Hailing from a border town in Zimbabwe, Mokoomba is known both at home and abroad as a group of rising stars. The band’s previous releases have been heavy on fusion, mixing rock and dance music with traditional Zimbabwean sounds, garnering praise, awards, and a good number of dub remixes.
Not so on Mokoomba’s latest. Named for a word that means “mother’s love” in Tonga, one of the first languages ever spoken in the Zambezi Valley, Luyando sees the group finding its roots with more straightforward acoustic sounds in an affectionate tribute to home. Every track feels like a team effort, with strong vocal harmonies and rapid-fire drums often dominating, accompanied by blissful guitar. Stripped down to these bare essentials, Luyando almost feels like an intimate studio session. Mokoomba unplugged.
Established fans may be shocked at the outset, but the change in technique works out well. These sounds are authentic ones to Mokoomba, and there’s an extra touch of warmth to the whole album — it sounds organic, each song made of elements that grow from each other, blossoming together.
The album begins with “Mokole”, a midtempo piece spiked with hints of soukous. Dedicated to the life-giving Victoria Falls, it ends with the line “Give me some water to drink.” As drought and flood alternately ravage Zimbabwe, the message and Mokoomba’s collective worries and hopes for the region are clear. Emotions stay high throughout the album, with songs like “Kulindiswe” and “Luyando” recalling home and family with a rosy nostalgia.
Several of the songs are pulled from tradition and arranged by members of Mokoomba; “Kumukanda” and “Vimbe” offer glimpses into the initiation rituals of youth in the Luvale group, otherwise kept secret from those not going through the process. Grieving song “Kambowa” pulls in enough backing voices to evoke the feeling of a large-scale funeral ritual, and melodic “Mabemba” focuses on the day-to-day events of village life, the intertwined relationship between every member of the community.
At the end, Mokoomba emulates Ladysmith Black Mambazo with “Nyaradzo”, an a cappella track sung in the Mbube style. Unaccompanied, the singers of Mokoomba are nothing but soulful. Going sans instruments can be a bold move for a band known for dance beats, but Mokoomba has the skill for it, and the song rises to the top, ending Luyando on a high note.
In a nation whose popular music scene has been devastated in the past by deaths from AIDS, Mokoomba has taken on the heavy burden of putting Zimbabwean music back into the spotlight. The group has barely started at this point, only two full albums in so far, and already, it has touched on everything from modern pop music to retro Congolese rumba to classic cultural traditions and back again. It may not have the same youthful vibes and carefree grooves of Rising Tide, but it proves that Mokoomba has grown in the past five years, and whether the group goes back to a more high-energy sound in the future or stays here at its source, Mokoomba does its country’s music scene proud.