Bad times often make for good art: the pres­sure of social and polit­i­cal dis­cord can inspire the artist to cathar­tic extremes, result­ing in work that is com­pelling because it cap­tures the inten­si­ty and inspi­ra­tion of some­one whose one escape valve is artis­tic self-expres­sion. An exam­ple of this dichoto­my can be heard on Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4, the lat­est in a series of com­pi­la­tions devot­ed to South African pop­u­lar music. It rarely gets polit­i­cal in an explic­it way but you can feel the ten­sion being released in the rest­less yet pre­cise musi­cal­i­ty of its selec­tions.

NexStopS4-covNext Stop Soweto Vol. 4 was com­piled by Duncan Brooker and draws its selec­tions from a peri­od that spans 1975 to 1985. The dom­i­neer­ing hand of Apartheid was felt heav­i­ly by South Africa’s music scene dur­ing this time but you’d have a hard time guess­ing it from the inspired, ambi­tious nature of the music col­lect­ed here.

The tone is set by the lead­off track, “Unga Pfula A Chi Pfalo” by Kabasa: this throb­bing slab of afro-rock off­sets the funk­i­ness of its per­cus­sion and clavinet-dri­ven rhythm with some gruff pow­er chords and occa­sion­al twin-gui­tar solo breaks that give it a shot of hard rock mus­cle. However, the funk and hard rock ele­ments nev­er step on each other’s feet: instead, they dove­tail togeth­er beau­ti­ful­ly to sup­port an expres­sive lead vocal, cre­at­ing a track that is as dri­ving as it is groove-laden.

From there, Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4 main­tains this sense of trib­al groove as it weaves in a vari­ety of gen­res: some tracks exper­i­ment with a reg­gae groove (“Ubukhwele” by Margaret Singane) while oth­ers tack­le dis­co (“Get Down” by Isaac & The Sakie Special Band) and even bub­blegum dance-craze lyrics spiced up with call-and-respon­se chants (“Kokro-Ko” by The Actions). One of the best tracks — “The Things We Do In Soweto” by Almon Memela is straight­for­ward jazz-funk, with a sin­u­ous rhythm and an inspired solo-sax­o­phone lead.

However, the key track here might be “1, 2, 3” by Saitana. The cho­rus has a bub­blegum, sing-along appeal but the lyrics offer what appear to be a sly, sub­tle cri­tique of the rul­ing class in South Africa: “1–2-3/Your turn is over/4–5-6/Our turn is start­ed.” It’s deliv­ered with a skill enhanced by the sense of urgen­cy you get from artists who have a gen­uine need to express them­selves — and the same could be said for every­thing on Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4, thus mak­ing it a nice trib­ute to the pow­er of music to car­ry peo­ple through dif­fi­cult times.