Twelve years since the release of their first album, the group Sauti Sol have hit a milestone in their career as a band with this week’s unveiling of their first major record label album. The 13 track album “Midnight Train” has been released by Universal Music (Africa) with an online launch concert is scheduled for next month.
A major recording deal, such as the one Sauti Sol signed with Universal in January 2019, is a double-edged sword: It offers the artist(s) the marketing and promotional muscle of a global industry giant, in this case Universal Music. However, there is often a fear that independent musicians lose their creative edge and artistic freedom after signing mega contracts which box them into a specific categories determined by record company marketing executives.
Musically, the album transcends the trademark contemporary sound fused with traditional influences associated with the band, to embrace a more adult contemporary, soulful vibe. The group retains their identity that has made them the international stars they are today, but at the same time their style has evolved with strong songwriting on romantic and social issues, without necessarily alienating the multitude of the fans with whom they have travelled this journey.
“Midnight Train” was recorded in Nairobi, Johannesburg, South Africa Los Angeles, U.S.
The album is produced by Grammy Award winning American songwriter and producer, Andre Harris who in a sterling career has worked with heavy hitters like Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Will Smith, Mariah Carey, Usher, and Jill Scott.
The theme of the album is based on the enjoying the journey of life but also embracing the hustles and trials that come with it.
“It feels like there are a lot of good things happening around us,” says vocalist Chimano. “We are headed to Zion which embodies reaching the apex in our country and the continent.” He is referring to the title track of the album, a catchy 1980s-type groove whose lyrics speak of ‘steady rocking on a midnight train to Zion’
Chimano says that Sauti Sol represents the new generation of African musicians guided by the group’s core values of discipline, order, passion and endurance.
In many ways this album combines the best of that the group has represented thus far in their career along with a variety of global influences that enrich the overall sound. The most prominent of the collaborators on the album is the American singer India.arie who lends her exquisite voice to the second verse of the song “My Everything”. They established a connection after meeting during Sauti Sol’s performance at the Essence Festival in Los Angeles in 2019.
There are some outstanding collaborations with African acts like the internationally renowned Soweto Gospel Choir on the song “Brighter Days” a positive and uplifting song that resonates with the current situation in the world beset by challenges, chiefly the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sauti Sol initiated the move to bring the harmonies of the choral ensemble out of a realisation that the Afropop scene has neglected the power of choral music which is one of the hallmarks of African music.
There are other top South African acts Sho Modjozi and Black Motion are guest artists on the electro-house dance tune Disco Matanga (Yambakhana), already used on the soundtrack to the Netflix series “Queen Sono”. According to guitarist Polycarp, these groups were on their favored list of collaborators because of their love for the heritage of South African music. The smooth voiced Jamaican singer Mortimer is the guest singer on the song “Wake Up”
There are some special moments like “Feel My Love” a distinctly romantic song driven by gentle acoustic guitar strings, quite unlike anything we have head from the group in the past.
One of the most powerful lyrical moments on the album comes with the song “Sober” a touching song about a young man pleading for forgiveness from his family and friends for the hurt he has caused them and asking for a chance to ‘get his act together’
The group’s traditional fan base will enjoy the modern rumba groove on “Nenda Lote” which starts with an acoustic guitar and steadily rises to an irresistible sebene (climax) groove and the humorous party lyrics on “Rumba Japani” which features guest vocals from the artists signed to the Sol Generation and brilliant instrumentation by the Nairobi Horns Project.