Monday, March 24, 2008

Letta Mbulu - Kiliminjaro

Born and raised in Soweto, Letta Mbulu is alongside Miriam Makeba and Sibongile Khumalo one of the greatest singers that has ever waded out of South Africa's turbulent waters and made a mark on the international stage.

Having fled South Africa for New York in 1965 she quickly fell in with other exiles such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa and would grace the stage of the famed Village Gate club where a young Cannonball Adderley was so taken with her distinct style that he invited her to tour with him, which she did for the remainder of the decade.

Cannonball wasn't the only musical legend to fall under her spell and the enigmatic David Axelrod convinced Capitol that she would make a fine addition to their stable, one which at the time boasted the likes of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Lou Rawls and, of course, Cannonball Adderley. Unfortunately due to poor sales and a distinct lack of airplay due to the language barrier Letta Mbulu Sings was far from a success and she was subsequently on the verge of beng dropped from the label when David Axelrod again stepped in and convinced them to give her another chance and what emerged from those sessions was the sublime Free Soul, which for my money is some of the best work done by either David or Letta. Both Letta Mbulu Sings and Free Soul would make very welcome additions to anyone's collections and if you don't have them and you have an appreciation for soul, funk, jazz and a huge dollop of spirituality served up then you can't go wrong with either.

She then went on to record for the short-lived but much loved Chisa imprint run by Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, of which you can buy a compilation that was re-issued just over a year ago through BBE, but unfortunately Chisa ceased to exist in 1971 but from her self-titled album you can feast your ears on the glorious Mahlalela and I Need Your Love, which are both huge favourites of mine and judging by the amount of times people have come up and asked me what they are when I've played in various venues I'd wager that I'm not alone in appreciating their distinct charms.

In the years that followed Letta went on to tour with Harry Belafonte, star in a Sidney Potier film and record albums for Cannonball's Fantasy Records imprint. Her work was starting to be the true amalgamation of township pop with American R&B and she proved herself to be an utterly unique voice on what was an overcrowded marketplace of indentikit soul records. The legendary Herb Alpert jumped at the chance of signing Letta to his A&M Records label and her work There's Music In The Air made her a household name around the world and as a result people were starting to take notice of the queen of Afro-pop.

Quincy Jones then fought tooth and nail to get her to be the voice of his much vaunted Roots mini-series that even somehow made its way onto South African television at a time where if you were on the white side of the colour divide you had no idea that you were the minority, which is the most absurd thing ever but I'll save my perceptions of the blatant idiocy of the privileged back home for another post.

Kiliminjaro is probably her biggest hit and can be found on the grooves of her first record of the 80s, Sound of a Rainbow and it is this record that I thought that I'd share with you. Play it as loud as possible and take a drink of the full range of her vocal abilities.

To be honest, I don't know much about Letta's career post Sound of a Rainbow mainly due to the fact that I haven't been able to find any records of hers from this period, which is strange as normally you find the stuff produced in the 1980s/1990s and struggle for the usually superior 1970s-era cuts. I know that she was involved in the A Color Purple soundtrack and that she returned to South Africa when the hatred and injustices of apartheid were abolished in 1991. If anyone knows of what happened after this period or has any recommendations for albums of hers that I should be on the look out for then please let me know.

I fill with a sense of pride whenever I hear a Letta Mbulu track as through all the travesties and injustices perpetrated by the Nats in South Africa they weren't able to silence a soul as talented and blessed as Letta Mbulu. Viva!

Letta Mbulu - Kiliminjaro

Here she is performing Diphendule with her husband Caiphas Simenya, I'm not sure from when but it must have been in the early 1990s.

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