Hamba Kahle Pinise Saul: 1941-2016

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Pinise Saul. Image:Richard Kaby

The UK Guardian once called her “the Queen of Afro-Jazz” and, if anything, that soubriquet underplays the package of musical talent, hard-working energy, righteous politics and sass that made up vocalist Pinise Saul, who died on October 27th.

East London-born Saul started singing at school, and was swiftly recruited by pianist Tete Mbambisa to join the vocal quartet he was working with at that time, the Four Yanks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJe_z9f6Wso ). The Four Yanks were later scouted by legendary impressario and drummer Dick Khoza, after their 1962 hit Umsenge. The group’s vocal talents, Mbambisa’s shrewd arranging skills and Khoza’s contacts led to a hectic touring scheduled that got them all noticed. By 1963, Saul has been recruited to sing in the musical Xapa Goes to Town. She was recruited from that stage to join the Johannesburg hit Zulu-language musical, Ben “Satch” Masinga’s Back in Your Own Back Yard, to replace Letta Mbulu. The greater work opportunities of the Golden City, and the ferment of creativity around Dorkay House persuaded Saul to stay in the city.

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Pinise Saul & Nick Moyake outside Dorkay House. Image: Basil Breakey

Her talent was marked by her peers. Trumpeter Dennis Mpale composed the tune Pinise’s Dance, which was recorded both by Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers and, in a much better-known version, by Shakes Mgudlwa’s Soul Giants in 1968 on the album I remember Nick.

Always restless, and frustrated and infuriated by the performing regulations imposed under apartheid, Saul got her ticket out in 1985, through a place in the line-up for the musical Ipi Tombi. Saul went into exile, settling in London where her work stretched from roots malombo vocals with Julian Bahula and Jabula to fearless collaborations with a multinational cast of London avant-garde improvisers. Jabula’s 1975 album Live in Amsterdam was banned by the apartheid authorities for its incendiary, anti-apartheid lyrics. But Saul’s touring work with the increasingly successful band ( which released three further albums, all banned here) also took her to independent African countries, Europe and the USA.

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Saul’s facility for moving seamlessly and creatively between solid mbaqanga groove and risky improvisation found its most comfortable homes with Chris McGregor and in the various London outfits of reedman Dudu Pukwana, whom she began working with in 1981. Listen to this clip of her with Zila, singing Ziyekeleni (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klmyZXQM-sY ) . Or this one, from a live performance in Germany : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1GJb88It0k

lifefront Her final musical partnership was with another player with roots in malombo: guitarist Madumetja Lucky Ranku, with whom she toured (including back to South Africa at, among others, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival) and co-founded bands including Township Express, Township Comets (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpIjeEftLfE ) and the SA Gospel Singers. Another fruitful partnership, with harmonica player Adam Glasser, brought the duo to South Africa for many performances, including this one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6-RZ9i6UP4 ) at the Sophiatown Jazz and Heritage Centre in 2013.

There was nobody quite like Pinise: a combination of formidable courage, grounded commonsense, and sublime vocal talent which never quite received sufficient recognition in the country of her birth. Condolences to her family, and may her spirit rest in peace. Hamba Kahle.

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With guitarist Lucky Ranku
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