Exoticism is a hard shell to crack: we tend to find dialogue destitute unless "they" have something terribly different - wild and exotic - to offer "us." Musically speaking, modern marketing has left a small, dark space for the promotion of African artists - one must be "traditional" (think tribal drumming discs) or "pop" (Angelique Kidjo, Baaba Maal, Issy Bagayoyo and a slew of others), or must simply create a new style out of a variety of whole and half cloths (Fela Kuti or King Sunny Ade). The loss, as usual, is ultimately ours, as evidenced on this frustrating disc from Zimbabwean guitarist Louis Mhlanga. Here, not demanding enough to invent a style, too forward looking to toe the ethnomusical line, yet too loose to mine for simple pop riches, Mhlanga ends up with a scattershot and smoothed out sampling of Africa for Dummies-style treacle. More bite, more variation, more Africa, perhaps more anything might have turned around what is a pleasant enough but ultimately forgettable hour of music.
This has little to do with Mhlanga’s talents as a guitarist. Possessed of a crystal clear tone on both electric and acoustic, he favors ornate, logical lines that unfold in a confident, unhurried way. Surrounded by a supportive cadre of likeminded musicians, he is given space amidst a soft amalgam of light Latin percussion and easy funk baselines to develop his African-informed melodies from simple theme statements to his almost baroque variations on them. He is clearly the feature of the album, the laid-back open tones of his melodic figures mixed heavily to the front of a band that truly earns the name backup, settling for repetitious restatements and rhythmic heavy-handedness. All of this comes to its worst fruition on tunes like "Hona Ka," "Beira," or "Take Me," where not only his backing guitar overdubs but the rest of the band sound like they might as well have been recorded in separate studios on separate days. The result is a thoroughly unchallenging lite-pop that will probably appeal to anyone who finds their foot frequently tapping in elevators, dentists’ waiting rooms or the local Wal Mart.
Unfortunately, this is all the more frustrating for the fact that Mhlanga repeatedly interrupts such yawn-friendly stretches with a track full of vibrant possibilities. For instance, on "What Happened to Love?," a heady mixture of samba rhythms, vaguely Malian finger-picked guitar, and the most daring improvisations of the day produces a dense but unpretentious, unique but catchy sound that leaves the listener waiting for more. Indeed, it seems less the lament that the title suggests, and more an up-tempo romp that musically acts out the boundary-breaking, culture-bending peace that the technology of a digital age has promised but not yet delivered. Similarly, in "Kugarisana Nevamwe Zvakanaka" (meaning "living together in harmony") an intriguing vocal line weaves around a gorgeous, chorded guitar progression which all gives way to a percussion-heavy episode halfway through that grabs one’s attention with its unique mélange of sounds. With musical gestures, it displays a flexibility, sensitivity, and adaptability one could only hope to find in real-world meetings between cultures.
So that Shamwari is ultimately a very frustrating release. Mhlanga is clearly a musician worth watching, offering technical acumen, a joyful melodic sense, and open ears, but one who hides these talents under a sheen of comfort and an almost constant avoidance of risks. There is little to either encourage or discourage one from finding this disc, its unique, exotic elements hard to access under a thick veneer of familiarity. Perhaps it is safest to say remember the name, but wait for the next one.