Today, we’re going international with our Black Music Month love. As a hip-hop head who also tried his hand at music production, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time crate digging, searching through entire obscure record label catalogs, hoping to come across the perfect sample. Well, that’s how I came across Letta Mbulu’s banger of a song, “Mahlalela.”
Letta was an artist working with South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. Masekela, who passed away in 2018, is often cited as the father of South African jazz and was a renowned composer and multi-instrumentalist, though he was best known as a trumpeter. In the 1960s, he created Chisa Records while in America to promote and release South African musical acts. One of those acts was Letta Mbulu.
Letta Mbulu is a South African singer whose voice you’ve heard even if you’ve never heard her name; she most famously provided the Swahili vocals on Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl.” She fled Apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and ended up working with legends like David Axelrod (“Pula Yetla” is a personal favorite) and Quincy Jones. The point is, this song brings together great South African artists and the results are outstanding.
From the opening vocals, you know you’re about to get something special, even if you aren’t quite sure what it will be. Then the beat drops and that swing on it gets your head to nodding. Letta’s voice sits so perfectly within the composition that she’s as much of an instrument as the others. I can envision the entire rhythm section moving in unison doing the same ole two step, but nodding their head funktastically.
Since first hearing this song, probably in the mid-2000s, it’s been a constant part of my rotation. I even remember the first time I heard it because I did such a scrunch face at the chord progressions, I was like “YO...I MUST SAMPLE THIS TO MAKE THE GREATEST HIP-HOP SONG OF ALL TIME.” But I never did. There are some songs that I’ve heard that I thought would make for awesome loops and samples, but ultimately I liked the originals so much I left them alone. Plus, it isn’t like Jay-Z was beating down my door waiting for the beat.
“Mahlalela” is one of those songs where, even though I don’t know exactly what is being said, I can feel the emotions, and since I believe that music is the universal language, the song speaks to me clearly. And I feel like Letta is letting some shots off at somebody. It’s good music from my favorite era—the 70s—and if you need a song to get the energy going and possibly your feet moving, “Mahlalela” is great addition to any of your morning playlists.