Zakes Mda,  Ohio University, Athens Ohio

I am often amazed at Auriol Hays’ comfortable eclecticism – the fact that she has this naughty velvety voice that belts smoky jazz numbers harking back to an era when lyrics meant something and scatting women ruled the roost, and yet she shuttles with ease among other genres, ranging from rhythm-and-blues to blues-proper to house to kwaito and everything in-between. She has the knack to astound, and quite often her sound defies categorization. Despite the obvious influence of the great belters and crooners of yesteryear, the Nina Simones, the Frank Sinatras and the Shirley Basseys, she is none of them and does not even aim to imitate them. She is her unique self and hers is a very contemporary sound rather than a retro one. It is a sound of her own rendered in a distinctive voice like no other.

In this new anthology she proves that she is above anything else a storyteller. I call it an anthology because it is indeed a collection of poetry – narrative verse in melody and sometimes harmony. Coming in the wake of a deep house album, here she takes a different direction altogether. She calls this a sanctuary album, and that runs through the themes of the song, sometimes subtly so. Hence in “In My Lover’s Bed” she wonders if she can fall in love again; some people make it seem so easy, “I wonder if they play pretend.” This is an Auriol who can succumb to desire and yearn for the sanctuary that love can be; who can plead in “Constellations of Desire” while harmonizing herself “So many things I want to say, but my voice gets lost along the way,” and then “Take me in your arms, love me.”

This is a different Auriol in other ways too. It is no longer the defiant – some may even say angry – Auriol we have come to love in her earlier music. Here she proves that she can still be lovable even when she is sweet and romantic.

I love the subdued instrumentation throughout the album, predominantly strings, because it brings her voice to the fore; so that the voice speaks to you the directly, unhindered, and makes you live and feel the experience narrated, for who among us have not gone through such yearnings, disappointments, solitude and melancholy? When she is pleading for the return of a lover in “Come Home to Me” she is narrating our experience. When she is threatening to cast a spell and bewitch her lover in “When Worlds Collide” she is expressing our wish during those moments of unrequited love. The theatrical “Jean and Andy” takes us to a crush on a stranger in a restaurant, and “Quick Silver” to ephemeral love.

But not all the songs are about love. The canvas of sanctuary is broader than that. It includes dreams, such as we find in “Dream in Music” a very dramatic and child-like piece rendered in a deep velvety voice that belies the theme. As the title suggests it is very dreamy and leaves you stunned when it comes to an abrupt end. Then hollowness follows. The canvas extends to “Story in My Pocket” that compels you to tap your feet as it tells a story of a man who betrayed his friend, ending with the warning, “Choose your friends carefully especially if you have money.” And then we have a powerful song on social justice titled “When God Gets Back.” This is the Auriol that I have come to know and love, who cares about the world and the fate of humanity. Hence her participation as a private citizen in the cultivation of the culture of reading for the youth and in the protection of the environment through Greenpeace. Her community activism comes through in this poignant song that enquires from the God that seems to be on holiday, “We pray for justice; is it just in vain?”

I was curious to hear how her cover of Sipho Hotstix Mabuse’s “Burn Out” will pan out. It is always a big risk when you make a cover of such an iconic song. I think she gets away with it. She gives it a new twist and makes it her own. It therefore becomes a new song altogether.

The song that continues to haunt me is “Child Atone”, perhaps because of its resonances of the American Deep South of slavery and Uncle Tom, of tamed field hollers and ceremonial chants. It is a powerful duet with Roman Amit. Auriol’s blues vocals here will surely wake Ma Rainey from her grave.

Throughout this album Auriol Hays is unmistakably Auriol Hays. A very unique voice that compel me to keep on wondering when the heck will South Africa wake up to it? Sometimes she sneaks upon you, softly, gently, even on tip-toes, and then grabs you by the lapels of your coat and shakes the bejesus out of you, leaving you flustered.