Idris Elba, "Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela" (7wallace/Parlophone Records)
Playing Nelson Mandela in 2013's theatrical release, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," clearly struck a chord with British actor Idris Elba — a musical one.
On "Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela," a 14-track project on Elba's own 7wallace imprint, the actor offers an uplifting journey, inspired by Mandela and his late father. The music incorporates a variety of South African rhythms and styles, including Marabi, Kwela, Mbaqanga and Mbube, mixed in with Western sounds.
Elba largely wrote the album on a keyboard and laptop while in Johannesburg during filming of "Long Walk to Freedom," but it's far from a solo venture. Opening track, the lilting "Aero Mathata," blends vocals from famed Mbaqanga group Mahotella Queens with producer Aero Manyelo's Afro-tech beats. "So Many People," featuring British actor-singer Shaun Escoffery, melds light African rhythms with '70s-style Isaac Hayes soul.
There's a warmth and joy that flows through these tracks, even when Elba is addressing death. The lovely "Tree," featuring singer-songwriter Audra Mae and neo-soul singer Cody ChesnuTT, stresses the continuity of family even after the patriarch is gone. "Although his chair is empty, his love will always be at home," Mae sings against a lilting African melody. Similarly, on the lullaby-ish "Hold On," featuring Thabo and George the Poet, death brings only a temporary separation between loved ones.
Elba steps behind the mic throughout, especially on "mi Mandela," a largely spoken piece that amusingly recounts his adventures playing Mandela.
It's always tempting — and somewhat cynical — to dismiss efforts such as these as vanity projects, but "mi Mandela" feels more like a labor of love that Elba approached with an appropriate degree of humility. He smartly surrounds himself with a stellar cast of artists here, even including a cover of Mumford & Sons' "Home" to round out this enjoyable and compelling set.
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