Joe Nina’s been around for a while – a long while. Back in ’88 – only aged 14 – he talked his reluctant father (the old man had his sights on a doctor) into letting him take a stab at a music career and, well, we all know what happened next. It’s been more than 20 years and Joe’s still going strong.
Let’s get it out of the way: there’s no contest to the fact that Joe has one of the most enduring and diverse music careers in the country. As “T-McCool”, “King Rap” and “Nina Freak” young Makhoseni Henry Xaba cut his teeth on a string of “album flops” before meeting up with then-unknown Arthur Mofokate and re-arranging kwaito’s gritty, lo-fi beginnings into a sound that could get the masses heated and moving. Joe was also there when Brenda Fassie’s anthemic bubble-gum pop soared through the townships, gliding like a siren-call buoyed by his production. And entering into the post-apartheid era he was no less daring: he took a role in, and also composed the score of, the iconic post-apartheid-goes-rainbow-nation pop-cult film Jump the Gun a mere three years after his breakthrough hit, “Maria Podesta (Ding Dong)”, which – everyone knows – is certified kwaito gold.
Needless to say, the man has earned his stripes.
On his latest album Joe says he’s finally free – “Unchained” from the constraints of sound. Yes, a cursory glance thrown at his rap-sheet will tell you that the “finally” is a misnomer, but still, Joe aims to remind you that this is how he approaches his music: unreserved and liberal, playing producer, composer, vocalist and songwriter as he seamlessly flows between adult contemporary, afro-pop, gospel, kwaito, and deep house.
Unchained opens with “Manje Nguwe”, a lounge-y, up-tempo track that pauses halfway between deep-house and smooth jazz and has Joe laying down a classic smooth-voiced serenade while Professor Langa (of Professor and Tzozo) chimes in to drop a few lines, livening things up with his patented kwaito-vibe chants. This then flows into “Hududifha”, a straight-laced, immaculately-produced afro-pop ode to prevailing through hope and persistence. The song carries with it a sound that wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a step at a jovial wedding reception – the polyrhythmic drums tapping around the keys get you up and moving way before you realize you’ve left your seat.
But “Gijima” is the standout track, here. The thing is: as much as we all know that Joe Nina is a pioneer and a master craftsman when it comes to his music, we also know that we are no longer in ’97 and smoove, urban, adult-contemporary producer-cum-vocalists with Christian leanings are slowly becoming a dime a dozen. They throw a similar palette onto the boards and love dabbling in and out of the same genres. But never willing to blend into homogenous obscurity, Joe Nina’s quick to draw the guns when necessity calls for it – and “Gijima” is his headshot. The track situates itself precariously between a traditional and gospel sound, and once there, Joe toggles it’s lyrics between the cultural and the Christian. There’s an ethereal quality in the flutes, strings and “scatamiya” voices that drift above the soft, cascading sharp-quality drums, adding sonic hues to Joe’s tautly stretched vocal canvass while he splashes it with dream-imagery and pulls it, back-and-forth, with a vocal range that rises and dips energetically, lamenting the loss of innocence.
It’s a beautiful piece of music.
Unchained is music by a seasoned muso. Not only does Joe know his tools, he’s also a gifted vocalist that knows how to use his voice as one of his many instruments. If a bit slow and repetitive at times, Unchained is a very finely produced and diverse record – a lush, well-blended collection of easy-going adult-contemporary, raucous afro-pop, reflective township jazz, sincerely-voiced balladry, groovy deep-house and – of course – a touch of hip-fracturing old-skool kwaito.
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