The Aborigines of Australia navigated the complex network of invisible roads and wells that criss-crossed the desert outback by ‘singing’ the routes and committing them to memory. Their songlines are a triumph of oral tradition, a rich history embedded in song. In much the same way, the Diaspora of African musics that stretch across the Atlantic and back-from field hollers, blues, gospel, and jazz to calypso, reggae, R&B, and hip hop-are like an atlas of roads traveled, musical maps of African culture, the joyous song of a people’s struggle and triumph.
Great black music has always looked to Africa for inspiration. Artists as diverse as Randy Weston and the Jungle Brothers have made the pilgrimage, closedthe loop and brought ‘their’ culture home. Thus, many African popular musics-mbalax, soukous, jit, and mba-baqanga-are infused with Western pop styles. In the summer of 1996, Trevor Payne, founder and director ofthe Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, visited Zimbabwe and South Africa. Over the past 15 years, Payne, who had successfully set the Jubilation’s jewel ofgospel in jazz, funk, classical and Caribbean settings, was looking to return to his roots.
It was in South Africa that he found the sound he was looking for: impish, jittery concertina, spidery, high-ly-strung guitar, low-slung, elliptical bass-lines, andrapid-fire Zulu singing. It was the sound that first exploded on the world over a decade ago when Shan-achie released the seminal compilation, TheIndestructible Beat of Soweto, and when one of pop music’s most popular ‘mensches’ exhorted us to call him ‘Al’ and join him on a trip to Graceland.The sound was township jive. The gulf between gospel and t ownship jive is not as far as it may seem. Just like gospel, the sharply-observed details of everyday lifecontained in the lyrics of township jive are rooted in celebration, history, and reckoning.
In Johannesburg, Payne visited one of South Africa’s biggest township jive superstars-Johnston Zibakwakhe Mnyandu, or Phuzekhemisi, who he refers to as “the Ritchie Havens/Bob Dylan of Africa” rolled into one. Payne played Phuzekhemisi a cassette of the Jubilation’s Calypso Christmas Medley from Jubilation V – Joy to the World, and Phuzekhemisi was hooked. The stage was set for Imbizo: the meeting.
The challenges were fierce: most of Phuzekhemisi’s music is in a key alien to gospel ears (B-flat) and, like blues, has a paucity of chords. Also, the choir had to be taught Zulu (as well as Ndébélé and Luhyia, two offshoots from the Zulu Nation), which is loaded withcontractions, clicks, and regional eccentricities. Yet Payne is nothing if not a superlative Black alchemist, a master at blending musical genres, and his solution wasingenious: parsing the Zulu lyrics syllable by syllable, he created a phonetic fake- book and taught the choir through the cornerstone of gospel-the oral tradition.
The choir meets the challenge, and the results are spectacular. Listen to the force and grace the choir brings to the dynamics and counterpoint of Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika, the South African National Anthem, the uplifting performance of their hit Babethandaza, or the amazing ‘call and response’ ,with all the punch of a hotJames Brown horn chart, on Ayimale. (Even Phuzekhemisi was impressed; you can hear him lay back as the choir sings the Zulu lick, vamping till ready.) Thereal success in Hamba Ekhaya is how the music manages to evoke two worlds without one taking precedence over the other, as in Hamba Ku Jesu, where theglorious a cappella harmonies of gospel and the circular percussion rhythms of Africa dovetail magically.
New Album Jubilation Vll – Hamba Ekhaya (pictured left) represents the culmination of a long-standing dream for Trevor Payne, begun 15 years ago at Union United Church inSaint-Henri. Today he has brought the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir full circle, taking the Lord’s blessing and the indestructible beat of Saint-Henri home to Africa, and into our hearts.