Strut Records‘ release of the first volume in their Next Stop…Soweto series, focusing on rare and long forgotten music from South Africa, coincides nicely with blog debates and op-eds about Vampire Weekend. Almost too nicely, in fact, as some have taken the convenient timing to bag on VW and prop up this release. A few listens to Next Stop…Soweto with a discerning ear and the comparison to Vampire Weekend is exposed as simple opportunism to link a popular and divisive contemporary group with an unrelated archival release. It’s clear that Vampire Weekend’s sound derives more from Paul Simon‘s merging of Western pop sensibilities and African musical traditions on his Graceland album than the “Upper West Side Soweto” sound that VW would like to claim for themselves.
Compulsory reference to relevant indie-music debates aside, Next Stop…Soweto, the first entry in a planned three-part series to be released throughout the year, is a remarkable collection. The compilation is centered on a style of music called “Mbaqanga,” or jive, that blends traditional Zulu music, vocal harmonies and Western instrumentation resulting in an accessible pop sound that is bright and lovely throughout. Given the specific focus of Next Stop, the album is surprisingly diverse, from jazzy instrumental numbers like “Kuya Hanjwa” to the evocative pop number “Umkhovu” by Mbanqanga group Mahlathini & The Queens, led by famous originator of the “groaner” singing style Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde. “Zwe Kumusha” is an excellent slice of vocal pop from the Mahotella Queens, one of the most popular exponents of the Mbanqanga sound. Drifting along on a deceptively simple guitar line and perfectly deployed horn parts, “Zwe Kumusha” is, in a word, irresistible.
The debate about Vampire Weekend’s authenticity or lack thereof has died down and the indie blogosphere is looking for the next hot topic to grapple with. This kind of speculation can be entertaining, maybe even important, but it can also get in the way of enjoying great music and being grateful for it. I can take or leave Vampire Weekend, but if that band’s popularity clears the way for more compilations like this one, I’m all for it. I’d much rather kick back to “Awofuni Ukulandela Na?,” an energetic classic composed of robust vocal harmonies and infectious rhythmic maneuvers, than debate the relative merits of Ezra Koenig and company.