How Music Transcends The Barriers Of Culture, Language and Geography

6 July 2016 | 2:47 pm | Brynn Davies

"Often you can find yourself being quite articulate without necessarily needing to completely understand someone."

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Mumford & Sons are a musical conundrum. They bridge the gap between alternative rock, folk and everything banjo-related in between; it's hard to pin them down into any particular genre or description other than that they sound, well, British. And yet, somehow their music can wrap itself around any sound or instrument, any cultural music or language, and still retain its essence as a distinctly Mumford & Sons song.

It's something the band discovered in 2009 during a collaborative venture in Delhi, India, with nine-piece Rajasthani collective the Dharohar Project and Laura Marling. "None of them spoke English," Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett remembers. "It was only a week or two after we left the studio that we got properly translated what they were singing about, and it was completely the same subject material that we were singing about. At the time I was like 'That's completely crazy.' But when you think about it, when you're in a room with someone and you're looking people in the eye and you're playing a certain style of music, you can find yourself much on the same page and wanting to sing about the same stuff."

Mumford & Sons

"It was only a week or two after we left the studio that we got properly translated what they were singing about, and it was completely the same subject material that we were singing about."

Johannesburg is the latest offering of this marriage of music from around the world — a collaborative effort between one of Senegal's most prolific musicians, Baaba Maal, South African pop band Beatenberg and Afro-Western duo The Very Best. It's a mesmerising five-track EP recorded over two days during the Gentlemen Of The Road tour in South Africa, combining multiple languages, instruments and sounds into one, unified journey.

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"Coming into what [Mumford & Sons] was doing, I would sing in Senegalese — singing in my own language, singing my melody, singing in my own rhythms — and we didn't try to compromise anything; we just let it go naturally," explains Baaba Maal, who Lovett describes as "kind of a centre for the whole project, in a way". 

"There's a degree of trust I think, but before we kinda committed to our thing we'd be like, 'So what are you singing about, what are you getting from this?'" Lovett laughs. "I think music can be a very interesting language in itself, so is body language. Often you can find yourself being quite articulate without necessarily needing to completely understand someone."

"It's a lot of interaction," confirms Maal. "We sing, for example [on There Will Be Time] about love and respect from different perspectives; what is it from Africa, what is it from South Africa, it's all of that you know? You can put it in different contexts; you can put it between me and my friend or me and someone that I love, and to say 'Through the love, I appreciate the fact that this person can come to me, or this community has taught me how to appreciate life, and… to travel through life, giving them my heart, and they would give me their heart, and we can go together. Everything that I appreciate is from the love that was ever given to me.'"

These kinds of collaborations Maal sees as being "very important for more African bands" to embrace, to extend their music out to Western audiences and bring communities and cultures together through this shared language and experience — learning through travel, through working and from others of different backgrounds, but "without compromising" the essence of Africa's sound in the process of collaboration. "Travelling is the best lesson of life. It's so very difficult these days to travel… But at the same time, when you travel you are watching, listening and learning, because you learn everything from your body, you learn from your eyes, your ears, your spirit, you watch it and you learn."

Lovett echoes this sentiment for Western bands to expand themselves — to travel a part of the world that is commonly cut from tour routes. "I think [South Africa] gets somewhat of a very heavy stigma, where people need to go and kind of form their own opinion. I think what was interesting is that everyone grows up with a view of South Africa without — I mean, you don't necessarily grow up with a view of a lot of the other countries in the world — but there's something about South Africa, a lot of its history was so public. But when you are somewhere for a while you realise that [a Western view] is kind of far away from the reality as human beings, there's so much that you can relate to and connect over."

Baaba Maal

Interestingly, Lovett believes that no matter who Mumford & Sons collaborate with, or what style they try their hand at, their core sound will remain. "The common thread is just how we collaborate. I think the more you know our music, the more you can come to expect, no matter what style of music — if it was hip hop or electronic or metal or whatever — I'm now of the belief that it would always sound a little bit like Mumford & Sons.

"It might be quite hard to explain, it's quite intangible, but it's just how we express ourselves across the four of us. I guess it's in the writing, in the playing, in the sound. There are just certain things that remain constant. I don't know, it's always hard to kind of analyse these things and we try to just kind of, 'be' as much as possible. It just exists."