Soweto-based band Urban Village’s sound can perhaps be best described as polyglot, for it attains its originality through a mix of languages both novel and familiar.
Describing the group’s sound in a Facebook post after encountering it at the Soweto Theatre one evening, filmmaker and producer Tshego Khanyile said: “I am feeling some Disney animation walk-in-the-forest soundtrack meets philharmonics meets some malombo meets some new age, genre-bending guitars meets some Animal Collective. Like what??? I am here for all this!”
Urban Village comprises Lerato Lichaba on guitars, Smanga Dlamini on bass, Tubatsi Moloi on flute and vocals and Xolani Mtshali on drums.
When Lichaba, a prolific sessionist and former member of bands such as Skin to Skin, Skin to Soul, Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) and others, calls the sound “indigenous music”, he is selling it short but at the same time striving for honesty.
“It’s like going back to your roots but still going forward into the future,” he says from his home in Mzimhlophe, Soweto.
On stage they are the meeting point for mbaqanga, maskandi blues, folk rock and dollops of funk. Lichaba’s vocabulary with the guitar means he can immediately evoke the kora playing of West African griots before switching to the tranquil maskandi of, say, Madala Kunene, with whom the band shared a stage at the Good Luck Bar on Friday last week.
Drummer Mtshali can anchor a beat while teasing out polyrhythms just above the surface. Bass player Dlamini is stoic but supple enough to change the feel of a song almost imperceptibly.
Moloi is the flautist and visual centre of the band. His playing is evocative in that it recalls rural idylls, but this is always disrupted by the arrangements anchored by Mtshali’s restless drumming and quick changes in time signatures. These shifts speak to transience and lives undone by migrant labour and forced removals.
Lichaba formed Urban Village while playing guitar for revivalist band BCUC.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he speaks of the band not as a collective of musicians but as a collective to subvert the existential travails of what he terms “underground” artists.
“I want to build a village for creatives, a residential area where they can come and create artworks, collaborative works, document everything because no one is taking care of artists and we need a network so we can help each other out,” says Lichaba.
“We have a team of photographers, sound engineers, and graphic designers. Whoever feels like they want to partake in the village is always more than welcome. It’s not just a band-focused mission.”
The “village”, as Lichaba speaks of it, comes across as more of a collective than a physical place.
What Lichaba truly believes in, perhaps in a way that is interminable with self-determination, is this idea of the underground, where artists can build meaningful and satisfying careers away from the glare of the media.
“The underground scene is a very healthy scene,” he says. “Number one, because the artistry is very honest and true there. We all give it our all. I travel the world but you’ll never see me on TV or hear my music on the radio. It’s not that I don’t want to be there, but the platforms where I have had to survive are not considered art enough for the media or for the masses.”
While Moloi is something of a frontman for the band, Lichaba plays the role of musical director, using his vast collection of guitars as tinctures to alter the potency and textures of the sound. Much of the sway in the music happens between their subtle interchange of energies, providing clues as to the genesis of the band.
“We didn’t all come together at once,” says Lichaba. “We started with Tubatsi and myself for about eight months.”
At the recent Fête de La Musique festival, as the band encored during an afternoon slot between Uju and Togo’s Vadou Game, the tidal, maskandiesque swirl of uBaba — a song celebrating father figures — proved an anthemic crowd favourite. The song’s genealogy owes a debt to the above-mentioned Kunene as much as to the work of Bayete and still has a timeless quality.
Another compelling song was Inkane Ebomvu, an acoustic guitar-anchored dirge that calls for unity at all costs. It showcases Moloi’s affecting vocals and precise flute skills. The song builds gradually until it reaches its apex with a towering chorus lamenting the disintegration of compassion. Both songs are featured on the band’s debut EP Bantu Art, which was released on April 27.