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(ATO Records 21722 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/2/2011)
For many American music fans of a certain age, their first real exposure to World Music, especially from Africa, came about in 1986 with Paul Simon's ground-breaking album Graceland, which highlighted South African musicians. American record labels had been previously releasing some recordings by South African artists such as Johnny Clegg, and going back to the 1960s, Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. After Graceland the whole world music scene flourished and it continues to this day. The recordings range from traditional African folk music to hybrid mixtures with Western forms from rock to jazz to hip-hop. One of the more notable recordings to explore the fusion of styles was Bela Fleck's Throw Down Your Heart in 2009.
This week, we have a new recording by a veteran South African artist that's an attractive blend of African and Western pop. It's by Vusi Mahlasela, and it's called Say Africa.
Vusi Mahlasela is from Mamalodi Township in South Africa and has enjoyed considerable popularity in his home country, where he is often referred to as "The Voice." He has been releasing recordings since the mid 1990s. Say Africa is his third official US release. He has toured extensively and attracted American musicians as fans. In fact, Dave Matthews released this CD through his own label ATO records, and most of the recording was done in Matthews' Charlottesville, Virginia, studio. Mahlasela has been a social activist going back the apartheid days, and more recently has been active in Nelson Mandela's HIV/AIDS initiative. He also performed before a worldwide audience at the opening ceremonies at the World Cup soccer tournament last year, which was held in South Africa. And he was a guest on Bela Fleck's Throw Down Your Heart CD.
Mahlasela's new CD was produced by Taj Mahal, the veteran American blues and folk musician, who puts in a couple of appearances. Other guests include Angelique Kidjo, the notable Benin-native vocalist and songwriter, and bassist Bakithi Kumalo who was so prominent on Paul Simon's Graceland album. The music includes some lyrics in English, while most songs that go back and forth in language. Unfortunately, translations were not provided, and the CD booklet directs one to his Mahlasela's website for complete lyrics, but they are not there as of this writing. Musically, it's something that will likely be attractive to many Western ears, with its melodic, often folky sound; though it can run toward rock and jazz as well. Mahlasela himself plays acoustic guitar, which serves as the foundation for the sound. And there are lots of South African musical trademarks, such as the backing vocal style, and trumpets that recall Hugh Masekela's music.
The generous 65-minute CD opens with its title piece Say Africa, a nice blend of the South African styles with Western pop. The English lyrics express homesickness for his native land. <<>>
With elements of classic South African folk music is Woza. It's a breezy tune reminiscent of the traditional song that became the doo-wop hit Wimewah (The Lion Sleeps Tonight). <<>>
With Bakithi Kumalo featured on bass is Ro Yo Tshela Kae, which despite its happy sound is a lament on economic conditions, at least in its English stanzas. <<>>
Taj Mahal makes some guest appearances on the CD, interestingly, playing a banjo. A track called Conjecture of the Hour is a song that reflects Mahlasela's activism, and is an interesting mix of blues, the banjo and the African substrate. <<>>
Taj Mahal is featured most prominently on In Anyway, where he takes a turns on the lead vocals. The two make a nice musical pair. <<>>
Angelique Kidjo makes her appearance on the track called Nakupenda Africa, a piece with the irresistible trademark 6/8 African rhythm. For an African pop album, this one is surprisingly light on percussion, but this and the following piece make up for that. <<>>
That leads into another thoroughly danceable piece called Korodi, with classic South African pop ingredients, from the high-strung electric guitar to the backing vocal chorus. <<>>
The three- and six-beat rhythm is integral to a lot of African pop, but Mahlasela turns it into a kind of jazz waltz on the track called Ba Kae? which also features some suitably jazzy flute. <<>>
The CD ends with a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela called Ntate Mandela, which blends a folky sound with South African Gospel-styled chorus vocals. <<>>
Say Africa the new CD from Vusi Mahlasela is one of those world music recordings that can reach more than just self-proclaimed world music fans. It's got a thoroughly appealing sound, with lots of elements familiar to Western ears. The material is quite enjoyable and pleasingly eclectic, and the musicianship is first-rate. While it does not really break much new ground stylistically, its combination of sounds is engaging, and for me, more of this kind of classic South African pop sound is always welcome.
Our grade for technical quality is about a "B plus." While the great majority of it was done in Dave Matthews' studio in Virginia, parts were also recorded in South Africa. The sonic clarity is good, and the mix of acoustic and electric instruments and the belending of sessions from two continents are deftly handled. But as is depressingly common, the sound was overly compressed, robbing it of its dynamics in a clumsy effort to make the CD really loud.
In addition to his work with anti-AIDS groups, and OXFAM, Vusi Mahlasela heads his own foundation dedicated to preserving African music. He does that on his new CD, but not without skillfully mixing it up with other influences. It makes for great listening.
(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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