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When I was fifteen, I visited the local public library and borrowed a very scratchy 1960s recording of Miriam Makeba singing in Xhosa. The last track -- some sort of traditional courting/love song -- was so infectious that I sang it around the house for days; my inability to speak, much less sing, Xhosa didn't stop me. Mabulu's Karimbo is just as compelling, if not more so, even though all of the lyrics are sung in Shangana, Ronga and Portuguese. Mabulu means "dialogue" in Shangana, and even if the listener can't understand the words, the music will speak to you, just as the group's name promises to do. Even better, Mabulu speaks a universal language that most North Americans should recognize: hip-hop.

Mabulu is a group project of traditional Mozambiquan musicians and younger, untried Mozambiquan rappers. Some dancehall ragga and the pop stylings of a young soprano, Chonyl, are thrown in for texture on certain tracks. The traditional Mozambiquan rhythm, Marrabenta (means "broken") is represented by the 63 year-old master of the art, Lisboa Matavel, whose influence on Mozambiquan musical culture is so deep that a city section of Maputo (Mozambique's capital) is named after him. The rapper, Chiquito, had never recorded before, was mainly an unknown before this release, and is only 22 years old. Since Mozambique's culture has been somewhat fragmented since the civil wars of the '90s, the older and newer factions of musical culture had never before united, and knew very little of each other's styles. Therefore, when their voices are united on Karimbo, you are hearing something truly revolutionary. Aside from the cultural ground being broken here, which is amazing enough in its own right, the album is just plain catchy. The musicianship is stellar. All of the voices harmonize perfectly, and the rounded tones of the guitar recall sounds you have heard in Simon's Graceland. The first track, "N'Twananu", is probably most representative of all the styles, as it features all the artists blending together. Chonyl shines with her sugary vocals in "Shitaratwini (Dancing)", whose lyrics are just as sweetly themed as her voice ("This beautiful rhythm/ This dance/ Will initiate our conversation"). "N'Dambi (Flood)", the greatest track in a sea of great tracks, is unbelievable not merely because of its short rhythmic cycles and jazzy saxophone, but also because the music was written as the artists were laying down the tracks. They were inspired by the terrible floods that hampered the CD's recording, ripped the roof off their studio and left the entire country awash. The final track, the traditional "Ngoma Macandju (Cashew)", includes the call-and-response of ragga toaster Mr. Arssen, who gives the song a definite Caribbean lilt.

Karimbo's creation may be more important for the musicians, and from a wider scope for Mozambique, than its widespread distribution will ever be. This music is too good, though, to be ignored, and I hope it isn't. You might not understand the lyrics, but some music doesn't really have to be comprehended so much as felt. It would be hard to imagine someone not enjoying this disc, for even lyric-driven fans will find something to love in Karimbo.

-- Jenn Sikes
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