Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

The Indestructible Beat of Soweto [Shanachie, 1986]
At once more hectically urban-upbeat and more respectfully tribal-melodic than its jazzy and folky predecessors, marabi and kwela, the mbaqanga this compilation celebrates is an awesome cultural achievement. It confronts rural-urban contradictions far more painful and politically fraught than any Memphis or Chicago migration, and thwarts apartheid's determination to deny blacks not just a reasonable living but a meaningful identity. Like all South African music it emphasizes voices, notably that of the seminal "goat-voiced" "groaner" Mahlathini, who in 1983 took his deep, penetrating sung roar, which seems to filter sound that begins in his diaphragm through a special resonator in his larynx, back to the studio with the original Mahotella Queens and the reconstituted Makgona Tsohle Band. But with Marks Mankwane's sourcebook of guitar riffs hooking each number and Joseph Makwela's unshakable bass leading the groove rather than stirring it up reggae-style, it's also about a beat forthright enough to grab Americans yet more elaborate than the r&b it evokes. The defiantly resilient and unsentimental exuberance of these musicians has to be fully absorbed before it can be believed, much less understood. They couldn't be more into it if they were inventing rock and roll. And as a final benison, there's a hymn from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A+