McCoy Mrubata’s Brasskap Sessions Volume 3: bridging history and hope

Brasskap Volume Three,” ( ) reedman McCoy Mrubata says, “is probably my deepest search into Xhosa sounds of those three Brasskap albums. But it wasn’t a planned direction. Like all my albums, it’s the people I work with who help me to shape the sound.”album cover

One key contributor this time was roots isiXhosa vocalist Daluxolo Hoho (, with whom Mrubata had been wanting to collaborate “for years. I’d first heard him in the ‘90s, and I wasn’t certain he was still active now. But two songs for this album needed that kind of voice, and a poet friend put us in touch. When he answered the phone, I got a shock: his speaking voice sounded so different. But his singing made those compositions sound exactly as I’d heard them in my head, and also helped shape the feel of the album.”

The three Brasskap Sessions albums form a distinct section of Mrubata’s output. They’re the place where he “brings together my students, younger players, and the elders.” We tend to think of him as a Jozi jazzman, but Brasskap 3 reminds us how much his own musical history belongs to the Cape – and how much “Cape Jazz” owes its character to the historic coming together of Xhosa music and the traditions of the communities apartheid called Coloured. Record labels sometimes use the genre to exclude: to market music from Abdullah Ibrahim or Robbie Jansen but not Ezra Ngcukana or Tete Mbambisa. But right from the start (see Nomvuyo Ngcelwane’s memoir Sala Kahle District Six ) musicians were shaping jazz together in the Cape, across apartheid’s arbitrary barriers.

The album’s dozen tracks reflect that, in personnel and sound.

Vocalist Daluxolo Hoho

Hoho features on two, the galloping rhythms of Sukugxadazela and the praises of Ma Madosini, with other voices including Luyanda Madope (who also produced), Sakhile Moleshe, Titi Luzipho and Hlubi Kwebulana. Guests include baritone saxophonist Gareth Harvey, altoist Mthunzi Mvubu, longtime collaborators Paul Hanmer on piano, Jabu Magubane on trombone and Louis Mhlanga on guitar, marimba player Bongani Sotshonanda, vibraphonist Ngwako Manamela and the steelpans of Andy Narell, overdubbed at Narell’s French studio. Rhythms are provided by Lumanyano Unity Mzi and Bernice Boikanyo alternating on drums, Tlale Makhene on percussion, and Nhlanhla Radebe, Thembinkosi Mavimbela and Steve de Souza on bass. It was a big, open-armed collaboration; I’ve probably omitted some other important names.

The breakout radio hit has been Bamba. That’s the kind of slow, searching modern jazz tune that composers like Eric Nomvete were crafting in the 1970s, underpinned by those characteristic ‘Xhosa chords’ evoking overtone music – but it also recalls Mrubata’s own music history in his dialogue with Hanmer, as well as the compositions of Zim Ngqawana in the same vein.

Reaching back even further is ¾: a tribute to Kimberley-born pianist and composer Roger Khoza, who arrived in Cape Town in the early 1960s and became a fixture on the modern jazz scene, working with the Soul Jazzmen, Mankunku, the Ngcukana family and more. By the time a much younger Mrubata encountered him “I was hearing him with bands like Skyf [with reedman Robert Sithole, a young Spencer Mbadu and more]. What impressed me was that he always brought good material. I was Robert Sithole’s roadie at that time, and making my musical transition from pennywhistle to flute. And Bra’ Roger was playing a big role in shaping the sounds that were around.” Sadly, Khoza, who had guested with the band while some of this material was being developed, suffered a stroke just before the track was cut and was unable to play. “But we have his voice, talking about the tune and how it was composed. That’s important. People don’t know that history.”

McCoy Mrubata

Mrubata’s compositions have always carried messages – Wanna Talk About It ( ) on his 2002 Face the Music album was early in raising the issue of gender-based violence – and Brasskap 3 is no exception. He’s wary of using the restrictive term ‘politics,’ “because people sometimes get the wrong impression from the word, but I’ve always written about what is going on in society. The song Ziphi? is directly addressing things around us that worry me, like initiation deaths and schoolteachers who abuse young girls: Ziph’Inkode zakwantu mawethu/Nezibonda zelali/Ziph’Ikokhel’ ezi krelekrele/Ilizwe liyonakala.” (Where are the elders…my people /Where the village chiefs/Where are the wise leaders/Things are falling apart in our land)

Wmns March.jpg
One Ma Sophie: Sophia Williams-de Bruyn (extreme r.) at the Women’s March 1956

You’ll often find a big, lush ballad somewhere on a Mrubata album, and in this case it’s another tribute, political and personal: Two Ma Sophies . The first Ma Sophie is the late Sophie Mngcina: actress, cultural organiser, educator and singer. “I worked with her at the Market Theatre, on the SA Love Project with Barney Rachabane. I learned so much from her, especially about dealing with close harmony voices: she was so generous with information. She was knowledgeable – and she was tough: the best kind of teacher.” The second is Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, whom Mrubata met as the landlady in Berea of the first family-sized home he was able to rent. “We fell in love with the place, and it became a mini music hub – Miriam Makeba, Bra’ Jonas Gwangwa, other bands came and worked there. And she and her husband were so patient about rent, with a musician whose family was growing and who couldn’t always pay on time.” Mrubata had initially been unaware of de Bruyn’s other identity, as a Fedsaw leader at the forefront of the 1956 Women’s March against Pass Laws. “Then one day on TV I saw a film about the Women’s March – and there was Mam’ Sophie. I was knocked out. She’s truly a hero.”

Visual artist Tyrone Appolis with another music-themed artwork

The last bit of personal history on Brasskap 3 is the cover, contributed by another longtime friend from Mrubata’s pennywhistling days: artist Tyrone Appolis. It’s a joyous, vibrant mash-up of instruments and people moving together, with reeds front and centre. “I’ve known Tyrone since 1976,” Mrubata says. “We started playing pennywhistles at UDF meetings together. He learned isiXhosa and used to come and eat with my family. We were both interested in drawing and painting in those days too. I still am – but music has kinda taken over and my older daughter’s the designer in my family now. But I have wanted some art from Tyrone for an album for ages, and this was the album for it.”

We’re due for two more releases from Mrubata soon. Finally, he plans to mix and put out the music he created in 2001 when he was working on a John Coltrane project in Norway. “I couldn’t find a record company who understood that project at the time, which is why it has sat on the shelf for so long. But now, it will come out.” And then there’s another outing in same spirit as Brasskap, Mrubata’s Strings Attached project, which draws young township string players together with more experienced musicians. (You can see a short video on how the music in that project grew here:

As our interview ends, I ask Mrubata why he didn’t include the infectious dance tune  Power to the People among the ‘political’ tracks he discussed. “Actually, I was thinking about the other kind of power. I was sitting in a long, cold queue at City Power – I’d gone to complain about the hassles they were giving my tenants. I didn’t have a book; my mind was kind of empty – and then the idea for the tune just came.” The reedman pauses and thinks for a moment. “But of course,” he adds, “that slogan has a twofold meaning.” Especially, as it happens, this load-shed week.

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