Tendai “Baba” Maraire is one half of Shabazz Palaces, the Seattle duo that dropped the best, most surprising hip-hop record of 2011. In those songs, you could hear the influences of all kinds of music—old school hip-hop, electronica, American pop—but there is also a huge debt paid to African music. Maraire himself was born to Zimbabwean parents, and his father was an ethnomusicologist and one of the great musicians known in Zimbabwe. On his first solo record, Wona Baba Maraire, Maraire tries to continue his father’s legacy with a collection of Zimbabwean music.
The set is a lively and heartfelt collection. Voices harmonize and interweave with each other while percussion lays down intricate beats behind them. While this may be Maraire’s album, it feels like the sound of a huge group, like the loose yet focused collaboration of many friends. The songs are sung almost entirely in the Shona language, and you can feel Maraire paying homage not only to his father but to the country of Zimbabwe as a whole. Songs like “Rhodzi”—about the struggle against British colonist Cecil Rhodes—is filled with voices mourning bloodshed, and yet they sound strong and determined. The song grows in bright energy, never slipping into dirge. “Matambudziko” pays a similar tribute to lives lost in the struggle, and while it is a bit more somber than “Rhodzi”, it still avoids despair as the voices sing together to honor sacrifice.
On the other hand, you have a song like “Simukai Muwane”—a wedding song—that sounds entirely beautiful, worry free and full of a convincing love. The spoken-word “Luchea” is also a love song, and it tells a linear story of finding love with choruses coming in to affirm that feeling. The instrumentation here (built mostly around voice and Maraire’s mbira, a traditional African instrument) kicks up an impressive dust, creating music that is both intricate and spacious, approachable in its structure yet full of mysterious holes. This use of space leaves room for the songs to complicate these emotions: Loss is imbued with honor; love holds onto a distant shadow of worry; but through it all, the songs aim for light, and more often than not get to it.
Though this is, for the most part, traditional Zimbabwean music, Maraire does try to infuse it with modern Western flourishes. Here and there, you can hear the hiss and clatter that defined Shabazz Palaces songs. It takes a back seat to the vocals and percussion, but you can feel Maraire creating a conversation between his musical past and his musical present. If he privileges tradition here, he doesn’t shy away from subtle attempts at innovation. The light touch—an electronic scuff here, a strange mix of drums here—goes a long way.
However, the most obvious modern touch (the sometimes auto-tuned vocals) feels ham-handed. The voices here are strong and unique on their own and don’t need that sort of treatment, especially when Auto-tune long ago reached its saturation point. In the end, that kind of distortion of sound feels too easy, and Wada Baba Maraire will leave you wondering what would happen if he pushed his glitchier tendencies into these songs just a bit more. The performances here are bracing in their own right, but it’s when they get scuffed up a bit by Maraire’s unique meshing of influences that they take on a life of their own, pushing past traditional music and becoming Maraire’s dynamic vision of traditional music. That this is a tuneful and compelling love letter to Zimbabwean music makes it a solid record, and one that tells us a lot about a tradition important to Maraire. Though, in the end, we may not learn quite as much about Maraire himself as we’d like.