In Sepedi, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, “keleketla” is a phrase that refers to a response, often one given to a storyteller’s traditional opening words. Aptly-named, then, is new album Keleketla!, a collaborative effort between artists from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and beyond that speaks in candid, well-crafted reaction to present-day struggles.
As told in a 15-minute mini-documentary, the story of Keleketla! is a complex one, dependent on several connections between people, places, and organizations. It begins in Johannesburg with Keleketla! Library, a grassroots media arts project dedicated not only to keeping old lore alive, but fostering creativity in new performers. When British non-profit organization In Place of War enters the scene, they bring with them the opportunity for musicians in South Africa to work with trailblazing electronic duo Coldcut. Recording sessions both in London and in Johannesburg bring together artists from elsewhere — Tony Allen, Antibalas, Afla Sackey, the Watts Prophets, the Lani Singers — making this a truly international confluence of creativity.
The dense logistics in play behind the scenes of Keleketla! only heighten the impact of the music itself, which is explosive from the start. Alluding titularly to a stomp-based dance form originated by the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army and famously used by South African anti-apartheid protestors to reclaim physical and sonic space from oppressive security forces, “Future Toyi-Toyi” begins with the utterly recognizable polyrhythms of the late and forever great Tony Allen. He backs the powerful call-and-response vocals of Cape Town activist group Soundz of the South, driving searingly electric guitars and atmospheric synths. It’s a forward-moving firestorm of a song, the message of resistance clear even for those unfamiliar with the toyi-toyi.
A lighter, funkier sound enters the picture on “International Love Affair”, where Brooklyn’s Antibalas add warm, Afrobeat-inspired brass to a foundation of earthy percussion and Egypt 80’s Dele Sosimi on vintage-sounding keys. Nono Nkoane and Tubatsi Moloi add a final airy layer with a vocal duet that sometimes sees them throwing parts back and forth and ends with their voices melting together in soothing harmonies. Electronic beats take joyful “Shepherd Song” to the folktronica realm, vocal harmonies, and jazzy keys quick and cheerful in a contemporary celebration of heritage (a spoken introduction invokes “the world of our forefathers”).
Weighty “Freedom Groove” is one of the album’s most rewarding tracks, with the Watts Prophets themselves laying down with impassioned urgency verses that cut to the core of social strife with exacting simplicity. “Humanity / Screams to be free / But fails to see / The change of all that need be.” Even more spartan is “Crystallise”, which features rapper Yugen Blakrok’s trademark smoky delivery of fittingly cosmic visions of self over multi-wind player Tamar Osborn’s layered sax harmonics and warm synths. “My heart’s a sacred relic / Smooth, hard, and metallic / With a separate nervous system that vibrates psychedelic.”
“Broken Light” puts Nkoane and Moloi front and center once more, angelic and organic over synths and languid percussion courtesy of Thabang Tabane, an ode to imperfection. Picking up the pace is “5&1”, an emotionally dynamic piece of wordless, Malombo-influenced jazz that showcases the stalwart skill of Keleketla! bassist Gally Ngoveni and guitarist Sibusile Xaba with exquisite clarity. More spacious in structure than most pieces, this track is one with exceptional presence, something it owes at least in part to a relative lack of electronics.
In contrast, “Papua Merdeka” is another song powerful for its enhancements as well as for its messages of West Papuan independence courtesy of the Lani Singers, a husband and wife, who base their music in sacred rituals from their home community. They sing and speak here over a particularly rich composition performed by the core Keleketla! band as well as returning guests Allen, Osborn, Sosimi, and Sackey, and it makes for a haunting climax.
A final track rounds out the album: “Swift Gathering”, a psychedelic dream that features the quavering violins of Zimbabwean-British artist ESKA in an aural representation of hope. As unexpected as it is, it makes for a gentle comedown after eight tracks of non-stop adrenaline.
It must be said that this review can hardly hope to be truly comprehensive in encapsulating Keleketla! as not only a recording but an experience. This is a truly astounding album. Its foundation, an international group of musical individuals with incredible devotion to their work and their respective musical lineages, is an already unlikely one in terms of geography. The established stars that come into alignment with the Keleketla! core heighten the album’s brilliance in further unforeseen ways. To listen to it well is to become deeply engaged in its meanings, in the issues and hopes and worldviews sonically expressed by master musicians uniting in diversity. Consistently exciting, always surprising, and full of soul, it is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable releases of the year to date.