THE '60s CIVIL RIGHTS movement in the United States created its own soundtrack -- both in explicit anthems and the new pride that infused the black pop music of the South.
In much the same way, the current anti-apartheid movement in South Africa has inspired a musical renaissance -- both in the songs of resistance and in the country's newly assertive black pop music.
Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and tour -- which included such South African artists as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- opened the door to South African music. Here's a sampling of what's poured through it since.
MIRIAM MAKEBA -- "Sangoma" (Warner Brothers 9 25673-1). After almost 30 years of exile from her native land, Makeba returned to the songs of her Johannesburg childhood in this starkly beautiful, moving album. These ancient folk songs in the Xhosa language received the best possible presentation, thanks to the state-of-the-art recording and especially to Makeba's mature voice, more expressive than ever.
The generous recording (19 songs, 59 minutes) features hypnotic call-and- response patterns by Makeba and the equally full-voiced trio behind her. Just enough percussion and keyboards are added to accent the songs, but the voices predominate with a yearning for freedom and fulfillment that transcends language barriers.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Homeland: A Collection of Black South African Music" (Rounder CD 11549). This CD-only release collects 20 songs by 11 acts, many appearing on record for the first time in the United States. The title knowingly recalls "Graceland," for this is the township jive or mbaqanga music, with the accordion riffs and scratchy rhythm guitar that first attracted Simon to the music.
The Boyoyo Boys, who appeared on "Graceland," are represented by two tracks from their U.S. "Back in Town" LP. The revelations are the family act Mzikayifani Buthelezi, which includes an eerie fiddle amid rhythmic chants; Manka Le Phallang, which creates a dark, compelling mood with circular accordion figures and high whistles; and Elias Mathebula & the Chivani Sisters, who set his deep rumbling lead vocal against their trilling high responses.
MAHLATHINI -- "The Lion of Soweto" (Earthworks/Virgin 7 90867-1). Simon "Mahlathini" Nkabinde, a major influence on Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has been a fixture on the Johannesburg street music scene for 36 years. With his unmistakably deep and growly baritone, Mahlathini was an innovator in the "hard," street-tough brand of mbaqanga that emerged in the '70s. This record collects a dozen of his best songs from that decade; his harsh, defiant voice contrasts effectively with the lilting guitars and female vocals.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Thunder Before Dawn; The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Volume Two" (Earthworks/Virgin 7 90866-1). Five of Mahlathini's more recent performances, including two collaborations with the male vocal harmony trio, Amaswazi Emvelo, are collected on this anthology of a dozen mbaqanga tracks. Most of the numbers feature a gruff lead vocal and tough bass/drums rhythms set against sweet guitar fills and vocal responses. The combination is most effective -- at once rebellious and seductive, danceable and melodic.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Sounds of Soweto" (Capitol CLB-46698). This double-record anthology of 16 songs by 10 South African acts is a most misleading project; it contains no traditional mbaqanga music, despite the implications of the cover. Instead it is dominated by the commercial black pop that flourishes on the government-controlled airwaves -- music that sounds no different from the mediocre funk, fusion and disco served up by American bands. The album is somewhat redeemed by a progressive reworking of mbaqanga offered by the reggae-influenced Condry Ziqudu & Lumumba and by the ex-Juluka members in Johnny Clegg & Savuka. Better to search out the original album by Ziqudu and Clegg.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Let Their Voices Be Heard: Traditional Singing in South Africa" (Rounder 5024). The 18 selections on this album are from folklorist field recordings in South Africa, mostly from black churches. The rough quality of the recordings and the amateur status of the large choral ensembles contrast sharply with the other records here, but the great spirit in the massed a cappella voices is unmistakable.