South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s fiftysomethingth album, Songs from a Zulu Farm, intends to convey the sounds of the rural homesteads on which its members grew up, enlivening and reinterpreting the songs they sang as children. This presents a baffling challenge for the casual Western listener: a band with a massive back catalogue, singing in a strange language, with no instruments or melodic structure to steady the ship. And what does a Zulu farm sound like in the first place?
The easiest response might be to forget all these incidentals, to sit back and let the music take its course. But Songs from a Zulu Farm is complicated enough that such mindless engagement is hardly possible. It demands a specific kind of concentration. The musical vocabulary on display here is dense, alien, and difficult.
Rooted in isicathamiya vocal traditions, these songs operate through a call-and-response structure that feels ancient and exotic, more like aural ethnography than pop music. A lead singer sings a line, the backing vocalists repeat it, splitting the melody into a polyphony of tones and sounds, each side washing over the other. It’s the kind of interplay that blues singers would engage in with their guitars, but exponentially more complicated; imagine if Robert Johnson was playing five guitars at once. The songs are consequently hypnotic and fascinating but otherwise impenetrable, closed off by the barriers of language and the way they clash with the standard expectations of what a song will present. They largely run together, differentiated by a rooster crow here and an English lyric there, keeping up a kind of distant beauty that remains hard to engage with.
The bigger question is how to conceive of or view this group, which has existed for nearly 50 years and pumps out music with measured productivity. Its intentions are clearly wholesome, the music is sweet and cordial, and it’s impossible to tell whether its ultimate drabness is the group’s fault or our own. Applied as a kind of exotic spice to mainstream albums (most famously on Paul Simons’s Graceland) or by black artists trying to connect with African roots, the group has been a marvelous ingredient. On their own, they’ve toured extensively as a kind of roving museum show, opening a window into the trappings of a foreign culture.
But over the course of an entire album, the group’s traditionalism gets exhausting. Songs like “Wemfana (Bad Donkey)” seem to exist entirely as advertised, affecting an a cappella rhythm that merges singing and mouth music, and sounds a little bit like a donkey. Otherwise it’s a little skimpy. Mostly, the album incites questions that have nothing to do with music, like what exactly goes on at a Zulu farm.