Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In the Changer: State of South African Music Edition

It's been quite some time since dcat has provided "In the Changer," our semi-regular feature in which I provide capsule music reviews to make you a better human being. This edition will also serve as something of a "State of South African music" edition, as I will be reviewing the cds I bought while in South Africa and in so doing, providing something of a survey of the current South African music scene. (Listed in alphabetical order by artist's name.)

Arno Carstens: The Hello Goodbye Boys: Arno Carstens was the frontman for the late Springbok Nude Girls, probably the most popular rock band in South African history. I have several Nude Girls albums, and must have seen them a dozen times in concert. I also had a beer with Carstens at Oppikoppi, South Africa's biggest rock festival, in 1997. There are rumors that the Nude Girls will be getting back together soon, but for now, fans will have to rely on Carsten's solo work. The Hello Good Bye Boys is Carsten's second solo release, and it is typical of his work. It is a solid, not great album suffused with hard rocking numbers and ballady-semi-rock. The slower songs get the air play, which is a source of frustration for Carstens, given that he has always said that one o his ambitions is to start a heavy-metal band called "Skullfucker." As an aside, one of my main criticisms of South Africa's rock bands is that, in addition to coming from a somewhat insular culture (there just are not a lot of them) thery also tend not to listen to as broad a selection of music as aspiring musicians in the States or the UK. Rock is, understandably, a niche commodity on South African radio, so there is not a whole lot of variety on the airwaves. Things are changing as a result of the internet and downloadable music, but this, to my mind, is still a problem. By way of example, one of my favorite bands in South Africa in the 1990s was a group called "The Led." they took their name from, you guessed it, Led Zeppelin. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed them and got to know them rather well, as a ganeral rule, if it's not 1976, your band's main influence probably ought not to be Robert Plant and company, great as those boys were. Grade: B

Freshlyground:Nomvula: Freshlyground is possibly the most beloved contemporary act in South Africa. More than a band, they are a cultural phenomenon, a living embodiment of the multiracial (or nonracial) dreams of the Rainbow Nation. It is difficult to categorize Freshlyground, especially for an American audience, but I suppose "jazzy Afropoppy crooning dark eyed soulful r&b via township jive" could work as well as any. Zolani Mahola has a goddess' voice. If there were any justice, Freshlyground would become huge, and would surpass Ladysmith Black Mambazo as South Africa's greatest cultural export. But ours is a world where that douchebag Scott Stapp, former lead singer of Creed, got to make a solo album, and that solo album has sold well. So my faith has been sorely tested. Grade: A-

Hugh Masakela: The Collection: Hugh Masakela might be South Africa's most famous jazz artist. South African jazz is at its best vibrant, lively, and mesmerizing. A polyglot mixture of American jazz, African beats, and township sensibility, the best jazz from Africa's southern tip is the equal of any in the world. Masakela is probably its best ambassador. Masakela is a brilliantly inventive trumpet player who stood against the apartheid state and as a consequence spent many years in exile. During that time he developed an international reputation and made contacts that allowed him to collaborate with some of the best musicians in the world. I have an old tape compilation of some of Masakela's best music, and while I like that somewhat better than this one, The Collection, or any collection of Masakela's music, makes for a pretty good introduction. Grade: A-

Katie Melua: Piece by Piece: I discovered Melua purely by happenstance. It was a steaming hot day in Pretoria, I had just returned from a long walk from the archives to my B&B, and I turned on SABC to see this lovely woman singing this lush, unapologetically gushy love song, "Nine Million Bicycles." Melua is a blues/jazz singer with a sweet, lush, if somehow endearingly imperfect, voice. She mixes refurbished standards with new songs, and did I mention that she is lovely? Ana hates most of my music, and she loves this. Odds are pretty good that "Nine Million Bicycles" could make for the first dance song if there is ever a dcat wedding extravaganza.Grade: A-

Various Artists: Cape Town Jazz: The discerning reader will note that I added the qualifier "at its best" when praising South African jazz. Too much of this collection has lite jazz written all over it. Some of the selections are fine examples of Cape Jazz. Too many sound like Kenny G's idea of "far out, boetie."I'll probably download and cull fairly extensively. Grade: C+

Various Artists: Kwaito Bash: Hits Volume 2: Kwaito is best described as a fusion of dancehall with a hip-hop attitude and an African dialect. Some Kwaito is very good. Some of it sucks. I was looking for another collection and could not find it and settled for this, which has both examples. If I had a little more money (South African cds are really expensive and by the end of my trip I was pretty cash poor) I'd have probably gone with one or two hip-hop collections rather than this. South African hip hop is actually quite good. Kwaito in some ways seems to have run its course and is in need of an infusion of telant, creativity, or daring.Grade: B-

Various Artists: The Spirit of Soweto: If there is an apodictic South African music, a style that embodies the history of protest, the fusion of international and local, rhythm and joy, it is Mbaqanga. Itself a fusion of styles -- most notably kwela and marabi, Zulu dance music, and American jazz, which at the time veered toward big band -- Mbaqanga saw itrs apex in the protest music embodied in the unsurpassed Indestruictible Beat of Soweto, an album that is probably on my top ten list of all time. The Spirit of Soweto is simultaneously a daring venture and a derivative knock off. It is a daring venture because it repackages old-school Mbaqanga into new-school flavorings, oftentimes with the old school artists revisiting or collaborating in remakes of their old classics. It can be derivative because too often the songs come across as old wine in leaky new skins. This is an album worth having only if you have not covered your bases with Mbaqanga's history. Grade: B-


Thunderstick said...

I'll tell you what CD is going to be awesome--the new Brittney Spears. She is going to come back with a vengeance. If only half the tracks are as catchy as Toxic or I'm a Slave 4 U, it will be the album of the year. I know you are with me on this one DCat.

dcat said...

Good times.

keltikio said...

Your music info RAWKS!... due to your influence, I am now a complete Nudies freak!


dcat said...

Keltikio --
Great to hear! My favorite song was always "Baby Murdered Me," and for my money their best album was "Afterlife Satisfaction."
The rumors are that the Nudies will be playing together again soon and carstens has indicated that they will record again as well. I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the state of rock music in South Africa when I was just there (a couple of the third-tier bands that I used to see all the time as openers and stage whores are suddenly among the country's most popular acts) and so maybe the Nudies can come back in their top form.
If you are in South Africa, or ever get the chance to be, hit Oppikoppi -- you won't regret it.