The Beaters and Harari: Black History on the dancefloor

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.  ; .

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   – 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 and Dennis Mpale’s 1977 Our Boys are Doing It .

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.”

Sipho Mabuse now …

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.”

…and then

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)

‘Unchain my art’ – Eugene Mthethwa and sorting out the royalties tangle

Trompies: Eugene Mthethwa right of pic

There is really only one music news story this week: the protests by musicians Eugene Mthethwa (Trompies) and EFF MP Ringo Madlingozi  ( backed by a statement from his political party ) against the South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO) concerning alleged delinquency in paying royalties.

 This coincides with a Facebook post by vocalist/composer Ziza Muftic – supported by multiple followers in the music profession – about the user-unfriendliness of the current SAMRO website, and the perceived breach of natural justice in placing an expiry date on live performance submissions, when the performances have happened and SAMRO has presumably collected on them.

SAMRO’s Mark Rosin

I have not examined the documents related to the Mthethwa/SAMRO dispute. SAMRO’s Mark Rosin has denied  wrongdoing and suggests there is a broader context of dispute including monies allegedly due from Mthethwa to SAMRO. I do follow the logic of Muftic’s Facebook post; it makes sense to me. I’m not a legal expert or an actuary, and it’s up to experts such as those to untangle the rights and wrongs of specific cases and practices.

This column is not about these individual cases. It’s about the broader issues: that severe relationship problems clearly persist between the country’s largest royalties collection agency and its constituency at the very time when musicians are most desperately in need of revenue; and that, once more, the government department tasked with overseeing the sector remains silent and apparently unknowing about it all.

I say ‘persists’ because the elephant in the room when discussing anything to do with SAMRO is the organisation’s negative history during apartheid. Established in 1961 under Dr Gideon Roos the organisation became (whether deliberately or not is less relevant in 2021; it was unarguably unjust whatever the intention) a vehicle for all kinds of abuses perpetrated by the white-controlled music industry against black artists, from white producers assigning themselves or their designated stooges as the owners of Black creativity, to the classification of much popular music as “traditional”, which erased the creativity and denied the financial rights of its modern makers.

We cannot blame the current SAMRO administration for that – but it lurks as a malevolent shadow over any interactions with artists today, even when nobody mentions it.

The first step towards setting relationships with artists on a better footing would be an honest, impartial, transparent reckoning with the past. Establish a mini-TRC for the recording and rights industry; hear testimonies; report findings and develop a reparations mechanism, whether financial or in the form of scholarships or other investments in the future of Black South African music. However large (and they probably won’t be), such reparations can never be adequate against the psychic pain caused, but they would represent an important acknowledgment.

Prompted by the Facebook entry, I looked – with advice from a registered musician friend – at parts of the current SAMRO website.  It certainly is user-unfriendly: clunky, hard to navigate, and written in far-from-plain language. Another aspect of repairing relationships would be to correct that as quickly as possible. And we do, of course, have more than one official language, with great music made in all of them – why force everybody to operate in English?

In July 2020, ConcertsSA (an organisation often associated with SAMRO) commissioned a survey of live streaming activities in South Africa: Digital Futures  . Among the recommendations respondents made were some directed at collective management organisations in general, and some directed specifically at CAPASSO and SAMRO. Repeatedly, the need for simple, transparent and accessible systems and processes, and forums for meaningful constituency input were foregrounded by respondents, alongside making faster, more accurate payments. 

Complaints about the justice and effectiveness of royalty disbursements are by no means a uniquely South African issue. A quick Google will turn up dozens of articles on the topic, covering all aspects of intellectual property (IP) administration, and most countries. (See, for example,  ;   ;and  (generic IP)  – a tiny sample from what’s out there.) In South Africa, as I’ve noted above, the issue is further poisoned by historical injustices.

The lack of comment from DSAC is concerning. This blog has noted before that the Department prioritises ‘creative industries’ aspects of the arts, and thus is often more distant from other kinds of debates. But these issues – the practices around IP and collecting and distributing royalties; the earnings of artists – are central to a creative industries perspective. A few days have passed since Mthetwa and Madlingozi’s protests – but far, far longer since this and related rights and royalties controversies began bubbling. DSAC’s silence remains deafening. Even the usual routine statement – in line with the Department’s responses to various sports body scandals – noting events and appealing to all involved to get their acts together, would have been a minor improvement on nothing. 

Even if the Trompies star’s chains aren’t quite as weighty as those brandished by SAPOHR’s Golden Miles Bhudu over the past 20 years , his protest should remind us that all is not well with royalty administration in this country, and that nobody can afford (in the case of our musicians, literally) to let it fester unattended for much longer.

Bassist Jesse Mogale asserts the heritage of African jazz

A pernicious but pervasive myth suggests South African modern jazz moved overseas in the decades after 1960, and nothing much happened at home until the exiles returned. Reissues of original sounds from The Drive, Spirits Rejoice, Batsumi, Black Disco and more are hailed as “discoveries” – but they’re really only that for overseas listeners or generations too young to have encountered them.

That sound of that era at home was instantly recognisable. It shared some features with US hard bop: catchy themes and solid, bluesy grooves underpinning risk-taking, harmony-based improvisations. The inspiration and tone colour came from home roots, among them the repeating grooves of marabi, the pipes and patterns of malopo, Africanist church vernaculars and the drones and overtones of uhadi and umruhbe.

That sound still lives; your ears can spot its lineage everywhere on the South African jazz landscape.

But every now and then an album emerges where the line of descent is much more explicitly declared. Mandisi Dyantyis’ 2019 Somandla was one such. Now, bassist Jesse Mogale’s Heritage from an African Continent is another. 

The reason we don’t know those sounds so well, or recognise the lineage so easily, is that post-76 repression meant music happened mainly in its neighbourhoods. The record of its existence has to be discerned from the crowded lists of active cultural groups on the pages of Staffrider or the multitudes who came out of South Africa for the Culture and Resistance conference in Botswana. But the music was very much alive, nurtured in the same cradles as revolt: in Mannenberg, Mdantsane and Mamelodi. There – every bit as much as in the MK bases of Angola and Zambia, the ANC cultural committee rooms of London and Lusaka, or the overseas club stages where exiles guested – defiant musicians and their communities were shaping the sound that declared: this is South African jazz. 

That’s where Mogale’s music fits.  When I spoke to him – for an interview in New Frame here – he described the politics that nurtured the music, and also the cosmopolitan sonic inspiration of Tshwane, cradle of marabi. “[It] has its roots in Tshwane. That’s alluded to by Abullah Ibrahim in the documentary Brother with Perfect Timing , where he mentions that marabi comes from Marabastad on the outskirts of Pretoria. Back in the day Marabstad  was a place to hang-out for people like Eskia Mphahlele, Can Themba and so on. You can imagine Abdullah Ibrahim playing with the likes of Soulkie Moosa, and Ernest Mothle ,” Mogale says.

Lefifi Tladi

On Legacy from an African Continent , Mogale works with players who appreciate that legacy, including his brother, the guitarist Moss Mogale, who also contributed one composition, and the rootsiest of our modernists, reedman Sydney Mnisi.  But there are also much younger players – 0ne drummer, Manqoba Manku, was only 14 when the tracks were cut – with whom the tradition has been shared through Mogale’s community music education initiative Cafca (Committed Artists for Cultural Advancement: see this tribute from US pianist Helen Sung . Another guiding presence hovering over the work is painter and poet Lefifi Tladi : still every bit as much the Mamelodi rebel as he was in those struggle days. Tladi has contributed cover art to the album as well as two poems, one of which he reads himself. Mogale remembers Tladi , half-joking, warning, “Hey Jesse, feel free to call me – but once I get involved you might find some people won’t call you!”

As a tribute to the legacy, the album contains a beautiful, faithfully-rendered duo version of Mackay Davashe’s Lakutshon’Ilanga featuring Mogale and pianist Tshepo Monareng. There, we hear Mogale playing a plangent, plucked solo improvisation and beautifully-judged walking lines to underpin the piano. Those are two of the musician’s bass faces: the third is arco (bowed) bass, heard to stunning effect on several tracks including the moving, bluesy Homeless Child and the contemplative closer: another duo, Tranquility.

The other ten of the album’s dozen tracks are Mogale’s original compositions, but still they explore facets of legacy. His fraternal Tribute to Bo’ Moss is shaped as a kwela with just the right kinds of solos from Mnisi, Moss Mogale, and trumpeter Ntsikilelo Mcwabe. Lullaby for an African Child nods towards loping malopo beats, the feel perfectly caught by Mnisi’s flute, while the irresistibly danceable Harvest Song recalls marabi roots and their successors in bump jive with fat horn choruses and a stylish little conversation between Mnisi, Mcwabe, Mthunzu Mvubu on alto and Kopano Mashile on  ‘bone. Marabi, says Mogale, is something he plans to explore and research much more deeply.

This isn’t history in a glass case, however.  Mogale writes extremely catchy melodies for ears of all generations. His music can be soaring on Short Stories with Tladi’s evocative Afrofuturist words; Afro-soul jazzy on  Nakana ya Mokhura (with soaring voices from the far-too-little heard Octavia Rachabane and Daisy Mangwato); and lift into an airy contemporary theme for Things Finally Get Better that starts waltz and then really takes off.

Jesse Mogale plays arco bass. Pic: Morris Matsobane Legoabe

One problem with South Africa’s Cape Town and Joburg-dominated commercial jazz scene is there are far too many excellent players around in other cities whose names you rarely hear. If you don’t already know some of these players, you may be surprised – in a very good way.

Heritage from an African Continent works on multiple levels. It’s a showcase for all the nice things the contrebass can do and for Cafca’s remarkable work nurturing young musicians in their communities, outside Amerocentric university jazz curricula. It benchmarks a decade or so of Mogale’s own compositions, and demonstrates today’s possibilities for historic South African forms. In doing all this, it says loudly and proudly: Remember? This is who we are.

Chick Corea returns to forever

In a year already scarred by tragic deaths, the passing of pianist, composer and innovator Chick Corea at the age of 79 adds to the sadness. He was described this morning by one of his collaborators as “the best improviser I have ever known.” Here’s Return to Forever to remind you of the scale and scope of his imagination. May his spirit rest in music and peace.

Remembering Khumalo and Gwangwa: only action matters

The memorial service for Sibongile Khumalo 6 February 2020

“Remember me,” sang Sibongile Mngoma. Her richly expressed Dido’s Lament was one of many heartbreaking moments in Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo’s memorial service at the Market Theatre yesterday. But it also posed a question for many of us: how can we adequately remember cultural titans such as Khumalo and Ntate Jonas Gwangwa? What happens after the ceremonies and speeches are over?  

It’s all very well to read out a bureaucratically-authored, occasionally inaccurate, official tribute speech – but then, all too often, our cultural heroes are relegated to a dusty pantheon on some memorial wall; their names invoked on heritage days, but nothing practical actually done to carry forward the work they began and that the speech lauded. Who’s picking up the spear?

The lives of Gwangwa and Khumalo enacted the liberation and decolonisation of music learning, production and reception. They didn’t just compose, play, sing and teach; they did it for an explicit, beautifully articulated reason.

Meanwhile, the official structures that generate those speeches, daily enact an entirely contrary discourse of elitist, “world-class” and commoditising cultural policy that disdains grassroots arts communities and their needs.

So here’s an idea. First, we ourselves must remember them: in everything we do, write, play and paint. Recall what they stood for and in our own work and practice, in our own way and voice, we can keep it alive. Self-reliance matters when the powers that be embrace global capital. But for those powers that be, how about spending some of the money that pre-Covid was poured into mega-events on the cultural commons instead? ( )  In other words, shape arts policies and spending to make the creation and enjoyment of music, visual art and literature accessible to as many people as possible? (We used to call it ‘opening the doors of culture’.)

That has many aspects, at many levels.

It could involve investing to close the digital divide, so that live streamed South African theatre and music are accessible to their core audience here at home. Let creators access officially-controlled spaces (state theatres, the SABC studios)  to create content – after all, when artists are able to earn, their taxes contribute to the upkeep of those places. Include digital tickets in relief packages, and you build audiences, help decolonise consumption patterns – and make it possible for artists to earn again.

It could involve improving support for the brave community music schools all over the country that have struggled on, largely dependent on the whims of external donors, and for arts activities in community centres.

And if you want something that sounds fancier – for Departmental annual reports and such –how about endowing a few music and arts scholarships and chairs at universities? There are two caveats. First, the chairs must be open to organic as well as Western-qualified intellectuals, so that the people’s professors of image, word and music do not perish before they pass on their intellectual riches. Second, the study paths for scholarship students and teachers must encourage fresh, people-centred subject-matter.

Gwangwa, for example, was entranced by the expressive possibilities of music theatre. Outside America, there are relatively few chairs of music theatre – the Netherlands established its first only in 2019 – but South Africa ought to have one in his name. Khumalo strove to open the doors of music production to young women, so how about a chair in music production in hers – with investment in new curriculum development and scholarships encouraging non-conventional applicants for both?  


Oh yes, and another good way of remembering music greats is to ensure their successors can afford to feed their families. DSAC has just launched the third phase of its Covid relief funding . This is welcome news. The announcement document also makes welcome acknowledgment of issues such as access, and “marginalised” communities and art-forms. (We can talk later about the current – not only historic – reasons why such “marginalisation” exists.)

Unfortunately, the  document isn’t exactly in accessible plain language (which, we should remind everybody, is a Constitutional requirement). Long sentences, impersonal constructions, unclear passives plus an imperative, occasionally hostile tone make it less likely people will apply. The continuing refusal of the conditions to acknowledge that South African cultural workers must often work several jobs, not all of them in creative sectors, will exclude many more.

  • Most offensive is the imperative to “Provide honest and accurate information and note that misrepresentation of information may lead to your application not being considered.” The tsotsis and tenderpreneurs will blithely ignore this instruction – they don’t even care about selling fake medical gear that kills, so this isn’t likely to deter them. For everybody else, it’s just hurtful.  I’ve talked with people involved in disbursing other, non-government, relief to artists. What they’ve found most striking and moving is the scrupulous honesty of applicants, who often request just tiny amounts to cover shortfalls in meagre and almost certainly previously inadequate incomes.

Still, if it benefits even a minority of recipients, DSAC’s continuing relief for the sector is welcome. If you think you qualify, please try to apply.

Sibongile Khumalo in her own words

Not everything  that matters is on the Web. In fact, much that matters about South Africa’s cultural creativity isn’t. As examples, the archives of the Star Tonight in its heyday, when it cared about the South African arts scene, have not been digitised; and anything from the short-lived Weekender is un-findable (and would be behind an exclusionary paywall if it wasn’t).

So here, from my interviews with her for those publication, is the voice of Sibongile Khumalo, explaining why a decolonised, feminist approach to African music is the only way to secure not only an accurate record of our past, but an open road to our future. 

On decolonising minds: “I remember being on a plane and stopping over in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some Congolese army officers boarded and kept trying to chat me up in French. I lost patience: come on, speak English! And then they cracked up because I didn’t speak French. It struck me what great products we all were of our former colonial masters.” 

On arts festivals: “There’s a danger in festivals being all things to all people. The festival market has grown enormously; for elite festival-goers world travel has opened up too. So for us to be talking about ‘world class’ [festivals] to mean merely copying international models or importing performers may not be sensible. ‘World-class’ suggests a need to be validated by what’s over there – whether or not it validates our goals.”

On the need to build new indigenous repertoire: “We need to reach a point where to be recognised as a jazz singer in this country, certain songs beyond Nyilo Ntyilo and Laukutshon’Ilanga need to be in your repertoire. Songs like Gloria Bosman’s Sombawo, Judith Sephuma’s A Cry A Smile A Dance, Victor Ntoni’s Theta. That isn’t ‘doing covers’ – this isn’t pop music – these are standards: part of our musical heritage.”

“We have wonderful standards in our repertoire, in every genre. We need to recognise them, rework them and use them as the foundation for new original compositions. Only when we reach that point will ‘African renaissance’ in music become more than a slogan.”

On working with drum legend Jack deJohnette in the band Intercontinental: “I had to think like an instrumentalist and take a journey inside the music…I did a lot of what I call ‘the duck thing’: above the water you’re sailing along serenely; under the water you’re paddling furiously to stay afloat….[But] six numbers for that show; completely free choice, all of us suggesting and deciding – and three of them end up from South Africa! How affirming is that?”

On waking up to African music: “[At the Funda Centre] we did a project called Melodi: Sounds of Home. That was a defining moment. Oddly, given my father’s background in the study of Zulu music, I found myself drawn to the complexities of Pedi sounds.”

On singing Princess Magogo’s amahubo in the song-cycle Haya Mtwan’Omkulu: I’m the child of an archivist, remember?…I grew up with that music and when I was very young I even heard [her] live at Kwa Phindangeni. But I grew up in Soweto a typical city girl and that influence and inspiration faded…Yet as I came to do more concerts and recitals, I realised that while I was singing these gorgeous German lieder, French chansons and so on, there was nothing in the repertoire from here.

“As an opera-trained singer – where you need a big, projected sound – I have to work out how to handle melodies which taper off. I need to project them without making them sound ‘sung’ in the operatic sense. It’s a compromise – no, a marriage – between [Magogo’s] musical spirit and the modern musical aesthetic. You find you need to go beyond the rigid boundaries of the bar-lines.”

On women as heroes in African history: “The tremendous creativity of [Princess Magogo ka Dinizulu] herself is evident. [Her] songs aren’t mere repetitions of older songs; they are her creations: full of enormous passion and lyricism and the praise-singer’s intelligent commentary on the society around her.

“The tendency of history is to make prominent women seem like exceptions. The war leader Mkabayi is another example. We hide the women’s part in decision making. And that leads to us minimising the importance of what our mothers and grandmothers used to do even in the home.” 

Farewell to Sibongile Khumalo, Mother of South African Song

Our sorrow at the passing of Jonas Mosa Gwangwa was compounded yesterday by news of the death of Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo after a stroke at the age of 63.

The official provincial funeral for Gwangwa takes place today, Friday January 29 from 09:00h . The link for virtual attendance is

Sibongile Khumalo

Much will be written about the music career of Sibongile Khumalo, and much will elide all her achievements into the single, limited category of ‘singer’. Singer she was, no doubt, and a magnificent one, with a voice that melded honey, smoke and crystalline waters into a cascade of captivating sound.  She resisted, throughout her career, the genre envelopes that critics laid on it. She did not set out to be an “opera singer” or a “jazz singer” and did not appreciate media coverage that tried to confine her within one of those boxes and assess her work based on its parameters.

Khumalo was a musician who had far more than the ‘Three Faces…’ of one of her best loved shows.

Her stated mission was to develop, through the programmes she developed, her arrangements and her interpretations in performance, an authentic South African vocal concert repertoire that spanned the amahubo of Princess Magogo through 1950’s pop hits like Into  Yam’ to modern jazz classics such as Moses Molelekoa’s Mountain Shade – and even Weekend Special. Her career earned more than a dozen awards, national and musical, and produced seven albums as leader including the SAMA-winning 2002 Quest, plus countless collaborations.

But she was much more too. As a scholar, she researched the history of her own first teacher , vaudevillian and pianist Emily Motsieloa. As an all-round music industry professional, she perfected the production skills that supported her label, Magnolia Vision Records. She was music director for several stage productions. As an educator – as well as mentoring countless individuals – she was involved in nurturing the Khongisa Academy for Performing Arts which had been founded by her father, composer and teacher Dr Khabi Mngoma in Kwa Dlangezwa in KZN. She was a respected teacher, heading the Madimba Institute of African Music at Soweto’s Funda Centre, and teaching at the FUBA Academy. In those roles, she was a pioneer of decolonising the music curriculum, not by rejecting European music traditions, but by contextualising them and foregrounding the music education historically embedded in African societies.

“The music education available [here] at tertiary level is an extension of the Eurocentric model…In our culture, we also have music education,” she told journalist Mike Mzileni.

As an activist, Khumalo played an important role in musicians’ organisations and task teams in the immediate pre- and post-liberation period, asserting the role of grassroots artists and their communities’ needs, not globalised commercial imperatives, in shaping the nation’s future cultural policy. And as a human being, she was always there, for any young artist seeking counselling, support and advice.

Though extended ill-health had kept her off the stage in recent years, her spirit and achievements continue to be cited as an inspiration by new generations of young vocal artists, and especially young women. Through the foundations she laid, that will continue to be so, even though she has left us. Hamba Kahle, Mother of Song.   

Jonas Gwangwa: a discography to disrupt the cosmos

Joni Mitchell put it best in Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve lost/Till it’s gone.” So it is with the passing of Jonas Mosa Gwangwa. Only now, after a week of sadness and tributes does it even start to feel real that there will be no more new songs from the mind, voice and trombone that gave us Morwa, Diphororo  and Ulibambe Lingashoni  .   

Another sadness is how much of his recorded work South Africans may not have heard. Only fragments of the early material have been reissued, albums made in exile were never sold here – some, like Amandla, were banned – there was much uncredited work in America, and one of his most fruitful composing periods, with the Medu Arts Ensemble band Shakawe in Botswana, was never recorded in original versions.

So compiling a complete discography for his life story had, for me, aspects of a treasure-hunt, and moments that combined triumph and tragedy: getting another piece of the jigsaw to fit, and then talking to the composer and finding he hadn’t heard that music for decades. The nomadic life forced on the Gwangwa family by apartheid’s murderers meant too much had been mislaid along the way.

And, grooving along to Kgomo, it’s easy to ignore how damn hard a trombone is to play as beautifully as Gwangwa did. Not only could he shape those bellowing roars of protest and indignation whose emotional force is irresistible, but precision, delicacy and respect for space: the very things it’s hardest to do on that unwieldy brass construction.   

We’re fortunate that Gwangwa’s first-ever composition, written as a St Peter’s schoolboy for the Father Huddleston Band, has survived. Last I checked, Misfhane was still available on a Gallo compilation, Township Swing Jazz Volume 1, along with two other Huddleston Band tracks on which he plays. Gwangwa found his first national fame with the jazz supergroup of its day: Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers. He was scouted because his instrument gave the Dazzlers a distinctive front-line sound:  “The Dazzlers,” he recalled, “were the top musicians of the land…the only thing they didn’t have was a trombone.” Other Gallo compilations alsocarry tracks from Gwangwa’s time with the Dazzlers: Diepkloof Ekhaya and Hamba Gwi–dXJH0E

The Dazzlers had a far larger popular following than the small group of modern jazz intellectuals coalescing at the time around organiser Pinocchio Mokaleng’s Jazz at the Odin (Cinema) series in Sophiatown. But when visiting American piano teacher John Mehegan looked for collaborators to record with, those players were chosen,  for Jazz in Africa Volumes I &II, ; on which Gwangwa is heard with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, reedman Kippie Moeketsi, the Shange brothers  and drummer Gene Latimore. Most tracks are standards from the US songbook, with a few originals including Davashe’s Mabomvana; Gwangwa takes a great solo on Old Devil Moon

Those 1959 recordings are often confused (they were in the UK Guardian this week and they are on a majority of Google search results)  with the legendary 1960 LP that followed them: The Jazz Epistles Verse One, with the same three hornmen plus pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makhaya Ntshoko. Only 500 copies were pressed of this first South African 33 rpm recording by a Black modern jazz group of their own original material, including Gwangwa’s Carol’s Drive “It was in Cape Town and I was left alone,” he recalled. “I was thinking:  I can improvise, so why can’t I compose? I mean, improvisation is just spontaneous composition, right? I spent the whole day messing around on the piano and came up with that tune.” If you want to hear just how edgy, intense and accomplished South African jazz was 60 years ago, this is your disc.

Gwangwa plays in the pit band on the original 1961 cast recording of Todd Matshikiza’s jazz opera, King Kong –and that production’s London tour was his ticket out, eventually to the Manhattan School of Music. This promo, reflects all the distortions in musical arrangement ordered by London impressario Jack Hylton that Gwangwa hated so vehemently; the Joburg original is here:

In America, his recordings span collaborators and genres. We know the Grammy-winning 1965 An Evening with Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, for which he was arranger and conductor (although, after some creative disagreements during production “when the album came out, my name was in such tiny letters you could hardly read it,” he recalled.) But he also worked on the 1963 World of Miriam Makeba, the 1965 Makeba Sings, and the 1967 Miriam Makeba in Concert. We know the 1971 Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa with the trumpeter and Caiphus Semenya, but Gwangwa also worked on Masekela’s 1966 Grrr and 1968 Africa ’68.

But at the same time he was creating club music drawing on the sounds of home that delighted dancers. With Letta Mbulu and her group the Safaris (a reunion with former King Kong vocalists from the London days) he composed and co-produced the 1966 single Walkin’ Around  . With his own band, African Explosion he recorded another single, Goin’ Home/Africadelic, for Decca in 1968. The next year, pianist Ahmad Jamal gave Explosion the chance to record an 11-track album, Ngubani? on his newly-founded Jamal label, with a spin-off single African Sausage/Szaba-Szaba Ngubani?  features reedman Dudu Pukwana and includes a tribute to Gwangwa’s mentor, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi: two tracks based on Moeketsi’s Switch . “The recording was a jam session – no rehearsal,” Gwangwa recalled, “and the label wasn’t really set up to do promotion; people liked the music but getting gigs was still difficult.”

There were many other sessions too. “There were just people who used to come to the apartment,” Gwangwa recalled. “ ‘We’re doing a record – what do you think?’… almost accidental. A lot of my projects were like that, then…Sometimes there was money, sometimes not; sometimes you never even saw a record. We didn’t mind: we were in it together. There could be a lot of sessions from that time that I don’t remember, where you’ll find an un-credited trombone – and that was me!”  

(As I type those words, I can feel the discography nerds stirring: good luck!)

Out of that period came the breath-taking Dragon Suite, recorded with the Marc Levin Free Unit in 1968 Multi-instrumentalist Levin is leader, Cecil McBee, bassist – but the performance is a tour de force of free trombone improvisation from Gwangwa. It is wholly recognisable as his voice, but a stylistic revelation.

For a colleague from the Belafonte sessions, Howard Roberts, Gwangwa co-arranged and played on Roberts’ chorale 1968 spirituals album, Let My People Go  The trombonist also arranged and provided ‘bone overdubs for reedman Robin Kenyatta’s 1973 fusion album Terra Nova — unmistakeably a product of the Shaft era.  Gwangwa recalled that South Carolina-born Kenyatta fitted in so well with the South African music crowd “that we all thought he must be from Africa too.” For the West African-oriented US label Makossa International, Gwangwa recorded the predominantly vocal single Yebo in 1976 .

Gwangwa quit his jazz career in the US in the late 1970s, to dedicate his next decade to the Amandla Cultural Ensemble of the ANC. His last American recording, the 1978 Main Event Live (it wasn’t: the audience is dubbed in) with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela, reprised material that, on Alpert’s tour, had won the trombonist curtain calls every night for his barnstorming solos on his own Shame the Devil and Foreign Natives “They kept on clapping, and I asked myself: what’s happening?” Gwangwa remembered. “And he [Alpert] kept saying ‘Go out [on stage] again; go out.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Amandla’s two albums, the Swedish Amandla First Tour Live (1983) and the 1982 Russian-label Amandla African National Congress Cultural Group were of course banned by the apartheid regime. People caught with the precious cassettes faced prison. Equally hard to find these days is the recording he made with bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani in 1984, Born Under the Heat. Gwangwa features on two tracks, Song for the Workers (the trombone solo is at 4:04) and The Boys from Somafco – that last melody particularly poignant and personal since some of the young family he was parted from so often were studying at Tanzania’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.

 During the same period, from his family home in Gaborone, Botswana, Gwangwa developed the Medu band Shakawe. Around a regular core of Batswana and South African players, Shakawe made room for aspiring local Botswana Defence Force musicians and visiting South African stars alike.

Two aspects of Shakawe were important for Gwangwa: re-visiting indigenous  roots to shape songs with a powerful social meaning, and a collective working style that gave everybody a voice, anticipating the kind of creative praxis that the arts in the new South Africa ought to have.  

Shakawe saxophonist Steve Dyer remembers: “Bra’ JG was very generous with his knowledge. He gave other members of the band the space they needed to grow.” As well as “a beautiful and distinctive tone on the trombone, for him it was not about the notes. It’s not about the theory. It is about the feeling and emotion behind the notes… So when we played, people came to have a good time and they got entertained – and the message was still coming through. It is inextricably tied up with the struggle for freedom: this was freedom music we were playing.

Much of the music we associate with Gwangwa today came out of that time. But the trombonist’s fear of piracy meant none of  those joyous Gaborone club sessions was ever recorded. However, some of Shakawe’s repertoire  is reprised on the 1990, London-recorded, Flowers of the Nation.  Made just after the Wembley Mandela concert, the recording included trumpeter Dennis Mpale, a former Shakawe member, alongside drummer Kulu Radebe from Amandla and a raft of UK-based and visiting South Africans. That, the Cry Freedom soundtrack , and the post-exile albums A Temporary Inconvenience, Sounds from Exile, Kukude, a Sony/BMG Best of…collection and the DVD Live at the Standard Bank International Jazz Festival, are the recordings South Africans already know better. Cherish them – but some digital crate-diving will introduce you to fresh facets of a musician whose work only grows in power with re-hearing.  As trombonist Roswell Rudd put it: “You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out the other end and disrupts the cosmos.”

Rest in Peace Jonas Mosa Gwangwa 1937-2021

The tragic death of trombonist, composer, teacher, cultural activist and comrade Jonas Gwangwa yesterday , only 17 days after the passing of his cherished partner Violet, has left a creative gap that we cannot yet even begin to measure. For my account of his life, see I hope later this week to attempt a survey of his extensive opus and discography for this blog: he was a great musician in international as well as national terms and across genres from music theatre to avant-garde free improvisation as well as the better-known music he recorded since the 1990s ; apartheid censorship made sure we didn’t know the half of it at the time.

ihubo Labomdabu: South Coast jazz tide rising

Sibu Mashiloane: fifth album now out

Jazz is a tide that pours across South Africa, ebbing and flowing across time and place. The early foci of ‘modern’ popular music (you couldn’t call it jazz yet) were the pre-Land Act prosperous Black farming centres of the Eastern Cape; the mining camps and hostels around the diamond and gold fields; and the suburbs, both licensed and self-initiated, created by Black urbanites as cities were established and expanded.

Under apartheid, the commercial epicentre of the music shifted between Joburg and Cape Town, depending on which place, at any given time, was more repressive or more laissez-faire in its enforcement of repression. Meanwhile, the music was actually grown and played in many more places that receive insufficient attention in the histories: Pretoria, Bloemfontein, East London, Port Elizabeth, more. When the regime fell, the Sheer Sound label, Kippie’s, the Bassline and other magnets drew performers towards Joburg. As those attractions ceased their activities, the UCT College of Music and a new generation of venues in Cape Town pulled people back there. Then the Orbit made Joburg work prospects attractive again. Then…  

And of course, the big question in all this is: where was Durban all this time?

We know there was a vibrant modern popular music scene there, from the days of Bheki Mseleku’s illustrious vaudevillian elders, General Duze,  and countless other guitar maestros dismissed as ‘maskandi’. The emergence of Mseleku, Sipho Gumede, the musicians of Heshoo Beshoo and others tells us the tradition of elders nurturing young players continued to flourish. The late Shunna Pillay’s novel, Shadow People, describes hotel dance band players who explored more adventurous music after-hours. The photographs of the late Ranjith Kally show those musicians: proud and self-aware.

But that scene was never adequately documented. When Kally’s photographs were exhibited, most of those they featured could not be identified for captions. Comparatively few scholars have written about Durban, and most research has focused on a slightly more recent period and the important work of the Rainbow music venue.

But now a new generation of South Coast jazz sounds is emerging, and nowhere more distinctively that in the pianism of Sibu ‘Mash’ Mashiloane, whose fifth album, the solo iHubo Labomdabu, launched yesterday .

Mashiloane teaches at UKZN, along with other highly accomplished musicians including pianists Andile Yenana and Neil Gonsalves, multi-instrumentalist Sazi Dlamini and US-born tenor saxophonist Salim Washington. Their efforts are already building a subsequent generation of inspired, rooted players such as bassist Dalisu Ndlazi.

But, as Mashiloane explained to me in our interview , being based in Durban means media attention is limited.

So Mashiloane’s music matters for its place of creation, as well as what it says. But it also says a lot.

The 11 short tracks are the product of a period of intense introspection and meditation triggered by the conditions of lockdown. He reflected on his own life:  a journey from the close, diverse community of Bethal through studies here and in America, and gigs in many places across Africa and elsewhere, to his current place teaching and doing PhD research at UKZN. In the interview linked above, he explains how the narratives this inspired shaped the music.

What I didn’t talk about there is how the album hits the ears. Mashiloane has a very personal voice married to impressively strong technique. Much as the rolling left hand of the first track,  Sabela Uyabizwa, might remind you of Abdullah Ibrahim (as rolling piano left-hands always do), you’d never mistake this for Ibrahim; it’s another sonic concept entirely.  Using only the usual two hands, Mashiloane can create the impression of music with lots more layers: the celebratory Injabulo Lasekhaya might almost be a timbila orchestra.

Sometimes, as on Ihubo Lasekaya, his song of home, the cyclical patterns  might suggest New Music, although these cycles are inspired by a far older place. Elsewhere you’ll find a plaintive lyrical ballad, such as UncertaintyWorld of the Free explores more conventionally jazzy ideas; not multi-layered, but pared back: an almost Ellingtonian travelling-light journey.  (For some reason, I kept thinking about Ellington’s solo Reminiscing in Tempo .)

They’re all short tracks – none much more than six minutes – and they’ll take on different lives onstage with co-players. (Mashiloane confesses he may in fact have to re-learn and revision them for that context, so intimate and spontaneous was his playing here.)

iHubo Labomdabu is an album to savour when you want music to think by, and to think about. It came out of meditation, and that spiritual intensity could open new doors of perception for listeners too.