Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019




by Ian Mann

April 13, 2022


The combination of traditional Zulu harmony singing and contemporary production technique works extremely well. A very worthy début from this highly distinctive ensemble.



(33 Jazz 33JAZZ86)

Xolani Mbathe – vocals, vocal percussion, Thandanani Gumede – vocals, Nokuthula Zondi – vocals
David Evans – keyboards, synths, Kenny Higgins – bass guitar, synths, Alex Wibrew – drums, percussion, Nik Rutherford – guitar

Ubunye is a seven piece ensemble featuring the instrumental talents of Leeds based musicians David Evans (keys), Kenny Higgins (electric bass), Alex Wibrew (drums) and Nik Rutherford (guitar). It is fronted by three vocalists from the Kwa Zulu Natal region of South Africa, Xolani Mbathe, Thandanani Gumede and Nokuthula Zondi. The group’s music fuses jazz with Afro-pop and traditional ‘Isigqui’ Zulu music.

The band name can be loosely translated as ‘Oneness’ or ‘Unity’  and the group has its origins in a festival collaboration between co-leaders Evans and Mbathe at a festival in Leeds. The success of the Festival project resulted in Evans and Mbathe recruiting musicians and vocalists from their individual musical circles to create a unified working band.

As a collective Ubunye have acquired a considerable reputation for the quality and energy of their exciting stage shows. They have headlined at the Manchester and Lancaster jazz festivals and performed a sell out show at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London.

The band’s début album features eight original songs written by members of the group both past and present. The album credits thank previous members of the collective these being; Bongi Gwala, Jonah Evans, Barry Rickaby, Jason Dandeno and Sean Hunt. Gwala remains a highly influential figure, having co-written two of the songs that feature on this début album. Produced by Sam Hobbs with the assistance of David Evans and Kenny Higgins the album also features the distinctive artwork of the inimitable Gina Southgate.

With the exception of one song all of the pieces feature the singing of all three vocalists, the South African trio working as a team alongside their instrumental counterparts from the UK. The mood is mostly upbeat with the lyrics promoting the kind of racial and musical unity that is implicit in both the band’s name and its multi-cultural line up.

Things kick off with the band’s signature tune “Ubunye”, co-written by David Evans and Thanda Gumede. The blend of the three voices is compelling and allows for rich and exuberant harmonising as the instrumentalists lay down a propulsive groove, with Evans’ keyboards at the heart of the arrangement. The lyrics are delivered in a mix of English and Zulu as the album gets off to rousing and energetic start.

“Rain” is a sole composition by Evans but it’s left to the singers to give voice to his ideas, with Gumede’s tenor voice again prominent in the mix. Percussive heavy grooves combine with post production effects as the piece progresses through a variety of stylistic and dynamic changes, finally gaining an anthemic quality as the three vocalists coalesce.

“I’ll Sing For You” is another song from the writing team of Evans and Gumede, this time venturing deeper into ballad territory,  with the neo-soul style vocals bolstered by a subtly funky rhythmic undertow.

Written by Evans and former band member Bongi Gwala the uplifting “Unity” represents a real statement of intent and again features a mix of Zulu and English lyrics. The richly colourful blend of Gumede’s tenor, Mbatha’s baritone and the powerful female vocals of Zondi are irresistible and their glorious harmonies are complemented by Evans’ arranging skills and the instrumental prowess of the band’s English contingent. If one song can be said to epitomise what Ubunye are all about, surely this is it.

“Try To Notice” is co-written by co-founders Evans and Mbatha and mixes contemporary hip-hop inspired grooves with the South African trio’s distinctive vocal harmonies as the singers share the workload, the lyrics again alternating between Zulu and English.

Co-written by Evans and Gumede “Meet You In The Morning” is a showcase for the latter’s tenor voice and is the only track to feature the singing of a single vocalist. That said Gumede multi-tracks himself to create his own harmonies, sometimes evoking a Ladysmith Black Mambazo ambience.  His adventurous vocals are juxtaposed with a modern production featuring synthesised beats.

“Come Find Me” is written by bassist Kenny Higgins, a musician perhaps best known for his work with vocalist Corinne Bailey Ray. This song re-unites the three vocalists who again combine effectively on what is essentially a contemporary pop / r’n’b song with an all English lyric given a distinctive South African flavour. It still makes for energising and rewarding listening.

The album concludes with “Our Time”, a second composition by David Evans and one time member Bongi Gwala. Gradually building from Wibrew’s drum and percussion intro this is a slow burner of a piece that embraces slinky bass lines, shimmering Rhodes style keyboards and seductive vocals, the lyrics again delivered in a mix of English and Zulu. Towards the close the singing embraces the exuberance of soul and gospel music.

“Bless The Jazz”, declare Ubunye on the album sleeve, although like the recent Cleveland Watkiss album that I reviewed, “The Great Jamaican Song Book Vol. 1”, it isn’t strictly a jazz recording.

Nevertheless jazz remains a key component on an album that is again still hugely enjoyable and packed with excellent writing, singing and playing. Inevitably it’s the exquisite vocalising of the three singers that makes the music so distinctive, with all three excelling both individually and collectively. Nevertheless one shouldn’t underestimate the role played by the instrumentalists, particularly Evans, whose writing and overall vision for the band are central to the success of the project as a whole. The combination of traditional Zulu harmony singing and contemporary production techniques, a heads up here for producer Sam Hobbs who does a terrific job, works extremely well. The resultant music combines rich sonic detail with propulsive grooves to create music that is exciting and energising, but which also repays repeated listening. The album has been very well received by the critics and one also suspects that Ubunye will also represent a highly exciting prospect in the live environment. A very worthy début from this highly distinctive ensemble.

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