Voices of Africa reported a while ago that Idris Elba, so inspired by the research he conducted in preparation for his role as Nelson Mandela in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, put together a concept album based on the music that the late Madiba enjoyed.
Fans of the Golden Globe award-winning actor will be aware he knows his way around the 1s and 2s. He has released three EPs under the name Driis, contributed to records by Jay Z and Pharoache Monche and has staged several one-off rap and DJ gigs.
Mi Mandela is his brand new debut album, and Mail & Guardian has been given one of the first listens, worldwide – ahead of the release later this month. The album, written and produced by Elba, features 11 uniquely curated songs featuring local and international music legends and a few that will certainly be new to many.
Last month, Elba shared in a teaser for the album that the idea of putting together an album came to him while he was in South Africa for eight months, filming the Oscar-nominated movie.
The music, he says, was part of his research. “Mandela was into his music and I wanted to understand what music he liked and in that journey I discovered the roots of South African music.”
Experiment with music
The project is what he calls an experiment with the different musical expressions you find in South Africa and making it a reality was the reason for his return to the country post-filming.
With a few of his British music-biz friends in tow – including Ben Hudson, George the Poet and Maverick Sabre – the team worked with South African talents such as Spoek Mathambo and DJ Spoko on Mi Mandela.
“Over three weeks, we had over 40 songs,” he said. The album was recorded between London, South Africa and Mali. The opening track is rousing. The Mahotella Queens’s vocals on Aero Mathata sets the right tone for what delivers on a promise to be transportive.
“And British soul singer Shaun Escoffery, who played the role of Mufasa in the London production of the Lion King lends a soulful voice that beautifully complements the rich, gospel-esque sound of the second track, So Many People.
“We’re singing freedom songs/ we are a billion-strong” is a refrain chanted by a choir, sending you straight to church, with lyrics that speak to the theme of struggle and freedom.
The inclusion of Irish singer songwriter and rapper Sabre’s raspy voice on the album with, firstly, You Give Me Love and then Home, is a treat. And you immediately want to find out more about the singer, whose vocal timbre calls to mind the young Paolo Nutini.
And then the magic fairy dust inflections of the voice of Ndebele singer and guitarist Nothembi Mkhwebane enters the track at about 1.06 seconds. Hers is an evocative, earthy and jubilant voice and there is no more apt name for this track than Home.
Awkward title track
New Musical Express reported that Mumford & Sons wrote the track but with only a watermarked audio link, and no details beyond the track listing, that remains to be verified once the album is released.
In the same article, the claim is that James Blake makes an appearance on Nothembi Jam. I don’t hear him. This is not a nuanced album with subtle references to and influences by what Elba described as South Africa’s “over 60 different tribes”; the compilation hits you full in the ears and takes you to that special place.
One minute I’m my seven-year-old self, standing in our kitchen in Natal, the comforting smell of ironing filling my nostrils, the radio box spilling out mbaqanga music while our helper sways her hips and hums along. In the next, I’m back in a shebeen eRhini, drinking quarts with friends … and then gently nudged back into the present when the North London spoken word artist George the Poet starts dishing his thoughts on social issues in uplifting lyrical verse about the power of reading, using his brain and achieving – and not having to turn to weed or drinking.
The rhythm and the pace flows seamlessly.
But the title track Mi Mandela is a little awkward for me. It’s Driis on vocals, which I wasn’t expecting. He’s rhyming (literally) about landing in Jo’burg “in my favourite jeans/ thinking about his life while I was learning all my scenes”, and ostensibly describing his experience in South Africa in verse, against a background of what sounds like a marimba.
He then breaks from the rhyming and starts talking about the time he sent Mandela a video message for his birthday. It’s an amusing story he’s shared in previous interviews – when Madiba asks who he is after the message is played, and is told, “It’s Idris Elba”, but it’s obvious the sound of crickets remain loud in Mandela’s ears in that moment.
The word for this album is “saudade”: defined as the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once bought excitement, pleasure, wellbeing, which now trigger the senses and makes one live again.
It is also defined as “the love that remains after someone is gone”. It’s a fitting tribute to the spirit of Mandela.
Tracks Thank You for Freedom and Tree (Audra Mae and Cody ChestnuTT) are already available for purchase on iTunes, and the album is available for pre-order.