The first thing you should know about Abantu is that it inhabits aworld where The Libertines aren’t the best thing since sliced drugs,Robbie‘s new record isn’t a pressing matter of international attention,and Beyonce‘s booty isn’t a symbol of musicalinnovation. OK, maybe the last example would be a bit of a loss, but it maysurprise some that portions of this vibrant work of 12 young South Africansingers was recorded in the Federal Republic of Halifax. And yes, itreally does give you extra.
Masterminded by Fun-Da-Mental‘s Aki Nawaz, Abantu spotlightsthe emotively diverse lungs of Durban’s Mighty Zulu Nation, said to bea young Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What appears as something of alabour of love, Nawaz has given Indo-Pak treatments to a distinctlyAfrican sense of space and dynamics of song.
It’s a brave experiment. Too often, the idealistic process of globalfusion results in sterile compromise, liberal intentions strained byself-consciousness and deference. Giving rightful prominence to TheVoice, Nawaz’s addition of tabla, dhols, and harmonium assume a filigreequality, lacing around a distant culture as though it had been an accidentof history that they were ever separated.
With an average age of 23, many of the singers will only have thefaintest memories of Apartheid, and if there is a singular quality to thiscollection, it is the sound of stepping out into an unexpectedlywelcoming, but nonetheless scary new dawn. Of course, South Africa is stillbeset by a multitude of problems and tragedies, but I suspect this wouldhave been a very different record were it recorded 20 years ago.
Opening track Storm is breathtakingly panoramic, Nawaz’s productionperfectly capturing the momentum and scale of a live performance.Elamanquana and Abantu itself are glorious crossfires of call-and-response,but it may be the percussive, quiet fire of Mdavu The Man that has thegreatest chance of crossover beyond the ethnoscenti. Who knows it mayeven give Nation Records that long-awaited first hit.
Its not clear from the album credits who takes leads on which track,but Ebumnadini spotlights a female lead whose dramatic phrasing putsher up there with soul divas Loleatta Holloway and Jody Watley. The male lead of Shobana has a fortifiedtenderness equal to that of Aaron Neville. In fact, as sonorous as the harmoniesof The Mighty Zulu Nation are, any individual is capable of holdingcentre-stage.
Being a natural born Englishman, I’ve never bothered to learn aforeign language, though I’m certain no African language is on the nationalcurriculum of any European country. Though it’s easy to discern theformal ‘meaning’ of a song called No War, Abantu is further proof thatmusic somehow escaped the curse of Babel.
Without a big white face to front this project, it’s going to take aleap of faith the size of Table Mountain for a mainstream audience totake Abantu to their hearts. Oh well, it’s their loss. By the art ofrestraint, Aki Nawaz has pulled off a rare triumph. The Mighty ZuluNation are a vital band of young singers that sound at once like tradition,and the brightest of futures.