various artists,
South Africa
(Putumayo, 2010)

Given all the attention from the recent World Cup, the sound most associated with South Africa is the vuvuzela (for worse more than better). And given the ever-present presence of that device, it's not unfair to expect a sample of music representing South Africa to have a similar brashness/boldness and in-your-face quality -- at least a little bit, right? Well, the opposite consistently occurs in Putumayo's South Africa -- the album is surprisingly understated and a bit underwhelming. The music is enjoyable, but overall doesn't leave a lasting impression as so many other Putumayo albums typically do.

Hopefully, the overall description doesn't detract from the obvious talent that is present. Individually, each song holds up very well and shows the heavy influence of jazz across the board. Steve Dyer's "Mananga" showcases a nice saxophone performance. Miriam Makeba's "Orlando" is a nicely performed jazz standard from a previous era. "Tiki Tiki" by Phinda has a nice and easy groove to it.

To get a hip-hop taste on top of jazz influence (with a little traditional South African folk music), check out "Nkosi" by Blk Sonshine. Despite the insertion of regional influence in the background, the lyrics take on a more global referential context, which subconsciously distracts from this music representing a particular region. The background accompaniment is the traditional folk sound, but feels inserted rather than integral.

The final track, "Ngahlulele" by the Soweto Gospel Choir, is the most memorable song of the album. Performed a cappella, "Ngahlulele" is a traditional Zulu song about seeking redemption and refuge. The choir performs in perfect unison, so much that the silent pauses help define the song almost as much as their splendid voices.

As stated before, if one analyzes each individual song, there's nothing wrong with them -- there's a general niceness and enjoyability. However, taking all the songs together in the greater context of the album, "a general niceness and enjoyability" doesn't make for a striking recommendation. If you're seeking a new, different or memorable sound, I don't know that South Africa is the best album to get. If you are looking for a pleasant album that shows a wealth of influence and showcases solid talent, then South Africa is a sure bet.

music review by
C. Nathan Coyle

14 August 2010

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