Musik Ye Afrika: United We Stand

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Musik Ye Afrika
United We Stand
Sheer Sound

Immediately flush any images of stars and stripes from your head before you get past the title of United We Stand. This is not a patriotic album, nor a statement against terrorism, nor any sort of campaign booster for an American president-to-be. Thankfully. We've had enough of that kind of noise lately.

Instead, it's a roots-oriented tribute to the music of Southern Africa, a region which deserves its own share of unity. Far outnumbered by the diverse supporting cast of guest musicians, the core trio that comprises Musik Ye Afrika provides exactly the kind of support that's necessary to keep the music flowing forward and prevent it from flying apart along the way. And that's no small feat when you've got heavyweights like singers Busi Mhlongo and Oliver Mtukudzi on board.

Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga, bassist Jimi Indi, and drummer Sam Mataure together comprise the engine that drives Musik Ye Afrika, which draws its inspiration from mbira music, highlife, jazz, mbaqanga, and other highly danceable styles from the southern tip of the continent. Mataure is the relative newcomer, replacing the late drummer Iethro Shasha, who appeared on the group's self-titled debut (on Upenyu) in 1997. Since this music is so thoroughly polyrhythmic, it makes sense to have a drummer on board who's capable of wrapping different grooves together without making them sound heavy or academic.

While it's hard to discern exactly how many layers were laid down in what stage of production (and this appears to be a highly produced record), they flow together seamlessly and open-endedly. Mhlanga and Indi view their instruments as parts of a greater whole, fitting riffs and patterns together in an interlocking fashion, not unlike what you'd hear in traditional Shona idioms or some of the continent's guitar-driven post-colonial pop.

I've spent some time listening to this record (now on its 20th spin or so) and it simply does not grow tired. In crafting this collection, the musicians paid close attention to the song form, with lyrics that explore joy, wisdom, and responsibility and grooves that beg bodily motion. Tunes like "Serina," co-penned by Mhlanga, Indi, and Mtukudzi, play different voices off each other together and in unison, moving gently forward without any force whatsoever. "Hama (Zvikurukuru Hamadzangu)" rides a lilting guitar riff to develop catchy, melodic vocals led by Mhlongo.

The trick in putting together light, airy music like this is to keep it from being dull or vapid, and Musik Ye Afrika wins high honors for getting the energy level just right. Mhlanga has been all over the musical map, and some of his solo work tends to be a bit on the smooth side, but perhaps this context is the right setting for him to keep a bit of an edge. Regardless, it's hard to recommend this record enough to listeners curious about the latest grooves from Southern Africa.

Pretty close to essential, if you ask me.

Track Listing: Zuva (A Day Yet To Come), Rudo (Love), Hama (Zvikurukuru Hamadzangu) (Relatives), Jena Guru (Full Moon), Rumba Africa, West Side (Kumadokero), Serina, Ndodiniko? (What Shall I Do?), Kuna Mambo (To The King), Ulendo (The Journey), Rhoda, Ndaitira Iwe (I've Done It For You).

Personnel: Louis Mhlanga: guitars + vocals, Jimi Indi: bass + vocals, Sam Mataure: drums + percussion. Guests: Busi Mhlongo: vocals/backing vocals, Oliver Mtukudzi: vocals/backing vocals, Chiwoniso Maraire: vocals/backing vocals, Stella Khumalo: backing vocals, Faith Kekana: backing vocals, Basi Mahlasela: percussion, EL Hadji Diop: percussion, Sydney Mnisi: tenor & soprano saxophones, Marcus Wyatt: trumpet, Angus Rose: organ, Bushy Seatlholo: keyboard/synth.


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