Maswitsi: sugar-coated, but with very interesting fillings

It’s clear from the cover package of trombonist Kgethi Nkotsi’s debut, Maswitsi https://music.amazon.com/albums/B09PK7BKQZ  where the marketing is aimed.

Dressed in tooth-aching pink with rainbow splashes, candy-canes, jelly beans and the leader/composer in a walk-like-an-Egyptian pose, this cover doesn’t just speak to the spontaneous innocence of children’s musical ears that Nkotsi has discussed in interviews. It also addresses the sunny good humour of lazy Sunday afternoon jazz by some dam somewhere, with bottles of lurid alcopop and sugar-rimmed cocktails. ‘Drink me!’ the label says: “I’m easy listening!’

To back that up, the opener, Dipopaye, is an ear-worm of such insidious power that after only one listening I simply couldn’t stop humming it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo48SoPq3vc . That’s the radio hit for sure.

But don’t be fooled. There’s literally a lot more to Maswitsi than meets the eye.

Tembisa-born Nkotsi is a graduate of the shamefully under-acknowledged and under-supported Molelekwa Arts Foundation, the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival and the UKZN jazz programme.  He performs in multiple original contexts: see him, for example, as part of a very different composer’s ensemble here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4mEP8i7-d0

On the 10-tracks of the album, he works with reedman Simon Manana (most recently heard on Ayanda Sikhade’s Umakhulu), keyboardist Sanele Phakathi and what’s becoming a top KZN rhythm section of choice: Dalisu Ndlazi on bass and electric bass and Riley G (Giandhari) on drums. The playing is tight and uniformly appealing, and to the extent that Maswitsi actually is easy listening, it’s because everybody knows how to swing like the clappers.

Dalisu Ndlazi (b) & Riley G (drs). Pic: Rafs Mayet

Yet the composing is far more varied and sophisticated than interview and song-title invocations of childhood might suggest, taking the moods to shadowed as well as sunlit places. There are unexpected minor keys and modals. Melodies and structures allude to many faces of township cultural history, not just childhood and play.

Re koJaiveng, for example, is programme music for a helter-skelter Tom and Jerry cartoon chase, but also the cue for a soaring, searching Manana solo and rhythm from Giandhari that’s by turns relentless and swinging, culminating in a tricky tick-tock drum solo. The title track takes us back to jazz picnics at the lake, with the keyboards underpinning a funky groove.

Grootman is a lyrical tribute, affording Nkotsi, Manana and Phakathi the opportunity for solos brimming with controlled yet heartfelt emotion, and Khumoetsile, which follows, sustains the ballad mood, this time with a heart-stopping solo from Ndlazi.  On a slide trombone, playing slow while sustaining precision and a consistent tone, as these two numbers demand, is technically one of the harder things to do, and Nkotsi achieves it with warmth and grace.

Kgethi Nkotsi

Primary School After Care https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PizzK9G7Rw , by contrast, is a piece of classic, brisk South African hard bop, along the lines of Herbie Tsoaeli’s Days Mandulo, with Nkotsi and Manana doing the Jazz Epistles-style thing, while Majampa Jampa is perfect for the diga dancers.

In all these respects, Maswitsi is a typical debut album. It offers a sample of everything currently in the leader’s range, as both composer and player. It’s highly strategic, appealing via its packaging to all those jazz listeners who are, frankly, bored by the uncles in the corner endlessly debating the technical complexities of a solo. Nevertheless, the sound constantly displays and references precisely the qualities those conversations value, packed with playing that’s not only sweet and empathetic, but clever and tough too.

I’m eager to hear along which of the many musical directions showcased here Nkotsi’s second album will take him. Because if you can drag your ears past the wickedly addictive Dipopaye, there’s a lot to choose from.

Zakes Mda’s Wayfarers’ Hymns: words have music too

First, wishing everybody the compliments of 2022. Let’s hope it’s going to be a better year.

I can’t remember when I last listened to famo singer Puseletso Seema. Probably it was around the mid-1990s, when David Coplan’s monograph In the Time of the Cannibals (https://www.amazon.com/Time-Cannibals-Africas-Migrants-Ethnomusicology/dp/0226115747 ) got me searching through SeSotho music as a playlist. As 2021 ended, I needed something similar to accompany a marathon reading catch-up. And there Seema is, only 25 pages in to Zakes Mda’s latest novel, Wayfarers’ Hymns (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.za/book/wayfarers-hymns/9781415210895 ), the book he never intended to write.

She’s one of many real-life famo musicians who perform on its pages.

Mda had planned to stop his novelising with The Zulus of New York, his 30th. But, he observed, “the story decides when it should be told.” And Wayfarers’ Hymns, which explores the social history of Lesotho’s famo music through the life of one kheleke (wandering Sesotho bard), needed to be written.

It needed to be written partly for the completeness of his own opus. Structurally, it’s the middle book of a Toloki trilogy. 1995’s Ways of Dying introduced us to the itinerant professional mourner and his lover Noria. 2007’s Cion found Toloki in America, alone, Noria having “died in Lesotho”, with the how and why unexplained. Wayfarers’ Hymns bridges that narrative gap.

It tells the story of a kheleke’s career, from early beginnings on a concertina, through accordion music, to stage and TV success. It takes the story of the music itself further, reflecting on how new famo may be emerging from the influences of hip-hop. And it paints not only a musical but an emotional coming of age.  

There’s another reason it needed to be written – the reason a book, rather than some music news, opens these 2022 blogs. Because what “traditional” music means outside the exoticising stereotypes, and what’s changing, matters for society, not just musicians. A novel takes those concerns outside the domain of academic musicologists.

One newspaper review of Mda’s novel headlines the “lurid world” of famo music. It’s true that right from the origins of the genre it has been associated with obsessive communal loyalties and violent masculinity. But as Mda makes clear, those loyalties – forged in initiation schools – protected against the dehumanisation and indignities of the migrant mining life. https://chimurengachronic.co.za/accordion-cowboys/

Terene in their distinctive blankets

The book’s unnamed protagonist  – “the boy-child who will end up food for vultures” – hears this history from the age-mates of his father, killed in a mine collapse, his body never recovered.  Like many other “gangs” (including the Mafia) the famo factions first formed as a shield from the oppression of extractive mining capitalism. But they needed funds, and in the years of the struggle, their conservatism led the marashea (Ma-Russia) to take it from the police of those same authorities in return for smashing strikes and demonstrations.

As impoverishment and land degradation in Lesotho intensify, and today’s mine closures dry up migrant remittances, those same close communities still need funds. In a rich irony, the gangs have taken over the zama-zama business of extracting the minerals that remain from abandoned mine workings and, as Mda describes, now pay money to the police to protect those operations. The sounds and insignia of the music factions express loyalties to what are today business operations. https://theafricancriminologyjournal.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/accordion-killers-hundreds-of-murders-in-lesotho-music-rivalry/

Today, the Lesotho Times is still filled with stories of assassinations, and in particular the rivalries between Terene and Seakhi music factions. The impact of those rivalries traverses the Lesotho-South Africa border from abandoned mines to village funerals. That’s the backdrop to the story of the music, woven in and out of the wandering bard’s life story like the arum lily pattern on the purple blankets his own band – increasingly indistinguishable from a gang – wear. 

But it was never only men.

Colonial laws and imported religion fanned violent patriarchy in village communities. The migrant labour system paradoxically forced the women left behind to become more self-reliant to squeeze a livelihood from the land. To evade those contradictions, or as a response to violence or desertion, some women opted for the single life. The historic practice of motsoalle (close and passionate relationships with other women) was one support in their self-reliance. Among the many women rejecting the conventional life, some chose music as their route to independence.

Before Seema, the famous Malitaba carved out that path. Coplan quotes one of her lyrics: ”They call me a vagabond/But I am not a vagabond, I am taking care of business/ Helele! Should I mind when they wink at me?”

The boy-child sometimes clings to old attitudes to women (particularly his sister) in his personal life, even as the strong women around him tease and subvert them. But one strength of Wayfarers’ Hymns is the way its narrative acknowledges and respects their role in the music: not only as backup dancers, barred from certain “men’s songs”, but as front-line performers also singing of war, and as makheleke in their own right, business managers, and even gangsters. Seema’s account of her own life https://www.thepost.co.ls/news/the-crazy-story-of-puseletso-seema/ illustrates this vividly. Oppression, though, is everywhere. One of Seema’s biggest hits, Mofata Seliba, castigated the exploitative music industry, and as recently as 2021, it’s still happening: https://www.thereporter.co.ls/2021/12/20/puseletso-seema-cries-foul/.

What happens to boy-child, to his sister Moliehi, and to Noria is wrapped by all the threads of this complex fabric, and in particular by the commodification of the lifela (songs/hymns) that began their life as expressions of people’s lived experience.   

As we travel with the boy-child, we feel the hurt when music becomes merely a good to be bought and sold. Holding a village feast to thank his ancestors, he sings one of his hit songs. But, his partners in the band explain threateningly, he cannot now sing what have become Arum Lily’s songs for free. They must be purchased for cash with a concert ticket. “’That song is our meal ticket. You are cheapening it when you sing it at just any event where people are not paying…you are cheapening the Cult of Arum Lily as a brand’…I don’t want to be a brand, I said. I just want to be a free man who can sing with his people anytime he feels like it.” It’s a stark and moving illustration of how cultural branding and commodification erode the social fabric.

But in the end we read a novel for its words. Wayfarers’ Hymns has to be one of the most musical of Mda’s recent books: sometimes more like a lyric or a poem, infused with the rhythms and idioms of “village, clan, traditional leader, of singer and lover”.

For all these reasons, even if you’re not into tradition, read this book. It’ll make you think about where music comes from – and where it might be going.

A Short Famo Playlist

Historic roots (Hugh Tracey ILAM recordings –a full playlist at the second link)

Puseletso Seema

Factional rivalries

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-472_PA0hQ (Terene)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5SLx83a8sc (Seakhi)

Famole

Khosi Mosotho Chakela

Famo in the 2020s/ SeSotho hip-hop

Malome Vector (pity the book mis-spells that name!)

Ntate Stunna

2021: A jazz year of loss and creativity

Thank you, South African musicians!

It was only when I began tallying up the albums released this year that I realised quite how creative a year 2021 had been. Given how grim the year has been in some other respects, that’s a fairly substantial flame of hope. It’s entirely down to the perseverance of musicians and those who work directly to support them, because the big political message to creative workers this year was: you’re on your own.

The parched desert of cultural politics

Let’s get the nasty political landscape out of the way first. Slow, inappropriately structured and sometimes downright dodgy mechanisms of support for lost musical livelihoods characterised 2021 as they had 2020. This year, they were augmented by aggressive victim-blaming on the part of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, culminating in the disgraceful spectacle of a protesting opera-singer dragged away by police so roughly that her upper garments were torn off. Official attempts to renege on contracted cultural grants were ruled illegal by the courts. Not once in any of this did DSAC say sorry, or even express regret for lost creative initiatives. It became clear that this is not (at least not all) the result of ignorance or ineptitude. Indeed, when high-profile events such as international sport, or something linked to the Mandela name https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2021-12-24-stop-the-auction-of-mandelas-robben-island-cell-key-mthethwa-demands/ are threatened, fast, decisive and very public action is taken. Such calculating, uncaring opportunism from the ruling party is echoed by most of the other parties; only one manifesto during the local government elections so much as mentioned the arts. We are, indeed, on our own.

The South African musicians we lost 

Lawrence Matshiza

Inevitably, this list of jazz musicians and others we have lost is going to be incomplete, especially now that neither national media nor DSAC seem to care about marking our community’s losses consistently. The generation of giants is ageing, and Covid has snatched younger players too. To my shame, I failed to learn of or write about the Gqeberha passing of guitarist Lawrence Matshiza in July at the time; his strings and often his arrangements shaped the sound of some of the most seminal bands of his era https://www.heraldlive.co.za/news/2021-07-21-gqeberha-guitar-legend-lawrence-matshiza-dies-at-60/ Please send a message to Comments if I’ve missed any musician you would like remembered; I’ll gladly add to this brief memorial list:

Trombonist and composer Jonas Gwangwa

Music organiser Mme Violet Gwangwa

Singer and teacher Sibongile Khumalo

Diplomat, poet and cultural organiser Lindiwe Mabuza

Guitarist Lawrence Matshiza

Music organiser Nompumelelo Moholo

Bassist Patrick Mokoka

Pianist, composer and teacher Andre Petersen

Scholar of South African culture Bheki Peterson

Saxophonist and composer Barney Rachabane

Multi-percussionist Mabi Thobejane

Singer Tshepo Tshola

Tsamaya sentle, lala ngoxolo, hamba kahle, rest in peace to all. The soundscape has lost too much by your passing.

Shoots of creativity and change

The second part of 2021, when disease and lockdown eased a little, showed green shoots of new growth. As well as all the new music emerging (see below), we’ve seen new venues, new support mechanisms (eg https://johannesburg.prohelvetia.org/en/jazzfund/ and https://www.concertssa.co.za/our-activities/mobility-fund/ ), new campaigning groups, new labels and new formats – such as the drive-in Joy of Jazz – as those who really care about the music work to bring it back. Streaming online continues to bring in only limited revenue (according to WIPO, that’s the nature of the beast https://www.unionofmusicians.org/un-report ) but it has provoked much thinking, debate and innovation – including across national borders – around forms of collectivity and collaboration (see for example https://www.facebook.com/pg/kinsmen.sa/posts/ ). It has interrogated concepts such as “leadership” in an ensemble in practice as well as theory, and has started laying down an important archive of current music (see, for example, the archive of concerts and conversations building at https://m.facebook.com/House-on-the-Hill-111763854068103/ ).

New (mainly jazz) releases of 2021; thank you for the music

Sorry, this is probably another incomplete list. I depend on you to tell me what’s coming, particularly now so much great music is being laid down outside Joburg where I’m based. It’s alphabetical by artist, and includes some overseas releases and a handful where we can agree to disagree on genre boundaries (but they’re all interesting music). Nevertheless, listen to even a few samples from it and you’ll hear how hard and creatively our South African music community has been working this year. It’s impossible not to be moved by the beauty that has emerged from the dark Covid times we’ve been passing through.

The Beaters Harari (reissue)

BlkJks Abantu/Before Humans

Shane Cooper Happenstance

Ernest Dawkins We Want Our Land Back

Madisi Dyantyis Cwaka

Steve Dyer Revision

Feya Faku Live at the Birds Eye

Feya Faku Impilo

Neil Gonsalves Blessings and Blues

Harari Rufaro/Happiness (reissue)

Abdullah Ibrahim Solotude

Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O Umdali

Dick Khoza Chapita (reissue)

Bakithi Kumalo What You Hear is What You See

Khaya Mahlangu and the Liberation Orchestra Visions

Nduduzo Makhathini The Blues of a Zulu Spirit

Sibu Mashiloane Ihubo Labomdabu

Kippie Moeketsi/Hal Singer Blues Stomping (reissue)

Jesse Mogale Heritage from an African Continent

Gabisile Motuba The Sabbath

McCoy Mrubata Quiet Please

Msaki Platinumb Heart

Bheki Mseleku Beyond the Stars

Kgethi Nkotsi Maswitsi

Gideon Nxumalo Gideon Plays (reissue)

Andre Petersen Quartet Downtown Jazz

Andile Qongco Afro Qeys

Dave Reynolds/Pops Mohamed San Dance (soundtrack)

The Roots Roots (reissue)

Hilton Schilder Hottie Kulture

Kyle Shepherd After the Night the Day Will Surely Come

Ayanda Sikade Umakhulu

Spirits Rejoice African Spaces (reissue)

Cara Stacey The Texture of Silence: As in the Sun So in the Rain

Philip Tabane The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of…(reissue)

The Brother Moves On Tolika Mtoliki

Herbie Tsoaeli At This Point in Time

Various Artists One Night at the Pelican (Matsuli Music reissue compilation)

Various Artists New Horizons Volume II (compilation)

Various Artists On Our Own Time (compilation)

Various Artists Indaba Is (compilation)

Salim Washington with Alchemy Sound Afrika Love

Andile Yenana and Azania Dreaming One Night at the Market

What’s next?

Billy Monama: the guitar history book’s on its way

I haven’t yet reviewed even all the music above – apologies to all those artists and labels who sent me news late in the year – and new sounds are on the horizon. Already scheduled are a sixth volume from pianist Sibu Mashiloane, a new one from TBMO, a second album from trombonist Malcolm Jiyane and – not a recording but – the avidly-awaited SA guitar history volume from Billy Monama. That’s just a taste of what to expect. This blog will now be taking a break until Jan 9. Thanks to all my readers worldwide for sticking with my musings, ramblings and rants, and wishing you all a much better 2022! If you haven’t yet, please get vaxxed to help make it so.

Hilton Schilder’s Hottie Kulture: new flowers; deep roots

The Hilton Schilder Goema Club was an institution before it was an album: a  recurring, hotly followed, series of live Cape Town gigs where the eponymous pianist and composer and an 8-piece with singer showcased and refined some very interesting arrangements. You can catch the flavour in this sampler from photojournalist Ian Landsberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rYFPlI4N88 .

Up here in Joburg, where no venue that survived Covid had the cash to host a biggish group from out of town, it was just a rumour: “Heard that band Hilton’s working with these days? Very nice!”

Now the album has landed https://music.apple.com/za/artist/the-hilton-schilder-goema-club/1595862955  – and you know what? It really is.

With its wicked double-punning title, playing on both a stereotype and the science of nurturing growth, Hottie Kulture situates itself firmly in identity territory. Schilder has always been a formidable composer, and what this album presents is no less than a jazz suite asserting, exploring – and expanding – the music of Cape Town’s communities of colour.

The territory is mapped in the opening number, Coming Home: a nine-minute tour of sonic styles and symbols. Opening with the solo sound of the Khoisan bow, the track segues into a hymn, which in turn is overtaken by the accelerating rhythms and staccato whistles of the klopse and embroidered with the melodic beauty of Malay choral song, particularly from Muneeb Hermans’ horn. Subsequent numbers return to those elements, as well as visiting the romantic territory of lush night-club songs (Have I ever Let You Down Before?), dances for jazzing feet (the edgy Tangle Foot Tango) and, this being inarguably a jazz album, plenty more damn good tunes that open space for inspired improvising.

Hilton Schilder

One of Schilder’s tricks is to interrupt conventional idioms with elements that are slightly unsettling – an unexpected minor key; a rhythm that breaks with a beat or two of silence; jagged free blowing in the middle of a straight, sweet melody – to keep the listener alert to what the music’s saying, rather than being lulled by a familiar idiom.

There’s also a poignant reminder of who the fathers of this subversive approach to Cape musical conventions were, in a reprise of Schilder’s composition for Robbie Jansen, Grassy Park Requiem  (from Nomad Jez https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVoQ8H1Gx70 ). That’s taken straight, with the reeds sensibly not even trying to go where Jansen went (and a moving bone solo from Edwards); nobody could travel those stratospheres, but fresh approaches are just the kind of legacy he’d have wanted.

And that brings us on to thinking about the rest of Schilder’s collective, because this clever juxtaposition of new visions and time-honoured styles couldn’t rest on the shoulders of a composer/pianist alone.

Candice Thornton

Reeds are Mark Fransman, Byron Abrahams and Duncan Johnson; brass, Hermans on trumpet and Brett Edwards on trombone; with Sean Sanby and guest Clayton Pretorius on bass and Carlo Fabe on drums. Vocalist Candice Thornton displays a mature mastery of phrasing and diction. The song lyrics are far more thoughtful than the average soppy ditty and need to be heard clearly, something she achieves without sacrificing warmth or sweetness.

Mostly, these players are the craftsmen of the Cape jazz scene: totally professional, impeccably reliable, competent in any genre, respected teachers, but not (apart perhaps from Fransman) touring much in their own right, and thus not widely known outside the Mother City. This album gives them space to announce and celebrate who they are to a much wider audience.

Carlo Fabe

All of the solos made me want to hear more of their authors. For me, the revelation was veteran Fabe, who, when playing “support” (which is how I’ve mostly heard him before), takes that role seriously and doesn’t intrude bombastic beats. In the less constrained arena of Hottie Kulture he’s just magic. If anybody thought the goema beat was limited or limiting, listen to his dazzling, fast embroidery with the sticks on Tarata, or his intricately textured solo on Fire.

As for Schilder himself, he gives the band ample space. I’d perhaps have liked a few more piano solos from him, but this album is about the community of musicians, not a “leader”. We need to wait until the scenic, contemplative Duiwepiek 1 to hear his keys come to the front for any length of time, alongside an equally lyrical Sanby, whose bass intro sets the tune’s mood.

“Cape Jazz” is too often a reductive marketing label. Hottie Kulture gives a cheerful middle finger to external assumptions about what the style is and what it isn’t. The album never denies the energies of those stylistic roots, from klopse march to club-dancefloor love song, but constantly and powerfully transforms them.

Red-hot and rhythmic: Ayanda Sikade’s Umakhulu

When you usually sit at the back of the stage beating skins, an album may be your only chance to demonstrate all the other things you can do. 

So when drummer Ayanda Sikade’s debut, Movements, appeared in 2018, it surprised everybody with not only superb stick-craft – that was no surprise – but also a striking and unexpected flair for composition. The tunes were just gorgeous: memorable, emotionally rich, and invoking an encyclopedic jazz lexicon in their references.

Now, three years later, Sikade’s second release as leader, Umakhulu https://afrosynth.bandcamp.com/album/umakhulu consolidates that composer’s mantle. But make no mistake, these are also, emphatically, a drummer’s tunes.

Mdantsane-born Sikade’s professional story is well known: jamming with the Vuka Jazz band at only eight; National Jazz Festival band alumnus; UND jazz programme graduate; Samro Overseas Scholarship winner; and rhythm man of choice for, among many others, the late Zim Ngqawana.

Sikade has long maintained one of his dynamic partnerships from those days, with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, still present in the Umakhulu quartet, and creating some powerful conversations with the drummer, notably on the number Enkumbeni.  The quartet is completed by bassist Nhlanhla Radebe and reedman Simon Manana. 

The nine tracks are bookended and split by tradition: the opener, Mdantsane, is an affectionate tribute to the structures of “African Jazz”: straightforward and instantly recognisable. In the middle, the title track expresses praises for Sikade’s grandmother, alluding to highly salted isiXhosa rhythm and vocal traditions with their complex beatwork around a thread of groove. The closer, Gaba, is a lush, Ellingtonian ballroom ballad, with Makhathini doing (and, of course, subverting) the sweet Strayhorn thing.

In between, there’s more risk-taking. The head melodies stay captivating and catchy, but the space for exploration expands. And while sax and piano are front-of-ear, what they do wouldn’t make half so much sense without the way the drums underpin, fill in or make space.

Sikade isn’t a flashy drummer given to crescendi and ten-minute ooh-ya solos. He’s a quiet, precise musician with a light touch on the sticks and an even lighter one with the brushes. He rides his kit easy, not hard. When you hear a cymbal or drum-roll, it’s deliberate punctuation, not listen-to-me volume.

But the filigree fretwork of his strokes is intricate and compelling. Ignore the melodic line of the ballad Izzah (which is pretty hard, but more about Manana later) and you’re dazzled by what’s going on underneath – and even more so on Space Ship, the number that follows.

Umakhulu, then, is far more than a follow-up to Movements. It extends what we know about Sikade’s powerful vision, range and skill and has to be a contender for just about any award going this year.

Simon Manana

The album holds another surprise too: the contribution of 23-year-old reedman Simon Manana (see https://www.jazzitout.com/2020/10/09/simon-manana-has-huge-ambitions/ ). Despite his youth, Tembisa-born Manana is no stranger to stages, having been spotted by the late Johnny Mekoa as well as featuring, among others, in the big bands of Khaya Mahlangu, his mentor. Those roles, though, are rather different from carrying the entire reed role in a quartet. Manana plays with power, invention and maturity. He parallels his much older leader in an ability to call on the jazz legacy in his references. Hear him on Mdantsane without knowing the lineup, and you might think you’re listening to Mankunku. On Gaba, maybe Johnny Hodges – Manana’s tone has a lot of the same warmth as Jeep’s. On Space Ship, the inspiration might be Ngqawana – but the song that emerges is definitively Manana’s own.

A red-hot, tasty jazz album and an introduction to a really interesting new reed voice. What more – sorry Mariah Carey – could anybody want for Xmas?

****

The late Lindiwe Mabuza

Finally, three sad deaths in the past week, two international, and all important for music here as well as there. First, feminist diplomat, poet, scholar, journalist and organiser Lindiwe Mabuza. There have already been extensive obituaries (see, for example, https://www.citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/2937397/poet-and-freedom-fighter-lindiwe-mabuza-passes-away/ ) but it’s worth noting in particular her role on the ANC Cultural Committee in exile in the late 1970s. Among other work, she was instrumental in supporting the first European tour of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble. As Chief Representative in Scandinavia and later the US, she is remembered by many South African musicians for her shrewd advice and warm practical support while they were in exile. She recalled, with characteristic hearty laughter, how the official apartheid SA book stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair hurriedly packed up its stock as Amandla, still in its infancy, marched in, headed for the ANC stand where the book of militant women’s poetry she had edited was being launched. This, she recalled, is what they were singing:

Robbie Shakespeare back in the day

Second, Jamaican bassist supreme, Robbie Shakespeare, the other half of the Sly n’Robbie rhythm duo who taught the world what riddim really meant. Interviewed in 2017 when Rolling Stone elected him one of the world’s best bassists, Shakespeare told the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper: https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/entertainment/20211208/robbie-shakespeare-sly-and-robbie-fame-has-died “We never ever feel like anything we get in life, we must get it. There have been a lot of sleepless nights and ‘eatless’ nights, too. ‘Nuff time we go to bed hungry, so we remember these things and take stock.” Shakespeare played reggae and so much more: disco grooves for Grace Jones, experimental world mash-ups for Bill Laswell, and jazz for Monty Alexander. But to remember him, a reggae classic: the Mighty Diamonds’ 1981 Pass the Kuchie.

Greg Tate

Finally, cultural commentator and scholar Greg Tate. Tate was hailed by many as the “father of hip-hop”, partly because he gave that genre the grounded, upretentious theorization the music deserved. Writing initially for the Village Voice https://www.villagevoice.com/2021/12/13/flying-high-remembering-greg-tate/ and later for multiple publications worldwide he cast a sharp, sometimes warmly romantic – but never romanticising – eye on Black history and culture, politics and all the music he could devour. His vision was heterogeneous and internationalist; he took a great interest in South Africa https://mg.co.za/article/2016-09-01-00-tate-of-the-nation-dissecting-the-ties-that-bind-black-americans-and-south-africans/  and found common ground with writers here, including Bongani Madondo, for whose first essay collection he contributed the foreword. For a full obituary, see: https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/greg-tate-obituary/. Tate made music not only with words but with a guitar too, in the outfit Brown Sugar that he co-founded and whose praxis was based on Butch Morris’s conduction system of collective improvisation. Here they are, from a 2012 Freedom Day concert.

Hamba Kahle to three heroes whose passing leaves the world of music poorer.

Gabi Motuba’s Sabbath foregrounds strings to challenge genre

There are so many albums appearing at the moment that it’s almost impossible to keep track. Despite the devastation that Covid and inept government support wreaked on live music, it’s clear that the locked-down months of 2020/21 were a period when intense creativity overflowed offstage. For the musicians able to make it happen, that creativity is now being consolidated in recordings.

Gabisile Motuba on the cover of The Sabbath

In that context, though, music-buying pockets that may also have been lockdown-struck are getting stretched, and those few South African media that still bother to document our original music can’t possibly cover it all in good time.

So it’s possible that – unless you listened to Kaya-FM last month at about 2pm on a Sunday – you aren’t aware that vocalist and composer Gabi Motuba recently released her second project as leader, The Sabbath https://gabimotuba.bandcamp.com/album/the-sabbath-2 .

The five tracks, totalling around 20 minutes, are a showcase for Motuba’s instrumental composing, rather than either her jazz singing or the urgent spoken-word abstractions of her Fanon-inspired collective trio project The Wretched https://www.facebook.com/Gabi-Motuba-206485503347435/videos/the-wretched-is-a-sonic-conceptualtheoretical-project-which-is-an-interpretation/271254357281343/  – although the opening track, The Scream, shares the mood of righteous horror infusing that latter work. The intellectual themes, however, remain constant: reflections on how past events, personal and political, imprison and overdetermine the present.

The compositions are for string quartet, with voice, as on Motuba’s debut Te Fiti, Goddess of Creation https://music.apple.com/za/album/tefiti-goddess-of-creation/1478224078 , adding words, but equally important for enriching the sonic textures created by violinists Stella Mtshali and Tiisetso Mashishi, viola player Daliwonga Tshangela, and contrebassist (no cello here) Thembinkosi Mavimbela.

The Sabbath reminds us – if any reminder was needed – that attempts to stereotype Black music traditions are doomed before they begin. String music belongs to Black South Africans every bit as much as ukupika guitar technique, split-tone singing or famo accordion-playing.

In 2006, when Thandiswa Mazwai used a string quartet behind her searing indictment of a revolution betrayed, Nizalwa Ngobani https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKO-RS47UOo, some listeners were surprised, some even questioning the presence of these ‘bourgie’ instruments.

A young Michael Masote

But King Tha’s instrumental choice was spot-on, fitting neatly into a long tradition that takes in string players from itinerant street fiddlers through pop heroes such as Noise Khanyile https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHS_XWgMxsA  to dedicated classical players and teachers such as Dr Khabi Mngoma and Michael and Sheila Masote https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/opinion/how-one-pioneering-man-armed-only-with-a-violin-challenged-apartheid-9570055.

Yet there still aren’t large numbers of South African composers writing for strings – and until very recently very few of them were women. That’s changing, in the academy and even more in the liminal performance spaces where genre boundaries are dissolving. Singer/songwriter Msaki, working with producer Neo Muyanga, has put string arrangements at the emotional core of her most recent album, Platinumb Heart https://open.spotify.com/album/5I1PuwMzFN5Ooh8R5zUncS, woven into protest ballads and riding alongside house and piano.

It’s in those liminal spaces that The Sabbath also belongs. It effectively employs the composing techniques of contemporary concert music, as, for example, in the sprightly cycles of An Exchange Between Wretched Lovers. But you’ll also find timing, phrasing and a way with a lyric, such as on A Call to Sound, that are unmistakably the work of a jazz singer.

Those genre roots are gloriously irrelevant. What we get instead are complex, intriguing music, shifting textures and compressed patterns, punctuated by moments of stark emotion. Not only is this some of the most interesting music I’ve heard this year, it’s also some of the most strikingly beautiful.

Viva the album, viva Adele!

Adele with an armful of Grammys

No, this blog hasn’t sold out to the pop world. But Adele persuading Spotify to remove the shuffle button from her latest album (https://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/adele-spotify-removes-shuffle-30-ablum-1235000853/ ) (albeit half-heartedly, and with a backdoor work-around) matters for music and the industry. It’s worth applauding.

Let’s not fetishise the album; the single actually has a longer history.

The very first hardcopy recordings, on wax-coated cardboard cylinders and later flat shellac disks, back in the phonograph days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were of single sound items, limited by the recording and playback technology of their day. 

Media that could carry longer sequences of sound were first developed to provide film soundtracks in the 1920s; they were later used for syndicated radio transcription recordings. Technology improved over the years, vinyl displaced shellac and the first commercial 12-inch LP (“long-playing”) record came from the Columbia label in 1948: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. Previously, lengthy classical works were sold in “albums” of multiple 78rpm disks. Record companies believed the 12” long-playing record would appeal primarily to elite, moneyed audiences who wanted to listen to classical works.

The very first 12″ long playing record

They were wrong.

It was the period from the late-1950s onward, with the rise of English-language popular music “stars” and the ability of the format to carry thematic concepts and not just collections of songs, that consolidated the place of the “album”.

It was a historic change. Popular music performance had previously been ephemeral. Albums archived and gave long life to an artist’s identity. They transformed the conditions of creation and reception for non-live popular music.

Though today’s new album may be on a CD, or, more likely, exist only as a themed collection of digital tracks – we can talk about the renaissance of vinyl another time – that’s the creative gain that Adele’s intervention was about. These days, it’s only a big pop name earning a lot for the digital platforms who has the clout to get action from Spotify – and get music consumers thinking about something that we very nearly lost.

The digital revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s (we can probably date this bit of it from the emergence of Napster in 2001) had two main effects on the recorded music business: disintermediation and disaggregation (“unbundling”).

Disintermediation first. For a brief, golden period, artists had the potential take creative control of their product and reach directly into the market using the internet. They could cut out the often-exploitative and rarely artistically sensitive established record labels who had mediated between creation and consumer.

That didn’t last. New intermediaries – the global streaming platforms – emerged, charging artists dollars and paying them fractions of cents to reach potential buyers. (I discussed that in detail here, with all the links to sites breaking down just how exploitative those streaming payment rates are, especially for African artists: https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2020/08/09/music-streaming-spotify-the-issues-for-african-artists/ ) One set of intermediaries – the legacy record labels – were replaced by another, bigger, badder set.

For a while disaggregation – marketing single tracks – continued to suit the streamers very well indeed. It reached the pockets of music buyers who couldn’t afford the whole album and squeezed a bit of profit out of them too. It spoke directly to broadcasters (sometimes with business links to the platforms) whose content model is organised around single plays. Even the “one hit wonder” pop star with only one gimmicky song in him could yield massive returns for a platform.

Now, as with disintermediation, so with disaggregation. A bigger, badder, successor has emerged. Over the past half-dozen years or so, a new kind of digital bundling has been growing.

Music services are being bundled with subscriptions for news or films/drama to permit a big global platform to own all the online consumption preferences of a subscriber, thereby gaining competitive advantage, building customer loyalty, and saving the costs of marketing individual items and categories. (not to mention having all that big consumption data as another marketable product.) Often, the music service that is part of the bundle is “free”(unrated). Distribution on this basis has a near-zero marginal cost, so long as the streamer manages its spending (particularly on rights payments) as economically as possible. That fosters a harsher and harsher squeeze on the creating musician.

Bundling helps the global platforms increase their scale advantage, makes it harder for rebel models to compete – and operates against creative innovation in music because the algorithms are best at pushing only variations of the same-old same-old, to keep customers loyal. In fact, we’re back to the philistine “Yes, but will it sell?” of the legacy record labels.

So much more than a collection of singles….

Consumers, we’re told, prefer buying singles. And to some extent that’s true. But we are increasingly seeing via analyses of the power of the global platforms that what their users “prefer” is what’s made most accessible to them, what’s presented as the norm, and what they know about.

That’s why Adele’s intervention is so important. Keeping the aggregated integrity of just one album, as the story above shows, is a miniscule aspect of the massive tides and counter-tides surging through the music industry. It might not transfer to other artists and albums (although it could). It might not even last.

But Adele’s stand, because of her “star” status, has got people talking. In the week since she made her demand, the UK Guardian, the New York Times, the BBC and many more international news outlets have been talking about this as, at home, have broadcasters on multiple news channels such as 702. What they’ve been talking about is the creative input to recorded music, why an artist’s vision matters, and how it can communicate with a listener: the real value of the intellectual property embodied in music.

In jazz, we’ve always loved and bought albums, but most music consumers aren’t in jazz. More of those listeners too are now talking about how things could be different. Adele’s no revolutionary, but helping people see that possibility is where every change starts.  

Bakithi Kumalo’s bass paints the journeys of a lifetime

Bakithi Kumalo has come a long way since Graceland. Actually, in South African terms, he was already travelling long before we called his fretless bass-line Al https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMbfT3Wppjo .

By the mid-1980s, Kumalo was a distinctive and recognisable bass line in a hugely diverse range of Joburg recordings across pop music, jazz and more. He’d started in his uncle’s band, aged only 7.

The bassist’s pre-Paul Simon recordings included a bunch of uncredited work with white acts who – back in those apartheid, days – were happy to use but not name the preternaturally talented, adaptable and rock-steady reliable young Black bassist they found at the studio. Alex-born Kumalo used to ride into town early enough that police pass checks weren’t too energetic, and hang around all day, accepting whatever session gig was available. It honed his skill and was already, pre-1987, steadily building his reputation.

Simon and Graceland put Kumalo firmly on international stages, and that’s where he’s stayed ever since: based in the US and featuring with almost literally everybody, from Cindi Lauper and John Legend to Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington, with Angelique Kidjo, Chico Cesar and Chris Botti along the way. That’s a highly edited list; his credits on other people’s albums top 100.

Because of that strong international profile, South Africans haven’t always noticed that he has steadily continued making albums as leader overseas too: his most recent, What You Hear Is What You See https://music.apple.com/us/album/what-you-hear-is-what-you-see/1581124257  is, by my count, his sixth and unlike some of its predecessors, it’s being well-publicised in South Africa too.

Kumalo’s music has always been hard to pigeonhole – beyond, that is, the various professional bass-player magazines that regularly dub him “the best fretless bass player in the world”. He’s never forced his playing into a specific genre mould. Most notably, he never compromised his skill, even when working in a lightweight pop context. One of his tastiest early solos was on Theta’s 1986 Dark Street Bad Night https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzkS51SDpOs: a classic piece of anti-censor subterfuge that coded allusions to apartheid’s informers and agents in soul-styled warnings about the dangers of the inner city.

Thetha back in the day: Kumalo is second from the right standing

In the same way, although the tunes on What You Hear… are appealing and catchy enough to find airtime on pop radio and in venues where music plays second fiddle to socialising, even one concentrated second of attention will tell you the music is much, much more than that.

Fans still nostalgic for the lyrical, plangent sounds of Kumalo’s youthful career here (and it’s hard to accept he’s already 65 and has been away for so long), will find much to please them in a moving bass-led ballad in tribute to his sister, Nomvula, who was stolen by Covid last year.

What You Hear… could often be a soundtrack (as its full title declares) and in places scenic textures dominate, including on Zululand Nation with its explicit allusions to isiZulu idioms, Happy Village, with its busy marketplace feel, marimbas and layered percussion, and the almost ambient, spacious atmosphere of Desert Walk, inspired by the three-string Gnawa gimbri bass. All these express a deep, joyful Pan-Africanism that says a lot about who Kumalo still is, albeit now in a more cosmopolitan setting.

But there’s another kind of Pan-Africanism apparent in the collaboration on two tracks with Kenyan jazz pianist Aaron Rimbui, whom South Africans may recall from his impressive 2014 appearance at the Orbit or his team-up with bassist Herbie Tsoaeli at the 2019 Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

Rimbui features on the opener and on what, for me, is the most compelling track, the eight-minute Long Story Short, composed by Kumalo with the pianist in mind.

Rimbui’s ability, alongside reedman Maxfield Gast on soprano, to maintain the implicit groove of Kumalo’s conception while exploring allusive abstraction rather than programmatic picture-painting, shows us different scenery: the landscape of ideas.

With its invocation of a lifetime of bass identities, What You Hear Is What You See offers plenty for longtime Kumalo fans. It demonstrates the kind of tight professional relationships he’s built with colleagues who completely understand where – literally and metaphorically – his music is coming from. But there’s also enough that’s new to show Kumalo hasn’t stopped exploring – and that future albums may still hold some sonic surprises.

A Barney Rachabane discography

Note: full obituary now here: https://www.newframe.com/for-barney-rachabane-jazz-was-a-way-of-life/

Funeral: Saturday 20 November Starting at the family home 3571 Manqhokwe St Zone 3 Pimville then proceeding to West Park Cemetary. 09:30-11:30

Born in Alexandra Township,  Barney Rachabane was, by the age of seven, playing in a pennywhistle band called The Little Bunnies. (Hence the nickname “Bunny” Rachabane). By the time he was 18, though, he was respected enough to dep for Kippie Moeketsi in the Early Mabuza Quartet at the 1964 Castle Lager Jazz Festival. He later worked in Mabuza’s Big Five.

https://nextstopsoweto.bandcamp.com/track/little-old-man-maxhegwana

In 1968, with trumpeter Dennis Mpale and pianist Shakes Mgudlwa, he was recording with the well-respected Soul Giants

In Cape Town, he worked and recorded extensively with the Jazz Disciples led by pianist Tete Mbambisa

By the mid-70s, every jazzman was recording at least one bump jive number. This one is from his 1976 album Sweet Matara with trumpeter Stompie Manana and saxophone colleague Ezra Ngcukana.

As well as bump jive, Rachabane also recorded in the highly popular mabone (sax jive) style

Rachabane and Mpale then formed Roots in 1976, with keyboardist Jabu Nkosi and rising young bassist Sipho Gumede.

https://frederiksbergrecords.bandcamp.com/album/roots

The 1980s were a tough time for live music, with state violence, restrictions and censorship. But in 1985, Rachabane led his own ensemble on Blow Barney Blow.

But the reedman’s reputation led American singer/songwriter Paul Simon to him. Recording, and then tours with the Graceland Project followed. This live performance is from Zimbabwe in 1987.

Trading fours with Hugh Masekela in New York in the late’80s in a band also including Tshepo Tshola, John Selolwane and more.

Another album as leader, Barney’s Way, followed in 1989

And in 1990, Rachabane accompanied Darius Brubeck to New Orleans in the Afro-Cool Concept: This is from their live album

A very different character was apparent on his collaborations with trumpeter Bruce Cassidy: the thoughtful, empathetic Conversations

And in 2017 he reunited with old comrade Tete Mbambisa for the new edition of Tete’s Big Sound, with UK musicians. This recording was from the Cape Town leg of the tour

Barney (Joel) Rachabane 2 March 1946 – 13 November 2021

It’s with huge sadness that I hear of the death of saxophonist, bandleader and composer Bra’ Barney Rachabane yesterday evening. An obituary will follow. For now, let us remember a fearless player with a unique, unmistakeable reed attack. Hamba Kahle to a great spirit and father of South Africa’s modern jazz sound.

The music is from the historic Roots album

https://frederiksbergrecords.bandcamp.com/album/roots

The photograph (credited to Ngexko Syfred Dlova) shows Rachabane in the 1960s, backed by Abdullah Ibrahim on piano.