South Africa’s soul-jazz movement of the late 1970s and early ‘80s hasn’t been documented as well as it should have been, with far fewer reissues than it merits. So the reappearance of The Drive’s 1975 Can You Feel It? https://wearebusybodies.bandcamp.com/album/the-drive-can-you-feel-it and a track from Movement In the City’s 1981 Black Teardrops https://sharp-flat.bandcamp.com/album/lament (with the whole album very soon) provide a chance to reflect on why the genre mattered and what it meant then – and means now.
The Drive grew from the foundations of the Heshoo Beshoo Band https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/10/26/heshoo-beshoo-back-in-full-force-across-armitage-road/comment-page-1/ , but in this later formation the taste of the Sithole Brothers (joined for this outing by trumpeter brother David) for impassioned horn sounds gets much fuller rein. Its extended opener, Way Back Fifties, gives us the historic version, paying homage to how the legendary bandleaders of a quarter-century earlier used brass. You can hear that in the juxtaposition of chorus groove and solos over familiar chords, and in Bheki Mseleku’s foundation keyboard motif. But the content of the solos comes from ears equally attuned to the rude honks and bluesy church wails James Brown was pulling from his backing bands. Meanwhile, the track provides perfect extended support for the kind of bump jive that Soweto Soul outfits like the Movers were dishing for stylish dancers right then, and was wrapped in psychedelic cover art whose pattern might have been lifted straight from one of Brown’s shirts.
In all those assertions and links (local and international) lies the meaning of the music.
Black solidarity couldn’t abide barriers. Civil rights struggles in Atlanta mattered, just like the Angola civil war and the Alexandra bus boycotts of the ‘50s mattered. As Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse recalls of his work with The Beaters/Harari in the same era: “That political influence was coming too, from America and from what was happening here, along with the music. People were clued up. Martin Luther King was happening, Black Consciousness was beginning to develop, Steve Biko…” The Drive may not have been politicians, but they had pride in their community and identity and the music spoke that loud.
(Where The Beaters/ Harari took that mix will be accessible again early next year in a reissue from Matsuli)
But that was 1975, and in 1976 the police killings and intensifying resistance during and following the Soweto Uprising led many musicians to start ramping up those implicit declarations.
For keyboardist Ismail ‘Pops’ Mohamed, reedman Basil ‘Mannenberg’ Coetzee and bassist Sipho Gumede, the implicit politics of their heavily soul-inflected jazz were always about rejecting the artificial divisions apartheid tried to sow between Black communities.
“The sound the three of us had developed,” says Mohamed, “was very special. We were bridging between a Joburg and a Cape Town feel – but still keeping the funk alive.” For Mohamed’s Reiger Park community and Coetzee’s in Cape Town’s District Six – places of mixed heritage, both of which apartheid labelled ‘coloured’ – sweet soul music with space for dancing was particularly admired. Gumede hailed from KZN but now played on Joburg’s ‘serious’ jazz platforms. “But it was always very important for us not to stay inside the classification,” recalled Mohamed of the first outfit that brought the three together, Black Disco https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/night-express
“The regime divided us – people classified coloured had identity documents; black people had the dompas. We didn’t accept that separation. Sipho …could play any feel. Sometime he’d joke and ask me: ‘Does [my bass line] feel coloured enough?’”
When the three joined up with other musicians including Cape Town drummer Monty Weber to co-found Movement in the City, “the name was code for let’s fight the system.” The outfit released two albums, in 1979, Movement in the City, and in 1981, Black Teardrops.
“It was a very dark time for us, personally and politically, and the Black Teardrops (another title the censor didn’t like) came from that emotional place,” recalled Mohamed.
The 1981 release featured Richard Peters as well as Gumede on bass, Roger Harry on drums (with Weber on one track) and Robbie Jansen alongside Coetzee on reeds. Look on the collectors’ sites today, and you’ll find that latter described as ‘vanishingly rare’, with original pressings commanding eye-watering prices. The re-release puts it within everybody’s reach again.
The full re-release from Sharp Flat Records and drawing on the rich As-Shams label archive, will be in vinyl only; for now, a radio edit of the opener, Lament, is available as an advance purchase.
Jansen is a brilliant addition, and Coetzee’s playing is a revelation for anybody who only has memories of Manenberg. On the title track, his characteristic ornamented, heartfelt phrasing gets ample space to stretch out – his music can be nothing else but the expression of those teardrops. On the closer, Camel Walk, we hear him playing flute on a melody referencing Middle Eastern faith roots and so another spiritual dimension of identity. Coetzee’s flute features far less frequently than sax on his recordings; after hearing this superb solo, that’s a real pity. None of it would work without Gumede’s bass lines holding it all together, and the richness of Mohamed’s keyboard textures.
By the early 1980s, South Africa’s soul-jazz was translating the sorrow and fervour of the post ’76 period into passionate music. That’s why it mattered then. But you could play Black Teardrops for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and its meaning wouldn’t pass a contemporary audience by. Its soul still speaks today.