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!shop/c1ta8   also available from iTunes/Amazon) and fellow bassist Thuto Motsemme’s debut My Dream (Remme Productions/ )

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

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.


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