As with so much of the African music I feature here, I first heard this album on Doug Paterson‘s Music of Africa show on KBCS (Bellevue, WA). Doug specializes in the music of Kenya (and compiled the Rough Guide to Kenyan Music) but he does every region justice on his show. I know if I listen to his show I’m going to come away each week with at least one gem I’d never heard before.
And that’s what happened a month or so ago when I heard his show on South African gospel. He featured an amazing cut called Siyakubonga (hear it) by the Holy Spirits Choir. The song appears on Gospel According to Earthworks which is distributed by Stern’s Africa. A little warning if you’re on a budget: you can’t find this record domestically (if you can let me know because I couldn’t) and so you’ll pay a pretty penny for this one as an import. You can buy it from Stern’s but it’s a little cheaper at Amazon UK (to which I link here).
Siyakubonga is the sound of pure joy with a pounding rhythm, soaring organ backing and the powerful, insistent vocals of the choir. This music springs from the deepest wellsprings of human happiness as does all great African music. Here are the lyrics:
Siyakubonga (“We thank you Lord”)
We thank you my Lord
We will follow You
We live in peace
Because He is alive
We meet and gather together and offer
ourselves [to God]
We than the heavenly angels
Here are some excerpts from the liner notes:
Gospel has become one of the most popular musical styles in Africa, and nowhere more so than in South Africa…The roots of the music were developed especially in Natal round the time of World War I, mixing Zulu traditional music, western hymns and early ragtime.
This a capella music was popularised at all-night competitions held by migratn workers and miners. In the 1950s and 60s the music surged in popularity after the hit, Mbube (“The Lion”) by SOlomon Linda with his Evening Birds. The song was adapted by Pete Seeger adn the Weavers and released as Wimoweh, which became a huge hit in Europe and the USA.
The South African recording industry dubbed the music mbube. It captured the imagination of the public and soon there were choirs in most parts of the country from small towns to cities.
The Holy Spirits Choir was formed in 1985 by Joseph Kumaku originally from Kroonstad, Free State. Its recordings are made in Sotho and Zulu and the music is backed with a jive beat and consequently can be heard in taxis and shebeens (bars).
I wasn’t able to find much in the way of online reference material about South African gospel. The All Music Guide review of the The Rough Guide to South African Gospel by Chris Nickson discusses the music in a more satisfying and appreciative way that the online review of Gospel According to Earthworks. Here is some of what Nickson has to say about the musical genre:
Americans might be quite familiar with American gospel music, but gospel from South Africa…refracts the same ideas through a prism that makes them completely different…Gospel is a genre that’s very popular in the country’s townships, with its own stars, like Rebecca Malope and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who also have huge secular popularity). It’s very inclusive music, pulling from several local styles, and immediately recognizable…
Whereas a lot of American gospel has been co-opted by the musical mainstream, especially modern R&B, that’s generally not the case in South Africa, where it remains a powerful, and still spiritual, roots genre. Ladysmith Black Mambazo [for example] keep their Zulu roots very strong.
Though musically they have nothing in common, I would liken the joyful spirituality of this music to that of the Hasidic nigunim (wordless spiritual songs sung in devotional contexts) I learned as a young person studying Jewish music. The music allows the soul to soar and for the body to leave all its worldy cares behind.
If you’re ready for a dose of pure joy give a listen to Siyakubonga and buy this record.
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