Respect, A Cappella
Listening Post 307. Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Shakira, Nicki Minaj—voices embodying women’s empowerment have revolutionized popular music over the past half century. But as superstars rouse millions of women, they also highlight art as an individual pursuit. Transformative group vocals are more readily found in communal-oriented societies—and there is no finer example than Afrika Mamas, six single mothers from South Africa who perform in the Zulu a cappella style isicathamiya. Inspired early on by the pacesetting male ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, over 25 years, and performing around the world, the Mama’s have become Ladysmith’s equals and collaborators. Advancing beyond standard soprano-alto mode, these women also encompass tenor and bass, achieving spellbinding harmonies with call-and-response phrasing, Gospel overtones and periodic ululation. Although their sixth album is named for a single star, the collection—with songs written by group members and by two sons of Ladysmith founder Joseph Shabalala—burnishes Afrika Mamas’ status as a dazzling choral constellation. They sing modern folk tales about respect and dignity, love’s promise and pitfalls, reconciliation and violence against women, their voices always primed to elevate and energize. Channeling the Queen of Soul, Hlonipha is a hymn to respect for the world and its people (video 1). The title track commemorates the first meeting of the composer and the Mamas (video 2); Wangishiyelani (Why Must You Leave?, video 3), portrays a woman pleading with her boyfriend to stay and work on their relationship; and IBhodwe (The Pot, video 4) describes a pre-wedding ritual of groom inviting bride to a bountiful family dinner. The album’s boldest innovation is a cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, with a Zulu coda (video 5). To embellish the African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, high and deep, go together. Extending the revolution that empowered them, Afrika Mamas are excellent guides. (ARC Music)
Afrika Mamas: Ilanga / The Sun
Ntombifuthi Lushaba: Tenor, band leader
Patricia Bhe Shandu: Alto, lead singer
Sibongile Nkosi: Bass, lead singer
Sinegugu Khoza: Soprano, lead singer
Zukiswa Majozi: Soprano, lead singer
Nomvula Dlamini: Bass singer
Co-produced by Xolani Majozi of Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Note. The kernel of Afrika Mamas’ music is older than the group’s history. Their a cappella style is rooted in Solomon Linda’s 1939 classic Mbube (Lion), which was recast as Wimoweh by Pete Seeger and The Lion Sleeps Tonight by the Tokens—the original song title becoming the name of a genre. Miriam Makeba recorded the song in 1960, reigniting mbube’s popularity in South Africa. Isicathamiya—gentler and with more emphasis on harmony—grew out of mbube and both styles attracted worldwide attention when Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared on Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning album Graceland in 1986.
Related post. Afrika Mamas: Iphupho, Listening Post 149, May 9, 2018. https://worldlisteningpost.com/2021/06/16/afrika-mamas-ilanga-the-sun/
Hlonipha / Respect
Performed in Zulu and English
From the album notes: “Hlonipha means respect the world and other people with whom we share it. If we respect the world, the world will respect us.”
The Zulu lyrics are punctuated with the English refrain, “The key of life is respect.”
Ilanga / The Sun
Performed in Zulu
Ilanga means both “sun” and “day”. This is a song about never forgetting the day we—Afrika Mamas and composer Sibongiseni Shabalala—met, a very special day that will be treasured forever in our hearts.
Wangishiyelani / Why Must You Leave?
Performed in Zulu
Wangishiyelani asks “Why do you have to leave?” A woman pleads for her boyfriend to return to her so they can work on fixing their relationship together.
IBhodwe / The Pot
Performed in Zulu
IBhodwe revolves around a big pot that feeds the whole family. Before a wedding the groom invites the bride to join his family for a meal, the enormous cooking pot symbolizing that they will never go hungry.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Performed in English and Zulu
Afrika Mamas’ rearrangement of the iconic song of peace and harmony addresses the twenty-first century struggle against division and tribalism. The added Zulu verse says, “People of the world are united, black and white together.”