It’s fitting that to close Black History Month, next Monday March 1, Matsuli Music reissues two albums that tell us a great deal about how young Black South Africans in the 1970s demonstrated solidarity with African-American and African continental legacy, aspirations and struggles. The albums are Harari by the Beaters, and Rufaro/Happiness, the first release after that band changed its name to Harari. https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/harari-2 ; https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/rufaro-2 .
I have to declare an interest here: I wrote the new liner notes and was paid for it, so this blog might be somewhat diminished in credibility. But the two albums do matter as something more than pieces of pop ephemera, and it’s worth saying why. I wouldn’t have written those liner notes if I didn’t think so.
First, of course, we have to say that despite its market positioning as pop music, and the extreme youth of its principals (drummer Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, bassist Alec ‘Om’Khaoli, and keyboardist and founder Selby Ntuli) both Harari and Rufaro/Happiness featured their fair share of jazz legends, and those musicians are an important part of why the albums are so central to the cultural landscape of the time.
As well as Hotstix Mabuse on drums and flute, the earlier album has in its backing line trumpeter Dennis Mpale, reedman Duku Makasi and others from the distinguished crew who hung out around Dorkay House, while the second includes reed icon Kippie Moeketsi and guitarist Themba Mokoena. Those South African players all admired the work of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and their peers. They understood the hardships American racism imposed on their counterparts’ lives and avidly consumed news of events such as Gillespie’s 1964 presidential campaign, which both light-heartedly satirised conservative politics – his campaign song was “Vote Dizzy” to the tune of Salt Peanuts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTBEGimnjMI – and seriously advocated change.
But that jazz contingent was equally serious about their own legacy, South African identity and Black rights: the late bassist Victor Ntoni recalled Moeketsi as defying “all the rules of the then government by moving wherever he wanted because he was a son of the soil and no-one can tell him where to go…he used to be able to relate things to local ethnic sounds and be modern at the same time.”
As for the albums’ “Afro-rock” categorization, the constraining marketing categories we fetishize today really didn’t matter either at the As-Shams studios where they recorded or at Dorkay House where their jazz colleagues gathered. A gig was a gig – apartheid restrictions and the re-tribalisation policies of Radio Bantu already made those scarce enough.
Good music was good music. Moeketsi certainly respected the musicianship of the youthful Mabuse and bassist Om Alec Khaoli , calling them twice for jazz releases, Pat Matshikiza’s 1975 Tshona https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXioDRXNX0s and Dennis Mpale’s 1977 Our Boys are Doing It https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0_dbEpRH-E .
When I talked to Mabuse in compiling the liners, he traced the paths between America and Africa and the emerging shape of the Harari sound. He noted how the bands had their roots in the Soweto Soul movement, which drew its stage style and fashion from US soul bands, but of course “that political influence was coming too, from America and from what was happening here, along with the music.”
This was also the era of Biko, Black Consciousness and student rebellion, “People were clued up. Martin Luther King was happening, Black Consciousness was just beginning to develop, Steve Biko was founding SASO (the South African Students Organisation), there were cultural and political groups happening at lunchtimes and after school – all the things that became the movement behind the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and we were gradually getting caught up in that,” he remembers.
And after the schoolboy musicians who started their lives as The Beaters spent an extended stay in Zimbabwe (then still Rhodesia), “We had been restless and curious youngsters … The liberation struggle in that country was intensifying. A groundswell of Black Consciousness influence was pervasive. In Harari we rediscovered our African-ness, the infectious rhythms and music of the continent. We came back home inspired! We were overhauling ourselves into dashiki-clad musicians who were Black Power saluting and so on.”
You can hear all that history in the music on these albums: in chants and drums reminiscent of Osibisa on the Beaters’ track Harari and in the classic Soweto Soul of Love, Love, Love that immediately follows it (with a fierce, tight closing mbaqanga break from Mpale), both sitting quite comfortably on the same disc as the teenage grind of Push it On and the bump jive of What’s Happening. You can hear it in the mbira opening on Rufaro’s opener, Oya kai and the updated exploration of traditional chants, stamping and whistles on the closer, Uzulu.
It was the intersections, fusions and updates of all those sources, thinks Mabuse, and their transformation into something that was both a highly political assertion of identity and a powerful social incitement to dance that made the outfit so successful: “The parallel cross-influences of the Black Panther Movement and Black Consciousness via African-American soul music and Soweto Soul contributed to the way Harari became purveyors of all the musics we today call Afrosoul, Afro-pop, Afrojazz and so on in this country.”
That, they unarguably did. Harari graduates can be found everywhere on the Black popular music landscape of the 1980s and beyond: Umoja, Chess, Kabassa, Stimela, all Mabuse’s subsequent bands, all the beneficiaries of Khaoli’s studio production style, and even the jazz explorations of Spirits Rejoice.
History books can sometimes send you to sleep. These two volumes will likely have the opposite effect. And if you want to swim in the heady cultural cross-currents of young Soweto in the uprising years, I can hardly think of better introductory texts.
Soweto Soul; Soweto style. Alec “Om” Khaoli (l) and Selby Ntuli (r)