SABC 90% quota: curioser and curioser

In the wonderland world of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, things are getting stranger. I was probably harsh in my first comments on the 90% local fiat (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/ninety-percent-local-music-on-sabc-too-little-context-too-big-a-number/) ; it seems now that the policy may have been less the result of political grandstanding and far more of worrying ignorance about how the industry works.

Buying a song to thank yourself for taking the decision, containing the lines “Siyabonga SABC/ Siyabonga Jehovah”, (http://businesstech.co.za/news/general/124967/watch-thank-you-sabc-song-praising-motsoeneng/ ) however, is a gesture of grandiosity uncomfortably reminiscent of the Info Song era. Flighting it at regular intervals every day – as stations have been ordered to do – will certainly provide more local content for the quota, and at least some local artists (Mzwakhe Mbuli, Deborah Fraser, Kholeka Sobiso and Solly Moholo, for example) will find their incomes improved by the commissioning fee. That fee has not been disclosed. We do know that the SABC in-house choir also heard can expect R3.8M of the cash-strapped corporation’s budget in 2016/17 for services such as singing “Hlaudi Motsoeneng reya o leboha” at staff meetings.

Needletime fee increases; monitoring & reporting don’t change

The grateful artists however, might have found it wiser to save their breath until they saw whether or not increased local music would actually result longer-term in increased hard cash for their community. The SABC has announced that it has increased the notional royalty payment for radio airplay from 3% to 4% for all collecting societies (SAMRO, SAMPRA, IMPRA and AIRCO). That’s a good decision, demonstrating genuine goodwill, and deserves acknowledgment. But it will only mean anything if monitoring and reporting procedures are improved, and payouts made more promptly; many artists are still awaiting back-payments. (AIRCO has just announced that fees due from 2013 can now be claimed.) The announcement of a once-off honorarium to be paid to certain prominent veterans such as Letta Mbuli, Babsy Mlangeni and Steve Kekana, in July, while a very welcome gesture, does not meet the financial needs of all the rest.

One step forward; one step back

And now, of course, the business implications of changing station formats are beginning to hit home, and the back-tracking has started.

Spokesperson Kaiser Kganyago initially dismissed assertions that formats would change, even on commercial stations. “A hip-hop station will still play hip-hop,” he explained, “[but] it will be hip-hop from South African artists.” He vehemently denied there would be exemptions for the commercial stations. SABC Board member Aaron Tshidzuma elaborated: “There is (sic) a lot of private stations. If people don’t want to listen to SABC, tune to another one.”

That kind of ignorance about what format means and how it relates to income is worrying in the people who supposedly help to run the SABC, currently sitting on a R395M budget deficit, partly caused by advertiser flight. Advertisers sign contracts to place their content within a programme with a specified format. If that format includes artists such as Beyonce, replacing her with Lira will actually breach the contract and permit the advertiser to challenge it and withdraw. Advertisers also sign contracts with stations whose formats can guarantee certain listenerships. If those listeners are encouraged by Mr Tshidzuma to “tune to another [station]”, advertiser flight will intensify.

I’m not saying this kind of advertiser-led censorship is a good thing. The diktats of advertisers were an important reason why SABC, until very recently, gave only scant respect to the previous, 30% ICASA-regulated quota. Indeed, in the current ICASA local content review document, published in March this year (http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/39844_gon345.pdf ), the SABC is quoted as supporting an upgrade to a 35% quota for commercial radio and objecting to a 70% quota for public radio, proposing 60% and recommending “that this quota be implemented in stages as this will ensure that the audiences do not experience a sudden change in their experience of the radio station. SABC is of the view that increases of the local music quota should be based on music research with the public thereby ensuring that radio stations respond to listener needs. The SABC was of the view that 70% is high and will lead to loss of audiences. This proposed quota will hinder the growth of the public broadcaster.” What’s changed since that submission was made?

Attracting advertisers is a fact of financial life for big broadcasters in a capitalist world.

Yesterday, the corporation announced that commercial station Metro-FM would now be playing 50% local music and 50% international on Sundays, because, according to Kganyago, “Metro-FM knows and understands its listeners better than us.” (Erm…shouldn’t you have asked them earlier?) The weekday Metro quotas would be “evaluated…over a period of time,” he said. “Some shows have different audiences so they will work around it.”

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Increased local music quotas are a good thing, for artists and audiences. Everybody should support their intelligent implementation.

But increased quotas implemented without thought for the right percentage (60-70% would bring very similar benefits while preserving formats and keeping a reasonable window open on the musical world outside) adequate advance consultation and a clear business strategy will help nobody – least of all the artists. A dumb decision taken without adequate consultation gives the commercial stations the best possible excuse to sneak back to their previous character – a character well described by music journalist and former presenter Andrew Marshall to Channel 24 (http://www.channel24.co.za/Music/News/sabcs-local-music-move-is-it-good-or-bad-20160513 ): a scene where music quality was determined by “marketing meetings, playlists by committee, and uncurated tastemaking by vacuous, colour-by-numbers, celeb-driven, radio pulp.”

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The music quota tapdance isn’t the only odd thing happening on the state broadcaster’s airwaves these days. I’m not talking about the sanitizing of news in the run-up to the local government elections; enough has been said about that (see http://www.sanef.org.za/news/entry/sabc_to_stop_showing_destruction_of_property_on_tv_news_bulletins_may_27_20/) and it isn’t a very musical topic.

But check the curious whitewashing job going on in the self-praising inserts SAFM is flighting around its 80th birthday. One reminds us that “Contrary to popular belief, SABC news was independent”, harking back to the earliest days of Reuters and ABC news, with nary a mention of subsequent apartheid control and censorship. Another insert celebrates the foundation of Radio Bantu, with a jolly montage of various ethnic music styles. That one is particularly ironic in the current context. The re-tribalisation project was not only part of a poisonous divide-and-rule policy, but it decimated the South African music industry. It blocked black artists from recording in multiple languages and blending styles if they wanted to get airplay on ethnic stations where ‘authenticity’ and ‘purity’ were determined by white ideologues and apparatchiks. Artists of colour were re-named to appear on certain slots, so that the towering creativity of communities of colour was hidden (The late Tony Schilder became ‘Peter Evans’: “because they thought I sounded a bit like Bill Evans”.) Radio Bantu stifled creativity and fragmented markets,  and that latter is in fact one of the reasons why artists today find it so hard to make a living.

Remembering history is important. Excising all relevant context is very close to lying.

 

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Siya Makuzeni: hear her roar

We got a small advance taste, at the Orbit on Saturday, of the kind of music Siya Makuzeni will bring to Grahamstown in a month’s time as this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz.

The evening had an edgy start. The players, Makuzeni disclosed, were just shaking off the bad vibes of a potentially dangerous traffic incident and some ensuing racist road-rage. It wasn’t quite the Grahamstown band either. Multiple, competing events such as always pack a month-end Saturday meant that reedman Sisonke Xonti was committed elsewhere. So this was a quintet, not the festival sextet: Makuzeni with pianist Thandi Ntuli, trumpeter Sakhile Simani, bassist Benjamin Jephta and drummer Ayanda Sikade. In that altered soundscape, the leader opted to play two entirely vocal sets and leave her Facebook best friend – her trombone – in its carrying case.siya

The material, though, reflected where Makuzeni’s music is now going, and it’s a very intriguing journey.

Though she’s actually been both composing and leading ensembles for a very long time (she began in music in her early teens), audiences have often encountered Makuzeni as a distinctive musical presence in ensembles or productions led by others: The Prisoners of Strange; the Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra; Language 12; Mzansi Magic’s 50’s TV drama The Road; and James Ngcobo’s Songs from Jazztown at the Market Theatre. Makuzeni as leader has the space to bring out her own musical character far more fully.

As well as playing ‘bone, Makuzeni is well able to fill the shoes of a classic jazz-band singer, as she did in the Market production, and demonstrated again on Saturday with her self-penned, deliberately retro, ballad No Time To Wait.

Two characteristics of classic jazz singing are central to her wider, wilder musical identity too. She can and does scat in classic style, as well as in harmonically more subversive formats. She gave us both on her re-imagining of Bheki Mseleku’s Through the Years, very much in the spirit of Abbey Lincoln, but absolutely not any kind of cover. Makuzeni also has near-perfect diction: a skill that is sometimes undervalued. But it matters when the notes are going sham-boom-shedazzle-ow-ow-ow, but the lyrics still have something to say and we need to hear them. However much Makuzeni fragments the phrases and growls, roars, shouts and bends the sounds, you can always catch the words.

Traditional references – specific types of extended vocalese; the declamatory style of the imbongi; clicking sounds from isiXhosa – also infuse the improvisations (check Moya Oyingcwele on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Pqk7sZAo8 ), alongside rhythms from rock and reggae as well as jazz, and electronics that build up multiple vocal layers. It’s sometimes as if Billie Holiday (sometimes the tonal quality of Makuzeni’s voice irresistibly recall that singer), Busi Mhlongo and the entire ensemble of Zap Mama were on stage together, expressing themselves through a single set of vocal chords.

The band is gelling nicely too. Ntuli shares something of Makuzeni’s chameleon nature, finding capable, interesting fills for the retro ballad but revealing a very different character, by turns edgy and dreamy, on numbers with different demands, as on the rhythmically tricky Out of This World (available at Bandcamp as the Sextet’s first digital single: https://siyamakuzenisextet.bandcamp.com/releases ). Jephta and Sikade move discreetly into the rhythmic shadows when steady underpinning is all the music needs, but can also both pull out gorgeous solo work.

The horns, of course, sound completely different when there are more, with interplay between them, as the videos demonstrate. I missed that bigger horn line and Makuzeni’s ‘bone playing in particular, on Saturday. But it wasn’t really a problem – the solos she takes with her voice embody a horn-player’s ears and imagination and that’s one of the things that make her such a remarkable musician.

 

Book for Makuzeni’s shows in Grahamstown at : https://www.nationalartsfestival.co.za/news/naf16-bookings-open-9-may/

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Some interesting slices of history are promised this month and should go into your diary. On June 4th, pianist Mervyn Afrika will play the Orbit: a return from 27 years in the UK for the Spirits Rejoice co-founder and longtime friend and supporter of the late Bheki Mseleku. On June 12 at the Maboneng Bioscope,, there will be a Joburg premiere for Shwabada, film-maker Nhlanhla Masondo’s documentary study of pioneering avant-garde multi-instrumentalist Ndikho Xaba.

ndiko-xaba.jpg
Ndikho Xaba

At Emperor’s Palace on June 15/16 Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela headline a “Jazz Epistles Reunion”. That show cannot be a simple re-creation; both the headline names are very different players these days. Two of the legendary 1960s outfit are now deceased: bassist Johnny Gertze and saxophone titan Kippie Moeketsi. Drummer Makhaya Ntshoko still lives and plays, but is based in Switzerland, and there’s no word on whether trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, also happily still with us – and in Jozi – will be able to guest. But since the power of the Epistles’ music was rooted in a shared vision and in tight ensemble work, as well as in the towering presence of Moeketsi, it would be useful if the Palace publicists at least shared with us the names of the rest of the band…

From Grahamstown to Sandton: jazz festivals with contrasting visions

We now have an indication of the programmes for the next two major jazz festivals of the year: the Standard Bank Jazz Festival (June 30 –July 9) in Grahamstown, and the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Sandton, Johannesburg (15-17 Sept). On this initial showing, greater contrast in curatorial approaches would be hard to imagine. One opens doors on fresh jazz worlds; the other comforts audiences with a great deal of music they already know.

TRIO CORRENTE
Brazil’s Trio Corrente

The Grahamstown festival programme is complete, and the event continues to do what it has done so well for the past several years: offer intelligent insight into jazz around the world. Though there are always some major stars on display – the Brazilian Trio Corrente this year have garnered both a Grammy and a Latin Grammy for their work; Norwegian reedman Petter Wettre has won his country’s equivalent twice – that is not really the point of the event. Rather, concert-goers can gain a sense of what they might hear if they were able to summon a magic carpet to drop them off for successive concerts at jazz clubs in Brazil, Norway, Austria (Michaela Rabitsch and Robert Pawlick), Sweden (David Kontra and Per Thornberg), Switzerland (Andreas Tschopp and more), the Netherlands (Ton Roos and Hein van de Geyn), and the UK (Dave O’Higgins). Equally importantly, the jazz players themselves get opportunities to teach (at the preceding youth jazz events), share stages and network with each other and their South African counterparts.

 

The South African jazz contingent this year will impress. As well as Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, singer/trombonist Siya Makuzeni, there’s bassist Carlo Mombelli, guitarist Dave Ledbetter, drummer Frank Paco, and a truly dazzling assembly of pianists: Afrika Mkhize, Kyle Shepherd, Paul Hanmer , and Bokani Dyer with his Soul Housing project. Add to these the Young Guns ensemble of reedmen Sisonke Xonti and Justin Bellairs, bassist Romy Brauteseth, pianist Thandi Ntuli and drummer Claude Cozens and an overseas visitor unfamiliar with our jazz scene will find a representative sample of our current best.

Sisonke-fronttt
Sisonke Xonti

Grahamstown eschews glitz in favour of the quiet, confident assertion of South African jazz as an equal participant in a world genre. It makes generous room for the kinds of music broader audiences also appreciate – this year, there’s Simphiwe Dana, Caiphus Semenya, Ringo Madlingozi, Loyiso Bala, and The Kiffness – but jazz is always at the core of what happens, with a carefully curated balance between different instruments, sounds and formats.

 

Madlingozi (and, for obvious reasons as Standard Bank Young Artist, Makuzeni) crop up at Joy of Jazz too, in an initial line-up so top-heavy with singers that fans of instrumental improvisation will need to search carefully for their preference. Vocalists listed in addition to those two are Judith Sephuma, Lira, Lindiwe Maxolo, Nomfundo Xaluva and Max Hoba as well as visitors Canadian Renee Lee, Ethiopian Ester Rada, Americans Deborah J Carter and Jose James, and Dutch-Cameroonian Ntjam Rosie.

Nomfundo
Nomfundo Xaluva

It’s South Africa that, in the main, provides the instrumentalists so far: reedmen Barney Rachabane and Moreira Chonguica; trumpeter Feya Faku; and guitarist Billy Monama with an ensemble including the equally formidable veteran Themba Mokoena.

Barney
Barney Rachabane

Vocal overload aside, the other striking characteristic of this line-up is its conservatism. These are all artists who deserve the stage, and all are skilled players and singers. But they are also largely all known quantities, and (apart from a welcome contingent of pan-African names that are genuinely new) some of them often appear on Johannesburg stages. Joy of Jazz has a history of favouring familiar sounds, but in 2014 and 2015 the event seemed to be creating a home for music that surprised and sometimes challenged, as well as that which delighted, with names including Tomasz Stanko, Kyle Shepherd, Christian Scott, Dwight Trible, Trilok Gurtu and William Parker.

siya
SBYA for jazz 2016 Siya Makuzeni

Edge is not completely absent this year, and it’s as likely to come from some of the South Africans (most notably Makuzeni’s electro-vocal explorations) as from the visitors. However, Kendrick Scott and Oracle provided some intriguing journeys outside the box on their album The Source, and they may be the guests who challenge timid genre definitions.

Kendrick

Surprises might also come from Senegalese bassist Alun Wade – Richard Bona has already well demonstrated how that instrument, in West African hands, can draw on multiple traditions to create complex tapestries of sound. Otherwise, unless some additional names are announced – with several weeks to go, that’s entirely possible – it looks as if Sandton in September will be a feast primarily for those who love voices.

Ninety percent local music on SABC? Too little context; too big a number

In theory a wonderful thing happened today. SABC CEO Hlaudi Motsweneng announced that from midnight last night all SABC radio channels would be broadcasting 90% local music for the next three months. For the past 20 years, the South African music industry has been requesting increased local content quotas, with the more jaded noting that the sincere observance of even the existing meagre quotas by the state broadcaster would be a positive start.

In its announcement, the SABC claimed that it has already regularly been playing 40%-60% local music. Anybody listening to an SABC commercial station at peak hour might have their doubts…

So this is a great move, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

Actually, not entirely. Let’s be clear: the principle is unarguably correct. Experience from Australia to Zambia, over close to half a century, demonstrates that generous, properly enforced local content quotas grow quality, employment, and revenue for national music industries. Done intelligently, it’s good for national culture too, since it sensitizes listeners to both heritage and current creativity, and implicitly encourages cultural participation. And anything that acknowledges South African talent deserves credit.

But such a move needs a supportive context to succeed.

For a start, it needs ethical, knowledgeable DJs who constantly update themselves about the full range of what is available– not merely the music made by their friends, or by the record labels that treat them well. Those DJs need to be able to talk to their listeners in an informed way about the music they play. Implementation also needs ethical, musically educated producers who can open the selector system to that full range. Sadly, with commercialization (and excepting a few remarkable individuals) SABC channels have juniorised deejaying to the point where some programmes seem to employ only inane, chattering button-pressers; we don’t have too many Shado Twalas or Mesh Mapetlas these days. As one cynical Tweeter opined: “Does [the SABC move] mean PennyPenny on endless repeat?”

So what plans does the SABC have to upgrade and educate its DJs? SABC insiders who were at yesterday’s meeting where the change was announced, say that the fiat came suddenly, with little space for discussion. That does not sound hopeful for a parallel programme of staff development.

For the industry and artists to benefit from the move, radio stations need to be committed to meticulous reporting and full, swift, efficient disbursement of royalties due. The SABC’s record on this has not been untarnished in the past. A cynic might wonder whether punitive exchange rates escalating the future cost of overseas royalties might not be a factor in this decision, and to question whether the move will be accompanied by any more enthusiastic commitment to paying local royalties. Or by the announcement of a more effective and efficient monitoring and reporting system, since most of the rights societies have serious questions about the present one. Or even by an increase in the royalty percentage to accompany the quota change…

What plans does the SABC have to ensure the full financial benefits of the change are released to music-makers?

Although there have been ongoing generic discussions about local content with some South African music industry players for a very long time, it’s not clear to what extent smaller independent music-makers or genre specialists have been included in these talks. Music makers need to be ready to respond to the increased demand for local music. If they are not, the result will be a continuation of the uneven playing field.

What plans does the SABC have to bring small independent music creators into the picture? Without encouraging and facilitating access to the kind of quality and diversity independent music-makers can bring to programming, the result – for pop music – will be either a flood of cheap, imitative time-filler music, or indeed, as that Twitterer feared, the same few headline stars on endless repeat.

Within more specialized music genres, the position is different. Many of those – gospel, Afrikans music and jazz – already have ample good music that doesn’t get enough airplay. Jazz lives in a ghetto of one- or two-hour weekly slots on most SABC stations – when it is played at all. When jazz forms an occasional part of more general music programming outside of those specialist slots (as, for example, on SAFM’s early morning HeadsUp show), it is rare to hear anything less than five years old. The good, new and often highly accessible music that’s bubbling up in the genre – from Bokani Dyer to Tutu Puoane to Frank Paco and more – might as well never have been released.

We’ve been given very little indication of what ‘local music’ will mean, except that the language of lyrics will not be a criterion. That could mean that Afrikaans pop, or (if Africa is ‘local’) Congolese soukous***, or Sotho gospel (all of which are plentiful) get more time on the selector on every station. Is that what’s intended? Changing formats in this way will inevitably impact both listener profile and advertising revenue, and while those impacts may not be negative – the audience for gospel, for example, is larger than all other music audiences combined – the SABC, as a taypayer-funded entity, owes it to the public and Parliament to be transparent about the financial calculations and projections involved.

[***UPDATE NOTE Since this was written, my speculation about more soukous music has unfortunately been proven wrong. I cited it as one African music industry well placed to fill programming gaps, since it has extensive, high-quality product. In fact, music from the rest of Africa has almost disappeared from the SABC airwaves since the 90% diktat. That’s sad in many respects. We are losing damn good music that demonstrates one set of possibilities for building national music industries. Maybe more importantly we’re losing music that expresses and builds shared African identity and humanity, in the face of the inward-looking xenophobia currently being manipulated by corrupt local government election campaigners.]

The position of classical music is more complex. Here, “local music” has often been defined as SA-recorded versions of the European classical repertoire – often recordings from concerts the SABC has sponsored, which, therefore, have smaller cost implications for the broadcaster. What we almost never hear is contemporary South African repertoire. What plans are in place for the increased showcasing of music by, to take a tiny example of contemporary South African composers, Mokale Koapeng, Phelelani Mnomiya, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Michael Blake or Paul Hanmer?

Finally, there’s that 90%. The world has changed since the Zambian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation created a thunderclap enhancement of their industries with intelligently generous local content quotas. The same dramatic effects are now unlikely to come from one isolated change in quotas without any reforms of the music ecosystem within which they function. That kind of dramatic change came from the operation at that time of a ‘gatekeeper’ model for the role of the (especially state) music broadcaster which simply no longer exists. Today, listeners with any kind of  online link now have multiple sources of music. Those sections of the population who haven’t – the poor, or those living in remote rural areas outside wifi reach – depend on their free-to-air SABC station to find out what’s going on in the music genres they love, and their vision is global, not narrowly local. Music broadcasts serve an informational as well as an entertainment function. A quota as high as 90% risks shutting large segments of the population off from information about music around the world.

Of course, it’s only for an initial three months. A similar limited promise was made by the SABC for the period around the FIFA World Cup in 2010, but made very little audible difference on certain commercial stations. How will the pilot be monitored? How will its ‘success’ or ‘failure’ be defined and then measured? And if it ‘fails’, will we simply return to the current unsatisfactory situation?

We know quotas work, and that South African music is easily plentiful, robust, and beautiful enough to fill a properly implemented 60-70% quota with space to spare for what’s hottest, most intriguing and most startling in the music of the rest of the world. Ninety percent feels a lot like what has now happened to SABC international news reporting: a tiny handful of idiosyncratically selected and often misleadingly compressed items tacked on to a bulletin or feature programme. It feels, in fact, not so much like pride in local music as like political grandstanding, and a retreat from how the listening world currently works.

NOTE: This blog was amended on 12/06/16 to add additional context to paragraph 15.

 

Releases by Carlo Mombelli and Thuto Motsemme show us why we need the indy record stores

Nobody, we’re told, buys physical CD product any more. It’s not true, of course: there are older-generation audiences who have not adjusted to buying tinny little disaggregated MP3 tracks online, and genre audiences who want albums because they are sources of information as well as storehouses of sound – as well as all those people across all categories who like the sociality of shops where they can find fellow aficionados and talk.

But the stores that sell CDs are disappearing fast. As bassist Carlo Mombelli noted in a Business Day conversation with Charles Leonard in March: “[Music shops got] rid of all their serious music – they say, this stuff doesn’t sell. They made a mistake because that’s the stuff that actually sells, and they left all the pop stuff which doesn’t sell because the kids don’t buy CDs: they download music.”

“So what?” you may say. “Musica may be depressingly useless as a source of current South African jazz, but there’s a wonderful little shop around the corner where I can always find it.”

Except it doesn’t work like that. For independently-released local music, the little shop depends on artists having the time and resources to do their own distribution. New Cape Town or Durban outings often don’t find their way to Joburg, and vice-versa. For overseas jazz releases, an import agent (often a big South African label with a connection to an even bigger overseas one) has to know about the existence of interesting new music and – in a period of punitive exchange rates – take the decision that it’s worth importing copies. As the numbers of independent record shops shrinks, the numbers of orders for niched stock – lacking channels – will shrink too. The importers may decide it isn’t worth the hassle of bringing in, say, a mere five copies of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. And then the few remaining indy stores can’t get stock, can’t satisfy the orders of their specialist customers…and they close too.

Hi Fidelity
A themed display at Hi Fidelity, Killarney

That’s one of the reasons behind the imminent closure of the wonderful High Fidelity in Killarney – the place where I found Mombelli’s latest release, I Press My Spine To The Ground (Mombelli Music http://www.carlomombelli.com/#!shop/c1ta8   also available from iTunes/Amazon) and fellow bassist Thuto Motsemme’s debut My Dream (Remme Productions/ http://www.oneworld.co.za/index.php?main_page=product_music_info&products_id=10504 )

Mombelli has been around for years, with a distinguished career as a player, leader and teacher in Europe as well as here, where he’s currently plying his professorial trade at Wits. Motsemme graduated from UKZN a decade ago and is mainly still known as a sideman (alongside musicians of the calibre of Feya Faku, Gloria Bosman and Bheki Khoza, among others). What they have in common, as well as the bass, is a vision that leads them to play their own sound, rather than fitting into some facile marketing category that would score them shelf space in chain-store branches.

My Dream comprises ten original tracks by the bassist in the company of Mlu Mhlongo and Nduduzo Makhathini on piano and keyboards; the H3 horns (including Tebogo Mokoena, Mthunzi Mvubu and Mzamo Bhengu), and drummers Bonolo Nkoane and Ayanda Sikade.THUTO

Composer and ensemble make sure they demonstrate their full range, from ballads to edgy improvisation and from stately processional hymns to solid South African hard bop. That last is the dominant flavour, characterizing the title track, as well as Just To Say Thank You and Out of the Blue, and it provides the cue for tasty, muscular reed solos from Mokoena and Mvubu, as well as some extremely catchy hooks. Singer Nono Nkoane has a voice worth following, offering adventurous free vocalese on Just To Say Thank You, as well as an intelligent set of her own lyrics on Victory.

My Dream is the kind of debut that makes you eager to hear more of the band – and in my case, more of the freer forms that emerge on Just to Say… It’s a pity that, like many bandleader-bassists these days (I blame the fashion set by Herbie Tsoaeli on African Time – but, by then, we all knew what he sounded like), Motsemme plays such a self-effacing role. We hear his thinking in the compositions, and his steady instrumental presence holds the music together, but despite some vibrant bass intros, we hear no extended solos from him. Maybe next time…

CarloBy contrast, in the quartet format of Mombelli’s I Press My Spine to the Ground, all the colours on the sonic palette – Mombelli’s bass, samples and words (read by Brenda Sisane), Kyle Shepherd’s piano, Kesivan Naidoo’s drums and Mbuso Khosa’s voice – are equally vibrant. It’s inappropriate to categorise or label Mombelli’s music. He curates sounds, by turns beautiful, humorous, intriguing, sinister and challenging, and offers the listener pathways of discovery through them. That doesn’t mean there are no melodies; rather, there are dozens of them, but strung  like crystals rather than panel-beaten and welded into a single genre form. Some of the most beautiful tunes are carried by Khoza’s voice, as on the track Maya’s Meshes.

mbuso-khoza-3
Mbuso Khoza

The ensemble is the one that presented Mombelli’s previous album, Stories, live on its South African launch tour in 2014. Close to two years on and the empathy between them, strong then, has become even tighter. The notion that certain sounds are the exclusive province of certain instruments is broken down when a bass plays storms of drum-like percussive beats, or a piano utters a bass-line – and the listeners’ re-hearing is intensified when electronics borrow and blend instrumental sounds to create completely new ones. Like everything else in Mombelli’s opus, this is music you need to hear.

And, yes, sure, you can buy all this stuff online. The links are in the text above. But if you don’t know what it’s called – or even that it exists – how will you search for it without a friendly human being behind a record shop counter to tell you about it? The indy record stores are not merely retail outlets. Part music college, part social service, they’ll be hard to replace if we let them all die.