Monday, March 20, 2006

The Queen of Xhosa Music provides bitchin' desktop wallpaper

glisten: Madosini Manquina aka Latozi Mpahlele

Madosini - Sphetukano / Uxam Ulilela Abantwana Bakhe / Weny Se Goli

Madosini - Bafazi

I was in college when I happened upon a mixtape of traditional Xhosa music. Most of the tape was comprised of the astonishing Madlamini and Her Witchdoctors' 1980 Sounds of the Transkei album, a collection of songs from the gorgeous, otherworldly Zulu vocal choir that is both out of print and unjustifiably MIA on the internet.

As obscure as that Transkei album is, the last ten minutes of that beloved mix were even moreso: labeled only 'Madosini - Mouthbow - Four Songs' the end of the tape was unlike anything I've ever heard before or since. The type of instrument playing on the recording was impossible for me to place; the sound was tinny and wheedling, like a combination of a flute and a musical saw. The mystery instrument somehow produced oddly ethereal overtones, not unlike Mongolian or Tuvan throat singing. The strange thrum of the buzzing strings mimicked the pop and hiss of surface noise on a record, a sound I've always found warm and lulling. The singer's voice had many of the same qualities; she was authoritative but gentle, a balance of rough directness and elegant delicacy.

Several years later, while transferring the tape to CD, I found myself again transported by this amazing music and decided to investigate further. Madosini turns out to be the acknowledged master of a number of indigenous Xhosa instruments: the isitolotolo (a variety of wooden Jew's harp), the uhadi and the umhrubhe.

The umhrubhe was the instrument that had so perplexed me on first listen; it is played with a bow like an upright bass, but the upper half of the umhrubhe is held in the mouth. The musician changes the sound by bending the umhrubhe while increasing pressure with the bow or by plucking the strings. The ghostly overtones are created by widening or narrowing the resonant chamber of one's mouth while whistling and bowing the string. It's a complicated performance technique and one that, again, evokes that of a Tuvan traditional instrument: the mouth bow known as the 'ca'.

Madosini has been playing these instruments since her teen years. Though at least pushing seventy (she's unsure of her exact birthdate), Madosini now records on the South African MELT label and continues to perform live, recently touring with the internationally acclaimed traditional Xhosa troupe Amampando and playing WOMAD in 2002. 2003 saw the release of the African documentary film Spirits of the Uhadi, in which Madosini meets with Thandiswa Mazwai, a young South African pop star who she befriends and teaches to perform the music of her ancestors.

Madosini takes her role as one of the few surviving Xhosa virtuosos quite seriously; the uhadi and umhrubhe are considered primitive and antiquated by many newly-Westernized contemporary Southern Africans but Madosini is determined not to see the instruments fade into obscurity. She does a considerable amount of community outreach and touring throughout Africa and Europe to both youth groups and public crowds to increase awareness of the rich tradition and still enchanting sound of traditional Xhosa music. As Madosini says, “When I play my instruments, the idea is to tell the people that without nature there is no life and without life there is no music. These are the foundation stones for humanity."

The music I have on the Hut today comes from a test-recording session with Madosini dating from 1987. All of these songs were later released in a much different form on Madosini's eponymous 2001 MELT album, but I don't believe that these particular recordings have ever been issued in any form. They find Madosini in excellent form; raw (I love the exclamation of breath as she clears her throat between songs), vibrant and powerful. The first mp3 track contains three songs: 'Sphetukano', 'Uxam Ulilela Abantwana Bakhe' and 'Weny Se Goli'; all three feature Madosini on vocals and the umhrubhe. The second track, 'Bafazi,' features Madosini on vocals and on the uhadi. I am under the impression that these songs are effectively originals, crafted from the natural hybrid of Madosini's own compositions and of the traditional themes of indigenous Xhosa music.

I hope you enjoy these four songs as much as I do; I've been listening to them for almost a decade and they still sound new to me.

tell me more about it...

A few sites that I found suggest that you can buy Madosini's work on iTunes, but I've only unearthed a pair of worldbeat mixes and a single solo track on that behemoth; if you'd really like to buy more Madosini (and, of course, I strongly recommend that you do), you can find an entire album on e-Music... and potentially for free!

Without coming off as too much of a shill, here's e-Music's offer: 50 free tracks as an introductory offer and if you don't like the service enough to stay on board, you keep the tracks and cancel with no repercussions. A GREAT way to take advantage of that offer would be to grab the Madosini and then DL, say, a very solid Ali Farke Toure album, an Amadou and Mariam best-of or a Miriam Makeba concert disc. You indie kids out there might prefer to fill out the fifty with the new Neko Case, Destroyer or Cat Power albums; whatever, it's a pretty nice deal and the terms of service, should you choose to stick with it for the long run, seem fairly reasonable as well.

Regardless of your opinion of e-Music, it's the ONLY place I can find Madosini for sale on the web without heavy import fees. If anybody else knows where we can get more of 'The Veteran's recorded work, please let me know; I know _I_ would jump at the chance to buy an American release.
Listen to this realaudio BBC piece on Madosini, featuring a live performance and an interview. The story of Madosini being stripped of her instruments at the airport (they seem to have thought they were bows of the weapon variety) and of her proving their use to customs officials is a jaw-dropper.
Respect due to the always essential Benn loxo du taccu, who blogged up Madosini over a year ago.
Listen to some realaudio samples of Xhosa instruments and choirs on this PBS page and read from this collected English translation of Xhosa folklore.

Caveat emptor on that folklore collection: the 'translator' is a colonial occupant from 1886 with something less than a full appreciation of the people whose stories he's committing to paper (he compares the tales in his preface to "the blocks of wood in the form of cubes with which European children amuse themselves"). Undoubtedly, these stories are colored more than somewhat in the retelling, but they're still pretty compelling; take a peek at the loopy Story of the Cannibal's Wonderful Bird.
The 2004 issue of Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa features an interview with Madosini about the technical process of playing and composing for the umrhubhe as well as the place of the instrument in the culture of the Xhosa people. You can order the magazine from the link above for about $45US or do what I'm doing and get thee to a library.
For a very technical explanation (spectrographic analysis, CoolEdit and M.C. Escher are invoked) of how the umhrubhe is played, how it produces overtones and how recording this music affects it's sound, have a go and read this sadly graphic-less but still fascinating essay on Xhosa music.


The Lego Suicides
Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Prince playing 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' at The Rock + Roll Hall of Fame
Yeah, yeah; I know: this starts out tremendously boring, but just wait till Prince comes on and KILLS it.
Youtube is, of course, super-great; also don't miss these wonders of Western civilization:

It's the Juggernaut... BITCH!

The Parlor

... and pretty much everything on this wonderful ILM rap video YouTube thread.
Free Wakeup calls from Maria Sharpova.
Start your day by telling A-Rod to fuck off.
Day late and a dollar short, but if you haven't seen the BBC tech-geek sitcom The IT Crowd yet, Encomium has links to the entire season's worth of shows.
If you were ever into Father Ted or The Young Ones, it's worth a look; goes without saying that it's way better than any American sitcoms.
John Kricfalusi's blog makes the internet worthwhile.
Seriously. The man is a god.

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