Africa has been a source of inspiration for musicians for a long time, more famously when Paul Simon borrowed South African rhythms and style for his successful but controversial album Graceland. Mumford and Sons follows in his footsteps, meeting Africa in a big way with the release of their new EP, Johannesburg.
Although Johannesburg is named after the city where it was recorded, Mumford and Sons borrow music from throughout the continent in their June 17 release.
The British quartet, famous for their arena-filling folk-rock—and for being that band who had a banjo, and then ditched the banjo—break new, beautiful ground with their latest offering. Mumford and Sons have recruited some tremendous talent for the record, like the stunning Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, the Malawi group The Very Best and South African pop band Beatenberg.
Though it is ostensibly a Mumford and Sons album, it doesn’t always feel that way. Marcus Mumford and his bandmates definitely step back on this album, occasionally taking the lead, but more often letting their African companions steal the show.
Album opener and smash-hit “There Will Be Time” starts with piano and 62-year-old Baaba Maal’s haunting vocals sung in his native Pulaar language. It truly sounds like one of Maal’s own tracks crafted in the heart of Senegal, until Mumford’s comforting voice comes in treading on familiar and emotional lyrical territory as he sings “In the cold light I live to love and adore you/It’s all that I am, it’s all that I have.”
Yes, this is a Mumford and Sons album, but here they are not afraid to share centre stage—and the results are exquisite. It’s the African musicians, particularly Baaba Maal, who define the album. Hundreds of years of tradition pour out of each hit of the drum, and each word sung in a language that most Mumford fans will never understand.
For those who wanted a pure Mumford and Sons experience, the band is still prominent enough on the album—it’s not a total takeover—but for those devotees of world music, or for anyone who enjoys having their own traditions reflected in the Western mainstream, this is certainly a gem.
After finishing this album, five songs feels far too short. By exploring new musical territory and working with musicians far outside their usual genre, Mumford and Sons have truly hit it out of the park with Johannesburg.