Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa by Gwen Ansell

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.

As guitarist Ray Chikapa Phiri states in reference to the anti-apartheid struggle, “The music won”-eventually. Broadcaster, producer and author Gwen Ansell not only provides a great overview of that victorious struggle but also peels away the white-and-black curtains to show a society as diverse (ethnically and musically) as any on earth.

As to be expected in a book about jazz and the blues, the U.S. figures prominently, from the storied visit of the Confederate warship Alabama to Capetown (and the “coon music” festivals it inspired) to U.S.-South Africa musical collaborations with the likes of Paul Simon, etc. But this is undeniably the story of the music from the most critical perspective, the musicians’, and their comments and testimonies liberally yet purposefully interspersed through the book. Particularly compelling is the story of the music’s role during the “dead years” from the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre to democracy’s beginnings a decade ago.

The closing chapter illuminates the new battles being fought by and within the musical forces, such as social issues and identity questions, plus the traditional “township” sound versus new directions. Whether as history lesson, music journal or social document, the power of Soweto Blues is, like the music itself, inescapable.