Anyone who has listened to any amount of music from Africa will quickly notice the different flavours it acquires dependent on the region it's from. Once you have become familiar with the characteristics of a region's music, it becomes easy to identify where a performer hails from simply by listening to them play. Although that has to be qualified with the proviso that the person plays music that has at least been influenced by the music from that region. If they've succumbed to becoming a part of the great melting pot that is popular culture that's a different story, but for the most part, no matter what genre they're ostensibly supposed to be playing, you can usually pick up some clues as to which part of the continent they come from.
While a great deal of the music we're hearing these days is coming from the North West of Africa and the Sub Saharan, the region which has been most consistent over the years in producing music that has reached beyond its borders has been Southern Africa, and specifically South Africa. Even during the days when the country was an international pariah due to minority rule and apartheid, the music of South Africa was making itself heard. Either through the efforts of ex-patriots like Hugh Masekela or foreigners like Paul Simon recording with local performers, we became familiar with many of the different traditions that colour South African music.
Ironically it seems like since the end of minority rule the amount of new music coming out of South Africa has slowed to a trickle. In the past few years, judging by the items I've been offered for review by most of the "world music" labels, all anybody seems to be interested in is what's happening up north. However that doesn't mean there isn't anything happening musically in South Africa, or that there isn't musical territory in that country yet to be discovered. A fact that's brought home by Lapeng Laka, the latest release from jazz guitarist Selaelo Selota now available on the Sony label.
This isn't the first recording that Selota has made that bears the influences of his home province of Limpopo or to be sung in the language of the sePedi people who live there. However for nearly the past decade he has been dedicating himself to establishing his reputation as a jazz player through study and performance. That Lapeng Laka is a return to the roots of his music is made clear through its meaning in the sePedi language -"in my house". However, like many other musicians who have begun to explore other genres of music, he's not simply content to play old tribal melodies on traditional instruments. Instead he's reached back to incorporate the traditional folk-tales of the region and its music into what he's been doing for the last number of years.
While it's all very well and good to play traditional tribal music on traditional instruments, by not allowing a culture to grow and expand it becomes stagnant. However it takes a delicate touch to manage something like this without completely ruining the original music. There have been some horrible examples of people merely sampling traditional music and welding it onto electobeat technology and making a mockery of what was once beautiful and sacred. However with a musician of the caliber and creativity of Selota, it's clear from the moment you listen to the first song on the disc that's not something you have to worry about in this case.
It's only fitting that the disc opens with the title song, "Lapeng Laka", as it opens the door to the "house" of music that Selota has built for us to listen to. His guitar is the foundation for the rest of the house, and it has all the smoothness and elegance that one has come to expect from the great jazz players. At the same time he's incorporated what are obviously rhythmic elements of the traditional music into his playing as it traces patterns you don't normally hear from jazz players. As the focal point of the music the guitar could come to dominate what we're listening to, instead it serves as the core around which everything else coalesces to form each song.
Surprisingly Selota also supplies the vocals on this disc, it's not often a jazz guitarist can sing as well as play, and his voice is more than up to the task of blending the vocal lines in with the rest of the music. With the lyrics in sePedi we obviously can't hope to understand what he's singing about specifically, but the music and the tone of his voice do manage to convey a general sense of hopefulness to all the music. According to the notes at Selota's web site a great many of the songs are derived from the folk tales of his home province, but without being able to understand the lyrics the specifics of each of those will be lost on listeners.
However, that doesn't mean that you won't take away an appreciation for the music and the culture of the Limpopo province. For Selota has worked very hard to ensure that musically the disc is as strongly flavoured as possible by traditional sePedi music while at the same time making it accessible to those who won't be familiar with its sounds or the language the songs are being sung in. It's hard to describe what the music sounds like, but there's a gentle flow to it that evoked images of rolling grasslands and horizon lines that stretch off far into the distance. The little I do know about the geography of South Africa is that there are such vistas to be found in the country and its easy to picture Limpopo as one such area.
Selaelo Selota has done the remarkable job of finding just the right balance between the traditional and the new to bring the music of his native province in South Africa to life. What makes this recording special is that he has managed to do this without seeming to sacrifice any of the music's unique regional qualities while making it accessible to a wider audience. It's been a while since we've heard a new voice from South Africa, but as this recording tells us there's still plenty that's new left to be heard from that country. With people like Selota leading the way there's reason to hope that this is just first of many new recordings that we'll hear from South Africa in the near future.