The South African vocal group breaks new ground by looking to their past.
Jon Lusk 2011
South Africa’s best known iscathamiya (Zulu a cappella) group have worked hard over nearly five decades to keep an ostensibly rather narrow musical palette fresh and appealing, with mixed results. While their contribution to Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland was a commercial and artistic triumph, subsequent pop collaborations at times compromised or dumbed down their four-part vocal harmonies, leading to justified criticisms and accusations of cheesiness.
Most recent Ladysmith albums have seen them return to their unaccompanied (some would say ‘unadulterated’) style, and this new one – the first part of a projected back-to-roots trilogy – continues that trend, while managing to break new ground.
Until now, the vast bulk of their material has come from the prolific pen of founder and lead singer Joseph Shabalala, whose compositions typically infuse the iscathamiya style (invented by mine workers) with Christian gospel influences. However, Songs from a Zulu Farm features far more public domain material than usual, drawing heavily on traditional chants and songs that Shabalala and the group’s older members would have heard growing up on farms in rural South Africa.
The non-verbal exclamations, growls and percussive effects that punctuate their music have long been a Ladysmith trademark, but this record goes the whole hog, with a menagerie of more literal and often comically mimicked farm animals. So the first sound you hear is someone imitating a chicken on the opening Yangiluma Inkuthhu (The Biting Chicken). Further in, there’s a very realistic donkey (Imbomgolo), cows and bulls (Lezonkomo) and a yardful of creatures on Old McDonald… Zulu Style. It’s a novelty song, sure, but also a rare example of them singing in Afrikaans.
There’s quite a marked contrast between the short almost rap-like traditional pieces such as Wemfazi Ongaphesheya and Uthekwane, or the playground chant simplicity of Imithi Gobakhale and more melodic adaptations or original material. The best example of the latter is the lovely, hypnotic Ntulube, by Russel Mthembu, who also seems to be doing lead vocals on a few other songs.
Casual Ladysmith fans are unlikely to be won over by these distinctions, although long-term listeners will be pleased to see the group finding fresh water at the bottom of the well. And the promised follow-up, Songs from a South African Church, is bound to show that the devil does not have all the best tunes.