Partly because they're a racially mixed group, mostly because of a recurring theme in their music, Juluka have been perceived as being committed to Dr. Louis Leakey's theory that all peoples are descended from African man. "We are the scatterlings of Africa / Both you and I," they sing on their jubilant new album "Scatterlings," and the degree of literalness with which you wish to take that should be between you and Dr. Leakey.
A more apt interpretation, and one clearly demonstrated on "Scatterlings," is that many popular Western rhythmic and musical forms can be traced to the great folk traditions of Africa, and the more direct the emotion being conveyed, the closer the music is to these ancient musical traditions. Think of the famous Woodstock rain chant: That wasn't spontaneous Gregorian plainsong in which those naked, mostly pale, mud-spattered children were reveling, accompanying themselves in richly layered percussive patterns with empty soda cans, sticks and whatever else they happened to find lying around in the slime.
Juluka take their folk traditions from the Zulu, which means that they rely more on the harmonic than on the percussive. The sound that this South African sextet achieves bears less resemblance to Fela Kuti's sensous pop-chant or King Sunny Ad,e's ethereal polyrhythms than it does to the sweet vocals of Nigeria's Prince Nico or the highly melodic storytelling of Ghanaian social songs.
And so, with "Scatterlings" we get a salmagundi of chantsong, reggae, salsa, funk, balladic air -- all the ingredients African pop has borrowed back over the years. The singing is beautiful, both on such straightforward melodies as "Scatterlings of Africa" and "Simple Things," and on the more Zulu-influenced harmonic exercises such as "iJwanasibeki" and "Siyayilanda." The lyrics are startlingly clean: "Spirit is the journey / Body is the bus / I am the driver / From dust to dust," sing Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu on the album's standout track, "Spirit Is the Journey." As if all this were not enough, the instrumental work is impeccable as well, particularly the butterfly flute-playing of Scorpion Madondo.
Which brings us to an unfortunate misapprehension about Juluka and other pop groups: that too universal an appeal on the one hand, too much technical skill on the other render them somehow unauthentic. This sort of criticism comes from the type of person who considers Frank Sinatra the ultimate in pop's evolutionary chain, and who would advise Men at Work's Colin Hey against actually practicing his scales. To dismiss Juluka on such flabby premises would be to deprive yourself of one of the year's most engaging albums. JULUKA- "Scatterlings" (Warner 9 23898-1). Appearing Friday at 9 at the Wax Museum.