Among the believers

2010-04-10 10:43

The Zulu rock legend Busi Mhlongo’s latest album earned her three SA Music Awards nominations. Exclusively invited to the studio during its making Bongani Madondo bore witness to the alchemist at work.

SHHH! The service or ritual is about to begin.

Today’s recording: the making of her latest album Amakholwa [The Believers] promises an evocation of all four key pillars of epic rituals: water, earth, wind and fire. In short, the studio session today will serve as a space in which to call forth ancestral spirits.

It’s way too early in the morning, but the air is pregnant with some sort of meditative and esoteric feel.

Though studio recording of any kind is, by definition an abstract concept as you cannot touch the actual sound, the atmosphere here is the closest you can get to performing public libations on wax.

Victoria Busi Mhlongo, the electro-Zulu rock star and multi-genre vocal stylist and spirit medium, has been on a journey to hell, heaven and back. And on every step of the blue note, her stairway-to-heaven negro spirituals, shrieks and howls; you and I, signed and honorary members of the Busi Mhlongo tribal sect, have been with her. Hooting, screaming singing along all the way to real and imagined rituals.

Busi Mhlongo doesn’t record music; she conducts a “service”. She doesn’t perform music, she carries out “libations”, with all the due diligence and science of a trained alchemist. Just like Fela Kuti, if you ask me. Or Jimi Hendrix in his Bold As Love and Smashing Of Amps phase, circa 1969.

Like Tina in her tumultuous “Ike & Turner” era, or Igor Stravinsky around the time he created Le Sacre [his most controversial, ferocious and dissonant work with various Russian ballet companies], Busi Mhlongo gets possessed almost on cue. She’s omni-alert: alive to voices and images with which you’d rather not deal, or be visited by.

The Stravinsky parallel scores a more potent note than any Zulu ritualistic imagery we can raid from the hinterlands and deep valleys of Shaka’s land right now: “I dreamed of a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.”

Her stage performances demand total devotion, almost a negotiated surrender from her fans.

Busi Mhlongo doesn’t compose music. She dreams in surreal sonic layers. I suspect she also “sees” music through a filter of multiple colours. One that constantly comes to mind listening to her is the “dark blue”, and purple, dashed with bright orange in performance.

Instead of the strict codes of control accompanying composition, she lets go. She doesn’t make a song. She gives birth to countless musical off-spring, all shaped by sounds she and whatever band, producer or creative midwife might have been working together on.

Much has been covered in the studio the previous week, the artist experimenting with different tonalities, chords, writing lyrics on wrinkly dinner napkins, carrying some in her head till late night, before calling this journalist in the dead of the night to confess: “I am so finished, baby. Let this music come. I just wanna go back home eThekwini.”

It’s autumn 2009. The earliest winter breeze is kissing our nostrils rather forcefully.

Like countless and scary times before and since 1999’s now world acclaimed classic Urban Zulu, I’ve been invited to witness the making of Busi Mhlongo’s new album Amakholwa, which translates to what the most “incite-ful” lyricist of the novel form Ayi Kwei-Armah, referred to as “The Believers”.

And like you, I’ve been maddeningly frustrated by the hiatus. It’s almost eight years since my Zulu rock star came up with a new album.

Today’s session in Midrand, is called the Busi-MasterMax session, following the Busi-Dyer Tribe sessions at the African Jazz producer Steve Dyer’s digs, some sticks deeper into far North Jozi.

Soon after the arrival of the crew – Queen B, session producer Shaluza Max Mtambo and engineer Gideon Murray – things get going.

Songs are laid out. Lines are rewritten more for cogency than Tin PanAlley pop-along effect. Multiple takes of songs, verses, missed lines, reconstructed harmonies, and of course experimentation with the right dose of emotional peaks, and vocal science, starts shaping up the song Noya na?

Here, missed piano intros are rebooted, and leaky emotions released. Some beautiful verses are shafted and re-pasted somewhere along the song’s structure to blend in with the arrangements.

There’s no structure per se. The disciplined yet tangential spirit of the moment is the song’s form. Like Marvin Gaye once sang: “if the spirit moves ya, lemme groove ya, ooowie.”

To be in the studio when artists are working is a big no-no: you’ll never witness an artist more naked and exposed than in the confines of this process.

While the stage is a platform for an artist’s creative nudity and showiness, the studio is his or her shrine.

It is from this space that they give their all, in total release, oblivious to how they look or are perceived. There’s little thought for the state of the sheets, or in musical terms, how the “hits” will turn out.

The songstress gets rolling. This one takes me to paradise. Well, as close to the Pearly Gates as you can get while sipping Rooibos in a studio. “Please let it boil, no milk please. Thanks.”

Noya na? is an African gospel piece whose tempo, the sheer force will, and quest to peep inside God’s own sacred house is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s brooding classic Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door from the 1973’s soundtrack for the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And that’s my inference, not the artist’s intended reprise.

Introduced by a mix of Senegalese [Talla Niang’s chants], Ghanaian [William Ago’s harmonising] and Carlos Santana-esque Santeria drumming, stepping out in a mid-tempo-ish gait, this is a gospel, or a soul music piece, minus the burden of having to attach or label a “god” for your beliefs.

To that extent, soul music has the power to travel to un-chattered, and un-baptized spaces, particularly when un burdened by religious sectarianisms.

Still, were you to ascribe an earthly spiritual label, this music feels as if it draws its musical roots from both the Ethiopian and Pentecostal traditions.

Underpinned by Fana Zulu’s masculine but unobtrusive doong-dong-bah-bah! bass riffs, and topped off with Busi’s signature Zulu-Buddha chants, the song bursts into life a meditative tour de force.

Soon Ma Mhlongo, as she’s known to her close-knit-circle, goes barefoot, a giveaway to those who know her. When she bares her soul in song, her shoes are the first to go.

When the engineer plays back the final take, we burst into a trance dance. She screams and shrieks her lungs away. Healers’ Brew!

As Mhlongo hisses, coos and prays her way through the song-list, I hear a message you’d need some inner African soul-gadget to decipher, just from the timbre of her voice. Like Jimi, she’s saying:

“I dig those cats.”

Unlike Jimi’s “cats”, Mhlongo’s are unheralded ordinary people, folk down by the river not far from her native Inanda, home of Chief Albert Luthuli’s Ohlange Seminar, and the Shembe-Nazareth congregation in Kwa-Zulu Natal where she first heeded the calling to step up, and perform for the locals, knowing she had an unrehearsed African mass choir, neighbourly girls; at the ready for back up.

For Mhlongo, “music”, as she keeps on reminding me at each and every interview, “is a communal thing. Nothing romantic about it: with music, and in music, we were always in the church long before we went to church.”

If you get them out of the recording industry’s monstrous image-factories, at their rawest artists don’t have the luxury of speaking in clear packagable, Public Relations lines.

“We were in the church long before we went to church.” Go figure.

Hot in the mix there’s Babawethu [Our Father]. Again, here’s a gospel tune blessed with all the funkiness and rock inflections.A simple tune at first take, but it’s deceptive. Listen. There’s Lawrence Matshiza daring the devil with his greasy but passionate soloing.

Five minutes later, and with another session player today, Steven Blumer‘s guitar solo and Mhlongo’s vocals adding an instrumental dimension on their own. You know that although she passes as a folk singer, Busi’s simply the most under critiqued, and under appreciated balladeer and rock interpreter parochial South Africa has ever seen.

Midway through this studio birthing process I venture to ask u-MaMhlongo: uhm, so you going the gospel route, huh? Some truth in the notion that when we age, we find there just ain’t a demarcation line between our faith and funk? That God winks at us every step of the way; is that it, Sis Vicky?

“This is not gospel,” she corrects. “It’s more like amahubo. Amahubo are music expressions drawn from African spiritual traditions and not necessarily the Western ideas of Praise The Lord. We praise both the Lord and our three-tiered intermediaries: the unborn ancestors, the physically alive ancestors, and those who have gone before us – o khokho.”

By midday, pregnant with ruffled emotions, I pace around the studio, teeth clinched, uttering to myself: ag, you artists can go all Ben Okri on me; back channeling and re-channeling all these spirits and stuff. Yeah. It’s not like I get you all the time. That it’s not even your purpose; to create art to be “got.”

Nah.

Still, as a critic I wonder: am I not too enamored with this diva —particularly this one, so un-diva-ish in everything am I not too far gone in her aura? I mean, as a fan, I should be asking: where are the hits here, right?

She can read my face, and un-prompted, un-cued, explains: “listening, you see, happens naturally or unnaturally while ‘hearing’ is a choice. Hearing has nothing to do with the physical, it has everything to do with the deeper state of alertness: active, open, willing, and ready.”

And that’s the thing with Mhlongo’s art. You have to be ready to hear it, so even when she’s not singing, you can hear her melancholic, sometimes angry, and exasperated songs; a woman scorned, a woman abused, a child given a raw deal, couples in desolation row... often, her music is full of couples on the skid rows.

Thus, when I heard her vocals’ elasticity; the whisper-like chords, the sudden rapture of tenors and sopranos in parallel, all springing from a single source, climbing to octaves worthy of an opera diva amid full orchestration, I get a kick in the solar plexus.

Perhaps with Amakholwa, and on hindsight, with the better part of her discography, Busi Mhlongo is forcing us to rethink the notion of “hits”-based music.

The whole album is one long hit [heat] narrative of a saved soul.

Clearly, the prodigal daughter’s done gone home. Liturgy has never sounded so hip, so alive, not since Aretha Franklin took Pauly ’n Arty’s (Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water) down to the black temple, and resurrected the notion of sprinkling holy waters on a dejected people.

But then Mhlongo comes from this very contemporary tradition of black, secular hymnody.

Mhlongo is way beyond a performer. She’s a symbol.

Insofar as vocal style, pain, beauty and endurance goes, Mhlongo’s healer’s brew runs the full generation gamut of black torch-singers. From Princess Magogo, Thuli Dumakude, the lesser-known Nancy Sedibe, Letta Mbuli, Nainy Diabate, Stella Chiwese, Oumou Sangare, to those on whose vocals the future is yet to be etched: Simphiwe Dana, Zap Mama and Thandiswa Mazwai.

It’s there, you just have to hear it.

In the studio, she’s a fascinating raconteur. Between takes, she regales the now crowded studio guest list, including famed playwright Welcome Msomi, with dark-humored anecdotes on light subjects.

In torrents of laughter, she does a quick stand-up comedy referencing Tupac Shakur, saying her fans will be – eyes bulging for dramatic effect – “so surprised I’ve recorded this album at all. I mean, aren’t I supposed to be dead?”

Silence. She winks and laughs. And if you’re tuned in, you’ll feel the pump-pump beat of her heart, her total relief that she is, after all, very much alive.

The joke’s not on her but on cancer, the disease that nearly hijacked her just 18 months ago.

Though she’s still dealing with it in many ways, including through medication, Busi Mhlongo has, by and large, really wagged the middle finger in Mr Cancer’s face.

And this joke, this new lighter self, this pond of ceaseless creativity, this new gospel tinged music, heck this entire album... it’s all, in her own words: “My way of conveying appreciation, of thanking those who’ve crossed multiple bridges over troubled waters with me.”

Think of Busi in silent prayer, eyes “wide-shut”. Think of the faces of those in Dumile Feni’s etchings. Think of Busi’s sculptured beauty, think Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse.

Hits?

If you’re still hung up on hits, well, pieces like Udlala Ngami have that thing written all over it: hit!

With maskanda’s oh-so feely-feely Zulu man in the big city instrumentation, mashed up with a Bootsy Collins-like bass and blessed with the arrangements of Mnothi Ntuli of the famous Shwi No Mtekhala, tweaking the knobs at the right places, this juncture is where new Gospel baptism meets our now tattooed-in-nostalgia urban Zulu drama queen full throttle.

The results? Gonna make you sweat!

With Amakholwa, Busi Mhlongo has come full circle. The lady’s done gone back home, but also back to the future. Her eyes, certainly, are looking at God.


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