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Kulture Noir

by Dave Durbach / 25.08.2010

If ever there was a woman who marched to her own beat, it’s this one. With her regal sense of style, genre-defying music and steady refusal to bow to trends, Simphiwe Dana has balanced sales, SAMAs and street cred to rise above her many contemporaries in a relatively short space of time.

Her long-awaited third album has just hit the shelves. While most singers would be content to resort to drum machines and studio gimmicks, Dana’s talent as a songwriter, producer and designer have seen her maintain tight control over her work. On Kulture Noir she makes use of an array of top session musos, drawing on the expertise of three different producers: her usual right hand man Thapelo Khomo (from Stimela), as well as Mozambiquan Moreira Chonguica and Nigerian “Afro-Juju” guitarist Kunle Ayo. Grammy-winning American producer Gordon “Commissioner” Williams and DJ Awadi from Senegalese hip hop outfit Positive Black Soul were also roped in. Despite this variety of influences, the album retains a sense of cohesion, albeit one that bares little semblance to anything else you might have heard before.

The album title is apparently a reference to the two most widely spoken languages in Africa, English and French, the combination of two colonialisms, so to speak, into something new: Kulture Noir (Black Culture).

Simphiwe Dana

The album is a 12-track journey that blends the raw traditional sounds of her childhood in rural Eastern Cape with more international neo-soul and jazz sounds. Dana’s versatile voice recalls not only that to which she is most often compared, Miriam Makeba, but also a host of others – Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu (“Mayine”), Bjork (“Ingoma ka Maiane”), Cat Power, even Inge Beckmann. Comparisons in this case are largely futile, however. Simphiwe Dana is no one but herself.

The highlight of the album is “Fela’s Azania”. Few local musicians, with the exception of 70s era Hugh Masekela, have had the balls to explore the complex grooves of Afrobeat. Dana pays tribute to one of her heroes, and arguably Africa’s greatest musical force, Fela Anikulapo Kuti – but instead of being content to merely imitate, she manages to mould the sound to suit her own ends.

The two-part “Ndim Iqhawe” (I’m a hero), the album’s first single “Ndimi nawe” (You and I) and the acoustic guitar and flute-driven “Mayine” (Let it Rain) are other tracks showcasing Dana at her best.

Despite the number of musicians brought on board, the sound is never cluttered, and Dana’s vocals always take centre stage. Liberal use of acoustic string and wind instruments, backing vocals, and minimal emphasis on drums or programmed beats, give the entire album a carefree, meandering quality, rare in these days of ubiquitous programmed beats.

With 6 SAMAs already under her belt for her first two albums, expect Kulture Noir to add to Ms Dana’s collection, and cement her reputation as Msanzi’s foremost lady of song.

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