SPAZA: freedom off the shelf

album.jpgA remarkable South African album launches today.  SPAZA ( records the May 2015 live performance at the Spaza Gallery in Troyeville of a group of intensely creative musicians. At that date, the group comprised bassist Ariel Zamonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene, electronics whizz João Orecchia, trombonist Siya Makuzeni and violinist Waldo Alexander, with FX from almost everybody, and voices from Makhene, Makuzeni, Nosisi Ngakane and Nonku Phiri. The album launches on vinyl; CDs are coming soon for those dinosaurs – like me – who still collect them.

If genre mattered to anybody except marketers (it doesn’t) this music is ‘free improvisation’. That label, though, risks obscuring more than it illuminates. The late free guitarist Derek Bailey probably got it right when he wrote: “Opinions about free music range from the view that free playing is the simplest thing in the world, requiring no explanation, to the view that it is complicated beyond discussion.” South African percussionist Thebe Lepere lived precisely that tension, finding the theoretical earnestness with which the North Europeans he met in exile dissected free music “hilarious (…) in Africa it was a common, everyday thing. We didn’t need to talk about it, it was just there.”

Violin & FX from Waldo Alexander

But that doesn’t mean improvisation is, as some dictionaries define it, “done with little forethought or preparation”. Musicians are constantly developing and preparing its raw materials: the various sonic languages they learn; their individual personalities and thought patterns; the idiomatic limitations and possibilities of their instruments – and their understanding of the other players around them. In the moment, they make choices and discover or invent a fresh soundscape from that.

Vocals & FX from Nosisi Ngakane

So free music can be melodic, lyrical, rhythmic, dissonant, stuttering, jagged, knotty, catchy, danceably groovy…anything the players choose. And Spaza is all of that – sometimes all at once. It reflects not only the eclectic character of its performance site, the Spaza Gallery, at that time, but the inspiration for that name, the spaza shop. For that was how township residents humanised the bare spaces where they had been dumped: earning income by selling anything and everything their neighbours might need from a garage, front-room window or back kitchen door; compensating for the lack of convenient transport or shops; improvising trade to earn a little income, but also build ties of solidarity and an independent community economy.

Spazashop art
Spaza shop: 1995 watercolour painted by Soweto artist Phaswane David Mogano

In homage to that, the album tracks are named for the goods you might pop next door to buy: Sunlight, Glycerine, 2 loose draws; Ice Squinchies ( ) and Magwinya.

Spaza evokes powerful moods, and presents textures so grainy your fingers can feel them. In Magwinya, Mangola ne White Liver the mood is lyrical: women’s voices in solo and FX-ed chorus building to a soaring climax. In Sunlight, Glycerine…the texture is conversational, with voices raw and processed talking and singing together and across one another. Five Rand Airtime…has Makuzeni’s trombone joyously exploring every sound it can make with and without the aid of electronics.

Trombone, voice & FX from Siya Makuzeni

And it’s never just sound: these are music-makers communicating: warmly, angrily, sadly, sometimes passionately. The words evoke human experiences and emotions and traditional occasions and ceremonies – this is precisely the kind of homebrewed African free sound to which Lepere was alluding, but one that welcomes in Manu Dibangu’s Electric Africa too.

Spaza is simultaneously avant-garde and “traditional” in the way it invites you to listen. Because it presents a polyphony, the best way to enter the music is to choose one sonic thread and follow it, hearing that thread as a single sound, a sound in relationships with other individual sounds, and a sound woven into massed sounds. And that’s exactly how you’d listen to a Xhosa overtone ensemble, or a Balinese gamelan orchestra.

Percussion & voice from Gontse Makhene

You can also just have fun: float on the sensual textures and let them carry you along to dreams of worlds where things might be different, because in this sound-world everything is possible.

As free reedman the late Steve Lacy said: “I think that jazz, from the time it first began, was always concerned with degrees of freedom. The way Louis Armstrong played was ‘more free’ than earlier players. Roy Eldridge was ‘more free’ than his predecessors, Dizzy Gillespie was another stage and (Don) Cherry was another. And you have to keep it going otherwise you lose that freedom, and then the music is finished. It’s a matter of life and death. The only criterion is: ‘Is this stuff alive or is it dead?’” In its fearless enacting of freedom, Spaza is some of the most alive music I’ve heard this year. Pop next door and get some.

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