When J.D. Steele approached me a year or so ago about doing a write-up on a trip he’d made to Kenya, it was the first time we’d interacted. I wasn’t sure what to make of this famous guy from that famous singing family. Was he some slumming missionary, snatching up grant money to perpetrate like he’s so into The Motherland while his only real interest was in souping up his profile? But I watched the homemade DVD he gave me and immediately learned that nothing could be further from the truth. This cat cared about the youngsters he was working with—you could see it just in the way he looks at them. So of course I was delighted to do the write-up.
This year, when he handed me a packaged CD with grinning black kids on the cover and the title Shangilia Mtoto wa Africa: Rejoice Child of Africa, I eagerly accepted it from him. Didn’t have a chance to get it home and give it a listen before Steele told me he was leaving for Tanzania. This fella definitely has a thing for Africa. Once I did put Shangilia Mtoto wa Africa (Nairobi Java House) on the box, I grew very glad that he does. Whatever it is they speak in Shangilia, you don’t need to know a word of it to love this album he produced for the Shangilia Youth Choir of Kenya. In any language, it is slammin’.
Steele pulled off an ingenious move. He took gorgeous traditional music and hooked it up with tight R&B underpinnings and gospel soul. Now, that is fusion.
Steele pulled off an ingenious move. He took gorgeous traditional music—even wrote new songs “The Beautiful Ones” and “Habari” in traditional style—and hooked it up with tight R&B underpinnings and gospel soul. Now, that is fusion. At the root. It is absolutely thrilling to hear the chops these kids have. The album has a lush wall of sound that gets next to you right away, and once the polyrhythms kick in, you are sold. Completely.
One’s hat has to come off to J.D. Steele for realizing this project—most particularly, for not stepping into center stage. He stayed out of the limelight and just produced the album, bringing out nothing less than pure magic in these artists. A nod also has to go to keyboardist-songsmith Butch Heyward, who wrote “The Lord Reigneth.”
You can find out all you need to know, including how to buy a copy of Shangilia Mtoto wa Africa, by going to shangilia.org.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.