Voices of Southern Africa
(ARC, 2004)

Insingizi performs a rich, a cappella, male choral style of music that first achieved western recognition when an early 1940s recording of the Zulu song "Mbube" (the lion) became the model for the international hit "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)." But it was really Paul Simon's Graceland album (1986) and the subsequent worldwide success of Ladysmith Black Mambazo that acquainted western ears with the modern incarnation of this delightful, intricate musical form.

Unlike the Ladysmith Black Mambazo vocal style, produced by 10 voices, Insingizi's music is the result of but three vocalists. Yet the depth of sound on the 17 tracks on Voices of Southern Africa is anything but limited. This is a tribute to both the tremendous strength and presence of Blessings Nqo Nkomo's, Dumisani "Ramadu" Moyo's and Vusumuzi Vusa Ndlovu's vocals and to their studio production sense. Their use of reverb, multi-tracking and occasional percussion elements augments but never overwhelms the clarity and cleanliness of the group's three-part harmony structure. One never gets the sense that Ingsingizi live would be significantly different than what they have delivered on this disc.

For years I've been enamored of the tongue clicks, trills and other percussive vocal elements that are part of the Zulu musical tradition. And Insingizi uses these effects to great advantage on Voices of Southern Africa, particularly on the tracks "Amasango," which translates as "heavenly gates," and "Isqoqodo," a song about a bird that burrows through the hardest tree trunks to reach the juicy sap within.

This alternation between folk and religious imagery runs throughout the Voices of Southern Africa album, but there are a few other themes represented as well. Perhaps the oddest song is "Isiqholo," which contains a fair amount of background conversation and unusual vocal squeaks. According to the accompanying booklet the song describes a person's stubbornness and the need to deal with this trait via a knobkerrie, "a menacing traditional crushing weapon carved out of wood. It has a bulging head and a long handle and could be used to assist the aged with walking, or for annihilating an enemy's head and knees." Apparently the song discourages the use of guns in favor of this traditional weapon.

Among the other high points on this terrific disc are the handclap-driven "Uzoyidela" and "Siyabonga" with its resonant, lower register, chanted chorus. "Mama," a tribute "to a mother who has given everything to her beloved child," is another strong track, one that makes wonderful use of brief silences and the contrast created when a solo voice gives way to a deeply layered production sequence.

Unexpectedly, Voices of Southern Africa closes out with an instrumental. The song "Mbonqane Groove" is performed entirely on drums, shakers and whistle. Its exuberant, percussive flavor is surprisingly melodic and the piece is an excellent capper to this very enjoyable release.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 19 March 2005

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