The Design Train
Urban Village – A great place to visit!
a glimpse into the soul of Soweto
I am so excited to share a new find with you today. Thanks to a social heads-up from our friends at Rootspring Music I have finally visited Urban Village. Although they only released their first album last month, this quartet of outstanding musicians has been around for a while. Sometimes there is a dire lack of information available about some of our new local artists; not so Urban Village. I happily found enough articles and interviews to keep the researcher in me smiling, and their full catalogue of past EP releases on Spotify and YouTube to keep my ears happy. The only problem I have had is choosing only three songs to share for today’s feature. They are all so good.
So who is Urban Village and what makes them so special? To call what Lerato Lichaba (guitars), Smanga Dlamini (bass), Tubatsi Moloi (flute and vocals) and Xolani Mtshali (drums) create ‘Indigenous Music’ is selling their sound short. Although they honour some of the great African sounds and nods to the musicians that created them, Urban Village goes beyond the norm with a fusion of mbaqanga, maskandi blues, folk-rock and a large helping of jazz and funk. As was quoted in the Mail & Guardian article, it’s like going back to your roots but still going forward into the future.
Financial Times described the new album, Udondolo, as a love song both to their hometown of Soweto and to the music that has flowed through it for decades, pervasively but subtly modernised to just the right side of pastiche. They’ve hit the nail of the head, but I think one of the best descriptions of the band’s sound I have seen is from the filmmaker and producer Tshego Khanyile, who after a live show posted on his Facebook page, “I am feeling some Disney animation walk-in-the-forest soundtrack meets philharmonics meets some malombo meets some new age, genre-bending guitars meets some Animal Collective. Like what??? I am here for all this!”
Enough of what others said, let’s take a listen. I’m starting with a song that is all about the importance of greeting all people, even strangers. Madume is a Sotho greeting and shows respect and unity. I live close to Lesotho and this practice of greeting has spilt into all cultures. In our little town we greet everyone we pass on our daily travels. After 17-years of living here it has become second nature but causes some raised eyebrows amongst those unfamiliar with our local customs!
This clip was shot in the Labomatic Studios in Paris. Be prepared to be amazed.
Lerato Lichaba is the man instrumental in forming Urban Village. As an already seasoned musician and known for his part in groups like Skin to Skin and BCUC, he was inspired to start mixing old school maskandi and other styles he had been exposed to from the homelands and rural areas to create something completely new. This resulted in club jam sessions and the gravitating of a few like-minded musicians to the embryonic Urban Village.
French label, #NoFormat recognised the unique talents of the band and made them their first South African signing. As such, they were invited to play a series of dates in Paris, including a date at the renowned Cafe de la Danse where they blew the audience away with their energy. I have noticed on Spotify that Urban Village’s main listenership is from France, probably because of this very reason.
Lichaba’s big dream is nearly as large as his talent, as he told Mail & Guardian; “I want to build a village for creatives, a residential area where they can come and create artworks, collaborative works, document everything because no one is taking care of artists and we need a network so we can help each other out. We have a team of photographers, sound engineers, and graphic designers. Whoever feels like they want to partake in the village is always more than welcome. It’s not just a band-focused mission.” At the moment the village is not so much a physical place as a collective, but is attracting residents.
Although Lichaba is the founder, it is flautist/vocalist Tubatsi Moloi who takes centre stage. The interplay between the instruments shows the complete understanding that the members have for each other. While Lichaba sets the tone and texture, Moloi weaves an elevated tapestry of melody, perfectly anchored by the drums of Xolani Mtshali and the precise bass of Smanga Dlamini. They specialise in taking the listener through a range of tempos, rhythms and styles, sometimes all in one song – and it is never jarring.
Time for another track. Ubaba is a special song that explores the importance of the role played in the family and community by South African fathers and uncles. In village life, the term Elders has little to do with age, but wisdom and the goal of any man is to be an elder in his community. If you read my articles about local artists you will see that Elders and the Ancestors are common themes.
The video was shot by one of the Urban Village ‘residents’, Justice Muhheli, who has captured a side of family life that is both touching and powerful. Enjoy.
On the name Urban Village, Lerato explained to PanAfricanMusic, “Most of the people who live in the city have migrated from their homelands to look for a better life. Our music is about this new culture brewing around Johannesburg. But behind the concept, the main aim is to literally achieve an urban village.”
Today’s closing song is representative of the Urban Village manifesto. Sakhisizwe means ‘building a nation’ and is a call for a place ‘where every soul is as one’. The song speaks of the ‘young Urban Village generation consulting the Ancients to rediscover coherence, and trace a new and luminous path forwards and to build a new Nation together’. This is more than just a plea for South Africa or even pan-Africa, but full planetary unity.
This unity begins at home in the band where the creative process is shared by all. “Someone comes with a concept and then we all sit and create a language, because everyone is from a different language and we have been brought here to speak one language”, Litchaba told PAM. “The album (and band) is grounded in the communalism of village life and the philosophy of Ubuntu, the belief that a person is a person because of other people”.
2020 was challenging for all musicians, and Urban Village took full advantage of streaming technology, the highlight being performing at the WOMEX online festival. They were fortunate enough to find a studio that was open during the COVID lockdowns to be able to put their set together but found the experience strange without live feedback to judge how they were connecting with the audience. I don’t think they need have worried too much.
Apple Music has recently chosen Urban Village for the Apple Music New Artist Spotlight campaign, an honour that has helped boost the global careers of numerous musicians. In an interview with Apple, Xolani Mtshali said “It’s of high significance to be chosen by a colossal streaming platform like Apple Music. This is our debut album, so having the spotlight on us gives us visibility on a global market and this is great for business”. Hopefully, this will speed up the inevitable, and see Urban Village become a drawcard at international World Music festivals.
I hope you enjoyed going local with me again. This is a proudly South African collective with a big future,
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by The Design Train to support Loving the Music’s blog site, Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021