Boosting the bass guitar, blending the vocals, overdubbing percussion while fretting over shoot-outs in the street. Grumbling about a producer, teasing a white engineer, challenging an artist to feel his African beat. Sound of Africa! is a riveting account of the production of a mbaqanga album in a state-of-the-art recording studio in Johannesburg. Made popular internationally by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, mbaqanga's distinctive style features a bass solo voice and soaring harmonies of a female frontline over electric guitar, bass, keyboard, and drumset. Louise Meintjes chronicles the recording and mixing of an album by Izintombi Zesimanje, historically the rival group of the Mahotella Queens. Set in the early 1990s during South Africa’s tumultuous transition from apartheid to democratic rule, Sound of Africa! offers a rare portrait of the music recording process. It tracks the nuanced interplay among South African state controls, the music industry's transnational drive, and the mbaqanga artists' struggles for political, professional, and personal voice.
Focusing on the ways artists, producers, and sound engineers collaborate in the studio control room, Meintjes reveals not only how particular mbaqanga sounds are shaped technically, but also how egos and artistic sensibilities and race and ethnicity influence the mix. She analyzes how the turbulent identity politics surrounding Zulu ethnic nationalism impacted mbaqanga artists' decisions in and out of the studio. Conversely, she explores how the global consumption of Afropop and African images fed back into mbaqanga during the recording process. Meintjes is especially attentive to the ways the emotive qualities of timbre (sound quality or tone color) forge complex connections between aesthetic practices and political ideology. Vivid photos by the internationally renowned photographer TJ Lemon further dramatize Meintjes’ ethnography.
|Publisher:||Duke University Press Books|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
About the Author
Louise Meintjes is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Duke University.
Read an Excerpt
Sound of Africa!Making music Zulu in a South African studio
By Louise Meintjes
Duke University Press
Is mbaqanga a set of formal characteristics that are rendered in performance? Ismbaqanga a quality of experience? If I list generic traits in order to work outward from a definition of a prototype, I miss the shifts in interpretive communicative praxis that make mbaqanga into what it is. Such a list would sidestep the social, historical, political, biographical, and many of the performed and sonic relationships by means of which mbaqanga is constituted, imputed with significance, transformed, and reinstantiated.
This cut considers, in three main parts, the problem and significance of genre in relation to agency, voice, and the formation of institutions. Track 1 offers versions of mbaqanga as it is presented by performing artists. Track 2 situates their soundings within a history of personal and industrial relations that co-construct mbaqanga as a marketing category, artistic canon, and a set of social practices. A mix of the tracks proposes that a focus on the utterance brings significance to the process of definition rather than to the definition of mbaqanga itself. Genrefication is intimately tied to the self-making rhetoric that elaborates artistic reputations.
Track 1 Mbaqanga as Sound, Performance, and Image
take 1 : Izintombi Zesimanjemanje
Johannesburg, February 1991
"Eita!" drummer Michael calls, announcing his arrival to the musicians already assembled for rehearsal. As he swivels to greet me, I notice "Africa" emblazoned across the back of his jacket in bold yellow letters. He's decked out in an outfit tailored like military camouflages, black fabric splattered with a yellow leopard-like design. He clutches the Sowetan newspaper between his elbow and bottom rib. A plastic shopping bag dangles from one hand, a Kleenex and Ugwayi snuff box bought from a street vendor nestles in the other.
He prepares for rehearsal while the keyboardist, bass player, and guitarist warm up on their instruments. First, his Africa jacket gets neatly hung on a coathanger. Underneath he is wearing a tourist T-shirt from Mauritius. This layer he peels off He's elegant, lithe. He replaces the T-shirt with an old rehearsal shirt. He sits down behind the drums. Then he sets about tightening the hi-hat screw just right, adjusting the position of the bass-drum pedal, propping up the leg of the tom-tom stand, resting the snare drum on an old kick drum with a split head. He scruffles through his shopping bag to find his drumsticks, snorts his tobacco, settles the position of his wobbling chair, and drum rolls himself into the already moving groove.
By all means, producer Hamilton Nzimande had offered, visit my group downtown in my rehearsal room on the third floor of RPM House; they're practicing every day. He'll let them know to expect me.
Michael, for one, has dressed for the meeting.
I'm squeezed into the rehearsal room, dense with sensation. Bass sounds batter my ribcage. The distortion grating out of the amp speaker feels like mango hairs between my teeth. Michael hits the crash cymbal. I hear a hubcap rolling off a taxi. Keyboard chords wheeze. A guitar sears the thick air.
No one can breathe but everybody does. Soon RPM House's remodeling will be complete and the air-conditioning will be operational on the rehearsal floor, they say. Despite the heat, the door stays closed because beats and basses and screaming guitars are bursting out of other rooms along the passageway.
Michael drums from the farthest corner of the slender room. Opposite him, Bethwell boosts his bottom end, turns down his tops, and shoots up the neck of his bass. His left-hand fingers stop the strings then slide down to their next position while, with a plectrum in his right hand, he cuts and clicks onto new notes. A waiting singer-dancer youth slumps in a scruffy office chair wedged in between Michael and Bethwell. Mkhize the guitarist and Tefo the keyboard player squeeze in beside them. Tefo's fingers, hands, and wrists spin around the keyboard like he's tatting lace. He plays a Korg CX-3, an old single-manual electronic keyboard encased in a wooden box like a coffin. An updated digital Yamaha DDX7 double manual stands beside him. Mkhize's fingers run across the higher strings of his electric guitar. He twists and turns his sound patterns in balletic circles. Still with the distortion swirling around me, the bass rattling my ribcage, I'm breathing in heat, I can't really hear.
Onlookers are pressed up against stacks of clunky leaden equipment lining the long wall. Piles have accumulated on top of these old speakers and amps: instruments, the rehearsers' street clothing, shoes, colored plastic shopping packets waiting to be taken home at the end of the day, a liter bottle of water periodically refilled in the bathroom, each person's towel to be grabbed in a pause.
More people fill the chairs packed in tight against the third wall. Someone next to the door gets up and leans into the corner to make space for a newcomer.
Eight singing dancers-four women, four backing men-line the long wall facing the jumbled equipment. They dance doubled-up steps into the body of the narrow room. I strain to hear the details of their close-harmony vocals against the throbbing garage-band sound.
Between songs Jane Dlamini shakes my hand and smiles. 'Welcome,' she gestures. She introduces Janet, Joana, and Joanna, her frontline co-singers called Izintombi Zesimanjemanje (The Modern Girls). They run through four more songs for me.
Sweat shines. The women swivel intricately, tiptoe or flatheeled. They scoop toe to heel with their ankles, quiver their wrists, flick their arms, jostle their hips, raise their knees, and stamp lightly. Pause. Shuffle backwards. They dance in their old T-shirts, sweatpants, and scrubbed unlaced takkies (canvas tennis shoes). The women know their songs and movements like they know their pulses. They are full, contoured, present women, in their late thirties to late forties.
The men-lean and youthful Muhle, Oscar, Phatiswe, and Mdlolo-are learning by repetition. (They are a three-week-old addition to the lineup, Jane informs me later.) They pass through the women's line and shuffle forward for their vocals. Drawing their shoulders up to their cheeks, they sing into imaginary microphones, lips to electronic diaphragms. They retreat after their verse; the women shuffle-swivel forward again.
After Zesimanje, the onlookers take to the floor to display their skills. They are a new, young, "Zulu traditional" group called Abavithizi, yet to be produced. Hamilton found them playing around in the black townships in the Johannesburg area, Joana explains while the young maskandi (Zulu guitarist) opens his song with a virtuosic flurry of notes, introducing the key and scale to the band. He sways his guitar neck to the slow, heavy beat of the drum and the bass as they enter and set the groove; then he glides into nasal vocals. Tefo punches "accordion" into the Yamaha DX7 keyboard and adds the "Zulu trad" concertina part. The hi-hat rasps away consistently. Three singer-dancers interject chorus lines. During an instrumental break they flick their legs up, then stamp down on the heavy beats.
They are waiting to record their first album, after Zesimanje's is completed, they say. That will be soon, they say.
After rehearsal, while their fellow performers tidy up, Michael and Joana show me photos from their tour to Mauritius in October 1990. In the glossy black-and-white 8" x 10" promotional picture, the three women in the group pose in a deserted late afternoon Johannesburg street, dead center on the asphalt. I recognize the city center, somewhere close to this studio and rehearsal building. The women wear beaded headbands and beaded haltertops. Their midriffs show. Beaded aprons and layered beaded belts overlay their short, fringed skirts. They all wear crocheted and tasseled white wool arm and leg garters, white canvas tennis shoes, black hose. They pose as if captured in dance in a fast-shuttered snapshot. Three congas stand hip high alongside them. A saxophonist waves his instrument half out of the frame of the picture. Four bare-chested dancer-youths pose in the background in skins. I recognize some of the rehearsers in the shot. Ripped strips of cloth are wrapped haphazardly into men's headbands and garters. The angles of the dancers' raised, bent elbows and their raised right knees zigzag through the center of focus. Nineteen fifties high-rises stacked along the pavement disrupt the frame of the photograph. Litter lies forgotten in a clump.
I look at the photos, then am told the first of the many stories I will hear: Izintombi Zesimanjemanje toured Mauritius. It was beautiful. But very, very hot. They played two shows at a hotel in the capital city. The people loved them. When the singers and musicians left the stage, "The people they say, 'no, how come?' " Jane recounts. "We tell them, 'We're finished, we'll sing again tomorrow.' People, they stood there!" Jane looks at me with the determination of the crowd she remembers standing there demanding more music. "Everyone in the audience said, 'No, we are not leaving!' We went to the hotel. They came and fetched us from the hotel to go back and play again. It was the best!" The Mauritians wanted the group to visit their country again.
"At the hotel, people said, 'We saw you on the TV!' Same time!"
"More than ten thousand people! Oh, it was very good!" remembers Joana.
"Like in the Ivory Coast, those people support our shows!" exclaims Jane.
In fact they've performed this mbaqanga music all over Africa, adds Michael, and they were very, very popular-Ivory Coast, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Namibia. His snuffbox-and-Kleenex hand sweeps a flourish over the map. Lesotho, adds Joana, and all over South Africa, everywhere. And Michael has played what's the club in New York called again-yes, S.O.B.S, and the Apollo in Harlem. He was drumming for Zulu guitarist Sipho Mchunu when he toured overseas.
They tell me Hamilton Nzimande says he will be booking their session time in the studio downstairs very soon. Then they can go on the road again, promoting. At which time Hamilton will buy them some new equipment.
They want to go to Paris. And America. Joana reckons they'll be overseas within the year. God willing. They hear I have a brother in America.
"West's group" is "that side" right now, Joana says. They were neck to neck with us, she says while rubbing her forefingers against each other to show me how fiercely Mahotella Queens and Zesimanjemanje had run against each other at the peak of their popularity in the 1970s. In fact, two of the old Zesimanjemanje are now touring as Mahotella, that side, Jane says.
I want to catch Hamilton in rehearsal. Jane says he pops in to check on them, maybe about twice week, but really he takes up their time with his talking. Jane, Joana, Janet, and Joanna are changing back into street clothes to catch a minivan taxi back out to Soweto. They've all lived there for years, though they come from the KwaZulu-Natal province.
take 2 : Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
Austin, Texas, April 1993
Roadies push, lift, shove, trundle, and clunk at the back of Liberty Lunch. Mahlathini, guitarist Marks, and bass player Joseph Makwela snap and flick aces, queens, hearts, and clubs onto the counter in their luxury bus. Drummer Phillemon, sax player Teaspoon, and keyboardist Ralph hang out with other men in the parking lot taking a breather from their cooped-up long-distance traveling. Together these instrumentalists form the Makgona Tsohle Band, which backs Mahlathini and the Queens. The Queens bustle about in and out of the bus. I greet them. Why did I wait until now to talk to them about mbaqanga, reprimands singer Hilda, backed up by Mildred-because, after all, they are the ones who are the real mbaqanga, and in South Africa they are not busy like they are here. Singer Nobesuthu quips that Zesimanjemanje most probably told me not to. Not so, I protested, I had been tied up and busy, and you renowned Queens had been touring overseas much of the time.
"M-ba-qa-nga!" calls Teaspoon Ndelu after the band's opening number has brought the clubgoers crowding up to the edge of the stage. He is the band's penny whistler, saxophonist, and chief emcee on this tour. "M," he taunts the audience through his handheld microphone "m ... m," till we say "m" back at him. "Ba!" he calls. "Ba!" we throw back. "Qa!" he calls. Titters in the crowd. "Qa!" he shoots at the microphone again. His alveolar-palatal consonant click and low "a" resound like a cork rocketing out of a fizzy bottle. "Qa! ... Qa!" he repeats. He laughs, holding his microphone out into the crowd, and waits. The audience tries. "Qa!" teases Teaspoon again, "Mbaqanga! Mbaqanga! Mbaqanga!" The audience chants with him as best they can as he struts across the stage.
He signals to Ralph Mahura the keyboardist, who launches a synth piano line into the electric air. The crowd hushes. Phillemon Hamole drumrolls a two-beat pick-up. Full trap set, bass, and rhythm guitar enter on beat one: clockwork sound from the Makgona Tsohle Band. A hard bass drum pelts every beat at the bottom of the mix. Sixteen-note hi-hat patterns tickle the tops. A hard and punchy bass guitar dumps itself equally onto the first and second beats, then treats the pick-up to each measure just as seriously. Phillemon sets the snare against the heavy front of the riff by thwacking the offbeats of the half and full measure. Marks Mankwane slips into the layered groove with his rippling signature high-necked guitar notes. He flicks up the ends of his licks, as if singeing the sound. The classic harmony rocks through blues progressions in a major key. The soundman somehow mixes air and spaces into this busy texture. What aural clarity for this style in a half-outdoor club venue. I want to dance.
Old Mahlathini stomps about the stage as if petulant. Suddenly he grabs the microphone stand. He blurts out the story of the band's self-acclaimed history. "Sawuqala umbaqanga, sawutshala kulolonke, nanamuhla sisawutshala," he sings, with "q"s popping at us, rasping attacks on syllables placed on the strong beats, and percussive exhalations as the phrases expire, fading in volume and drooping in pitch. 'We started mbaqanga, we sowed it all over the place, even today we're sowing it.' In the next line, twice as long, he draws out the later syllables, then pulls the verse to its final vocal descent. That voice: strident, deep, rough around the edges. Joseph Makwela's limber bass riff dances under Mahlathini's musical ranting. On Mahlathini's last two phrases of this first verse Joseph slips in an upward flick on his bass and an octave drop onto the beginning of the riff. He knows mbaqanga.
Then the three Queens enter royally, repeating Mahlathini's lines in close harmony. Every note is equally blended, perfectly placed. They round the verse off with a downward glide, as if ending it with a caress. Mahlathini enters: "Sawuqala umbaqanga, sawuqala kulolonke," he repeats. This time he notches up the grittiness of his rasp, widens his vowels a little, extends the phrase, stretches the second-to-last phoneme sung at the peak of the melodic contour and spills on into the second line. His vocal dryness and seeming unpredictability is again set o. by the oiled precision and blending of the trio of the women's frontline, singing, swiveling, gesturing the meaning of the lyrics.
Ralph throws a synthesized flute motive into the mix.
As the women take the vocal lead, Joseph shifts his bass riff to parallel their voices. Mahlathini interjects his own comments, his own phrase, overlapping their story. Teaspoon's sax and Ralph's synth horns punch the end of the verse. They do it again. Ralph's flute motive flies over the top again. Joseph picks it up on his bass. Bass and flute talk in passing. The groove intensifles. "Sinjenje sizwe sakithi, siya ziqenya ngani kuwo wonke umhlaba; sinjenje kungenxa yenu, baladeli bethu, siya siqenya ngani," the women sing. 'We are like this, our nation, we shine all over the world; we are like this because of you, our followers; we shine because of you.' They flutter their hands above their heads, then point to their audience.
Excerpted from Sound of Africa! by Louise Meintjes Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsIndex 319
Notes to the Reader xi
Demo Tape: About Sound of Africa! 1
Cut 1. Mbaqanga 19
Cut 2. The Recording Studio as Fetish 71
Cut 3. Producing Liveness 109
Cut 4. Sounding Figures 146
Cut 5. Performing Zuluness 174
Cut 6. Imagining Overseas 217
A Final Mix: Mediating Difference 250