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V/A - Lesotho Calling: Lesiba and Sekhankula Music

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Artist: V/A

Album: Lesotho Calling: Lesiba and Sekhankula Music

Label: SWP

Review date: Jun. 14, 2007

Because the southern African nation of Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by South Africa, and because it also contains Africa's highest point – Thabana Ntlenyana – it can look like the region's nipple on a map, which is fitting, given the tiny country has provided sustenance to S.A. in the form of labor for the Witwatersrand mines. Yet, this gorgeous watershed, which sits entirely above 1000 meters, is home to the Sotho people, who play a gritty, earth-filled music as meditative as Pandit Pran Nath or Nurlanbek Nyshanov.

Zambian born percussion Michael Baird, who also operates SWP (a label perhaps best known for re-releasing 21 CDs worth of recordings by African ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey), became interested in finding out whether any lesiba players still existed after listening to Tracey's 50-year-old recordings of such musicians. This disc, a product of a trip to Lesotho last year, proves the music is alive and well. The lesiba is a long, blown mouth bow that produces a deep, woody pulse, often punctuated by breathes from the player. There are six different players featured here; their attacks vary from sparse and droning to rhythmically punctured riffs atop which a vocalist might freestyle stories rich with social commentary. Elsewhere the disc includes the music of the sekhankula, a single-string fiddle played with a small bow by sheepherders. Found all over South Africa as well, it's fashioned from a can with a curved stick jutting out, bent to keep the string, which is actually a piece of iron wire. While variations on one-string fiddles can be found from Morocco to Kenya, nothing sounds quite like the sekhankula. Samuel Tolosi, one musician featured here, persistently scrapes repeated melodic patterns that could come from nowhere else but this region of Africa. However, anyone who's ever heard Norwegian Hardanger fiddling will find something instantly familiar in the sekhankula; it sounds like two separate instruments playing in lockstep. The duo recordings here sound like small orchestras.

This is an album of hardcore folk music, often played by semi-nomadic people; however, it's clearly an indirect inspiration for the restless homemade instruments and tunes of avant-jazz eccentric Cooper-Moore. In fact, the lesiba's oinks and grunts are no doubt connected to the solo woodwind excursions of Arthur Doyle through the transcontinental underground fungus of the folk process. In fact, Lesotho Calling, with its emphasis on drone, shares a blissful hush with Taurpis Tula's stretched soundscapes or the environment-inspired Overtone singing of Tuva. Music like this then, no matter when it was recorded, is forever current. Fortunately for us, Baird has added it to an ever-expanding musical map.

By Bruce Miller

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