Album: Ukubonga [Gratitude] by Lorraine Klaasen & Mongezi Ntaka

Steve Walsh

From the white heart of Toronto, Canada, we have a collection of 13 precious folk gyms from the rich and obscure catalog of south African folk music, known as Township Music. An anthology of culture, compassion, dedication, and artistry that has a duo of beautiful human beings to thank. Lorraine Klaasen is the diva whose voice assumes total command on all the songs wonderfully recreated for this album, and her musical partner, the amazing guitarist Mongezi Ntaka whose arrangements and performances resonate and massively help in delivering these songs in a way that perfectly preserves their character and color, and simultaneously makes them accessible, approachable, and suitable for a casual day’s listening.

 The intention behind this release is a remarkable one. Both musicians are South African by heritage and have been professional musicians for a while, it was about time they embarked on this journey of bringing their homeland’s folk masterpieces more into the public perception, a body of work that’s as rich and as noble as it is underappreciated. Township music comes to us courtesy of eminent artistic souls who’ve lived through some of humanity’s darkest and least honorable hours, the South African apartheid. For such a time packed with humiliation and sorrow for almost all South African people of color, you will hear a collection of sounds entirely dominated by joy, positivity, and boundless hope, which speak volumes of the endless reserve these people have shown.

 It’s difficult to find things to say about these classics. They have readily stood the test of time and the test of character. They speak of an era of massive injustice, and they do it with radiance and panache that’s truly memorable, and for that, it seemed inappropriate that I should wear my “critic’s hat” as I listened to any piece of music from this collection. Instead, I found my focus going on the performances, the voice, and the arrangements… the delivery of classic Folk is always what makes or breaks it. On those fronts, I was faced with an album of stark honesty, simplicity, and directness. All the songs are recorded in a single take, with Klaasen’s passionate and culturally appropriate inflictions and ornamentations, along with Ntaka’s simple, warm, and resonant acoustic guitar. Overdubs were later added as needed. A massive number of instruments see their way onto these compositions, ranging from rhythmic shakers, congas, and bongos which play organic Afrobeats, all the way to ethnic flutes, fiddles, and choir vocals. With no exception, all instruments are played compassionately and are mixed in gorgeously, resulting in not a single line ever feeling like it breaks a pace or causes any kind of disruption. I can safely say that this album’s production is totally professional.

 All songs are incredibly powerful, sweet, and colorful. Again, without exception, I found this entire album flowing into my ears like pure honey, and if I had to point my fingers to a highlight or two, I’d have to go to Unamanga and Sekusile, two incredibly sweet and catchy tunes that are guaranteed to put a wide grin on any face.

 All these songs buzz with life. Music for weddings, childbirths, and celebrations of life, born out of times of extreme oppression and cruelty. It’s music that’s human and touching, and it’s been given a makeover that made it as gorgeous as ever, with performances that are at once heartfelt and entirely able and in command. Every sentence and every strum are delivered soulfully in this collection of gems from the heart of apartheid via Toronto. And it’s an essential listen that delves deeply into a rich musical tradition that’s sadly overlooked. 


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