It started with the Ethiopian krar harp. Or the Gnawa kerar or the Adalucian/Moorish guitarro. The Portuguese bought over their rebeca and rebequinha. Then there was the ramkie. Or the blik kitaar, or…call it what you like. All of them were fat-bodied instruments with necks and half a dozen strings or so, and the amazing and delightful capacity to play anything – and even change their voices when you pressed on the neck with a spoon handle, bottle, or the back of a knife…
It was that idiomatic flexibility – plus relative cheapness and portability – that made guitars an instrument of choice to relieve the tedium and squalor migrant workers were forced to endure in their hostels, and to share musical ideas among a community drawn from across southern Africa. It also made them a two-way bridge between traditional and modern sounds. The guitars brought home by migrants augmented the musical options for playing village music; concepts and idioms from those village tunes brought fresh interpretive possibilities to the modern ones – both mediated by the choices and skills of the player.
It was never a one-way traffic then, and it isn’t now. Which means we need to be very careful about how we describe the playing of African guitarists, and the ‘modernism’ we ascribe to them. Things we tend to associate with the most avant-garde of jazz: the challenging use of dissonance and discontinuities; the edgy collaging of fragments; non-linear time and sonic space – all these also live somewhere in traditional music.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than by two contrasting, yet complementary guitar releases: Sibusile Xaba’s Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah (Mushroom Hour Half Hour) (https://www.amazon.co.uk/UNLEARNING-OPEN-LETTER-ADONIAH-Sibusile/dp/B0734GGT6Q ) and Billy Monama’s Rebounce (https://www.amazon.com/Rebounce/dp/B076M43JFG ).
Both volumes of Xaba’s double release were recorded in natural environments (Bronkhorstspruit and the Magaliesberg): Unlearning with bassist Ariel Zamonsky and drummer Bonolo Nkoane; Open Letter…with percussionists Dennis Magagula and Thabang Tabane (whose father, Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane, remains the most audaciously traditionalist of guitar avant-gardists – or vice-versa!).
Reviewers have called it ‘folk’ music, and simultaneously attributed to Xaba’s vocalese that most conventional of jazz arts: ‘scatting’. In truth, neither of those labels is adequate or accurate, and Xaba has, quite rightly, dismissed attempts to situate his music in relation to ‘jazz’ as irrelevant.
Open Letter… will certainly speak to malombo music fans with its dream-inspired vocal narratives, open, minimalist melodic lines and rich mesh of rhythm textures and patterns. New Music listeners will find a great deal there to intrigue them too. But it fits neatly in neither of those envelopes. The guitar sound on Unlearning is more contemporary, a sonic positioning reinforced by the presence of conventional bass and drums. What Xaba does with those sounds, however, belongs in all genres and none, shifting seamlessly from abstraction to melody to groove and back to abstraction again. Unlearning also demonstrates an impressive mastery of guitar technique that no reviewer has so far mentioned.
Xaba situates his music not in genre, but in spirituality. As he told website Dandalo ((https://africanfilmandmusicclassic.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/interview-sibusile-xaba-shares-the-creative-process-behind-his-debut-album/ ) : “…for me/us it’s just another way of everyday life (in the past, present and the future, spirituality is always there). My lineage has always embraced and acknowledged the existence / importance of the spirit hence we talk to the spirit consistently (we feed the spirit). So for me we share these messages (lyrics) to engage the spirit, to heal the spirits of mankind (or to simply give it its food)…”
All of which means that any attempt to review Xaba’s two albums becomes a complete “dancing about architecture” moment: they work brilliantly, providing two hours of spellbinding listening – but entirely on their own terms. They should certainly be a release of the year, except that the way the capitalist music industry works, there’s no category to award them in.
Despite his relative youth (he’s in his ‘30s) guitarist Billy Monama is already hugely respected by his peers and the audience that has heard him. But he doesn’t (yet) have a prominent public profile, something this release may well change. And on first appearance, Billy Monama’s Rebounce is easier to categorise.
The music has easy, catchy hooks, delineated solos and other recognisable features of jazz, and a line-up featuring familiar and admired jazz names: Tlale Makhene, Lwanda Gogwana, Sisonke Xonti, Siphiwe Shiburi and more, including Joyous Celebration’s Nthabiseng Motsepe on voice. The dozen mainly self-composed tracks map the guitarist’s life experiences and the sounds that have shaped him, from hymns and memories to the cacophonous traffic noises of Soweto Highway, the bruised heart of Confused Love and the rousing West Nkosi mbaqanga of Makaza.
But listen to the guitarist’s own solos, and the distance between him and Xaba – despite all those meaningless identifiers – actually isn’t so great. One track – Beyond Colour – clearly acknowledges parallel spiritual and musical roots. With fast, unerring fingers and an equally fast brain, Monama, too, is guided by his spirit in the musical choices he makes, and shares an equal disdain for being predictable. You’ll hear innovative spaces in his dance rhythms and unexpected clashes and modal runs in his easy listening fusion. Monama can bring Allen Kwela, Pat Metheny, Tal Farlow and even Jimi Hendrix to the mbaqanga party with him, with none of them sounding out of place. “You are,” he told Kaya-FM’s Brenda Sisane at the album launch on Sunday, “what you’ve listened to, and there’s no changing that.”
We heard some different musicians at the live launch, including the robust tenor of Thami Mahlangu and the speed-merchant trumpet of Lebogang Madi. (That’s another side of Monama: music educator and campaigner for the opening up of cultural spaces and opportunities to new players.) On the album, the ensemble is often bigger, with a greater diversity of horn textures, showcasing Monama’s approach to arranging as well as playing.
So, two different players who aren’t so different after all, and a bunch of musical ‘modernisms’ that take their inspiration from African tradition – and all thanks to the guitar: an instrument that can say anything you could possibly want it to. To think it all started with those ramkies and krars…