Sibusile Xaba – Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah

Album Review | Mushroom Hour/Capital Arts | Review by Liam Wilkinson | Stars: 4/5

Occasionally an album will come along that gets so deeply under the skin that it demands to be obsessed over and gushed over in equal measure.  It happened with Buena Vista Social Club twenty years ago, Tinariwen’s Tassili in 2011 and then Clychau Dibon, the outstanding collaboration between Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, in 2013.  This month we herald the arrival of another breathtaking “world music” release, this time from South African guitarist and singer Sibusile Xaba.  Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah is Xaba’s two-disc debut release and presents a fascinating fusion of jazz and malombo.  For the uninitiated, malombo is a traditional African healing ceremony and its music, of which Xaba is a proponent, combines hand-drumming and vocalisation with the rhythms of jazz and popular African music to create a spellbinding concoction of ruminative sounds.  Open Letter to Adoniah is minimalist in construction, but it’s this unadorned approach that lends this half of the two-disc set its infectious charm.  The majority of the disc consists of a single guitar, hand-drums from Xaba’s son Thabang and chanting vocals.  With such tracks as “Wampona”, “Swaziland” and the stunning “Sibongile: Tribute to the Mother (Reprise)” you’d be forgiven for letting yourself float a few feet off your living room carpet.  Unlearning, the other half of the set, is a more jazz-based affair with Ariel Zamonsky on double bass and Bonolo Nkoane at the drum-kit, mixing gentle bossa nova rhythms and unfettered jazz explorations on such tracks as “I Wrote It For Ziare” and “Internet Dance”.  Both sides of this impressive debut benefit from Xaba’s inventively soulful Zulu vocals and the reflections they cast on the strings of his acoustic guitar.  And whether its relaxed and meditative sounds or flights of exuberant jazz fusion that you’re looking for, this album simply will not disappoint.