The Legendary George Sibanda
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George Sibanda
The Legendary George Sibanda
Sharp Wood Productions (www.sharp-wood.com)

cd cover The recordings on this CD were made between 1948 and 1952 of George Sibanda, one of the first music stars of sub-Saharan Africa. Sibanda was born in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and first recorded by the venerable Hugh Tracey. Sibanda was a true troubadour, singing with the accompaniment of his solo guitar, often in the bars of Bulawayo or further afield in Johannesburg. One can imagine Sibanda crooning away in the corner of a rowdy bar; his songs are those of migrant laborers, of miners, of distant lovers. Sibanda must have known how to manage those crowds, by the sound of these songs. His jangling guitar is always played up tempo, even when he is singing on "Kwantu" of loneliness or on "Ototsi" of thievery encountered in the cities of southern Africa at the time. "Guabi Guabi," though sung in Sindebele, might be recognizable to Western ears, as it was part of a musical review (Wait a Minim) and later recorded by Ramblin'Joe Elliot, Arlo Guthrie and Taj Mahal. As the producers point out, this is a selection of Sibanda's songs, as many are currently unavailable, such as "Chuzi Mama" which also featured in Wait a Minim.

What is most interesting in this recording is that it tells several stories at once, as the liner notes make clear. The central story might be that of the Sibanda himself, famous from South Africa to Kenya in his heyday. But the author of the liner notes, Michael Baird, admits that he could not even find a photo of the singer after placing an ad in Sibanda's hometown newspaper, the Bulawayo Chronicle. So we have instead some vintage photos of the Bulawayo Town Hall, rail station, and steam engines (which were still running in Zimbabwe in the middle 90s). His exact date of birth is not known, nor could the producers find the precise date of his death of alcohol poisoning in the late 1950s.

Despite this tragic end, the liner notes call his style "happy-go-lucky," and it seems accurate and appropriate, considering his audience and the era when he came to fame. The lyrics of the album tell stories of the industrialization of the cities of southern Africa in the middle of the last century, of train stations and airplanes, of hip urban gangsters in their fancy dress, of rowdy nights in segregated bars and of young men struggling to collect the cattle needed to pay the bride price to marry their hometown sweethearts. These are songs sung to forget one's troubles, far from the electric protest music of Sibanda's successors such as Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi.

Lastly, the album is also about the man who first recorded Sibanda, the very well-documented Hugh Tracey, a white South Rhodesian who crisscrossed Africa recording as many artists as he could find. So we have three pages dedicated to Mr. Tracey's efforts and production techniques - he apparently had no special fondness for recording engineers, saying "Either they can handle Africa but can't record, or else they can record but can't handle Africa!" Also noted is Hugh Tracey's indefatigable work habits, which resulted in the release of 210 records in his "Sound of Africa" series. So many years later, we can be thankful for the efforts of George Sibanda and Hugh Tracey, without which we would not have these historical recordings. - Craig Tower

Listen to some short excerpts

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