By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
the cast of the play Bergsville Stories
IN 1939 A South African singing group called Soloman Linda's Original Evening Birds hit huge with Africa's first 100,000-selling record, "Mbube," or "The Lion." The continent-wide popularity of this a cappella number inspired a thousand South African guitarless/drumless singing 'n' chanting 'n' shouting mbube groups, and also a pair of U.S. crossover classics: The Token's 1961 No. 1 hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was a self-conscious "Mbube" rip-off; and Paul Simon's Grammy-winning importation of a mbube--really iscathamiya--group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, effectively made mbube the most popular Afropop strain among American consumers.
It isn't hard to understand why. Frankly, mbube is money music; Robert Christgau called Ladysmith a "glee club." On paper, at least, the music might seem the least propulsive and least accessible of Afropop strains, rolling as it does on nothing more than meticulously arranged singing and dancing, and the occasional group soul clap (if the cadences get above mid tempo). But this singing is self-validating. And the vocal interplay on Bergsville Stories's 21 songs, culled from a play that ran in Natal, South Africa, in 1995 and New York last summer, are as beautiful as singing gets. Sadly, you won't find it hanging out in the "World Music" bins down at Musicland, but it is available.(Try www.music.sony.com/Music/Globetrotter).
In a just pop world this would be as powerful a cultural document as The Harder They Come or The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. The material clocks in at a punchy 42 minutes, satisfying pop tastes and pomo attention spans. Things fly by you. Startlingly strong leads cut against and bleed into airtight, constantly shifting, four-part harmonies. A settling hymn is followed by a minute of groans, shouts, and birdcalls. Ladysmith's Joseph Shabalala steps out and leads the cast like a distinguished elder statesman. You start responding to individual voices, start wondering about their stories, even though you'll never come within a million miles of gleaning a plot or guessing a song topic. If we weren't living in an age that denied us such designations, I'd almost want to tell you it feels like something pure.