Release Date: Jun 17, 2016
Record label: Glassnote Entertainment Group
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Folk
It'll come as no surprise that an EP called Johannesburg carries a considerable South African undercurrent to its rhythms and productions. It's a musical element heretofore unheard of in Mumford & Sons' music but it's not an uncomfortable fit, even if Johannesburg often brings to mind both Paul Simon's pioneering Graceland and, especially, the light lilt of Vampire Weekend. Unlike Simon, who built songs upon existing rhythms, Mumford & Sons collaborate with Baaba Maal, Beatenberg, and the Very Best, and this give and take brings the group closer to the globally minded urban pop of Vampire Weekend: despite all the African inflections, it sounds recognizably Mumford & Sons.
When massive pop artists shake things up, the results can be divisive. Pop music is designed to target the broadest swathe of the market, and changing the formula usually involves picking out and homing in on a more specific trait, something that in turn will appeal greatly to some and alienate others. For their new EP, Mumford & Sons embrace African music, folding it into their grandiose folk pop hooks.
Let’s say you, as a longtime fan of Baaba Maal, looked up the polyglot Senegalese singer on Apple Music today. Why, you might have wondered, were all of his current top songs from an EP called Johannesburg that’s primarily attributed to Mumford & Sons? Why is Maal, 62-year-old fixture of West African music, hanging out with Marcus Mumford & Co., purveyors of fine British beard oil since 2009? First of all, we should say, Maal invited them. He recruited Mumford banjoist Winston Marshall to play on the title track of his most recent album, 2015’s The Traveller.
This five-track "mini-album" is the fruit of two day-long sessions the recently electrified arena-folk stars held with co-producer Johan Hugo (half of the London-based, Afropop-influenced electronic duo the Very Best) during an early 2016 South African tour. The African collaborators add a wrinkle or two to the group’s sound: Senegalese master vocalist Baaba Maal lends gravitas to "There Will Be Time," and the light touch of the Cape Town pop group Beatenberg gives "Wona" an air of pleasant understatement. But too many forced climaxes here lack the organic sense of drama the Mumfords summon at their best, and the pan-African elements aren’t integrated into the pop-rock song structures, so the lively polyrhythms and keening vocals merely decorate the swelling choruses rather than transforming them.
The controversies spawned by Paul Simon’s Graceland have never quite gone away; for some, white Western dudes co-opting traditional African music is just too suggestive of colonialism for comfort. But part of that skepticism has to come from Simon’s using the record to establish his pop-icon prominence—particularly in light of the substantial contributions from other established native musicians that got limited, sometimes belated, recognition for it. More than a quarter-century after Graceland, those issues still loom in the background as international rock stars Mumford & Sons (like it or not, the label applies) release their own African foray with the mini-album Johannesburg.
What do you get IF you cross a wholesome British folk rock group with singers from Senegal and Malawi, a buzzy South African trio, and two all-night recording sessions in Johannesburg? A pretty solid EP, as it turns out: Mumford & Sons’ ‘Johannesburg’ isn’t a lame pastiche, but nor is it a revelation. The band’s announcement of the fusion EP in April came less than a year after the release of their banjo-ditching rock album ‘Wilder Mind’. But it’s far from a dilettante project, partially thanks to their collaborators: Winston Marshall is toting the banjo once more, and his group is joined by Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, Malawian-British singer-producer combo The Very Best and Cape Town band Beatenberg.