A Travellerspoint blog

A few of my favourites...

semi-overcast 16 °C

Performers at Greenmarket Square, Cape Town

Performers at Greenmarket Square, Cape Town

I have included links to mainly Amazon and sometimes iTunes when I refer to songs so that if you want to hear an extract, you can click on the name of the song, be taken to the website and choose the song I mention to play (I had to do it this way because I wanted to share these sounds but at the same time wasn't sure about copyright issues if I included the actual songs in the post). Because Travellerspoint doesn't allow one to open links in a new page, you have to click 'Back' to continue reading the blog. I hope this is clear. If you need to find the music elsewhere, especially in the First World, sites like Spotify should have some of them.

Welcome to South Africa; welcome to the 2010 Football World Cup! We can't wait for your arrival: we're already driving through our streets with our cars bedecked, South African flags fluttering from the bonnets of our cars; our wing mirrors dressed on each side in our colours - the countdown is on! We're ready to welcome you to the biggest sporting event this country has ever seen: come and watch the football at our place.

But, I have a big surprise for you! South Africa has a lot more to offer first-time visitors to these lands than our hospitality and our prowess in staging sporting spectacles...

Our music! I have only recently returned to southern Africa after five years living in London, and one of the aspects of life here that I have learned to appreciate more with being away is the sound of good African music. Of course, as with any music, you have to get to know the good musicians and their best albums or songs.

As a teenager and a young adult, I grew up in Zimbabwe, South Africa's neighbour to the north. It was here in my later years at school that I met a group of people who were avid African music lovers, attending concerts of local and visiting international African stars regularly. For the first time, I heard the rich, inviting sounds of artists such as Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo with the distinctive singing guitar sound that defines Zim music: Oliver with his melodic, deep voice (listen to Mutserendende from 'Greatest Hits: The Tuku Years') and Mapfumo with his more confrontational, raw sound (listen to Manheru Changamire, a song very influenced by township jazz in Joburg, which he produced with Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, in the late 70s). It was also my first introduction to Salif Keita from Mali (listen to Madan from the album 'Moffou'), Habib Koite also of Mali (Foro Bana from his album 'Ma Ya') and of course, Ismael Lo from Senegal (the beautifully evocative Jammu Africa from the album of the same title)

I thought it would be great to share my favourite songs with you, and to pass on some tips as to what to buy or who to try and see while here. Oliver is definitely one of my favourite musicians, and he will be here during the World Cup; for me and many of the other Zimbabwean diaspora spread out all over the world who long to be back in that wonderful country, he defines our memories and our feelings about Zimbabwe. The opening bars of some of his most popular songs, Todii and Ziwere, are enough to get any party going.

Perhaps one of the most popular, more recent albums is Mahube, a southern African collaboration between 12 musicians from 4 different countries: South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Malawi, produced by the South African saxophonist Steve Dyer. Oliver Mtukudzi is one of the lead vocalists in the group, along with Suthukazi Arosi, and they make a moving, soulful sound alongside the vocals of George Phiri and Phinda Mtya in their rendition of a traditional Zimbabwean song, Ndiwe Muroyi. This album was first performed to an international audience at the Out of Africa Festival in Munich to much acclaim. The whole album is worth a listen so if you're considering downloading it, download all of the songs, you won't be disappointed! My favourites are Oxam, Ilanga Selishonile and Kolo Kolo.

Musicians at Kalk Bay, Western Cape

Musicians at Kalk Bay, Western Cape

Now, let's head south to where this festival is being held, South Africa, a country with a rich musical history and sound.

So, put on your glad rags, sharpen your moves. We're in for a high time tonight. Here too jazz, rock, gospel and blues were originally played, yes here in South Africa, and it is uniquely the black community that produced the most interesting and truly most powerful music. In the streets of Sophiatown in Joburg is where the township jazz sound was born. Listen to Midnight Ska by Reggie Msomi's Hollywood Jazz Band and Clarinet Kwela, on the same compilation, Township Jazz 'n Jive, by Kippie Moeketsi and the Marabi Kings to get you in the mood. The shebeens, illegal drinkhouses, played a significant role as well in the development of this urban African musical culture.

The pennywhistle and Pennywhistle Jive or kwela was an important part of the township jazz sound. It is said that the whistle originated among rural cattle herders who used to play reed flutes. It is a very evocative sound and you will find it compelling. Listen to Kwela Blues by Lemmy "Special" Mabuse, Bra Ntemi's Kwela by African Jazz Pioneers, the wonderfully named Last Sixpence by the famous pennywhistle player, Spokes Mashiyane and more recently the newly reformed Mango Groove with Pennywhistle.

Mbube by Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds will remind you of another song, 'Wimoweh', which was a number 1 hit on the Billboard charts in the US in 1961 for The Tokens. It is now common knowledge that Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight was not accredited to Solomon Linda for decades and there was a famous lawsuit to recover the credits/money rightly due to him.

Moving on though, there was also a strongly-felt influence from American jazz and swing, which these musicians liberally imitated or adapted, often calling themselves by some very American-sounding names: The Four Yanks (Ubuhlungu), Jazz Dazzlers (Diepkloof Ekhaya), Manhattan Brothers (Tula Ndivile with the iconic Miriam Makeba) etc.

This brings me nicely onto the legend that was Miriam Makeba, most well-known for her song Pata Pata, written by the Grand Dame of African music, the Zimbabwean Dorothy Masuka. Miriam first came to fame as a vocalist with the Manhattan Brothers, before forming her own band with the Skylarks (Holilili). Miriam is often called Mama Africa and her music is definitively South African in its sound (Hapo Zamani).

But let's now move into the present time and the music that South Africans have been listening to more recently. I'm not a fan of the wave of generic-sounding Americanised rock that prevails on South African radio, alongside a similarly American-influenced rap/hip hop sound coming out of the townships and from the urban youth. Mind you, there is some innovation in one particular music scene emerging in SA, Afrikaans trash-rap in the form of Die Antwoord and Jack Parow, which anyway is not played on radio here as the lyrics are considered too shocking.

The distinctive South African sound that I've been referring to above however can still be heard in artists such as the late Brenda Fassie (Vul'indlela), Phinda (Tiki Tiki), Sakhile (Thokgo), the legend Hugh Masekela (Grazing in the Grass) who still plays gigs regularly and will actually be performing at the World Cup 2010 opening ceremony in Soweto, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Homeless), made famous by their collaboration with Paul Simon on his album inspired by the South African sound, Graceland. The Ladysmith Black Mambazo sound is called Isicathamiya and originates from the mines of South Africa, where workers who found themselves on mines far from home, would amuse themselves into the early hours of Sunday mornings singing and dancing (on their tiptoes so as not to wake the guards). This style of music and entertainment persists today and competitions continue to be held in YMCA halls all over SA.

One of the musicians dancing at the Suluman Chimbetu and the Orchestra Dendera Kings show, HIFA

One of the musicians dancing at the Suluman Chimbetu and the Orchestra Dendera Kings show, HIFA

To end off, I have to return home to Zimbabwe and mention a festival which I attended a couple of months ago, HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts), which is held annually over May Day, bringing to the attention of Zimbabweans and the many visitors who also attend, the aforementioned music from big African stars such as Salif Keita, who performed the closing show in this year's festival, and Ismael Lo, but also lesser known and fresh talent. This year, two of the best attended shows during which the whole crowd rose to dance, were by little known Zimbabwean artists, Suluman Chimbetu and the Orchestra Dendera Kings and Mokoomba, a Tonga group from Zimbabwe, accompanied by the Ivory Coast musician, Manou Gallo who originally played with Zap Mama but is now a solo artist.

The crowd enjoying the music at HIFA

The crowd enjoying the music at HIFA

Posted by SEAsia.Mon 14:15 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

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