In spite of the fact that African percussion has changed the feel and even the theoretical basis of the world’s music through its assimilation into other cultures, we don’t get to hear many contemporary African musicians, mostly because they aren’t recorded on the labels of the entertainment conglomerates. Many African musicians or singers, like Baaba Maal or Youssou N’Dour, achieve cult status and release their works on smaller labels. But the president of Heads Up, Dave Love, has taken the initiative to discover South African talent and to record it on a regular basis.
The second in a series of his Smooth Africa
releases brings to wider audiences the variety of South African music--from the hand-clapping, call-and-response choral effects of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the legendary guitar work of Jimmy Dludlu, whom Hugh Masekela compared to Charlie Christian for Dludlu’s innovative technique. Without the helpful explanations contained in the liner notes, some of the significance of the songs would be lost to Westerners. For instance, Oliver Mtukudzi sings mournfully of the misfortunes of widows in Zimbabwe, who not only lose their husband but also their possessions, suddenly destitute.
One of the striking observations of the South African music is how much it resembles that of American cultures, which, in any case, developed from an African source. The casual listener could describe Shaluza Max’s "Mangase," a tale of mendacity and longing, as zydeco because of the similarity of the instrumental sound, although the vocal arrangements differ. And Moses Khumalo’s "Hymn for Taiwa" contains the easy groove, without the steel pans, of reggae.
But Smooth Africa II: Exploring the Soul
does contain steel pans: those of American Andy Narell, who traveled to South Africa with other Heads Up recording artists. Joe Sample appears on the CD as well, as does Spyro Gyra, which received thunderous applause at the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town.
The complexity of South African music means that Love has just tapped the surface of the undiscovered talent. In a way, his devotion to that country’s music is reminiscent of what Jane Bunnett and Ry Cooder have done to open up to the world the riches of Cuban music, even as much of it remains to be heard. As a result of Love’s determination and Heads Up’s resources, we can come to rely on the label to release even more inspirational and otherwise-unheard South African singers and musicians in the future.