In the beginning was the music – and the music was Sheer. Or, to put it another way, the political change of 1990 unleashed much original new South African music, but it wasn’t until 1994 and the advent of the Sheer Sound label that a coherent archive and a consistent catalogue gained wide public attention.
That’s tended to overshadow the great quantity of pre-1994 releases, from multiple labels –including occasionally the majors, but more importantly some we don’t credit enough for their role in the SA jazz renaissance. One of those was Shifty, which received a 30th birthday accolade at the Alliance Francaise in 2014.
But far more venerable was the As-Shams/Sun stable of Johannesburg music industry veteran Rashid Vally, which for nearly half a century before and after liberation, under various imprints (in 1973, for the then-Dollar Brand, the label was ‘Mandla’), gave a voice to South African modern jazz. The label’s releases of the music of Abdullah Ibrahim are well known, but there were all kinds of other jazz and pop experiments taking place in those Sun studios and around the downtown Kohinoor record store.
Now, thanks to multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, who composed, produced and played on many, we have the chance to hear a rare gem again.
In September, Mohamed re-released the eponymous first volume of his Kalamazoo series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXKJOfKHc94&feature=youtu.be&utm_source=My+new+joburg+list&utm_campaign=46f87ae136-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_09_12_09_35_;
Kalamazoo Music – firstname.lastname@example.org ) These six tracks from 1990 feature not only himself as composer, arranger and keyboard programmer, but the late tenorist Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee and bassist Sipho Gumede – the release honours them both – with drummers Monty Weber and Ian Herman too. On the closer, Happy Feeling, reedman Robbie Jansen also puts in an appearance on alto.
If you like Manenberg, you’ll love Kalamazoo. The shape of the music is classic, but updated, bump jive (one track is actually called Kort Street Bump Jive). But the sound is carried far beyond that by the imaginations of the saxmen (the other altoist is Mzi Khumalo) and the impeccable rhythms of Gumede. Some of the tracks are frustratingly short – you’ll long for more than the three minutes-plus of Gumede’s groove-driven solo excursion Spring Fever – but those were sometimes the constraints of that era’s recordings.
Kalamazoo was named for the close-knit, defiant informal settlement that abutted Mohamed’s home area of Reiger Park. It was another of those pockets of multi-ethnic resistance apartheid had tried and failed to erase (neoliberalism has been more successful); reminders that Johannesburg is a migrant city and ‘tribe’ ain’t nothing but a number.
Mohamed and Gumede’s own partnership had been forged in fire: enacting defiance all through the apartheid years when the regime was insisting on the scale and importance of the differences between the Zulu-speaking bassist and the so-called ‘coloured’, Afrikaans-speaking keyboardist.
“It was always very important for us not to stay inside the classification,” says Mohamed. “The regime divided us – people classified ‘coloured’ had identity documents; black people had the dompas. We didn’t accept that separation. Sipho, although he was born in KZN, could play any feel. Sometime he’d joke and ask me: ‘Does [my bass line] feel coloured enough?’”
There’s more intriguing music where that came from. Next, Mohamed plans to release the ground-breaking 1975 Black Disco (also with Gumede & Coetzee), a sound inspired in equal parts by Soweto Soul, African Jazz and American R&B. Both that and Kalamazoo remind us how vast (and often unexplored) is the black South African popular music legacy of even the past few decades. This raises again the question of why radio doesn’t play it, music courses don’t teach it and public archives don’t collect, display and treasure it. International search engines such as Google can only access what we ourselves have first researched and published. If we delay, and such cultural traces disappear – as they too easily can – all Google will be able to show our grandchildren is a big, fat emptiness.
(NOTE: The quote from Pops Mohamed comes from a 2016 interview he granted me during the creation of liner notes for another re-release: the second ‘Black Disco’ album, Night Express, re-released by Matsuli Music. https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/night-express-2)