South African singer Thandi has managed during a long residence in Holland to avoid the Euro-pop influences which have so denatured the unique voices of many other African expatriate artists, producing a debut recording of calm confidence and charm. Not that she doesn't have help. The band Smiles, along with other musicians, supports "Dumela" with tasteful instrumentation and, even more important, dense, complex, engaging vocals.
Dumela opens with "'n Sosso na Losso," a call to dinner, Thandi's full-bodied voice, engagingly rough in the low registers, in dialog with a soprano chorus. The title cut is a swaying a cappella greeting, Thandi trading off phrases with a mixed chorus grounded in a wonderful, booming bass voice, a whooping cry and machine-gun dialog soaring over the repeating melody. Thandi and a chorus of female voices imitate drums on "Meropa," and "Noga," the tale of a snake, begins dramatically with a male vocal chant before opening onto a loping call-response to calm drums, returning to the chant before ending. A warbling flute opens "Theledi," which finds Thandi yodeling over a dense vocal chorus which continuously changes its harmonies. "Sondela" starts dreamily with Thandi humming quietly over wind chimes before being joined by a lively mixed chant which itself mutates into a sort of skat duel between the girls and the boys, one of the longer songs on "Dumela," but so dynamic as to defy routine. A percussive single-stringed instrument sets the loping beat of "Nkulunkulu," a subtle song of strong melody enhanced by intermittent harmonies and clickings.
Dumela is a quiet recording, but it is the quiet of a whisper which entices the listener into a rich, nuanced world of African vocal music. - Jim Foley