Graded on a Curve: Saturday Night: South African Disco Pop Hits 1981 to 1987

As operated by Deano Sounds, the Boston label Cultures of Soul has been methodically documenting the global reach of the once-derided musical phenomenon known as disco through a series of various artists compilations, the latest being Saturday Night: South African Disco Pop Hits 1981 to 1987. Offering ten selections from seven acts, the set illuminates a transitional period in South African sound falling chronologically between the persevering style of mbaqanga and the subsequent fleeting pop flourishes of bubblegum. It’s out January 8 on vinyl, CD and digital with informative notes by Uchenna Ikonne.

In 2014 there was Bombay Disco and Tropical Disco Hustle (surveying the sounds of Bollywood India and the Caribbean, respectively), both of which inspired second volumes as they were joined by The Brazilian Boogie Connection and Boogie Breakdown, with the latter the label’s first foray into the disco of South Africa (specifically synth disco), covering the years 1980-1984. As befits the international movement and adaptation of musical genre, Cultures of Soul’s disco releases often span periods postdating the root form’s decline and supposed demise, offering a hybridized sound. So it is here.

Although this comp’s opening track “Saturday Night Special” by Verikweru wasn’t a big seller, the cut is situated as foundational to the whole South African disco pop impulse. Featuring bass player Bakithi Kumalo (known for his later work with Paul Simon) and the multifaceted supervision of Emcee Studios cofounder (and trumpeter) Peter Hubner, Verikweru are descried as taking considerable inspiration from the commercially inclined jazz of the late ’70s.

The Crusaders, The Blackbyrds, and Bob James are mentioned in Ikonne’s notes, though with their substantial threads of mbaqanga and US funkiness (as embodied by Kumalo’s bass), Verikweru hit my ear as nearer to the later, sunny, celebratory pop moves of Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s a difference I find preferable, especially as the ensemble sound, if laden with the pop-inclined techniques of the era, is heartier than its more streamlined US equivalents.

From there, we move into the production handiwork of Phil Hollis, with two tracks by singer Margino, she of the more than passing stylistic resemblance to Madonna, a circumstance obviously magnified by a serviceable cover of “Holiday.” The scoop is that Hollis heard the original prior to its breaking in South Africa, and, knowing it was going to be big, had Margino do the thunder-stealing version that appears here.

Still, I do prefer her electro-pop ditty “You and Me,” in part because the likeness to Madonna is more understated. Predating “Holiday,” the cited (and easily detectable) root source for “You and Me” is Indeep’s enduring smash “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.” But while Margino’s homegrown adaptations are likeable enough, the work of Brenda & the Big Dudes is a considerably more robust affair.

Featuring Black South African vocalist Brenda Fassie, who notably scored a massive hit at home with “Weekend Special” (it even made the US R&B Hot 100), Saturday Night rounds-up two of her subsequent efforts combining the soulful heft of her voice with the confidence and range of the Big Dudes. Fassie’s endearing titular repetition in “No! No! Senor” gives it a slight edge over the unperturbed groove of “Love Action,” but they both highlight why she was such a big deal.

Supa Frika, aka Henry Martin is also represented by two tracks here, though they both derive from the same 1984 12-inch. In “Let’s Get on It,” there are a few elements that subtly recall the bolder gyrational objectives of ’70’s disco, though both cuts exceed six minutes, so the dancefloor intentions are pretty clear. But “Love Satisfaction” is also a crooning showcase for Supa Frika.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the acts with a solitary track that come close to stealing the show. “Ambiguously the Same,” culled from the 1982 album The Intercessor by Soundburger, is an intriguing slice of art-funk (with horns) that thrives through a disinterest in approximating any US or UK models. There’s also “Wa Ikgona,” taken from Pula Ea Na, the 1983 album by Black Five (who were actually ten). It’s lively pop-funk similar (but a little preferable) to Verikweru’s opener.

And one more: “Good Vibes,” a sweet stick of bubblegum (this descriptor designating a late ’80s strain of South African funky pop) from the ’87 LP Desire by the Hot Soul Singers. Uniting these three tracks is the prominence of the bass, which is especially huge in “Good Vibes,” making it one of the record’s best. But the bass playing elevates the entirety of Saturday Night, along with the persistence of rhythm and the obvious delight in musicmaking that’s shared by all the participants.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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