The eyes of the sporting world will be focused on South Africa this summer as it hosts the World Cup of soccer. Simultaneously, the ears of the music world are about to be exposed to the vibrant sounds of Amabutho, a new group destined to do the “rainbow nation” proud on the world stage.
Sikelela is the eagerly anticipated debut album from Amabutho, seven young men who grew up in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Durban, and the dusty streets of the Johannesburg township of Soweto. Their name is taken from the term for a regiment of Zulu warriors, but these are the gentlest of warriors. They deliver their soulful message of peace and unity via the sweet sounds of marimba, percussion and effortless vocal harmonies. Voices and instruments conduct a seamless dialogue that in turn is sure to have the world music community talking.
Amabutho’s sound is built around the marimba. Most often described as a wooden variant of the xylophone, the marimba is a crucial component of many styles of South African music. In Amabutho’s skilled hands, it produces a sound that is simultaneously percussive and delightfully melodic. The group features lead, tenor and bass marimba players, augmented by conga drums, bass drums, djembe, shakers and cow bell.
Sikelela ends with an enchanting instrumental, “Old NR 7,” written by Bhekumuzi Nkosi (Tracey), an inspirational mentor to the young men who would go on to form Amabutho. “We watched Tracey fixing marimbas, wondering how he could play that thing,” recalls Amabutho’s Charles Langa. “He saw that we were interested and he taught us how to play.”
Charles and his friends soon began busking, and their talent caught the attention of their other primary musical mentor, Thembi Nyandeni. A heroic figure in South African music, this singer/dancer started Soweto’s first creative arts school, financing it herself. She welcomed five of the young men who, under the leadership of Thabiso Serobanyane, were destined to become Amabutho. Her intervention action may well have prevented them from drifting into a life of crime in their impoverished environment.
At her school, they learned the dances and music of the Zulu and other South African tribes, including the now famed Gumboots style. When Thembi created UMOJA: Spirit Of Togetherness, a stage musical that explores the history of South African music, she invited the seven comrades to become the production’s core group. UMOJA found incredible international success, playing in 34 countries and becoming a major hit on London’s West End.
Amongst the enthralled theatregoers was acclaimed Toronto record producer and label head Peter Cardinali. “The producers of the show invited me to see UMOJA in both London and Toronto and I was so impressed by the marimba band,” he recalls. “I thought it’d be great to do a traditional African record with them.” Cardinali’s offer to produce and work with the band fuelled the official formation of Amabutho, and Sikelela is the triumphant result.
The fascinating recording process was filmed for a “live in the studio” performance DVD that will be released in conjunction with the CD and which captures the musical and personal empathy at work within Amabutho
On Sikelela, the group add a contemporary freshness to traditional South African music. Their original compositions (written by four different members) incorporate elements from Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana musical traditions. Lyrically, they deal with themes rooted in their daily reality, whether it be the crime that plagues their community, as on “Tsotsi (Gangster)”) or their spiritual faith, as on “Sikelela (Blessings). “That song is like a prayer, thanking Him for opening gates for us,” says Thabiso. The stirring message and uplifting music of “Theletsha Meropa (Listen To The Drums Of Africa)” possesses anthemic potential.
With the international release of Sikelela on Alma Records on June 8, Amabutho are eager to begin international touring of their own. Watching their progress on the global stage promises to be a fascinating and inspirational endeavour.