Urban Village’s Xolani ‘Cush’ Mtshali talks bringing ancient stories into a modern light ahead of their album release

I’ve always been of the mind that, when the world ended, music would be the last thing to go. Looking back on the year that wasn’t, I have so much evidence to support this idea.

No sooner had live music been forbidden before musos the world over kicked into overdrive to devise plots, some dubious, others delicious, against defeat. And it was a beautiful thing to see.

But something about not being able to be together in a live setting, feeding off of each other’s energy and just connecting on a spiritual level, made every live stream feel just slightly soulless.

Having just released the fourth single “Umhlaba Wonke” (The World) – featuring South African songstress (read: national treasure) Msaki – off their upcoming debut album UDONDOLO, Urban Village’s Xolani “Cush” Mtshali (drums) shares the sentiment of soullessness and says it about as aptly as I’ve heard: “The new normal still isn’t normal”.

“Urban Village is a band that really feeds off the energy of the room and the people, so once you don’t have that you feel like…”, he trails off, at a loss for words but I catch his drift.

He tells me how, more now than ever, it was important for the band to release “Umhlaba Wonke”, a call to the world to walk together in peace and harmony. Sung in Zulu, Xhosa, and English, and blending Western instruments with a South African vocal style, the song reflects where the band comes from – Soweto.  “My specific influence is quite the same as everyone else’s,” explains Cush, “When you grow up in Soweto, it is a multi-cultured type of avenue so you never just have one form of language or culture. You are just constantly being infused with a lot of Motown and Soul, a lot of gospel influences, there’s a lot of a cappella, Maskandi (Zulu folk music), and Mbaqanga (township jazz).”

I tell Cush that Urban Village first floated onto my radar in all their multicultural musical glory during the Cape Town leg of their cross-continental tour alongside folk songstress Adelle Nqeto in 2018, and immediately his face lights up. “The best feeling ever is when the music hits new ears, I mean the people that are used to you, that sing with you, those people are our family, but when new ears hear the sound, the shock, when they look at you like, ‘Is this really happening?’, that’s when you know how far your sound is actually moving people,” he explains, genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to connect on a spiritual level. “Music as a whole is a form of communication, and we are very glad that we are holders of this music.”

The passing of great story-tellers and South African legends like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Johnny Clegg has left a gap in the market that Urban Village has made it their mission to fill. “Urban Village is deliberate in how we reiterate folk stories. And it’s always been an identity issue for us,” Cush explains thoughtfully, “We’ve been hearing stories which are celebrated so for once in our lives we thought it’s time that we celebrate our own stories. But that also made us have to research our own stories.”

Cheekily I confess to Cush that I was snuck an early copy of their upcoming debut album, UDONDOLO, and he laughs because all he wants to do is release it already. He asks me what I think of the album, and all I can do in response is shake my head in humble disbelief, which he understands as the ultimate compliment. I pick my jaw up off the floor, find my words again, and tell him that, even though much of the album is sung in languages that I cannot understand, I resonate with it on a level that transcends language — a spiritual level.

The smile that plays across his face screams, “Mission accomplished!” as he explains, “I feel that musicians are just satellites to connect us with what’s already happening in the unseen world, and that’s why people receive healing from music. We are channelling other forms of deeper energies, and the depth of spirituality is very important to me because that’s the form of energy that you are also able to move in people.”

Cush pauses for a moment before adding, “Right now you could put people in a certain place, make them listen to some music, and they could vibrate on a certain frequency, and by the time they leave, they are different”.

He tells me about their signing with Pairisian label Nø Førmat! and how working alongside them has elevated their sound beyond their imagination. To be included amongst Nø Førmat!’s catalogue of world-class acts like Oumou Sangaré and Black Bassy is the ultimate validation that they are right on the money with their sound.

There is a glimmer of hope at the end of the grim tunnel that was this year: Urban Village’s debut album UDONDOLO is due for release on the 22nd of January 2021. Get ready to be moved.

We recently chose Urban Village’s “Ubaba” as one of our Best Of 2020: Indie Music Video. Check out the rest of the selections here.