Busi Mhlongo ‘Urban Zulu’ 180g Vinyl (Matsuli Music) 5/5

Matsuli Music are on a mission to re-issue seminal South African music on vinyl and what a package it is! Yehlisan’umoya Ma-Afrika kicks it right off after a deceptively quiet opening few bars which quickly give way to a pulsing bassline and pointed drumming with Busi’s voice powerful on top with call and response backing vocals. Sadly the lyrics are not translated on the sleeve notes – which are otherwise excellent with lots of background on Busi and the making of this recording.

There are translations of the titles and this first track is labelled African Nation calm! So I think we can safely assume from this and the other titles that the themes on this 1999 recording are relevant and strongly felt. The other clue is in Busi’s amazing voice and range – quite remarkable.

I’m not overly familiar with Busi’s work but her career was full of collaborations with top African bands and musicians including Osibisa, Julian Bahula, Hugh Masekela, Dudu Pukwana, Salif Keita, Mani Dibango and Brice Wassy the Cameroonian drummer who underpins the music on this record. As a teenager, she was on the cast of the original King Kong musical when it hit Durban.

Like many South Africans she spent long periods in exile in Europe, the US and the UK so by the time of her return to SA in ’85, while Apartheid was still in place, she was better known abroad than in her home country.

She is credited with creating new sounds based on South African Mbaqanga, Maskanda, Marabi and Zulu forms mixed with West African and wider influences from jazz, funk, rock, gospel and more. And on the evidence of this set it really works, it’s exciting, funky, moving and danceable.

The second cut is Yapheli’mali Yami (My money is gone) and the start is dominated by guitar figures and percussion with voices over before the bass rolls in and the beat becomes driving with Busi having a vocal edge against the other voices.

We Baba Omcane (If you don’t obey your parents) was a big hit back in the day and again starts with a guitar figure quite quiet and slow with Busi coming in with a sweeter tone the level rises as after a few bars drums and bass kick in strongly.

On Yisewabant’a Bami (Father of my children) Busi is gentle and soft and it has a lullaby feel with lovely unison voices underneath. These voices stay gentle while Busi’s tone hardens with a much sparer arrangement than the preceding tracks with guitar prominent and taking a simple solo.

Uganga Nge Ngane (You’re playing around with this child) picks up the pace with more guitar figures and a more urgent feel both from Busi and the backing singers. And that bass – fabulous when it cuts. If I have a criticism it’s the relative similarity of the way the tracks often start with guitar and then voice before the full bass, drums and percussion kicks in. But hey, it works every time and the recording is very good with great separation – you can hear what’s going on in the mix.

The guitar intro on Ngadlalwa Yindoda (He’s toying with me) sounds more electric and is very short before the staccato beat picks up and there seems to be an accordion sound in there. There’s a nice short bass solo, which has some echoes of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side to my ears.

Zithinizizwe (What are people saying about us?) has another choppy quicker rhythmic feel and again very danceable. On the closing Oxamu her a capella singing has further echoes of earlier SA singing stars like Dorothy Masuka and the click songs of Miriam Makeba.

My test is often whether I feel that tingle down my back – rest assured I did! A great addition to the African/South African musical canon.

Brian Homer