Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Bergville Stories [Sony International, 1997]
As a South Africa-only release, the original-cast album to this drop-dead entry in Lincoln Center's boorishly overlooked South African theatre series (as amazing as the Ornettefest by me) will be sought out (try only by those who already dig mbube/iscathimiya. In the US that means Ladysmith, period--almost nothing else is in the racks. Yet mbube is the heritage of one of the most voice-crazy peoples on the planet--every Zulu is taught to sing, damn well if field recordings from labor congresses and informal competitions mean anything. So in this play, set in a besieged Soweto hostel, the actors break into song every few minutes. Not primarily singers, they aren't pure amateurs either. They know how to project and present, and writer-director Duma kaNdlovu orchestrates their flow--home pitch fluctuates from chant to chant, call-and-response patterns shift, sound effects and catchy choruses kick in just when you need them. The result is a vivid representation of the mbube I've always read about, a rougher and more male chauvinist domain than the elegant Christians of Ladysmith ever hint. A-