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via The Baxter Blog
Monday, July 26th, 2010 by Duduzile Mathebula, images by Claire McNulty
Blk Sonshine at the Alexander Theatre somehow manage to transcend the venue’s rich ambience. It says a lot. Right in the heart of Braamfontein’s student district, by day the place bustles with workers and thousands of locals who live in the surrounding high rises. And by night the new middle class colonizes the streets: visible, boisterous and good-natured they trek here for sounds like no other.
Blk Sonshine is Masauko Chipembere and Neo Muyanga. Their first eponymous release came out in 1998. After ten-years, during which the duo split apart, one to the States, the other to Slaapstad, they released their second album, Good Life. They blend soulful melodies and percussive flurries over an acoustic flow evoking hip hop, jazz and folk among other traditional African influences.
The Alexander auditorium was happily full on the night. First up was Bongeziwe Mabandla, an up and comer, who dazzled with nothing besides a voice and a guitar, sincerely setting the tone for the show. After him was Two-parts Black who have rapturously diverting harmonies, then Tumi Molekane, poet turned MC, joined in. With spryly conscious rhymes and velvet lyricism, he was always going to be a crowd pleaser. Then Blk Sonshine took over. I had to recline in my seat and take in the music. It was like a show tailored just for me. The band played a set list right out of my dreams. “Borders”, “Born in a Taxi”, “Building” and “Crazy,” – all firm favourites. Painter Nico Pocco – who did the covers for both their albums – dressed in a dashiki and white pants busied himself with canvas and paint (dirtying his pants). Soon an abstract painting emerged. The artist who has been with them from the beginning is a testament to the band’s easygoing commitment to keeping in touch with their roots. You’ve got to love that.
There’s sometimes a moment when audience and band are in unison live. Brought on by a familiar note, a gesture or a shared something in a song. At this show that moment happened during the tantric “Soul Smile”. Helped by its acoustic sparseness which enables intimacy as the vocals sink foxily in.
Songs from The Good Life made the crowd beam. It’s a much praised and understandably loved release. Watching the duo effortlessly interact with the audience, I was struck again by how consummate they are at winning a crowd, hatching a vibe and filling a room. The highlight for me was when Tumi returned with the rather dull MXO (who at this stage should like totally retire or completely renovate his sound). Along with Two Parts Black they all performed “Nkosi”. Masauko helpfully explained that Nkosi has a double meaning: “It means you know God for all those who believe, or just plain Thanks for anyone who doesn’t.”
The night came to a euphoric close with the song “Bahlalefi” (Sotho for “wise people”) from the first album. It seemed an appropriate end to a show dedicated, movingly, to the memory of Robbie Jansen and the dear departed Busi Mhlongo. Blk Sonshine are carrying the fire. We should thank them.
These two are individuals and you can hear it in their different approach to music, but when they come together their synergy makes them one. Perhaps that’s what makes Blk Sonshine one in a million.
“When we play, that’s as happy as I’m gonna be,” Chipembere says gleefully.
By Jason Curtis
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 10 years since Masauko Chipembere and Neo Muyanga first woke up the local music scene with their self-titled debut album that included the evergreen classic “Born In A Taxi”. Tonight the city bowl welcomes Blk Sonshine back with a launch for their highly anticipated and acutely overdue second album, Good Life, at The Assembly in Harrington Street.
Never ones to rush genius, the duo has not been sitting around idle between albums. With the initial Good Life sessions beginning as early as 2006 Muyanga is quick to point out that, “some things just should never be rushed.” With the period between producing album affectionately referred to as their ‘large pause’, the drought is now over with 12 new songs set to whet appetites everywhere.
After the overwhelming support for “Born In A Taxi” the biggest challenge for the two was to take the signature sound that the world fell in love with and build upon warm melodies and multipartite lyrics, all anchored in a well-informed African and Eastern reality. “Fame wasn’t working for my particular ego,” Chipembere recalls as to what happened to the group when their status changed from starting out in the underground and then, very quickly finding mainstream success. “That side of things was not my reality and yes, my ego ruled for a while.”
“That’s why this album was so important,” Muyanga adds. “We went back to our foundation, to the thing we built Blk Sonshine out of in order to assemble songs that were informed by that place. Good Life, both in title and sentiment, is thus a celebration of these two truly gifted musicians and their journey through song. The title track pulls their collective pasts into a current reality, all with beautiful familiarity. “I find it thick with metaphor,” Chipembere says of the Muyanga penned song. “It also has something childlike and innocent about it.”
With clear intent to not write for one particular audience, their now two-strong catalogues’ mission is to extract a feeling that has the listener reflective rather than overwhelmed by flippant pop distraction. “The power of words is informed by their ability to grow,” Chipembere agrees. “Good Life
is the logical extension that bridges and marries our poetic introspection in a way that we’re really proud of.”
With the same sentiment prevalent on both albums it’s Good Life that extends itself and welcomes special guest performances from Famora Dioubate, a balafon player best known for his recordings with Mory Kante, as well as Xhosa wordsmith and singer MXO and Tumi (of Tumi & The Volume fame). “MXO and Tumi added their magic to “Nkosi”,” Muyanga explains. “It’s a beautiful gospel song we wrote back in 2002 and is quite a departure from what people may have come to expect from us, which is great!”
With invites received and honoured right around the world between albums, Chipembere and Muyanga hooked up and recorded between New York, Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Shows booked in London and across Europe also allowed for many of the tracks that made the final cut for Good Life to be road-tested and played live before Blk Sonshine committed them to disc. “We randomly met up around the world at different times,” Chipembere recalls. What kept the haphazard nature of our process together was a strong thread of consciousness that’s always linked the music to the lyrics that we write.”
“With the world in an odd state of flux right now, people need hope,” he adds. “Good Life, both as a song and album is conduit through which we can channel positive musical energy.”
The Assembly launch includes special guests Toni Paco on drums and percussion with Sylvaine Baloubeta on bass, turning the duo into a four piece for the night. “We’re experimenting and collaborating all the time,” Muyanga says. “As I travel more and more I become more aware of our own great continent, it’s unique sounds and traditions. You’ll hear a lot of those on the new album, and on the night if you come down to the show.”
With the nine year pregnancy finally over, Blk Sonshine has given birth to a body of work that, as soon as it finds its feet, will take on a life of its own as “Born In A Taxi” did at the turn of the century. As any parent would, Blk Sonshine suffers moments of anguish at how their new arrival will integrate, but fans can rest assured that if they get down to Harrington Street they’ll hear and see Good Life take its place as one of the year’s finest late arrivals.
Tickets cost R60 and are available from The Assembly – Tel: (021) 465 7286. Doors open @ 9pm and the show commences at 9:30pm sharp.
Released December 2009
It is never an easy task following up a debut album that delivered one of South Africa’s most enduring and endearing hits. Nor it is easy to record a full album when you’ve already laid down a bunch of songs only to discover they were never properly captured by the studio gadgets you relied on.
Such has been the case for Blk Sonshine, the duo that captured the hearts of South African music fans a decade ago with Born In A Taxi, the smash hit off their 2000 “Blk Sonshine” debut album – and who were back in the recording studio five years ago working on a new album that did not manifest, following a studio mishap.
Laughs Masauko Chipembere, “We actually went in the studio about five years ago and recorded an amazing live album at the SABC in Cape Town only to find the tape machine had broken and none of it was recorded. So there may have been spiritual reasons why it just was not time.”
Chipembere’s mantra of following the path that life lays before you is very much in keeping with the ethos of Blk Sonshine. This idea of letting things unfold naturally has played a key role in the close to ten-year span between “Blk Sonshine” and “Good Life.”
Neo Muyanga adds, “We began recording “Good Life” in 2006, and as you know, some things just should never be rushed!”
He’s right – and thankfully, the unhurried approach to recording “Good Life” has resulted in an album of sweeping beauty that contains all Blk Sonshine’s signature sounds that fans fell in love with on the band’s debut (warm, acoustic melodies juxtaposed against intelligent lyrics and the interplay of Muyanga and Chipembere’s vocals) but now significantly dialed up to a different time.
The latter comes courtesy of some stunning new elements that add a delicate but potent layer of sound to Blk Sonshine’s music. Gorgeous strings abound, and players like Famoro Dioubate, a balafon player known for his work with Mory Kante, add a dreamy quality to tracks. There is also a sense of expansiveness in the music: whereas Born In A Taxi was so quintessentially South African (and perfect for the time in 2000), the set of 11 songs on “Good Life” draw from a head-spinning array of places from Addis Ababa to the Indian sub-continent and beyond.
To hear how masterfully this all comes together, hit play on a song like Gliding. Exquisite in its simplicity, the song is transporting and displays how effortlessly Chipembere and Muyanga are able to conjure up musical magic jointly. It is the same with the piano-inflected Step It Up which again makes use of Muyanga’s ability to deliver the high notes in a way that the listener will shudder with emotion.
But as effortlessly as the duo is able to strip their songs to the bare minimum of beauty, so Blk Sonshine is able to inject an enviable jaunt into their material; the kind of upbeat, kinetic sound that ensured Born In A Taxi would become a big hit.
A great example of this is the first song on the album and the title inspiration – Good Life. The song has all the makings of a live favourite and is full of enough bounce and beat to make it memorable – especially when combined with lyrics that are, in typical Blk Sonshine style, astute and on-the-mark. Watch This Woman is equally as intoxicating – a track that links South Africa’s traditional music roots, like everything Blk Sonshine does, with some startling insight on gender activism that is fundamental to contemporary African society.
What’s most striking about “Good Life” is its diversity of material. Nkosi is a liltingly beautiful Gospel number that features the gifted Xhosa vocalist, MXO and the equally talented hip-hop artist Tumi. Testify, with the violin heavy in the mix, presents yet another face of this vastly talented duo.
Ask the duo which songs they favour and they point to different cuts:
“Of my own songs, I would say Gliding because it is an extension of the ideals in Soul Smile which was my favorite song in the first album,” confides Chipembere. “I really love Neo’s song Good Life too. I find it thick with metaphor. It also has something childlike and innocent about it. Yet at the same time, any hip-hop head can hear that he is styling out in the verses. He is basically rapping with a melody. Tight!” For Muyanga, the choice is much harder. “I really like all of them. I tend not to have favourites,” he says simply.
It is hard not to make comparisons to “Blk Sonshine” and specifically Born In A Taxi – but this is not something that bothers the duo. “The idea is never to write for an audience, but to communicate a feeling or to reflect on a quest(ion),” Muyanga explains.
Says Chipembere: “The idea here was to keep growing. I came to Southern Africa 14 years ago not knowing what Marabi, Maskandi or Marrabenta music was. Now I can draw those genres into my sound. The goal has always been to become a more seasoned musician and learn about my soul.”
There’s no doubt that both Muyanga and Chipembere’s desires are reflected on a record – that was, it’s important to say, recorded between New York (Chipembere’s home), Cape Town (where Muyanga resides), Los Angeles and Johannesburg, drawing on a cast of players who contribute to the world class sheen that’s evident on each song.
It’s also clear that their individual visions were easily converted from the songwriting process, to the recording, to the final album.
As Chipembere says, “Last time we took a bunch of songs and put them on the record. This time we knew that we wanted to call the album “Good Life,” so I had time to ponder the theme. Neo’s song Good Life was an anthem to me. It resounded in my soul from the first days we played it. The basic idea is that, “it all depends on what you want to call a good life.” To me, that concept is huge. It sounds simple but it is a truth that can keep you reflecting for years. All of my songs on this album were an attempt to figure out how I define a good life for myself and I hope others will relate to that personal search.”
“The song Good Life is a reflection on what it means to be living one,” adds Muyanga. “The song is inconclusive because the idea is to ask all of us to respond individually to the concept and what it means on a personal level.”
And like everything Muyanga and Chipembere do – whether jointly as Blk Sonshine or solo or in collaboration with other artists – there’s a strong thread of consciousness linking the music to the lyrics and on to the listener. “I think we often try to write our highest ideals,” says Chipembere. “The artist’s job for me is to give people a vision of possibilities that never existed before. Right now it seems that people need hope. The women need to feel free to walk down the street without being harassed. The children need to see their parents loving each other. “Good Life” is a command or a wish for you. We are trying to send you some positive energy musically.”
Modern yet ancestral. Personal yet striking. Positive. Thoughtful. Resplendent. Intoxicating. “Good Life” is a gift which proves that Blk Sonshine is stronger than ever, blessing your heart and healing your soul.