In 2012, Sipho Mabuse graduated from high school in Soweto. He was 61. As a child in the 1960s, he had been too busy. The Beaters — the band he formed with his classmates Alec Khaoli, Monty Ndimande and Selby Ntuli, its name a tribute to The Beatles — had become wildly successful as exponents of township soul, a genre that disdained the popular vernacular forms of the day (isicathamiya, mbaqanga) in favour of the sound of Motown and Stax. They would later support Percy Sledge and others of their idols on tour.
By 1975, though, The Beaters’ fame had spread outside South Africa to the whole region. They spent three months touring Rhodesia, soaking up the atmosphere of the raging liberation struggle which was carried musically by the chimurenga musicians, notably Thomas Mapfumo. They were particularly welcomed by the township of Harari neighbouring the capital, Salisbury, and on their return to South Africa recorded an album of that name (also re-released by Matsuli). Its title track resonates with birdsong and flutes, with chorusing vocals and heavy basslines amid Mabuse’s syncopated drums and a rolling organ-heavy soul groove.
The Beaters subsequently renamed themselves after the township (a few years later, indeed, Salisbury would do the same) and, as Harari, recorded Rufaro. By now it was late 1976 and the Soweto uprising had hardened South Africa’s politics. Afroed and dashiki-jacketed, the band made a form of Afro-funk in which thumb pianos and invocatory chants could jostle with wah-wah guitar and jazzy, repetitive piano lines that combined a marabi spirit with the free improvisation of their American peers.
The opening song, “Oya Kai”, is murky and insistent; the exuberant piano on the title track and “Afro Gas” burst with the uncontainable energy of Mabuse’s later solo hits “Burn Out” and “Jive Soweto”. The veteran Kippie Moeketsi, one of the generation of 1950s South African jazz stars who were mostly now in exile or dead, plays ebullient, yelping alto saxophone. No longer are the band turning their backs on what is happening around them to fixate on Detroit: Rufaro is very audibly a South African record.
1975 also saw the release of Can You Feel It? by The Drive (now reissued by We Are Busy Bodies). Its calling card “Way Back Fifties” is 13 minutes of gorgeous rolling marabi, reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil Coetzee’s “Mannenberg”.
‘Rufaro’ is released by Matsuli
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