By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Township Jazz 'N' Jive: 18 Urban Swing Classics From the Jivin' '50s
IN THE '40s and '50s, faced with an unbearable systematic oppression and an earth-shattering rural-urban migration that makes the move from Mississippi to Chicago seem like a drive through Red Wing, black South Africans grasped for the only hope they had--and escaped to America. Johannesburg hipsters wore the zoot suits they saw in gangster flicks; some even bought big American cars. And they dug jazz, swing in particular. Played and danced to correctly, it could make you feel rich and, in turn, a little rebellious. At the same moment in which African American musicians were using the Fuck you, whitey alienation trope that was bop to confront the nihilism of their received history, Johannesburg jazzers were buying cheap drums, clarinets, saxes, and flutes with which to paint dreamscapes that might help them transcend the hell that was their lot in life. It's the Invisible Man principle applied in reverse.
And beautifully. Excepting The Four Yanks' R&B ballad opener and the world-historic, gospel-like a cappela of the Original Evening Birds' "Mbube," this is a vision of '30s Amerijazz, Texas swing, and a touch of scat, all tweaked to rock at its most upbeat. The pervasive influence here is Louis Armstrong, who was huge in South Africa, mainly because he was a famous black man. Yet, the best groups here all swing with a summertime buoyancy that makes "Pennies from Heaven" barely breezier than Beowulf. The sense of optimism is startling and, considering the economic caste of the musicians, trenchantly ironic. An easy analogy might be Motown. "Forget your troubles and just be happy," reads the sleeve of an album by the Dark City Sisters, a '50s township girl group. There's something sad in that.
So, hang your heart on the beats and the perfect pick-up band playing. The clarinet guy in the Marabi Kings, the sax man in Reggie Msomi's Hollywood Jazz Band, and strummers in the Royal Players all could have made a living at the height of Kansas City: They were hot without resorting to day jobs and almost as good as the singers they played with. Legendary is the Skylarks' doo-wop "Holilili," in which a lonely clarinet wanders away from three gorgeous female voices. Remarkably sweet is the sound of Nancy Jacobs and Her Sisters repeating the word "Chicago!" (in their "Baby Are Yeng") and damn near flying there. But the topper might be the Manhattan Brothers crooning high atop a mildly rumbafied township shimmy. I only wish I knew what they were singing about.
This music--marabi--has been compiled before on the impossible-to-find-but-amazing Drum and earlier this year on the Mandela soundtrack. If you follow its historical progression you can hear it morph into the bluesier, more visceral mbaqanga--compiled on The Indestructible Beat of Soweto--that did speak directly and un-ironically to the labor and migratory issues that owned the lives of the invisible men who played it. If sociology isn't your game, put on Jazz 'N' Jive and fall in love. It'll take about a minute.