Letta Mbulu - Welele
Miss Letta Mbulu
The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in the producer David Axelrod, especially in relation to his groundbreaking late 60’s work on the Capitol label with Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, Henry Cain, his own ‘Songs of...’ LPs and others. Axelrod created broad, funky soundscapes which have been sampled countless times by artists like De La Soul, DJ Shadow, A Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde and others. Many of these classic albums have been reissued in whole and in compilations. One of the artists for whom Axelrod worked his magic, but never had the chart success of Adderley or Rawls was Letta Mbulu. Mbulu was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa. In the early 1960’s she toured the UK and South Africa with the company of a musical called ‘King Kong’ (I don’t know if it had anything to do with the famous gorilla, but I am intrigued...). In 1965, Mbulu (and her husband Caiphus Semanya) fled the apartheid of South Africa and immigrated to the US, joining fellow expatriates Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa (all of whom had also worked in ‘King Kong’). She worked as a singer in NY (beginning a working relationship with Cannoball Adderley that would last several years), and recorded a one-off single (with Semanya, Gwangwa and his wife) as Letta and the Safaris for Columbia (I’d love to hear that!). Mbulu and Semanya relocated to the West Coast in 1966 where she first crossed paths with Axelrod. I haven’t seen any direct reference to how they connected but I wouldn’t be surprised if Adderley (who had already been recording for Capitol for a few years) had something to do with it. Mbulu recorded her first LP with Axelrod, “Letta Mbulu Sings” in 1967. Today’s track is from her second LP, 1968’s ‘Free Soul”. Although it involved a very small group of artists, you shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the fusion of South African sounds with American R&B that was happening in the mid-60’s. Masekela’s mid-60’s LPs for MGM were in a more “straight ahead” jazz vein, but his recordings for the Uni and Chisa labels, especially the huge hit ‘Grazing In The Grass’ (written by another South African, Philemon Hou), Miriam Makeba’s ‘Pata Pata’ (both ‘Grazing...’ and ‘Pata Pata’ spawned countless covers), and lesser known recordings by Mbulu and Gwangwa (who recorded for a number of labels) made their way into the pop consciousness. Both of the LPs that Mbulu recorded with David Axelrod were composed almost entirely of songs written by Caiphus Semanya. ‘Welele’ is described in the liner notes as the cry of a wanderer who asks for some tobacco and proceeds to tell his tale of woe. Whatever context that provides is in the end unnecessary, because Mbulu’s soaring vocal along with HB Barnum’s arrangements and Axelrod’s production created an uplifting experience. The band on the session, composed largely of LA session vets like Mike Melvoin and Don Randi is tight and ever so funky. Listen, how at the very beginning of the record they pair vibes and boo-bams to mimick the sound of a kalimba. I especially dig the vibes and the flute solo towards the end of the song. After her tenure with Capitol, Mbulu went on to record for Chisa, as a vocalist for Hugh Masekela and as a soloist, often with the backing of several members of the Crusaders (also a Chisa act at the time). She continued to record (appearing on the soundtracks to ‘Roots’ and ‘The Color Purple’) and returned (with Semanya) to South Africa in 1991. I should note that I had already pulled a few Axelrod-related records to blog when I discovered that Oliver Wang over at Soul Sides did an Axelrod feature on 11/19 (none of the same records) that’s worth checking out (as Soul Sides always is). On a related note, I’ll be dropping a funky Lou Rawls side in the next few weeks. Keep your ears peeled...
Thanks also to my man BigSpliff for selling me this gem!