Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

The Rough Guide to South African Jazz [World Music Network, 2016]
"South African jazz" still signifies the simple swing combos of the '50s, topped by pennywhistle or clarinet or singers such as Miriam Makeba, who you've heard of, and Dolly Rathebe, who you should hear. It's showcased most gloriously on the long-gone 1996 Music Club CD Township Jazz 'n' Jive, which captures early Afropop's heroic ebullience as well as any compilation I know. For the Zulu and Basotho and Xhosa musicians then being forced into worker camps labeled townships, liberation didn't beckon the way it did in Ghana or Guinea or Congo. But that didn't inhibit the jaunty danceability of Music Club's 18-tracks-in-48-minutes--which, sad to say, currently sells used for prices ranging as high as, and I quote, "$1,449.16." (Find a viable lesser alternative below.) In contrast, the now-deleted 2000 Rough Guide comp of this title set out to prove that post-apartheid South Africa's cultural revolutionaries could match the harmonic chops and improvisational endurance of jazz musicians worldwide even if, Abdullah Ibrahim aside, few of them were as inspired as old township heroes like West Nkosi. This new compilation also intersperses contemporary jazz with a few township numbers. But here the jazz recalls its roots as it gets respect. With the major exception of the lounge-ready "Ntyilo Ntyilo," almost every track harks back at least momentarily to the '50s combos in ethos, mood, or tune, in conscious reiteration or wacky detail; every one evinces a willed knack for living in the moment and dancing while oppressed. Try Errol Dyers's leisurely yet declarative "Dindela." Or Batsumi's neotribal-gone-urban "Emampondweni." And don't miss Dolly Rathebe's track. A-