Monday, October 29, 2007

Gwen Ansell's "Soweto Blues"

I assume most people who'd read a blog like this, are familiar with the above book...but maybe not.

If you have not purchased/read Gwen Ansell's Soweto Blues, then you are missing out on one of the only commercially available books easily found in the US that chronicles this music.

Yes, there is Louise Meintjes' Sound of Africa, but that focuses on mbaqanga. Also, if you are super-nerdy/diligent/working-on-a-thesis/OCD/suffer-from-Asperger's-and-
it-manifests-itself in-the-collection-of-obscure-books, then you may also know of David Coplan's In Township Tonight (excellent, but 25 years old and out-of-print), Charles Hamm's Afro-American Music, South Africa, and Apartheid (20 years old and out-of-print), or Veit Erlmann's Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination (so densely impenetrable in its language and thought process that you may find punching a hole in concrete to be a bit quicker). And there's the Rough Guide, and so on...

But back to Ansell's book - this was written as a compilation of interviews she conducted with South African jazz artists, for a radio program she was working on. The lovely result of that sort of origin for this book is that a vast portion of the story is told from the musicians themselves, with Ansell at times merely acting as a catalyst. Yes, she fills in details, adds some context, but the increased first-person narrative makes for both a more interesting, and ultimately more enjoyable read.

Some people may be slightly annoyed by the lack of attention paid to the exiles - Abdullah, Hugh, Miriam, Blue Notes, etc - but I'm of the view that they have gotten their stories told a fair amount. Folks like Basil Coetzee, Chris Ngcukana, Henry February, et al, do not have their stories told. Or rather did not. The book does a superb job of addressing that.

There is a companion compilation CD you can buy which, somewhat infuriatingly, only seems to be available in South Africa. It's worth ordering though, as it contains some otherwise hard to find stuff. It has some flaws - due to licensing issues, they weren't able to put on the Jazz Epistles' recording of "Scullery Department," and instead put on the newer version done by Voice (if that didn't make an ounce of sense...don't the book and it will!). The CD should also be two CDs...but that's just not possible.

So pick it up. Enjoy it. Love it. And thank Gwen Ansell. She's super super cool


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