Apr 30, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 2: Major-Minor "Mbombela"

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear.

With the music I cherish most, it’s the sound that matters first and above all. I don’t just mean sound in the purely aural sense—i.e., the timbre of the instruments, the resonance of the voices, the dynamics and tone and pitch. These are not unimportant. But harmonic content is the real substance of music to me—the chords, basically, and the mysterious ways they work together to create something more than the sum of their notes. Harmony is as elemental to the meaning and potency of music as color and shape are to visual art, or time and space are to theatre and film, and it is the thing my ear, and my soul, most hungrily seeks out and clings to. The unique harmonic sound worlds of Weill and Ravel, for instance, are what put them at the top of my pantheon, as much or more than their brilliant orchestrations or compositional technique. And harmonic fluency or daring or pungency, whatever you want to call it, are what draw me, initially and decisively, into the orbit of any artist, whether it’s Joni or Jobim, Rameau or Rihanna.

All of which is preamble to attempt to explain my abiding love for “Mbombela,” the opening track on the 1965 collection An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. I happened upon this as an LP in the wake of Paul Simon’s ecstatic Graceland tour, which was arguably as important as the record itself, as it introduced his fans (including me) to two South African musical giants, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba. An Evening is misleadingly titled, as it’s not a live record and features only two duets between Belafonte and Makeba, who mostly offer reverent solo renditions of traditional tunes in Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and Swahili, backed by choral arrangements not unlike the isicathamiya later made popular by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Mbombela” is one of the duets, which means it has harmony in a more basic sense—that of two voices entwined.

The song also has an intrinsic harmonic power both delicate and searing. One key reason it stands out is in its departure from the mostly-major-key world of popular and traditional South African music. (I remember Paul Simon telling the slightly condescending but apparently true story of how guitarist Ray Phiri introduced a relative minor chord into the song “Graceland,” a rarity in South African music, in an imitation of something he’d heard in Simon’s other music.) "Mbombela" starts with an achingly subtle guitar ostenato that hovers with a ghostly glow throughout, with four chords topped by a D: G9 (essentially Dm over a G), a Csus2, G9 again, and a D major.

Over that Belafonte begins with a 7-note melody marked out mostly in fourths, at the heart of which is a very strange, almost microtonal shift from Bb, which over the G chord forms a minor-key sound, to A, over the C chord—a 6th interval that evokes C’s relative minor (Am). Sixths are famously smudgy, ambiguous chords; they were a favorite Weill’s and are a tic of Elvis Costello’s, among countless others (as I detailed in this post). Between that odd G-minor over a G9 in the guitar, slipping into a C6 (with a discordant D, or suspended 2nd, atop it), we’re already in thick harmonic territory.

When Makeba comes in, she sings a lot of fourths and fifths over Belafonte—bright, splintery intervals that catch in the ear. And then, her keening rasp complementing his duskier rasp, she both sweetens and sharpens that minor-major chord change, singing a B natural over Harry’s D, for a sunny major G chord, only to drop to the G over his Bb, a passing minor cloud, but oh what a mark it leaves. Her final slide down to an F gives us a glimpse of G7, but then hangs over the next chord, creating the sound of a C11 (or, more precisely, with Belafonte’s A and the D suspended over the C in the guitar part, something like a D-minor chord over a C). That is some seriously stacked harmony! And damn if it doesn’t wound the ear in the best possible way.

I knew that “Mbombela” meant “Train Song,” because the record sleeve said so and you can hear it plainly in the chugging rhythms and the “Shuku, shuku, shuku” refrain and the winding accordion solo—this is literally a “choo choo” song. But it’s not a cheery railroad chanty but a version of “Wenyuk’umbombela,” a protest song by Welcome Duru about the trains that carried migrant workers long distances to work in apartheid South Africa. And while I discovered many other lovely renditions online, none has quite the intoxicating chord voicings of the Belafonte/Makeba version. My research tells me I should attribute these to arranger Jonas Gwangwa, who clearly resonated with the aching melancholy of the song’s lament, “The train is departing,” and found an ideal musical—which is to say a harmonic—expression for it.

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