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Simphiwe Dana, Tumi and the Soil Play at the Apollo Theater

Oct 14, 2014


 Tumi. Credit Ian Douglas for The New York Times Musicians who have emerged in South Africa since the end of apartheid, only 20 years ago, greatly respect the struggles of their elders. That was one clear message at “Africa Now!,” a triple bill of South African music on Saturday night at the Apollo Theater. The jazz musician and longtime anti-apartheid figure Hugh Masekela was the droll host for Simphiwe Dana, a singer and songwriter; Tumi, a rapper; and the Soil, an a cappella trio, all carrying messages. The concert was part of two overlapping festivals of South African music: the Apollo Theater’s “Africa Now!” and Carnegie Hall’s “Ubuntu”; it was also the opening for the World Music Institute’s fall season.

Ms. Dana began her career as a jazzier, more introspective alternative to the upbeat kwaito dance music that once dominated South African pop. Her set featured ballads that lavished attention on a voice that could coo soothingly, unfurl a tearful vibrato, get richly bluesy or rise to a tormented rasp. She drew two songs from the repertory of Miriam Makeba, South Africa’s renowned singer and symbol of freedom, performing them as improvisatory duets with her bass player (“Lakutshon Ilanga”) or guitarist (“Malaika”), taking her time.

Like Ms. Makeba, Ms. Dana is both cosmopolitan and politically active. Introducing a new song, “Firebrand,” she spoke about some of her own advocacy for attention to arts and culture; she also noted that it was derived from a Malian folk song, and its keyboard line had the inflections of a West African kora. But her current band also harked back to the plush, gospel-infused pop-jazz of the 1970s as purveyed by groups like Stuff. The best part of Ms. Dana’s set was one of her South African hits, “Ndim Nawe,” with its six-beat rhythm propelled by audience handclaps and the call-and-response harmonies of her backup singers, and her own voice sailing above it, benevolent and forthright.

Tumi, whose full name is Boitumelo Ndida Sinqumo Molekane, is a kindred spirit and sometime collaborator with socially conscious American hip-hop groups like the Roots, Dead Prez and Blackalicious. His single “Hello Hello Kitty,” which is more sung than rapped, name-drops Lauryn Hill, Nikki Giovanni, Che Guevara and Winnie Mandela. Rapping in English and singing an occasional chorus in a South African language, Tumi had briskly articulated thickets of words, observant and unsparing, about “Broke People,” cultural touchstones (“In Defense of My Art”) and the limits of religion (in “Rob the Church,” the title song of his new album). Backed by two keyboardists and a hard-hitting drummer, Tumi put across his convictions with full force.

The Soil, which opened the concert, had me wondering briefly where the electronic beat was coming from as all three singers harmonized. It was the group’s bass singer, Luphindo Ngxanga, who can sustain perfectly pitched tones while making beatbox sounds with his lips. But that feat was just a small part of the Soil’s flashy charms. The trio sang about love, gratitude, compassion and joy in three-chord and four-chord songs akin both to doo-wop and to South Africa’s Zulu choral tradition.

Inventive arrangements had the three voices pairing up in different combinations, leaping high and low, sustaining hummed chords or placing a buoyant solo line above smooth harmony. Buhle Mda could sound as perky as the young Diana Ross or as bold as the South African singer Brenda Fassie; Ntsika Fana Ngxanga sometimes paralleled her in falsetto. Playful, mock-spontaneous stage groupings and dance moves made the Soil thoroughly camera-ready, but the voices were the real show.