We say: The lion sleeps; Africa awakes - thirty years of lush Zimbabwean voices.
With Paul Simon's Graceland recently receiving a high-profile 25th anniversary reissue, the inspirational presence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on that album might help channel some interest in this lesser-known vocal group from across the border in troubled Zimbabwe. Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Black Umfolosi have also been around for years—three decades in fact—and have released eight albums over that time. This Best of… compilation features tracks from each one of those albums, the ultimate selection being made by the band members themselves.
The eponymous "Summertime" that begins proceedings is thankfully not the same tune as the evergreen standard that has been done to death so many times that you suspect the song must have vampiric tendencies (and would be a little disingenuous here too—I'm not sure if "the living is easy" in Zimbabwe right now). Nevertheless, this "Summertime" also celebrates the season in a similar upbeat vein: fine weather, lazy holidays and so on. The opener is an exception though as, along with "Yes Lord", the closing track, it is just one of two songs sung in English in the entire collection.
Although most of the lyrics may be a mystery (the sleeve notes give a brief explanation of each song), some of these tunes are probably already familiar: "Imbube", originally a South African song, is better known to most as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", while "Nkosi Sikelela" is, of course, the beautiful theme tune of the anti-Apartheid struggle and the current South African national anthem.
Sung a cappella throughout, Black Umfolosi's vocalists come across as modest and understated—never overbearing or overblown. The result is a soothing balm of beautiful male voices—gentle, harmonious and engaging. While, for most of us, the group simply provides musical entertainment, Black Umfolosi have a far more important role to play in their native Zimbabwe and perform an important social function in the Bulawayo region and beyond. Describing their repertoire as a "vocal newspaper," the group promote healthy living and education by taking their music to parts of Africa where there are no radios, television sets or internet access. Laudable as such intentions are, this does not in any way detract from our enjoying their work on a purely musical basis.
Bring on the Light
Lac La Belle
We say: Alt-Americana from Motor City.
Lac La Belle consists of Jennie Knaggs and Nick Schillace, a singer-songwriting duo who between them play a variety of instruments that include "ghost fiddle," resonator guitar and occasional accordion. Mostly though, they pluck a banjo (Schillace) and strum an acoustic guitar (Knaggs) whilst taking turns on vocals and occasionally harmonizing together. On first listen, the songs on Bring on the Light sound like timeless Americana: modern-day murder ballads, cornfield hollers and homely refrains gleaned from forgotten Appalachian back roads. Strange then that the duo hail from urban Detroit, erstwhile home of Motown, KISS, and latter-day indie kings like the White Stripes.
Both Knaggs and Schillace are accomplished vocalists and you get the impression that the pair has been performing this material long enough to small enthusiastic audiences in cozy venues for the songs to have taken on a little life of their own. Indeed, the sound of Bring on the Light is both lo-fi and live-sounding like a good quality demo recording. Knaggs voice, in particular, is noteworthy and, despite its strength, manages to evoke a dreamy, vulnerable quality on tunes like "A Fine Line" and "Autumn Song". She also sounds great singing high harmony to Schillace's Steve Earle-sque, country-tinged baritone lead.
The tunes are for the most part catchy and hummable; the lyrics—personal and a little mysterious in places—speak of loss, transition, drifting and flight. Just one song is traditional: "I Love my Love," a stark sad love ballad that slots in nicely with the self-penned material here. "Bring on the Light," which concludes the album, is possibly the strongest and most instantly memorable tune on the collection, although it has stiff competition from others like "Around the World," the opener, or "House Breaker," which features driving banjo and excellent counter harmony from Kneggs.
Some of the slower numbers, like the title track "Brighter than Life" and "Greatest Loss," which follow each other in the running order, might have benefited from a little more instrumental interest (or different sequencing) to help them take off. Maybe there is just one too many slow songs here, but, otherwise, Bring on the Light has plenty to recommend it. It may be hard to accurately categorize but, with knowing po-mo lines like, "It's a lack of appeasement why we wander. And we need to deconstruct, " this collection can probably best be described as alt-Americana. Who knows, one day Detroit might become the new Nashville?
Brad Hammonds Group
We say: Acoustic world folk-rock fusion from New York.
Brad Hammonds is a New York-based musician and sometimes psychologist who, while once a member of college circuit gigging duo Brazz Tree, prefers these days to work on his own solo projects without the pressures of live performance and touring. Greene Street is a collection of acoustic pieces that hint at oriental and Celtic music with their modal melodies and shifting time signatures. There are no vocals here, just ensemble playing of the highest order. It's tough to pigeon-hole, though, as Greene Street is not really Rock, nor is it folk or jazz—Brad Hammonds himself describes his music as "world folk-rock" and this claim seems fair enough.
There's a wholesome live feel to this recording, and it is easy to picture the musicians sitting around in a circle sparking each other off to flights of improvisation, although the material performed here is clearly painstakingly arranged and tightly rehearsed. Hammonds is a fast-fingered, percussive player but the other featured musicians are equally impressive. Particularly worthy of mention is the lyrical cello playing of Will Martina who performs with Burnt Sugar, but the percussion of Regina Spektor sideman, Mathias Kunzli, and bass of Jason DiMatteo, another Burnt Sugar member, are equally accomplished.
Given its wide range of world music reference points, the music here sounds a touch Middle Eastern on occasion; at other times, it hints at flamenco influences, European folk melodies, and even Led Zeppelin. Although indisputably complex, the tunes are performed with sufficient spontaneity and elan to never sound forced or contrived.
The song titles give something of a clue as what to expect. "Stomp" delivers pretty much what it promises: an energetic, instrumental tour de force that has a vague bluesy feel. "Parisian" hints, somewhat obliquely, at wide boulevards, shrugging waiters and expensive espressos. "Gentle Now" is, as you might imagine, comparatively gentle, with pizzicato cello and expressive solo guitar against a background of softly swaying percussion. Although "The Fly" doesn't sound particularly insect-like it does busily buzz along driven by walloping percussion, and "Further East" is, appropriately, a little more oriental-leaning than most of the other tunes on show here. "Summer Feel", which concludes proceedings, is bright, breezy and quite lovely. It's also surprisingly short: there again, so are some of our summers these days.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan, Slow Norfolk & Suffolk and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com and his blog at eastofelveden.wordpress.com.