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Trail Blazer

by Thato Tsotetsi / 24.04.2012

Someone once said in jest that news doesn’t break, it tweets. I suppose that is somewhat true because it was on Twitter that I first heard of Zamajobe’s new album, Trail Blazer, which came out two weeks ago. Personally, I had relegated Zamajobe to the dustbin of artists that do nothing more than whet your appetite and then leave you high and dry by peaking too soon in their creativity. Having nothing else to offer else, they peddle mediocrity masquerading as “deep and alternative” riding on the authority of their previous works – insert Lauryn Hill here.

The last time I had heard about Zamajobe, it sadly had nothing to do with her music. The Sunday papers had run a story about her falling behind on her car repayments. So when I saw her at Arts on Main earlier this year, I took the half-chance to barrage her with questions about her new music. We had a brief chat about how Black Coffee fucked up a song from her second album, Ndoni Yamanzi. Alas that conversation was stopped short when her manager Sizo stepped, assured me she was busy working on a new album and ushered her away.

Back to the tweet. You can imagine how exciting it was to find out that the passing conversation with Miss Sithole wasn’t just hot air – again, enter Lauryn Hill here – and that she had actually put out some new music.

Trepidation is perhaps the best word to describe how I felt when I held Trail Blazer in my hands last Friday. I didn’t know what to expect. Ndawo Yami was a series of experiments that paid off wonderfully, resulting in commercial success and critical acclaim. Her second album Ndoni Yamanzi featured a more stripped down and understated production that had critics and fans alike wondering what direction she was going. In defense, she said Ndoni Yamanzi was an attempt to set herself apart from the many afro fusion/contemporary jazz artists that mushroomed after her debut. Here we’re talking about Wanda Baloyi, Simphiwe Dana, Lira and the like. The result had the album stalling on radio and failing to catch on with a wider audience.

Trail Blazer opens with “Mayihlome”, a song that fuses maskandi guitars with Cape Verde inspired percussion without ripping off either of the two genres. Just as you get used to her Busi Mhlongo inspired vocal delivery, you are assailed by screeching electric guitars that add a rock influence to the song. Zama doesn’t hold back on using her full range here and this sets the tone for the rest of the album.

“Wesidlakela” and “Tomorrow” sound like songs aimed at the radio; they’re world music lite with the best use of horns since the Bossa Nova bands of the mid 60s and 70s. “On Walk A Mile”, Zama showcases her jazz leanings by incorporating scat singing against a laid back beat reminiscent of both Ernie Smith and Jonathan Butler.

From then, the album really starts building to a climax. “A Re Yeng” delivers sparse lyrics and a stocatto beat that has you dreaming of meadows in rural Limpopo. On “Andina”, one of my favourite tracks, Zama again makes full use of horns and a Cuban beat makes you want to do nothing but dance. In keeping with the island rythms, the next song “Ilanga” was inspired by a trip to Jamaica.

It’s when the album gets to the 8th track, “Ngi Ngedwa”, that you are reminded that this is Zamajobe. The song is reminiscent of her musical beginnings. The haunting song makes heavy use of strings. The songstress reverts to her silky understated vocals only to belt out full throttle towards the climax of the song.

“Mhlathi” is something of a gem. Again, use of horns, this time with Latin inspired percussion, brings joy to the ears on the first listen. The stand-out song of the entire record, “Jozi” is again a fusion of Busi Mhlongo-esque vocals, tribal Cape Verde beats, horns and maskandi guitar lines. It is the “lala kini ndoda” backing the chorus that makes you want to play the song over and over.

The title Trail Blazer is fitting. What Zama does on this record, is remind the masses that she started this. Before Lira, Zahara and the rest, Zamajobe was one of the pioneers of this genre, whatever you wish to call it. This time she chose to work with a virtual unknown, Mpumi Dhlamini, producing a flawless mix of funk, jazz, afro fusion and rock imaginable. I have no doubt in my mind that like with Erik Pilani (who produced her first two albums), Mpumi Dhlamini will be sought after by the new breed of afro/jazz singers out there.

Her split from Tlale Makhene and the Sony record label, has again set Zamajobe apart from her peers as a real trail blazer for she makes this new sound, this very brave sound, her very own.

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