The National Centre For Early Music
April 10, 2014
This gig was on the ninth night of a 12-date tour, so Zimbabwe's Mokoomba were well primed for action, tightly configured and slickly earthy. The UK itinerary was assembled by the Making Tracks organisation, who are dedicated to presenting global sounds from all lands. Their taste is always trusty. As is often the case for gigs presenting such rootsy fare, the NCEM was surely close to a sell-out, with throngs spread around the converted church's walls, either for a better view, or a better dance. Despite the band's vigorous display, the mostly seated nature of the gig allowed closer study of their musical intricacies, without overly dampening the atmosphere. Indeed, the two sets featured a blend of relaxed song'n'dance with traditional pieces that held their own as concisely-structured works, equally effective on aural and spectacle levels.
Coming together in 2001, Mokoomba are part of the Tonga culture, emerging from the Victoria Falls region. Listeners who might have expected a strong sound of Zimbabwe were confronted by a pan-African shake-up. This outfit didn't have the mbira (thumb-piano) dominated sound of Thomas Mapfumo or Stella Chiweshe, but they also didn't possess the old school pop-sparkle of the guitar-loaded Bhundu Boys or Four Brothers. Their sound is still embedded in the tradition of their homeland, but it's also embellished by styles from other African regions.
Mokoomba opened the evening with all six members singing in harmony, after the fashion of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gradually introducing percussion and moving into their main band formation, which features half of the team as percussionists, largely on congas, calabash and shakers. Trustworth Samende and Abundance Mutori's electric guitar and bass flanked lead singer Mathias Muzaza, and the songs veered towards Congolese soukous, with traces of Malian and Senegalese vocal qualities during the slower numbers. Muzaza's unlimited energy made him a constant dervish figure, spidering around the stage either to deliver his own lines, or to mimic the moves of his cohorts. His voice is capable of at least three distinct tonalities, as if he's slipping into different characters to deliver each set of verses. There's a deep, resonant growl that's reminiscent of South African one-off Mahalthini, ringing with deep vibrations that have a kinship with Mongolian throat-singing. Then, he has a middle-voice, with the dramatic flair of a Freddie Mercury. Muzaza's highest range still benefits from a theatrical shaping of sound, projecting far whilst holding steady and strongly-shaped sustains. Sometimes, he even oscillates in-between these basic characters. You've probably heard no-one who's quite like him, as a vocal individualist.
Samende's guitar was an electro-acoustic model that frequently produced sounds of a kora or n'goni nature. Whether this was with the aid of effects pedals, or an unusual form of string-attack, it was difficult to ascertain. He and Mutori played a sensitive duo at the start of the second half, chasing another bout of vocal-and-percussion revelry. For a band that's now playing very regularly, often in a festival situation, Mokoomba are refreshingly non-reliant on overdone audience participation techniques. Perhaps it's because their English isn't too fluent, but towards gig's end, Muzaza did begin chatting with the crowd. This suggests that the players want their music to speak, running quickly from one song into the next, building up a spiralling intensity. Even though there were more exhortations towards the climax, the clapalongs sprang naturally from the audience's awakening, rather than being coerced unnaturally. Mokoomba's encore was something else again, devoted to an all-percussion orgy which sealed their reputation in the memories of the satiated throng.
Alistair Anderson & Dan Walsh
The Black Swan
April 10, 2014
Wandering up Walmgate, the night's second gig was a highly contrasting pub session at The Black Swan Folk Club, again on the brink of capacity, but in a much more intimate upstairs room. This was traditional music that required silence and concentration. Apart from its singalong outbreaks!