Review by Mike Adcock
Monoswezi is a five-piece band whose name refers to the countries they hail from: Mozambique, Norway, Sweden and Zimbabwe. The title of their latest album also contains a self-referential clue, Shanu being the Shona word for five which, as well as representing a head count of the band, reflects the fact that this is their fifth album.
The African input of Shanu is established from the start on "Kuwonererwa" with Zimbabwean vocalist Hope Masika accompanied solely by ensemble percussion until Hallvard Godal introduces a wash of sound from the mellotron, with Masika adding an mbira rhythmic pattern. The track makes for a promising start to an album which turns out to be something of a mixed bag.
"Tsika Dzako" (excerpt)
Monoswezi's publicity states that African music remains central to their inspiration but although this might be true of their earlier recordings the majority of tracks on Shanu have a decidedly European feel to them, both musically and in the production. Rhythmically it is Swedish drummer Erik Nylander who is in the driving seat most of the time, displaying a variety of approaches and apparently keen to give the music something of a contemporary club feel as in "Tsika Dzako" with Godal providing keyboards that take you right back to Berlin-period Eno and Bowie.
The booklet notes tell us that this is a departure from Monoswezi's earlier sound, the album being "their most adventurous to date, incorporating a more electronic approach to their musical soundscape". Multi-instrumentalist Godal (credited with playing seven instruments on the album) has chosen to give the mellotron, favoured by 60s and 70s bands from the Moody Blues to Genesis and Yes, a central role. His reasoning is that its analogue electronics, involving short tape samples, offer more scope but with a less characteristic sound than the harmonium used in earlier albums. I'm not so sure about this. The mellotron's distinctive presence, sometimes surrounding other contributions as if with a warm cellular blanket cannot help but be referential, sometimes carrying with it just a few too many associations with progressive rock for its own good.
"Where is my mbira?" (excerpt)
In "Where is my mbira?" the singer, we are told, "is yearning and looking for her heritage, for the beautiful thing that her ancestor used to have which she can't find." Unfortunately the track hardly helps in providing an answer to the question posed by the title and rather serves to illustrate the problem. Instead of the mbira being placed at the heart of things, which might have been an obvious choice but surely entirely fitting, it is placed way down in the mix with drums, guitars and keyboards again well to the fore, its appearance feeling little more than cursory decoration and slightly at odds with the predominant groove.
"We crown you Nehanda" (excerpt)
Hope Masika's vocals impress throughout, at times warmly persuasive and on "We crown you Nehada," the only track sung in English, angrily assertive, as she presents "an ode to all women who continue to fight injustice, inequality and unbalanced scales." Her mbira playing is also an asset to the band sound but not until the final track "Paya" is it allowed to really speak for itself within a more restrained and spacious production.
There are fine moments to be found on Shanu and some admirable playing, including very nice interjections from acoustic and electric guitar, with both Calu Tsemane and Putte Johander being credited. Unfortunately the production values which have been adopted for the album too often serve to mask musical subtlety in favour of a dominant drum sound and keyboards that would be far more welcome and effective if they were used more sparingly. An interesting experiment which some might find to their liking but sadly it never quite manages to add up to the sum of its parts. - Mike Adcock