Andile Mthembu

Music review: Simphiwe Dana’s Bamako is a triumph

Bamako, the fifth album from Simphiwe Dana, marks 16 years of her recording career. To the dismay of her fans, a few days prior to the album’s long-awaited release, the South African singer-songwriter announced that this would be her last.

An iconic figure in the country’s cultural life, Dana hails from the Eastern Cape and is a singer, composer and producer. The largest part of her musical output is sung in her home language – isiXhosa, including her most loved songs such as Ndiredi, Zandisile, Bantu Biko Street and Ilolo.

Dana’s voice is also political. She is known for fearlessly engaging others, often through her social media accounts, on issues around social ills, politics and her personal struggles, such as domestic abuse.

These shared lived-experiences allow the listener to gain a deeper insight into the subject matter on her albums – including her new one – while also making her relatable to, and sometimes condemned by, the public.

Bamako introduces new instrumental elements, but Dana’s delivery is consistent with her previous albums. Her musical identity has always been reflected in her unique sound and approach, her gift of songwriting and articulation thereof, her use of cyclical harmony and simple yet ornamented melodies and cross-rhythms. All are evident on the new album.

In the new work there is, however, a heightened sensitivity that brings the meaning of the songs to life in new ways.

Dana has spoken openly about her mental health challenges, and in light of her struggles over the past few years, this album can be viewed as a particular triumph.

Lyrical mastery

Simphiwe Dana has a distinct voice. Rich, lustrous, soulful and hypnotic. Vocally, one can hear influences of indigenous and jazz music, particularly in her articulation and characteristic blues-like bent-note melodic approach.

Dana’s new album is illuminating. Andile Mthembu

A feature across her albums, especially her first three, is the layered, textured and intricate use of harmonies. While the melodies are often simple and repetitive, the richness of the lyrical content adds a different dynamic, especially in her articulation of the Xhosa dialect’s rhythmic and tonal features.

Dana’s deep lyrical ability has continued to develop throughout her canon and this is evident in her interpretation of the music on Bamako. The rhythm provided by the instrumental accompaniment, particularly in the more traditionally-influenced material, coupled with the rhythm of her singing and the intricate harmonies, often creates a cross-rhythmic effect. This hypnotic effect takes the listener on a journey.

A sense of home

Bamako is co-produced by the legendary Salif Keita and named after the capital city of his home country Mali, where the album was recorded. There is a strong guitar presence throughout the album, the work of Vieux Farka Touré.

The thirteen-track album is Dana’s shortest. Musically, it contains stylistic elements that dominated Kulture Noir (2010) and Firebrand (2015), traditional musical influences and dance-like elements.

Bamako features a strong sense of “home” juxtaposed with a shift in the sense of place through being transported by the Malian influences.

Dana underwent a vocal cord procedure towards the end of 2018, less than a year before this album was recorded. While this in no way affects the quality of her delivery, a display of her full vocal range, demonstrated in earlier songs such as Nzinga and Chula ukunyathela, is absent.

Salif Keita performing in the UK in 2019. David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

Usikhonzile, an ode to an unnamed leader, is a fitting opening, with layered harmonies delivered delicately, adding to the lyricism, supported by a dance groove. Kumnyama reflects a state of mind as the singer reminisces on lost love.

A journey to Mali

The West African influences are immediately audible in the rhythmic and melodic ideas in the instrumentation. The two-chord accompaniment is heightened by the cross-rhythms, reminiscent of the minimalism evident in Kulture Noir. It develops a ritualistic sound, and one can almost visualise a ceremony taking place. This is also evident in other songs such as Zabalaza.

Uzokhala also exhibits Malian influences, coupled with the swing of Dana’s singing style. The quality of her enunciation adds to the interpretation. The song features drone-like accompaniment with slight variations in the harmony at certain points.

Mama Was A Kitchen Girl, expressed through a simple melody, speaks to inequality in society, as does Zabalaza.

Masibambaneni features Salif Keita singing sections of his well-known song Africa. Dana ‘sings’ her mind, encouraging togetherness among Africans through sensitive vocal delivery.

Songs such as Gwegweleza, on the consequences of selfish actions, and You Keep Calling, a song about love, feature elements of reggae. Dana shares emotional wisdoms throughout. The different stages of love are further expressed in songs such as Bye Bye Naughty Baby, Ndizamile and Mr I.

The political flame keeps burning on Bamako. Mkhonto is a struggle song that is approached as such with its cyclical and simple harmonies, enhanced by Dana’s exploration of lead melodies and vocal textures.

The title track, Bamako, is strangely the shortest song on the album, at just under two minutes. The melody and delivery look to present a different approach from Dana’s usual melodies. The listener automatically craves more but does not receive it.

You can stream Bamako over here.

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