Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • The Lion of Soweto [Earthworks/Virgin, 1987] B+
  • King of the Groaners [Earthworks, 1993] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Lion of Soweto [Earthworks/Virgin, 1987]
Recorded in the late '70s, with tough mgqashiyo mbaqanga out of favor among cultural as well as assimilationist blacks, this proves Mahlathini's staunch loyalty to the style he originated, his total lack of alternatives, or both. The notes say its "refusal to compromise" delivers "Mahlathini at his very peak"; I say that without Makgona Tsohle and the Mahotella Queens it sounds almost as generic as late Toots, even though (and probably because) the man carries the lion's share of the music himself. But I'll add that the glosses make me wish I could follow along more closely. A city "where women have got no mothers," a challenge to witch doctors, and a greeting to the spirit of his own youth all seem to transgress ever so slightly against the traditionalism that is mbaqanga's chief strength and most daunting limitation. Good. B+

King of the Groaners [Earthworks, 1993]
Powered by studio stalwarts who know their own strength, the music he's aimed for since his early-'80s comeback has been a runaway train, as unwithstandable as a prime metal anthem. And the late-'70s stuff on The Lion of Soweto often seems despondently formulaic. This early-'70s music is spare, exploratory, feeling its cornmeal--always less luxurious than the songs of his maturity, sometimes more fun. And let's hear it for Alfius Madlokovu, whose bass has strings. A-