Memorable yet accessible, Simphiwe Dana has made music that's neither pop, nor jazz, nor soul, nor traditional fodder for a tourist market with cliched ideas of what African music sounds like. Something about it is youthful, but still iconic, dignified but warm and welcoming, no matter what your musical background.
Without understanding the words Dana sings, you'll still be transfixed by the obvious weight of meaning in Simphiwe's music. Knowing what the songs are about can help, though the clumsy English explanations of the songs' lyrics do them flakey justice. "Vukani" ("wake up everyone", which features fellow SA star MXO ), is a protest song against the state of the nation. Lyrics of three times the length are 'translated' as "Poverty is a criminal/Oppression is the mastermind/Black on black violence is/Like little girls being sodomised/So their fathers can live longer". Huh? Elsewhere, a paragraph summarises the song, or English verses make it accessible to an international audience.
But these are small quibbles. Zandisile is a breakthrough album, and is getting attention worldwide on the Jazz / World scene as well as on more finessed pop radio stations locally. Simphiwe Dana's gorgeous voice sways center stage against sophisticated jazz piano chords, and modern dance rhythms, shivering with Sophiatown style delicate vibrato, drenched in blues. Apparently, Dana originally intended to sing unaccompanied but producer and co-writer Thapelo Khomo talked her out of it. This is probably a good thing - as interesting as an a capella album would have been, it wouldn't have had the same broad appeal as the Zandisile does.There's a comfortable mix of songs you can get down to, with lighter moments provided by kwela meeting a gentle house beat, and other songs designed to make you more than a little blue.Simphiwe is, if nothing else, mistress of the lament but there's something bewitchingly sad, mesmerising and beautifully bold about the way she delivers it. Like Busi Mhlongo on Urbanzulu (not that she sounds similar), she's a powerful female presence offering her wisdom and it making us want to listen. She holds back just enough, her vocals pulling as if against a tide, creating an arresting tension.
- Jean Barker
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