“This is poor man’s music,” Jovi Nkosi warned — or boasted — as Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness prepared for take-off at last year’s Womad festival. “Not even the slightest sophistication. It is raw.” He also promised that “this concert is going to go down in history”, and the following hour of pounding drumming, deep basslines, growling, screaming and sweet soul singing justified the braggadocio.
BCUC’s stage alchemy ought to be hard to capture on record, but in fact their previous releases Emakhosini and Yinde have managed it pretty well, with 20-minute songs that never drag, changing dynamics in a heartbeat. The Healing sticks to the pattern of two long songs and one short one. The opener, “The Journey With Mr Van Der Merwe”, mashes together two songs from the era when the band were finding their feet. “Van der Merwe” is a stock name in South African jokes, denoting an Afrikaner either foolish or pretend-foolish. The band use it to decry a middle class unconcerned with the plight of the poor — now, in the Rainbow Nation, as likely to be the black elite as the white. Mosebetsi Jan Nzimande’s bass guitar propels the action as the singers chant: “Mr van der Merwe, have you got any wood . . ? What about your neighbours? What about your sisters?” The fury drops for a soulful vocal section from Kgomotso Neo Mokone, then builds back up in a steady crescendo.
“Sikhulekile” is a hymn to the ancestors, and on record the band are joined on saxophone by Femi Kuti — whose father Fela was a role model for BCUC, with his extended, scabrously political songs. The younger Kuti’s playing, though, owes less to Afrobeat than to spiritual jazz.
The final short piece, “Isivunguvungu”, imagines a mythical snake taking the form of a wind that cleanses bad souls. The American slam poet Saul Williams fires off aphorisms as the band set down a barrage of percussion and Nkosi and Mokone sing backing vocals, the whole thing more like Gil Scott-Heron or The Last Poets (or South Africa’s own Mzwakhe Mbuli in his 1980s prime) than the band’s usual heroes. Where BCUC go from here will be fascinating to see; this trilogy of albums that concludes with The Healing contains the most thrilling music from South Africa for many years.
‘The Healing’ is released by Buda Musique
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