No. 4 on Time Shift – Africa-style Trip-Hop
“The Veld” is a song that expresses my nostalgia for the veld (or veldt) of South Africa – the wide open, wild landscapes of the interior of the country. There are many types of veld: the bushveld, the highveld, the lowveld, and so on, and my favourite, the sandveld. When I wrote this I was trying to the slowness, peacefulness, remoteness, and wildness that you feel when you are there, and by yourself. The silence literally rings in your ears.
I’ve never tried to write a song in the style of the music of my country of birth, mainly because there’s so much of it I didn’t know where to start. Eventually I went with what I remember, as simple as that. I hope that any South Africans who listen to this will recognize the origins of the sound. It’s a sound that yanks at my heart-strings.
The Sound of South Africa
I wanted to give the sound a typical South African flavour, so I incorporated the harmonies, scales, and rhythms of the polyphonic traditional music of the Xhosa and Zulu people of South Africa. In polyphonic music, the polyrhythmic structure can consists of a beat of triplets (3/3), alternating with 4/4 beats. (Ultimately, it gets close to classic British Trip-hop.) Polyphonic South African music usually has ensemble voices and call-and-response vocals. Instruments include the kalimba (finger harp), marimba, drums, percussion like shakers, and the accordion.
Isicathamiya and mbube styles
A prominent type of traditional Xhosa singing is Isicathamiya, which you can hear on the albums of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It is a type of slow choral singing dominated by harmonic chords. The name of the style is derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means walking softly, or tread carefully. This is why I chose to give the song a slow tempo, and a relaxed swing rhythm.
Isicathamiya is different to the louder, faster and more anthemic style of a capella singing, called mbube, meaning lion. The name comes from the song Mbube, created in 1939 by Solomon Linda when he was in a group called Evening Birds. Mbube eventually became the smash hit and classic that everyone knows as The Lion Sleeps Tonight. That song is in mbube style (obviously), and so are parts of this song of mine.
If you listen to the first recording of Mbube by Linda, you’ll hear that they are not singing “wimoweh” in the chorus, as most recording artists who covered the song did, but “mbube” [/m’mé-buh-beh/] – lion!
If you want to hear how this type of music sounds in the hands of experts, listen to anything recorded by Johnny Clegg and Juluka (and Savuka), the entire oeuvre of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the album Graceland by Paul Simon. I would have to say that the music of Johnny Clegg, may he rest in peace, is the soundtrack of my life in South Africa. Other great South African recording artists are the magnificent Hugh Masekela, the fascinating Abdullah Ibrahim, and the divine Miriam Makeba.
When I hear this music, I think: “Home” – though of course, it hasn’t been for many, many years.
Do the African Stroll
The song is at a quite slow 100 bpm. The idea was to write a piece with that slow walking pace that you can hear on most of the songs of Johnny Clegg and in Isicathamiya. It’s called the African Stroll actually. It’s a thing. You can see it everywhere in South Africa when people walk in this slow, relaxed way.
My sort of rain
I also wanted to depict the rain on the veld. South Africa is semi-arid, especially the sandveld. It’s part desert, and when it rains, it is wonderful. When I was a child, we didn’t stay inside when it rained. We ran outside and enjoyed it, and got soaked. I expressed that in the refrain with the quick marimbas and the wild-sounding kalimbas.
Toto wrote the hit song The Rains in Africa in 1982. They never actually experienced the rain falling “down in Africa” but wrote the song, with its clichéd lyrics, after watching a documentary on Africa on TV. “Africa” – yes, it’s a biiiiig continent, but all the countries and peoples are all the same to many non-Africans. However, the idea of the blessing that the long-awaited rain bestows, is as valid today as it was then. This song is my version of that idea.