Album recording log – Clegg and mouth bow

This is the first  of a few posts detailing some of the recordings on my recent release, Anthems of a Stranger. Here I’d like to write about the tracks Emaweni, on which Johnny Clegg played Zulu (Umhupe) mouth bow, and Tugela Crossing. “Emaweni” literally means “at the cliffs” in Zulu. “Tugela” is the name of a large river in Kwazulu/Natal, the historical boundary of the Zulu kingdom up until the Anglo-Zulu wars of the late 1800’s.

Apart from the stellar cameo in Emaweni by Johnny, another interesting thing about both of these tracks (and I suspect a worldwide first) was that I played Zulu trad maskandi guitar in Zulu tuning strung Nashville High on the recordings. This is a method of stringing your acoustic guitar like the high strings on a 12-string guitar. Read on at the end of this post for more technical information about that.

Anyway, I approached Johnny late last year about working on the album.

“I’d love to be involved but what do you want me to do?” was Johnny’s response to my request that he do a session on the recordings. Knowing how amazing his mouth bow playing sounded on the early Juluka stuff, my immediate rejoinder was “…if I can be greedy, mouth bow and vocals please!”

Johnny agreed to do it, providing I collect the kit necessary to build a new mouth bow for the session. I went off to Builders Warehouse and a music store to collect bamboo, dowels, viola strings and rosin on the day of the session. Johnny brought a strong supple branch he had picked from his garden and the mouth bow building workshop was on. There’s some video footage below of Johnny building the mouth bow he used to record on the song.

Being as I am not particularly well-versed in the art of building a Zulu mouth bow, it turned out that the bamboo which I had bought was a little too thin for the task at hand, so Robin, the engineer and owner of the studio where I recorded most of the tracks, got a short piece of metal tubing that worked for the stem of the bow. Johnny and Robin hacked it to the right length for the mouth bow and, some rudimentary carpentry and snapping of twigs notwithstanding, within the hour the mouth bow parts were going down to disk in the session.

Here are some pics of the Johannesburg winter nighttime building process and the session:


Johnny records mouth bow parts

Mouth bow building

Johnny builds mouth bow

Clegg builds bow

More mouth bow building

The mouth bow sounds incredible. Apart from the usual rhythmic sawing sound that one expects from this instrument, there is also a whistling overtone generated by the player’s mouth against the stem joint that can be shaped into a melody, which Johnny did here with remarkable dexterity. The end result is a stunning, quintessentially southern African sound that plays during the fade in and outro sections of Emaweni.

Check the track out on Soundcloud:

Kudos and thanks to Johnny Clegg, king of the pale mouth bow fiddlers. His knowledge and experience of African tradition brought something unique to the project. The rhythm section work on Emaweni features the remarkable talents of Neill Ettridge on Drums, Tlale Makhene on percussion, Ashish Joshi on Tabla and Denny Lalouette on Bass. Tugela Crossing features Rob Watson on drums, Trevor Donjeany on bass and Tlale Makhene on perc.

The Sitar parts for Emaweni were played through a VG-99 on my Custom Midi Deluxe, built by the great folks at Parker Guitars in Chicago. I actually flew to Chicago to collect that guitar in person.  That was another adventure all by itself.

All leads for these two pieces were played on my modded PRS CU24, verses through a Dr. Z Route 66 / Z Best 2×12 and Mesa Roadster Brit channel / Roadster 2×12, chorus and solo parts through the Route 66 and a Mesa Mk V running hot. The levels were purposefully loud to get decent tone, sag and character from the amps. It was so loud in the booth with the two amps running, I’m sure the levels from the cabs could have killed small insects in their path at hundred feet! On the Tugela Crossing electric solo I used a Fulltone Clyde wah and for the acoustic feel solo in that tune, a Parker Fly Bronze, tuned to isiZulu for interesting high note combinations in that particular passage.

Here’s a sample of Tugela Crossing:

As promised, the low down on the Zulu / Nashville stringing and tuning:

Nashville tuning is a relatively common style of stringing an acoustic guitar in the Country genre, to wit the name “Nashville Tuning,” Nashville being pretty much the traditional recording and performance capital of country music. When you double a standard acoustic guitar part on a Nashville High strung instrument (i.e. play the same part in as identical a fashion as possible a second time), the resultant sound is like an exceptionally wide-sounding and versatile 12-string guitar part, but with far more interesting sonic possibilities.

I used a Taylor 410 CE dreadnought, tuned EADGBD (standard isiZulu Maskandi tuning), but with the lower strings an octave up to achieve my Zulu Nashville High setup. This guitar doubles the Zulu claw-picked fingerstyle guitar part done in standard Zulu tuning (an octave below on the low EAD strings) on my Patrick James Eggle Saluda C custom and Martin OMJM. I think I doubled the Eggle with a Taylor 815CE for Tugela Crossing and the Martin for Emaweni

I was fortunate enough to have some of the greatest masters of the style teach me Maskandi Zulu guitar (Mfiliseni Makubane, Johnny Clegg, Sipho Mchunu  and Mahoyana Nkwanyana). Hopefully the playing here lives up to the quality of the lessons imparted by them. It’s worth noting that there are two main variants of the Zulu guitar style – Maskandi (drop-D) and isiShameni (a completely different tuning requiring a capo and a clothes peg!). Both styles require a running bass line on the thumb, and melodies and chord formations played and insinuated with the index finger.

The Zulu guitar parts for Emaweni and Tugela Crossing on the album are both played in the old school Maskandi style (no 3rd in the chords). This gives the tunes a dramatic Celtic 5th harmony ring to them. This sound is what attracted me to Zulu trad styles in the first place.

I trust you’ll enjoy the tracks. I’ll be writing some more about the studio experiences in upcoming editions of this blog. Stay tuned and bookmark this site, or monitor the Facebook page for updates.

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