This playlist is for the time we find ourselves in now, when solitude has become the new norm. These songs have a remarkable reassuring familiarity, yet with each hearing, they somehow manage to reveal new secrets, a note heard for the first time, lyrics that acquire new meaning.
It is always like that with the truly great artists. Even their most familiar songs have a way of seeming to have been penned for the moment you face now. These songs are a reminder, if any is needed, that the best art transcends borders and connects us beyond the artificial barriers of language. As South Africans we sometimes forget the debt of gratitude to artists like Miriam Makeba, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and others who gave up so much for the larger cause of freedom.
Thandiswa Mazwai - Ingoma
This song, a deeply beautiful celebration of love is quite possibly one of the great compositions of the last 20 years. With each performance on stage, Thandiswa seems to find new layers in this song that is set to become one of the great standards.
Franco Luambo - Très Impoli
Franco’s music still retains so much of its pulsating magic more than three decades after his death. It’s impossible to sit still when Très Impoli plays. From the Kwasa Kwasa rhythms to the lilting falsetto, here’s a song that captures the energy and genius of an artist at the height of his powers.
Miriam Makeba - Soweto Blues
Miriam Makeba knew how to make the political impossibly beautiful. She sang songs from the United States dedicated to freedom fighters on the continent of her birth, and while the politics was there, the beauty of the music sucked you in. Soweto Blues, written for the 1976 Soweto Freedom struggle is a song of astonishing beauty. It remains one of her most important songs, capturing the urgency of a moment that passed, but retaining its magic.
Victor Ntoni - Egoli
It is always a joy to hear an old and familiar instrument given new wings. This is how I felt when I first heard Victor Ntoni play the double bass in the mid-eighties. The sound was warm, insistent, disturbingly elegant. Over the years I've listened to Ntoni play in small ensemble as well as big bands. In later years I heard more and more of his beautiful singing. And this song Egoli finds him in fine form, serenading the city of gold.
Busi Mhlongo - Wakrazulwa
Busi Mhlongo could do it all. She sang the blues, she sang rock, she sang funk, she sang Maskandi. But above all, she was incredibly stylish. And on Wakrazulwa, found on her last album, Amakholwa, you hear her bring something new to the gospel genre. This is one of her most moving songs, conveying a delicate beauty and a irresistible sense of the numinous.
Letta Mbulu - There’s Music In The Air
Here’s a song that sounds so perfectly sung, so perfectly composed. Letta’s voice seems to glide through it with an irresistible warmth. If there’s a song that never leaves you once you’ve heard it, this is the one. The accompanying musicians are in top form. There’s a hint of funk, of soul, and of mbaqanga.
Stimela - Zwakala
In the 80's Stimela was making and playing the new sounds of freedom with songs that became the unofficial anthems to the war for freedom. Zwakala is one of those songs that stirred the heart even as it fired the hunger for freedom. The song’s beauty has not faded in the three decades since we first heard it. What a song it is; there's the invitation to a long-lost lover which is also a call-to-arms.
Sathima Bea Benjamin - Africa
Among lovers of high jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin belongs in that very small circle of singers who sing with little adornment. Nat King Cole with his clean lines and perfect pitch was an influence. Africa is from the African Songbird album, and side one has only this one song, Africa. It's a deeply moving tribute to the continent that Sathima Bea Benjamin credits with the birth of jazz. It begins with a lush, even orchestral interplay between the percussions and the basses, the drummer eliciting a richly polyphonic sound out of his instrument. About nine minutes into the track, Abdullah Ibrahim is incredibly inventive on the Fender Rhodes, an instrument he rarely plays. Basil Mannenberg Coetzee's tenor sax is truly irresistible. This is quite possibly the most elegant musical tribute to the continent.
Hugh Masekela - Market Place
There are those who insist that music is the most natural human communication, and that speech and writing came afterwards. Listening to the magic that Hugh conveys in this song reveals the validity of this assertion.
Cassandra Wilson - Tupelo Honey
I fell in love with Cassandra Wilson’s music in the early 90’s. She has incredible range and her interpretations of the standards rank amongst the most compelling. In this song, one of her finest, she is able to coax out of the composition notes that seem to convey something primordial and intensely beautiful.