Mixed efforts from African favourites


Friends on the Road
Bhundu Boys
Cooking Vinyl through Festival

Lucky Dube
Dolphin through BMG
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Over the past five years, African music has become increasingly popular in this country. Two of the most popular, and most regular visitors to our shores, have been Zimbabwe's Bhundu Boys and South Africa's reggae star Lucky Dube.

Both have built large followings through their incredibly high-energy live shows and a commitment to giving their audiences the most enjoyable concert experiences possible. Live, the Bhundu Boys and Lucky Dube combine intoxicating music with highly political messages in favour of social justice, and against racism, apartheid and exploitation of the Third World. Unfortunately, their recordings, while excellent, have seldom captured the dynamism of their live concerts.

That situation continues with Bhundu Boys' latest, Friends on the Road. But despite that failing, it is a great studio album. It is both fascinating and surprising. The album combines tracks with the Bhundus' familiar "jit-jive" dance-friendly rhythms with several numbers recorded with a folky outfit called Latin Quarter and others together with a twangy country singer by the authentic Nashville name of Hank Wangford.

The Bhundu Boys, it seems, have a deep love of North American country music. But it is played as no other country and western music has been played before. As the Bhundu Boys explain in the liner notes, they learnt to play by copying the music they heard on local radio and acquired a lasting taste for country music. This unexpected marriage of styles is best illustrated by the gloriously upbeat version of Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire" and a deliciously down-home- Zimbabwe-style rendition of Don Williams' "My Best Friend", complete with corny lyrics sung in broad African accents, cheezy organ, and the Bhundus' sparkling guitar work.

This cultural road is two-way, though, as Hank Wanford twangs his way through "Lizzie", an old South African kwela hit, to the backing of the Bhundu Boys' pennywhistle and guitar jive.

With Latin Quarter, the Bhundu Boys produce the albums most political tracks, "Radio Africa" and "Bitter to the South". The almost ambient "Radio Africa" explains that while we hear only bad news from Africa those problems are caused by the massive debt owed to Western countries and the unfair terms of world trade.

"Bitter to the South" recounts a conversation with Tomas, a resident of post-Sandinista Nicaragua. Tomas says: "The so-called wind from the North is blowing bitter to the South/ It takes the fruit out of the earth/ It takes the food from the mouth/ ... This ain't no Year for the Refugee/ There ain't no Year for the Child/ There ain't no Year for the Aged/ There's just these years of the debt/ where life leads us/ Send a message to your masters, tell them nothing's over yet."

Royalties from "Radio Africa" and another song on the album, "Don't Forget Africa", are bing donated to aid organisations in Southern Africa.

As well as these cross-cultural explorations, Friends on the Road contains more typical Bhundu Boys jit numbers such as "Anna" and "Pombi". The lyrical content of these songs must remain a mystery becasue of the annoying habit of record companies' refusal to provide translated lyrics in the sleeve. This especially frustrating because many of the Bhundus' Shona language songs have strong messages that I'm sure they would like to share with us.

Sadly, Lucky Dube's latest album, Victims, is a little disappointing compared to his previous albums. Musically it represents no real forward movement especially compared to the excellent House of Exile album.

Dube's strength is his song's unflinching emphasis on real life in South Africa as it proceeds through the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid, with all its highs and lows. He restates his firm belief in the necessity of unity between all South Africans regardless of race and his contempt of those who divide them.

"Victims", the title track, calls for an end to the terrible violence in the townships and warns of its consequences: "She showed me the graves ... and said/ There lies a man who fought for equality/ There lies a boy who died in the struggle/ Can all these heroes die in vain/ While we slash and kill our own brothers."

"Soldiers of Righteousness" is a forthright anthem for South Africa's youth — the "young lions" — and the best track. It is marred, however, by lyrics that refuse to recognise the importance of women in the struggle and weak production that buries the strident horn section and muffles the lead guitar: "We are those men your oppressive father told you about/ Soldiers of righteousness/ We fight against tribalism/ ... against oppression/ ... against racism/ ... against apartheid/ ... we are not sent here by the government that pays/ and we are not sent here by the politicians you drink with/ We are sent here by the poor/ ... by the suffering/ ... by the oppressed."

Despite Dube's undoubted comittment to a world without racial discrimination and apartheid, he is weak in his understanding of the rights of women. In his lyrics, participants in the struggle are exclusively male. His songs call only for women to be respected and protected. He is opposed to brutality against women and sometimes calls for more equality within personal relationships. But that is as far as he goes.

"Little Heroes" starkly shows the limitations of Dube's understanding of the key link between women's liberation and social liberation. It is a emotional attack on a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.

Both the Bhundu Boys and an Lucky Dube are scheduled to tour Australia later this year.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.