Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – Volume One

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Around the time Paul Simon heard his first cassette of South African mbaqanga, or township jive, Trevor Herman and Jumbo Vanrenen, a pair of S.A. ex-pats in England, began compiling this landmark. Their timing, as it turned out, was perfect. Opposition to South Africa's oppressive, racist apartheid system was beginning to get noticed in America and Europe, buoyed along in the pop world thanks first to the charity "Sun City" single and later by Simon's Graceland, controversially recorded in South Africa with local musicians, during the U.N.-sanctioned cultural boycott of the country. But for the lucky listeners who encountered it, the deepest impact came from Herman and Vanrenen's 12 exquisitely arrayed selections.

Quite simply, the greatest South African compilation ever.

Like many of its sequels (there have been five additional, numbered volumes, as well as several spin-offs), The Indestructible Beat of Soweto features cuts from mbaqanga's grandmaster, the sublime, ram-throated bellower Mahlathini and a stirring album-closer from Zulu male chorale, Simon collaborators and eventual Coca-Cola pitchmen Ladysmith Black Mambazo. These are surely South Africa's most famous apartheid-era musicians, but their star power means less here than the sure-footed support of the Makgona Tshole Band (led by expert guitarist Marks Mankwane), who appear on much of the album. From Udokotela Shange Namajaha's keening violin instrumental "Sobabamba" and the towering album-opener "Awungilobolele," with its hypnotic twin-guitar leads that settle into a groove so powerful it's almost grave, to the dizzying gulps, gurgles and doots that dot Amaswazi Emvelo's "Indodo Yejazi Elimnyama," Herman and Vanrenen turned more people on to a great musical tradition than any album compiler this side of Harry Smith or the producers of The Harder They Come. There is no hyperbole in calling The Indestructible Beat of Soweto the most influential collection of South African pop ever assembled; if there's any in saying it may very well be the single best album on eMusic, we can live with it.