Thandiswa, Zabalaza (Escondida, 2005)

Thandiswa Maswai spent an eight-year musical apprenticeship as part of a highly regarded South African band called Bongo Maffin. In early 2005, she released her debut solo CD Zabalaza (Xhosa for "rebellion"). Thandiswa combines black musical styles from her homeland and from abroad; on Zabalaza you will hear township jive, kwaito, and traditional Xhosa music interwoven with soul, R&B, gospel, jazz and reggae. In addition, Thandiswa has quite a bit to say with her lyrics, alternately sung in English and Xhosa but always direct and to the point. The opening song "Nizalwa Ngobani (Do You Know Where You Come From)" chastises South African youth for their obsession with material goods and indifference towards their nation's history. The title song laments the poverty and disease still afflicting the South African villages more than a decade after the end of the apartheid regime. "Transkei Moon," the closing song, pays tribute to the home village of Thandiswa's mother.

Musically, Zabalaza consists of ten songs ranging from nearly five to over eight minutes in length, along with three very brief interludes of traditional Xhosa singing recorded during Thandiswa's visit to Transkei. The impact of the songs on me depended a lot on the musical style of the particular song. On one hand, the gospel song "Revelation" and the jazzy "Ntyilo Ntyilo" didn't really distinguish themselves from similar-sounding songs by Western performers. The kwaito style exemplified by the song "Kwanele" is basically a South African take on standard dance club music, and doesn't really interest me all that much. On the other hand, Thandiswa and her musicians do a fine job of turning extended song lengths into an asset rather than a hindrance for most of the album with their steady, insistent grooves. In particular, the songs that feature traditional African vocal harmonies grabbed me right away, especially "Lahl' Umlenze" and "Ndiyahamba (I'm Leaving)."

Thandiswa is a talented singer and lyricist with a lot say about her homeland as it struggles to recover from a troubled past. The diversity of styles on Zabalaza might make it hard for listeners to like every song on it, but conversely there should be something to please everybody on it.

Overall grade: B

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2006 The Green Man Review

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