Letta Mbulu

Letta [1970]

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Following two artistically successful but commercially disappointing LPs under the auspices of the legendary producer/arranger David Axelrod, South African transplant Letta Mbulu joined fellow exile Hugh Masekela's new Chisa label. (She'd recently appeared on the Masekela-produced Africa '68 album.) On Letta, Masekela (along with co-producer Stewart Levine) opted for earthier, more direct arrangements than the texture-heavy (and occasionally overly exotic) orchestrations favored by Axelrod. Like her earlier albums, Mbulu sings in English and various South African tongues, but the music -- owing to Masekela's production -- is far earthier. The horns are full and present, unlike Axelrod's Los Angeles soundstages, and the grooves are distinctly African. On the opening "Mahlalela" (Lazy Bones), a chorus of a cappella voices leads into an R&B-influenced Afro-groove, as Mbulu settles into a more "traditional" pop vocal. The rest of the disc -- penned mostly by Mbulu's husband, Caiphus Semenya -- is propelled by an experienced gravitas, and sold by Mbulu's voice, which is classic R&B: capable and convincing, with not a little naïve sweetness. "I Need Your Love" is a catchy unheard classic, getting over -- like Letta as a whole -- with an easygoing perfection.

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