Jiving To The Weekend Beat

The story of Jiving to the Weekend Beat’s is the tale of those pioneering South African bands of the past 2 ½ decades who sidestepped apartheid’s separate development strategies by shelving recycled imported rock and roll formulae and tuned into a distinctive African groove. It starts back in the 80s with bands frustrated by apartheid’s climate of mono-cultural oppression and their quest to give alienated audiences a chance to get together and have a damn good party. It begins with a groove to jive to on the weekend. And back in the oppressive 80s this groove meant one thing: mbaqanga!

Mbaqanga: the sound of the weekend beat, the African musical bedrock of South African pop and rock in the 80s. The jubilant township jive that drove the flamboyant ethno-gypsy escapism of white boy bead-sporting fadgets like éVoid – a trio who’s “Jiving to the Weekend Beat” mapped the missing links between imported new wave synth-pop and homegrown township mbaqanga guitar hybrids into an avant-pop club crawl that was unapologetically about getting your Afro-pop party started.

It was mbaqanga that fuelled Johnny Clegg’s quest to authentically embrace his African-ness in his Afro-pop ode to the African Diaspora, “Scatterlings”. The Savuka rendition included here is a righteous, reflective ubuntu-pop flow for freedom where you can hear the ‘White Zulu’ de-segregating South Africa audiences from their generic listening prejudices by marrying western pop structures with the traditional maskandi Zulu blues guitar grooves of migrant labourers, kwela-kissed pennywhistles and massive tribal harmonic chants that demand you sing along and swing to an unmistakable mbaqanga groove.

Other bands were also listening. In the three-chord swing of marabi – a sound spawned in the township ghettos of the 30s - Mango Groove heard a celebratory big band bash of Dixieland, ragtime and blues, homegrown tsotsi taal and kwela’s penny-whistling poetry. Add influences that also took in the keyboard-driven dance hypnoses of Mahlatini and the Soul Brothers’ vibrant vocal disco-mbaqanga grooves and the African rhythmic stomp of traditional Zulu dance styles like the indlamu and you’ve got “Hellfire” – a 1989 crossover pop chart smash that proved irresistible to ears of all colours uncertain of whether the 90s would bring apocalypse or reconciliation.

Time travel back to 1985 and tune into Sipho Hotstix Mabuse’s “Burn Out” and you’ll hear more than just those drunken party starting shebeen stereotypes that an apartheid government tried to brainwash whites with. Released in a year PW Botha upped the National Party’s ‘Groot Gevaar’ segregation drive by declaring a state of emergency, “Burn Out” proved an hypnotic keyboard call onto the dance floor that transcended race, class or genre with an effervescent homegrown brew that anchored American funk, soul and disco influences with its township pop jive beat – and sold over 500 000 copies! Who needed Michael Jackson when authentically South African sounds were this funky? Welcome to black music crossing over into the white charts.

The cross-cultural pop surge was already simpatico with Hotline’s epic 1984 stadium anthem “Jabulani”: a stomping Afro-rock singalong driven by a trance-inducing mix of guitars, keyboards and leading lady PJ Power’s ballsy, post-Janis Joplin blues cry. As Hotline announced, the weekend beat was no longer just an underground apology. This was the sound of South African pop celebrating its multi-cultural musical mix in the mainstream. For trail blazing Afro-post-punk revolutionaries Via Afrika multi-cultural meant full blown pop freedom of expression. Their 1983 nugget “Via Afrika” found Rene Veldsman (vocals, bass), Lukas Crouse (keyboards) and Michele Rowe (percussion) mainlining the Mahotella Queens’ multi-layered mbaqanga chants and percussive traditional African rhythms augmented by bells, whistles and whatever homegrown musical hybrid took their fancy into a spellbinding surround sound celebration of being African.

For a literate pop combo like Bright Blue, incorporating an African musical vernacular into their breezy folk rock repertoire meant that South African identity no longer had to be an existential white man’s lament - it could be an idealistic interrogation, as on the optimistic pop rock refrain of “Living In Africa”. It remains a breathtakingly positive breeze that prophesised the time of truth and reconciliation to come. For late 80s alt.pop stylists like The Spectres jacking into marching maskanda guitar tones, buoyant mbaqanga jazz brass, huge hummable choruses and liberal doses of keyboards resulted in the joyous jive-pop carnival of “Crow On the Highway”.

Whatever the exact African musical cue, by the 90s the weekend beat had become a celebration of one thing: that distinctive African swing that liberated South African rock from recycling an imported generic ‘roll’. For Urban Creep in 1995 this meant mixing gumboot dancing, Brendan Jury’s fiery Celtic folk fiddling, Tom Fox’s Zulu jive guitar solos and Didier’s driving bass rhythms into the festive Rainbow Nation riffing jiggery of “Sea Level”.

It meant singer songwriter Robin Auld’s earthy roots rock riff exchange with Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga on “Charly Go Crazy” and the languid, ancestral conversations in locomotive maskandi folk pop guitars of Edi Niederlander’s ”Ancient Dust of Africa”. You can hear the cross-cultural celebration in the straight out of the township synth-pop revamp Zia gives to Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka’ “bubblegum pop” grooves on “Nobody Loves You Like I Do” and the post-Johnny Clegg pop groove of singer songwriter Neil Solomon’s “Sing To The Moon”.

In the new millennium this meeting and greeting of African and Western pop traditions has seen the weekend beat evolve into a 24/7 homegrown groove hybrid. For Bafo Bafo’s guitar stylists Madela Kunene and Syd Kitchen’s “Manje” it’s a union of folk music traditions where hippest hippie Kitchen's vast Afro-Saxon musical vocabulary converses with Kunene's virtuoso maskanda talking guitar tales in a multicultural chakalaka of steel and nylon string acoustic guitars, hosepipe flute, percussion, mouthbow and vocals all organically co-written and chorused through a multi-lingual mix of Zulu, English and urban slang.

From the post-punk and new wave African township mbaqanga big band ska hybrid of agit-80s instrumentalist savants The Dynamics’ “Weekend” to Vicky Sampson’s diva-driven Cher style tribal dance pop floor filler “One River”. From the Latin-kissed mbaqanga meets Simon & Garfunkel folk pop smile of acoustic guitar and vocal duo Blk Sonshine’s late 90s urban anthem “Born In A Taxi” and the ethereal Afro-trip-hop and Lingala-rapped world music brew of Egyptian Nursery’s “Oyebisi Nga” to the elegiac smooth jazz saxophone soar of Ratau Mike Makhalamele’s “Soweto Dawn”. The vibe of the weekend beat is multi-hued, but also consecrated with a clear-cut rod map: let’s celebrate the music of all our ancestors through 100% guilt free sonic parables of pop rock possibility.

Miles Keylock 2006