals out of Mahlathini’s hands on “Ngicabange Ngaqeda,” and sound awesome.

Finally, there’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a group you might recognize as having performed on Paul Simon’s Graceland. (And also on Sesame Street.) Formed by Joseph Shabalala after he was inspired by a series of dreams. Not only that, but the group was so good that they were eventually banned from competing in local singing competitions, since they would simply win every one. They close the album with “Nansi Imali,” an a cappella piece that shows off their somnambulist harmonies.

This album was so good that two of the harshest critics I know gave it an A+: Robert Christgau and my brother. “Way better than Boyz II Men,” he said.

Favorite Part: The wild card sound effects. Particularly loved the bird calls at the end of “Awungilobolele” and what my brother described as “South African Darth Vader” on “Inoda Yejazi Elimnyama.”

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