Happy Feet and the Mbaqanga Rhythm of the Boyoyo Boys


“Gumboots” is what inspired Paul Simon to break out the accordion and kick-start Graceland. The song was originally written – sans lyrics – by a band called the Boyoyo Boys – who earned 17 gold records in four years – expert practitioners in something called mbaqanga rhythm, something as personally appealing and uplifting as a New Orleans second line.


When I played soccer as a kid, my coach called me “Happy Feet,” saying that a soccer player had to have calm feet.  I used to move my feet incessantly about, up and down, often without rhyme or reason, giving the ball three dribbles in place of one, and it earned me the sobriquit fairly quickly. Like a dog letting loose with joy at the sight of its owner coming home: those were my feet, my lil’ stompers. Since then I’ve thought of feet, grass, rhythm, dance, what constitutes one’s ground and language in relation to that. Likehow one of my friends – a writer as well — who took off to New York and left Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville in my care always went out walking to write to get the rhythm down while I went out to walk in the old-fashioned Dickens/Boswell, peaceful-Cortazar-in-the-streets sense – and what layering those rhythms meant – language resting upon thought resting upon music, and whether or not different types of music can have a slightly subtler effect upon what we use in speech and why, which is where the music of South Africa comes in.

I kept hearing that Paul Simon collaborated with ‘several artists,’ but the only one that cropped up again and again was Ladysmith Black Mambazo  – literally ‘Ladysmith Black Axe,’ a sound from the Ladysmith township that cuts you – and I couldn’t figure out who the rest of the characters were. When I realized that the Boyoyo Boys were part that album, I also learned that they were part of the mbaqanga trend, so I sought out West Nkosi, the Mahotella Queens, the Skylarks, the Soul Brothers and the Dark City Sisters, too, the latter of whom – my goodness, they’re terrific.

A typical mbaqanga song – according to Jonathan Greer , whose thesis I stumbled across in the middle of an errant google – begins with a brief introduction featuring a “rhythmically ambiguous,” almost – note that word: ‘almost’ – improvised line from a solo guitar. Following this, the drums and bass enter, “setting the beat and establishing a four-bar sequence of chords over which the entire piece will unfold … Call-and-response is used not only in vocal passages, but also in the alternation lines with instrumental breaks” with the bass borrowing melodic ideas from the vocals, the drums – whatever it can find.

In listening to all these mbaqanga practitioners, you begin to realize how tightly the Boyoyo Boys had their playing down – each note is hit with this crisp wallop. The only kind of comparison I can draw is with Spoon (or the Strokes), but that seems inappropriate given their sound. From the first note of Back in Town to the last of TJ Today, they – that is: Lukas Pelo (saxophone), Thomas Phale (drums), Vusi Xhosa (bass), and Vusi Nkosi (guitar) – know what they’re doing. West Nkosi’s saxophone tries to overcompensate for the rest of the band. The Soul Brothers are a little too diffuse. But these guys!

Listen to Vusi Nkosi in both of these: how he backs the saxophone’s melody, fills in with arpeggios, takes a great solo and still manages to introduce – in its wanderings – new backing themes – all in three minutes. Like a great jazz bassist, he barely repeats himself.

And speaking of the bassist – talk about setting the framework of the song – at the beginning of every measure, there the bass is, sometimes acting as the ghost of a high-hat, sometimes dragging that old song “Umgoboti” into the present (which sounds a lot like a song I heard in Botswana called “Muhurutsi”), or otherwise blowing the dimensions of the song up and outward, because if there’s one thing to know about ebullience, it’s that ebullience is big.

I didn’t dance at dances for a long time – the language of it left me baffled: the grinding, the dumb punching-bag-like swaying. I have never thrown up devil horns at a rock and roll show in my life. And part of the reason for that is the music. No Amalia de la Vega. No Howlin’ Wolf. No Joe Tex. No Roy Montrell or Sam Cooke. No Rebirth Brass Band. No Profressor Longhair. No Kinks. No Elmore James. No Springsteen or Patti Smith – it was the inanest of crap, endless and forgettable.

But I’ve started to dance at weddings. I’ve started to figure it out. Prioritise happy feet and the rest of your body will follow.

Evan Fleischer lives. The Guardian and the head writer of The Tonight Show have previously singled out his work as "intelligent, admirable, and very funny" and "Very funny and clever." You can see more of his writing here. More from this author →