Busi Mhlongo - Urban Zulu

2010-06-21 08:16
 
Urban Zulu
 
For all Busi Mhlongo's phenomenal music talent she has often played the victim of her producers. 'Bra' Hugh Masekela, for all his virtues, did a bit of dirty public relations around her supposed addition to dagga (friends later told me this was rubbish). Freedom (Gallo 2002) was a disappointingly obvious stab at the world music market. And her label Melt2000 records threw her work to the remixing wolves for Indiza (2004), which was relentlessly trendy-friendly at the time, but now sounds terribly dated.

But Urban Zulu (1998) is still as fresh as newly-spilled blood. With all the songs written by Busi, or in collaboration with close colleagues, Urban Zulu is a personal album, and its emotional power makes the recognisable musical features of its time all the more meaningful. And make no mistake, it is based in its time – a time when South Africa was changing rapidly, when KwaZulu-Natal was awash with ANC vs. IFP violence, and the newly constitutionalised legal rights of women were still being tested.

The album was produced by crossover magician Will Mowat, who'd worked with Angelique Kidjo, at Melt’s pet studio, nicknamed "The Farm". Fellow songwriters the late Mkhalelwa 'Spector' Ngwazi and Thembi ‘Ntshebe' Ngcobo play on it and the session musician list features Umfazi Omnyama and Mphendukelwa Mkhize. Cameroonian drummer and frequent Melt producer Brice Wassy laid down rhythm tracks. Unlike many African music albums produced at the time, Urban Zulu is tight, with every inch of the vocals worked over to powerful, husky perfection. Rarely pretty but exquisitely detailed, Urban Zulu is intense, angry, and bewitching. Busi told a friend that Wowat had pushed her so hard in the studio she'd been reduced to tears. Well whatever he did, it was all worth it when you listen to the world-ready and polished yet passionate results. Its songs are sometimes calls for peace, but highlights include Busi’s tantrum at her demanding family in "Yapheli'mali Yami (My Money Is Gone)".

So why isn't Urban Zulu on your CD shelf? Why have you probably never heard it? Well obviously, it faced the usual problems of sloppy distribution, lack of proper career planning or management, sexism in the industry, and Busi's own lifestyle issues and inability to get her hands on her cash and sink it into her career may have come into play to hold her back.

But I'd guess Urban Zulu slipped out of the mainstream mainly because few people really knew what to make of it – here or overseas.

Locally, what Busi Mhlongo had achieved was revolutionary. Maskandi music is a deeply traditional KZN musical form. In some areas, you’ll still occasionally see an old man walking with a guitar, and singing a song in the maskandi style, with its bubbling acoustic guitar loops set against the vocals, telling a long long story about his life and his relationship to the world. But notice how the artist in this story is an old man, not a young woman. And that I said "walking", not "dancing". Busi Mhlongo was not only the first commercially recorded female maskandi artist at a time when female session musicians often weren’t even credited, she also injected great energy into and real rage at the way the world had treated her and hurt her into Urban Zulu. What she did had never been done before.

We weren't ready for Urban Zulu then, and a lot of South African critics still can’t tell maskandi from mbaqanga - or rock from pop for that matter.

And overseas? Although Urban Zulu went to the top of international World Music charts, it’s fallen off the radar now. It probably didn’t reach enough of its potential audience because people didn't understand its unique appeal. Allmusic’s well-meaning critic Don Snowden assumes Mhlongo’s music is "mbqanga for the 2000 generation" genre – when it’s really Maskandi - the KZN folk form that Johnny Clegg sold as world pop. (How they sound the same to Snowdon is anyone's guess. Maybe it’s the same as me being bored to death by indie-rock. Maybe I fail to appreciate its subtleties and differences the way someone from the USA or UK would.)

Snowden also crits the album unfairly, claiming that it's "old style" when it in fact updates the Maskandi tradition, and he compares it to the fashionable Kwaito that dominated local music buzz at the time, seemingly unaware that Maskandi is a pop music genre in its own right. No South African music would dare tell Phuzekhemisi or Shwi that they need to update their sound! And iTunes files the album version of Urban Zulu under "Reggae" while eMusic calls it merely "World". Another critic thinks this is Mhlongo's "debut" album - hardly appropriate given her ong career fronting Twasa (sometimes under the stage name Vickie).

And let's not forget the question of legacy. Miriam Makeba did a lot for us, but she's not the godmother of every talented woman on our stages. Without Busi, there might have been no Thandiswa Mazwai and no Simphiwe Dana – she's like the bitter half of their pill. Busi Mhlongo showed how tall and how strong women musicians can be, given a stage. She also showed us that anger and rage are just as beautiful in a woman as serenity.

So before you listen to some foreign devil reviewer (ha ha, only joking Don my dude) take a listen to the song clips below. The album is available digitally from emusic.com and you can order the CD from Kalahari.net


SA's first female maskandi artist worked so hard in the studio to record this classic album that she cried – but it was worth it. It topped the world music charts, and made her a living legend.

What to read next: Kalahari

dan 2009/07/21 2:33 PM
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Just caught her performance at the grahamstown festival-was lucky enough to be in the front row on her side of the stage so she was frequently leaning over me and could hear her unmiked voice-more angry and intense than a bellville boykie,more soft and serene than an elvin princess-moving around like mick jagger at his peak and dancing like fela kuti on one spot-wimpering like a wounded impi and singing like maria callas....too good for most peoples ears these days probably
emmie 2009/07/21 3:27 PM
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Urban Zulu is probably one of my favourite CDs in my collection
Nakedi 2009/07/21 3:43 PM
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First heard it from my brother but this is one classical maskandi cd. I still sing along from track one till the last. Busi is definitely one of the best and rare talent and she will forever be the legend she is.
theDriver 2009/07/21 5:42 PM
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Jean I dont know where you from but where I from everybody knows & loves Urban Zulu. it's a classic album and absolutely brilliant as you pointed out. dan!, you lucky bu*** :-)
Gloria 2009/07/22 1:24 AM
I 2nd theDriver,almost everywhere I've been in the world music-lovers appreciate Busi's work,I have several of her albums but I must say Urban Zulu was the epitome.It's so hypnotic it's favourite to even the youngest member of my family ,here in the USA and in SA alike, her live performances are more mesmerising to say the least.She's brilliant.
Themba 2009/07/22 7:35 AM
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URBAN ZULU, as the title says, its URBAN ZULU. Its one of the best offering South Africa has had.Busi was possesed in that CD and the guitar anticts of Mfaz'omnyama was just out of this world. Its a complete CD where the production, music and the vocal arrangement complemented each other.This is what Freedom lacked.I wish she could get back to that mode.
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