Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo and Vakoka
World Music Network, a London-based company specializing in global music, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. It's probably best known for 130 comprehensive and information-dense Rough Guide compilations surveying music from South African Gospel to Salsa Colombia. But it's also affiliated with the Riverboat label, which has put out a series of individual international artist releases. In addition, a collection of special fund-raising releases for Amnesty International and Oxfam celebrate the music of Latin America, Europe, and Arabia.
This year marks the birth of its Introducing imprint, dedicated to bringing public attention to artists and groups from (so far) South Africa, Madagascar, and Europe. The first two African releases from the Introducing series are the subject of this article.
Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo
World Music Network
One of the most dramatic products of the colonial experience in South Africa was the massive relocation and cultural transplantation of Zulu migrant workers from rural areas to cities. It spawned a style of music called maskanda, derived from the Afrikaans word musikant, which means "musician." Maskanda is characterized by izihlabo, a short, emphatic instrumental introductory segment; and izibongo, rapid-fire Zulu praise poetry sprinkled within. Other rhythmic features distinguish regional styles, which are matched with specific dances. Maskanda has evolved over the ensuing years from a largely guitar-based form to include a variety of instruments in varying contexts, driven in part by market forces to provide consumers in South Africa with user-friendly capsules of Zulu culture.
And that's one reason that Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo is so special: it's roots music, performed by the artist singing with his guitar in an intimate setting. Up to four additional musicians round out the sound with vocal harmonies, bass, violin, and concertina. It's a potent reminder that maskanda is folk music (by the people, for the people) with very organic roots. Mellow for the most part, understated to be sure, but not without depth. Ngcobo has been making this sort of music for decades.
Quality folk musiclike thisis a combination of art and craft. As producer Ben Mandelson perceptively notes in the liner notes, Ngcobo definitely has a sense of "elastic precision." If you listen closely, he's got a very exact internal clock behind his fingerpicking style, though he chooses to vary the timing of how he realizes its counterpoint. It all evolves in support of his often naked singing voice, which the additional singers complement on key phrases in almost church-like vocal harmonies or respond to in call-and-response fashion. The minimalist Zulu lyrics focus on topics like sickness and healing, love and fidelity, polygamy and AIDS, violence and corruption... and often they're phrased in terms of questions, rather than blunt answers.
Altogether this is a spiritually rich, compelling experience that rewards on many levels. It doesn't hurt that the acoustics are sweetyou can hear birds in the background at the start of "Izinyembezi" ("The Tears"), for example. Deceptively simple, authentic all the way.
The second release in the Introducing series travels to Madagascar, nestled off the southeastern coast of Africa. Like many islands, Madagascar has developed a very distinctive culture. (It's also home for all sorts of animalsnot just lemurs, though the media loves thosethat you won't find anywhere else.) While its immediate proximity to Africa means that certain cultural features reflect activity on the mainland, world travelers have planted seeds from East as well as West.
The project known as Vakoka ("tradition" in Malagasy) has a rather long and involved story, related in detail in the liner notes. Canadian producer Sean Whittaker, who had no experience with production before this project, traveled there and went in search of traditional (folk) music, only to find himself frustrated by the fact that it wasn't to be found in the usual places (performance venues or on record). So he went about making it happen, and this is the result.