simphiwe dana: bamako

On her album, Kulture Noir, which turns a decade old this year, Simphiwe Dana paid tribute to West African music and afrobeats with the song Fela’s Azania. It seems that her love for West African music has strengthened since then. Her latest offering, Bamako (named after Mali’s capital city), enlists the help of music giant, Salif Keita — who not only features on two songs on the album but has production credits on all the songs. The album was inspired by her tours to Senegal and when the time came to record the project, she traveled to Bamako to do it there. On her Apple Music description, Dana says, “I went to Salif and I wanted to just spice it up with some Mali flavor. We mainly added percussion like the djembe and strings from the kora just to accentuate the sound.” Dana’s blasé way of describing the process almost does no justice to the role that the Mali sounds play in the album as Salif Keita’s band is the backbone of the album. Dana is also joined on some records by Vieux Farka Touré and his guitar. A show of some divine hand as I just so happen to have been listening to his father, Ali Farka Touré’s album, Talking Timbuktu.

It is remarkable that Dana is able to retain her own style of singing against the backdrop of unfamiliar sonic territory and not get swallowed up. But on Mama Was A Kitchen Girl, Dana immerses herself in the music as she allows herself to adopt vocal techniques from Mali —illustrated through her chorus, and I enjoyed hearing her venture out in her own vocal style there more. The following song, Masibambaneni, Dana repeats the words “zemk’ inkomo magwalandini,” surely a nod to Dr WB Rubusana’s 1906 book of Xhosa poetry and proverbs that was banned for 90 years before returning in 2003 as these words reference the famous book. Zemk’ inkomo magwalandini is a piece of literature that sought to document Xhosa culture during a time in which colonialism was chipping away at African cultures. The fact that it was banned speaks to that. Perhaps Dana finds it fitting to reference this phrase because of how Afrophobia in South Africa undermines African history and serves as a distraction against bigger forces —that is, the legacy of colonialism in Africa. Keita interpolates his hit, Africa, into this and lends a verse in French —through this, the song begins to symbolise/ imagine a union between Francophone and Anglophone Africa. A sentiment that is echoed by the African Union’s aspirations towards of a visa-free Africa.

The album, with its adoption and incorporation of music from Mali in its show of culture as not static, and its show of the inspiring movement of West African music, reminds me of Manu Chao’s solo debut album, Clandestino. The French/Spanish musician’s project incorporated sounds from West Africa and Latin America after he had traveled the regions. Clandestino dealt with issues around borders and migration ­–something that Dana alludes to with her decision to travel to Mali, draw inspiration from the music and sing about African unity. The track also reminds me of one of Dana’s influences, Busi Mhlongo, whose song Yehlisan’ Umoya was also a critique of division among Africans and called for unity in the same way Dana does on the record.

For all its cultural significance, the album is primarily about romantic heartbreak, this is clear and most effectively communicated on Mr I, a melody that Dana makes powerful by mostly singing quietly alongside kora strings. “Love is complicated/ I won’t try to fix it,” Dana sings on Mr I, “if it’s broken, then that’s what it is/ maybe for a while/ maybe forever.” She shows us that her prose-style approach to songwriting is still effective in her storytelling. The album is ambitious in its sonic styles. Dana incorporates various genres of South African vocal techniques. On Bye Bye Naughty Baby, an acapella song consistent with the theme of a breakup, Dana playfully pays tribute to Madosini. The song seems to be an experimentation with and a reinterpretation of her song, Uthando Luphelile. The opening melody, along with her repetitive use of the words “uthando luphelile, bye bye” all work together to affirm my assumption.

Another acapella moment is when Dana pays homage to the South African protest singing of amagwijo, most well executed on Mkhonto, which references the African National Congress’ Umkhonto We Sizwe. She questions the ANC’s strength in post-democratic South Africa —is the spear of the nation as sharp as it used to be? Some of these issues are on the song Zabalaza, where she embodies unemployed graduates and South Africans who cannot have financial security because of black tax. Of course, this is consistent with Dana’s discography as her music has always prided itself on being a reflection of the South African sociopolitical landscape.

The album’s ambition for versatility with sound and motif could easily have become too eclectic to be enjoyed as a seamless work. But this is avoided through introductions that double as interludes in my mind. For example, the slow acoustic intro to the upbeat Gwegweleza, allows the listener to transition from Masibambaneni, a song that is more somber and much slower in its sound, to this new tempo. This, along with the thread that is Keita’s band, stops the album from being just a compilation of great songs and makes it a solid unit of work —another brilliant addition to Dana’s discography.

Dana’s decision to deliberately look beyond South Africa for a whole album would be a foolish courage if it weren’t for the fact that it’s Simphiwe Dana. She has spent 15 years carving out her indispensable place in South African music and has built a loyal base of listeners. This gives her the artistic license to be that experimental, to look beyond the confines of local popular music and to turn to Mali for her new era. It so great to see a mainstream artist pushing her South African audience towards other West African music forms that are not Fela Kuti. Especially as the album is closed with vocals from singer Kankou Kouyate, another brilliant vocalist from Mali who is lesser known in South Africa.