South African band Urban Village
Soweto sounds: South African band Urban Village © Justice Mukheli

The four members of Urban Village grew up in Soweto as apartheid, at least in its formal manifestation, was crumbling: their debut album sounds exactly as you would expect from experimental musicians with deep family record collections. It is a love song both to their hometown and to the music that has flowed through it for decades, pervasively but subtly modernised to just the right side of pastiche. 

Their influences are clearly discernible. Opening track “Izivunguvungu” opens with mbira and flute reminiscent of multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, and then revels in the close isicathamiya harmonies of Zulu vocal groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo — the music’s origins in workers’ hostels is apparent in the lyrics about the longing to return home.

“Dindi” recalls the heyday of mbaqanga with groaning basslines similar to those of the Makgona Tsohle Band, light guitar lines ripping in response, and just a hint of electronic timbres. “You have to keep your head up high”, chants Tubatsi Mpho Moloi in Zulu, “You have to walk tall” . . . “Yebo”, chorus his bandmates in affirmative response. The most overtly political track, “Ubusuku”, commemorates the 1976 Soweto uprising and the killing of schoolboy Hector Pieterson with urgent Xhosa rock and mourning saxophone. 

Album cover of ‘Udondolo’ by Urban Village

“Marabi” is a rolling medley of older classics, from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to Dorothy Masuka’s “Yombela Yombela”: at its heart is a repeated chorus from Strike Vilakazi’s “Meadowlands”, an ironically joyful jive about the Soweto suburb to which the inhabitants of Sophiatown were forcibly relocated, which slipped its way past the censors to become a 1950s standard and anti-apartheid anthem.

The band’s philosophical manifesto is encapsulated in “Sakhisizwe”, which means “building a nation”. To a backing closer to Paul Simon than Juluka, they sing about “a place where every soul is as one” in a plea not just for national or even pan-African but planetary unity. This is followed by a Buddhist chant for peace on “Umuthi”. There is a glorious bustle on the mildly retro “Empty K-Set”, where the cries of street hawkers mingle with Gauteng railway announcements, to a chorus of saxophones and harmonica.

★★★★☆

Udondolo’ is released by No Format

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