The Beat That Changed the World

According to a few different Internet sources, Paul Simon actually spent time in Johannesburg during 1985, so odds are the Indestructible Beat of Soweto played widely throughout South African clubs and boomboxes during his stay and the parallels of the this music perambulate all eleven songs of Graceland.

The music of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto comes from the Soweto region of Johannesburg, an acronym which translates to “southwestern towns.” The Soweto region historically tended to be synonymous with apartheid, the uprising there-against and poverty within the region. The Soweto region became its own municipality in 1983.


Given the historical significance, difficult social conditions, and impassioned people of Soweto, it comes as no surprise that the music stemming from this region resonates with vibrant energy and raw emotion. The music is perhaps more about a cultural identity for the region and its people than it is pure musical expression.

The sound on the Indestructible Beat acts like a syringe of serotonin shot straight to the brain. Musically, this is not your run-of-the-mill plodding Putomayo world music sampler available for sale at your nearest Coffee Bean, but rather an inspiring combination of songs that actually inflicts happiness. In fact, this might be the catchiest music in the world. Resistance is futile.

The sound varies fairly widely from track to track, but the universal characteristics of this mbaqanga music seem to be heavy doses of vocal harmonies (some beautiful African singing, others just bizarre deep squawks and sound effects), funky attacks on basic major key song structures, generous portions of rhythm via hand drums and voice beats, and any number of instrumental melodies playing in harmony, often repetitively. The collection blends fluidly into a distinct work.

While we talked about the influence this music had on other genres, within this music we hear familiar borrowings from reggae, calypso, bluegrass, pop music, and hip hop as well. Overall, the music comes across very urban and very stylish, not at all tribal or unsophisticated like  much so-called “world” music.

The famed longtime music critic for the Village Voice, Robert Christgau, went as far as to call the Indestructible Beat of Soweto the most important record of the 1980s and gave the album an A+ rating. While this may sound like strong hyperbole at first glance, if you think about the impact of an album like Graceland flowing across generations to new music like Vampire Weekend, it becomes evident that this album perhaps really does maintain an Indestructible (and highly addictive) Beat; a beat that will undoubtedly penetrate popular music for generations and beyond.


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