Mango Groove Bangs the Drum!
By Diane Coetzer
Fourteen years after their last full studio album Mango Groove return with a scorching new album that effortlessly reclaims the band’s position as South Africa’s leading crossover act.
Jubilantly titled ‘Bang The Drum’, the 16 track offering clocks in at close to 70 minutes, delivering a listening experience that is quintessentially Mango Groove, dialed up to the 21st century with ease.
Ask the band to describe the music on ‘Bang The Drum’ and they’ll tell you that they have aimed to recapture “that unique Mango Groove sound that has captured the hearts of so many South Africans but with all the freshness and energy that is Pure Post-Millennial World Pop”.
Take one listen to the songs and it’s clear that this description is bang on!
Album opener and title track ‘Bang The Drum’, is an exuberant song that Mango Groove founding member, songwriter and bassplayer John Leyden describes as “a real sort of mbaqanga thrash-punk hybrid”. He’s spot on – as is the band, which sounds tighter than ever, the playing of the musicians only adding to the propulsive energy of what is possibly 2009’s most infectiously upbeat track. In particular, the contribution of penny whistle player and saxophonist Mduduzi Magwaza adds immeasurably to the distinctive Mango Groove sound that underpins this hit-track in the making.
What’s also evident is how instantly recognisable singer Claire Johnston’s vocals are. Johnston’s power-packed but always easily accessible voice has always been among Mango Groove’s most potent calling cards, and she’s on fire throughout the 16-track Bang The Drum – the decade-plus distance between this album and the 1996 album ‘Eat A Mango’ showing no sign of affecting Johnston’s distinctive and beautiful voice.
But what has always made Mango Groove such a compelling act is the unique combination of Johnston’s voice with musicians and multiple backing vocalists on songs that merge beloved South African music styles – among them Marabi, Jive and Kwela – with pop.
This time around the list of creative talents working alongside Leyden, Johnston and Magwaza include longtime group members and collaborators and some newcomers as well.
With Johnston on vocals, Magwaza on penny whistle and sax and Leyden on bass are Harold Wynkwardt (keys), Sydney Mavundla (trumpet), Mauritz Lotz (guitar), Neill Ettridge (drums), Percy Mbonani (tenor sax), Godfrey Mgcina (percussion), Themba Mokoena (guitar), Banza Kgasoane (trumpet) Brendan Ross (sax), Lorraine Shannon (keys), Miguel Loureiro (percussion) and Vanessa Coetzee (Cello). The quintessentially Mango Groove backing vocals are provided by Beaulah Hashe, Marilyn Nokwe, Ayanda Nhlangothi, Khanyo Maphumulo, Siziwe Ngema, Nomfundo Dlamini and Sipho Nxumalo.
It’s a heady combination, made all the more astonishing by Leyden’s astute production that allows the clarity of the instruments and vocals to take centrestage. Of course, even the most brilliant combination of singers and players would battle without the right material to work with – and in coming up with a raft of songs to match this worldclass group, the album’s songwriters have done a sterling job.With Leyden, Johnston and Magwaza at the core of the songwriting team, the group has stuck for the most part with the key writing team that generated all the familiar Mango songs from earlier albums.
Returning to Mango’s songwriting roots has proved an inspired move.
Songs like “Summer Rain”, “Give It (All Day, All Night)”, “This Is Not A Party”, “Everyone’s Dancing”, and “Hey!” simply sparkle with iridescent energy that is bound to get audiences on their feet and provide a welcome positivity to music lovers who’ve faced their fair share of challenges in the past year. Longtime Mango Groove fans will be heartened to know that ‘Bang The Drum’ also features its fair share of ballads – among them “My Blue Ocean”, ‘’Belong’’ and ‘’Lay Down Your Heart’’ – which will easily capture the heart of listeners with their emotion and elegant simplicity.
With so many stunning songs in the mix, it’s impossible to choose a favourite, though fans will certainly be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding just the right song to love.
Indeed, it’s for their hundreds of thousands of fans that Mango Groove have so lovingly created ‘Bang The Drum’. That, and the urge to get creating again that the band found impossible to ignore.
Says Leyden, ‘’While Mango Groove has always been a working group through the last few years, we equally all took time to explore other creative avenues. The decision to record an all new album was more than anything a purely creative decision: everything felt right, the writing felt really strong, the identity felt strong, and we had all the benefit of having stepped back from Mango for a while. I must say, the project has felt really great, a bit like ‘’coming home’’ after a few years away!’’
Johnston agrees: ‘’I feel that all our experiences of the last few years have fed positively into the new release. We have felt absolutely free to express ourselves, and to be true to the distinctive Mango Groove identity. Sometimes you’ve got to walk away from something in order to come back to it: to appreciate if for what it was and what it still can be.’’
And Magwaza hits it on the head when he points to the fact, that in the eyes of many, Mango Groove simply never went away. ‘’We have also been so lucky to have had such consistent and amazing support from the public and media through the years, even without new releases. The signs were all there for us, and all the right factors fell into place,” the penny whistle player confides.
The final piece of the puzzle came with the decision to work with EMI in releasing ‘Bang The Drum’.
‘’We thought long and hard about our choice of a label partner for this project, and looked carefully at various options before making a commitment,” Leyden reveals. “The decision to go with EMI seemed right on so many level: It’s a great team of people, with a lot of passion and input, and they have been hugely helpful in all stages of the project. We were given absolute financial and production freedom to pursue the project as we saw it, and there are fantastic marketing and distribution commitments, with all the real muscle that a major label brings to the party. We want to come out shouting on this release!’’
Adds Irving Schlosberg, EMI South Africa MD, ‘’The new album from Mango Groove will be one of the most eagerly sought after recordings in South Africa this year. We have been able to capture the terrific song writing skills of John, Claire and Mduduzi in a sound that is distinctively Mango. It’s current, with a nice edge and is a great tribute to a band that will always have a place in the hearts of all South Africans. The production is superb and combines Marabi, Jive, Kwela and penny whistle and when coupled with Claire’s incredible vocal talents, it’s simply a great pop record. This is the album that will have everyone up and dancing as South Africa takes centre stage in the hottest Soccer tournament in the World, come 2010’’
Also adding to the warmth, familiarity and textures of ‘Bang The Drum’ is the fact that it was recorded and mixed at Audio Lab studios in Johannesburg, the studio where the first two, multi-platinum Mango Groove albums (‘Mango Groove’ and ‘Home Talk’) were recorded.
As Leyden puts it, “It was such a pleasure to be back in the Audio Lab environment: very familiar, and with a lot of good karma flying around. This is very much a ‘’Back to Basics’’ album: real music, simple songs, lots of live energy and above all a celebration of our South African influences in all their eclectic glory. Ironically, in my view, the pre-transition years in South Africa (including the cultural boycott) did make SA artist ‘’look inwards’’ in a good way, and in a way that celebrated South African music in all its unique forms. I really believe that SA artists in all genres are back there now: celebrating our uniqueness, not looking ‘’outwards’’ in a wannabe way, and really showcasing what is so special and unique about our country. I really believe that SA music has a lot to offer the world, but in its own terms, and using our own distinctive South African influences and experiences.’’
And, truthfully, none do it with such flair, accomplishment and passion as Mango Groove, back banging their unique drum all over again!
Bang the Drum' song-by-song
‘’Bang the Drum’’
‘’A real sort of mbaqanga thrash-punk hybrid: The song takes us back to the earlier ’60’s styles of SA greats, but it’s all mashed up in a lot of noise and drumming! Bang the drum, fly the flag, fight the fight, party the party!’’
‘’We’ve always loved the Havana Swingsters version of ‘’Malayisha’’, and it married so well to ‘’Pretty’’ that we ran with it. We really love the silly lyrics on the track, and had great fun with the ridiculous rhyming. The song is about that Perfect Person who is actually quite self-obsessed and who really starts to get up your nose after a while’’
‘’I wrote this song as an instrumental and at the demo stage a couple of us yelled ‘’Hey’’ in the right places. The word stuck, and we wrote the words from there. Check out the signature gumboots!’’
Claire: ‘’Some pure fun on our part. ‘’It’s OK’’ is such a grand old cliché, so we enjoyed writing up on some potential SA sticky situations, in the face of which one simply has to become philosophical, in that very South African way. Far from it being a palliative platitude, we like the idea that ‘’It’s OK’’ becomes a philosophical call to arms!’’
‘’My Blue Ocean’’
‘’Claire and I wrote this quite late in the writing sessions: We loved the phrase, and we loved the notion of someone in your life (whether they are still with you or not) who somehow always brings you back to yourself.’’
‘’We always had a picture in our own heads with this one, of an old dance hall, and two people who recapture a magic they once had. The song is full retro-soaked horns and guitars, and we really relished the nostalgia.’’
‘’All About Love’’
‘’ I wrote this as an instrumental, and then John and Claire added some words and melodies. I love the simplicity of the song: the penny whistle lines are pure ‘50’s, while the lyrics almost have an old Country feel.’’
‘’This is Not a Party’’
‘’A nice, sardonic song that we wrestled a lot with, and that ended up as a bizarre mixture of marabi horns, a Swinging Safari-like penny whistle line, a strange Shangaan guitar chorus-line and a healthy dollop of ‘80’s rock: Get your head around that one! A couple of people who first heard it thought the line was ‘’This is not Apartheid’’, which really tickled us…it adds a whole new dimension to ‘’to the left, to the right’’, and to the ‘’party’’ one is referring to! Seriously, though, it’s above all about having a good time, and making your own party if required!’’
Joburg-based as we are, there is something so incredible about the first Summer rains that fall a few weeks after the (equally amazing but stark) Highveld winter. The song became a metaphor for missing home.
‘’I’m not sure where this one came from, to be honest, but we put it down quite late in the recording process, and loved the sparseness of the arrangement. I liked the idea of a court interpreter (‘’Utolika’’) who is brought in to deal with all the African languages that one might hear on any day in SA’’
‘’Give It (All Day, All Night)’’
‘’The 2010 World Cup’’ is such a huge thing for South Africa and for Africa as a whole that we absolutely had to write a song about it! Even more so, once we tried a sample that was actually in tune with the track (by sheer chance), we took it further and added a stadium of the dreaded vuvuzelas! We wanted the song to have a tropical, pan-African, ‘’poolside’’ feel to it, so we went to town on it with percussion, loads of poly-rhythms and layers of high-life guitars, all underpinned by a seriously growling, Mbaquanga bass line. Topping it all, there’s a real ‘50’s, Doris Day feel to the vocal, which gave us a good, warm feeling’’
‘’A Life in One Day’’
‘’I love the notion of a memory that is so evocative and so deeply etched in you that you would trade almost anything to relive it. Kevin (Botha) came up with the idea of ‘’a life in one day’’ and we gave it a sun-soaked, ‘’stranger on the beach’’, high life twist.’’
‘’We have great memories of shows in Zimbabwe, and it is such a beautiful country. The events unfolding over the last few years in that country have really saddened us, and on top of that we were terribly shaken by the horrifying xenophobic violence that gripped our own country last year. Sadness aside, though, this is a celebratory, Africanised samba, and ‘’Harare’’ is such a gloriously phonetic word!’’
Dollops of retro, again: In John’s words:
‘’This was very ‘40’s and ‘50’s influenced for us: the brushes, the doo-wops, the Les Paul guitar-style and the ‘’up close’’ vocal. The combination of Claire’s vocal with Mduduzi’s penny whistle melodically meandering in the background is also a very affectionate reference to a couple of old Miriam Makeba/Spokes Mashiane collaborations from the early Skylarks years’’
‘’Lay Down Your Heart (Bagamoyo)’’
‘’I was always gripped by the story of Bagamoyo, a beautiful town on the Tanzanian coast, whose name in Swahili means ‘’lay down (rest) your heart’’. The town was a notorious slave market in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was said that once slaves caught sight of the sea, they gave up hope, and opted to leave their hearts in Africa. I wrote the song as a love song, but it is a love song from a continent to a person: ‘’I left you in sadness and pain, but in dreams I return to you in joy’’
Claire:‘’This is one of my favourite tracks on the album. More than anything, it is a song about identity: making sense of being South African, wherever you are in the world. On the one hand, something so potentially painful, uncertain and complicated, but on the other hand something so gloriously simple’’
|John and Claire catch their breath at Audiolab Studios in Johannesburg, July 2009 (pic courtesy Andy Stead)|
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