Album Review: Sibusile Xaba – Unlearning / Open Letter to Adoniah [Mushroom Hour Half Hour]

Although we are supposedly perpetually infatuated with the ‘new’ in music, we seem to fall in love with tradition, in the same way that a hummingbird chooses to nest high up, like its parents did. Pirates, and those given the opportunity to mass communicate, often lie about the human species through TV and on the radio. Sibusile Xaba, instead, is from a land of tradition with provocative meaning; the sound of struggle as a way of life, amid oppression and even censorship, which he furthers. That place is South Africa, and the music has been Cape Town jazz and others, but also of Zulu guitar and warrior chanting. The continuation of this tradition is Xaba’s first and phenomenal double album, Unlearning / Open Letter to Adoniah.

The hummingbird has had a child which has grown up to meld jazz into his own expression. We hear the auteur theory in film soundtracks as a risk-taking band, close in practice to that of rock bands; as wild children of jazz, though a bit more risk-taking.

The tracks on Xaba’s albums are not the kind that makes you dance, which is apparent from the very beginning of each track. They begin slowly, but surely. The vocals are poignant, never stealing the show from the guitar, as if it’s 1968 and the world is aflame with activism (which it is) and the guitar is an engine for siren song.

Xaba’s superb guitar playing carries forth the Maskandi / Mbaqanga tradition of the KwaZulu-Natal lands where he was born. ‘Inkululeko’, from Unlearning, is phenomenal and filled with repetition, like many of the other tracks. In ‘Liyabukwa’, from Open Letter to Adoniah, we hear fragmented rhythm of the double’s album best, thoroughly measured. What’s most impressive is how engaging with postmodernity these albums are without much of a rhythm section.

“Ngisebenzela i’igane zami
I’ingane ne’gane zami”
“I’m working for my children
My children and their children”
(From: “Open Letter to Adoniah”)

The shape of great, memorable music takes time to emerge. For the artist, it comes as an epiphany; for the listener, a marvel. In other words, music that will speak to the condition of humans, of a time beautifully will come uninvited to suddenly have been familiar; the sort that one can’t believe did not exist at some point. For Xaba, this shape is guitar-led jazz, born of some sort of deep-seated conviction.