Music of South Africa, Part two

FACE TO FACE (Strut Records)

Vusi Mahlasela, Norman Zulu & Jive Connection takes us right back to the era of Sly & the Family Stone, and Gil Scott Heron. Vusi was a voice of the anti-apartheid struggle and left Pretoria, South Africa for Sweden where he joined up with guitarist Stefan Bergman and drummer Erik Bodin in Jive Connection. He returned to South Africa for Live 8 (Johannesburg, 2005) and Nelson Mandela's inauguration, and he toured the US with Hugh Masekela a decade ago. This album was recorded back in 2002 and has only recently been unearthed. It has soul and jazz grooves and a dash of reggae, but mainly hearkens back to the sounds of the 70s. Norman Zulu is another singer/songwriter, who grew up in Soweto and brings a Township vibe to the studio. The two managed to teach the Swedes enough Zulu to sing back-up in a Ladysmith Black Mambazo harmony style. The sax and organ are definitely up for it, and contribute to a warm township feel. There is a bonus single "Faceless People," reminiscent of the Last Poets, added in two takes to sweeten the deal, and the set stretches out enough to get to Jamaica, with the mellow rootsy title track, "Face to Face." This has a nice Ernie Ranglin-influenced guitar lead. For more flavor of the past, "In Komo" suggests Malombo with jagged guitar over what you might call Azanian drumming. I recognize the chorus of "Intombi ye Mbali" from a South African township album I had 40 years ago and now can't remember the group's name. It's probably a famous refrain, or just accepted as part of the folk canon. "Prodigal Son" also reveals the influence of Masekela, suggesting this album is an overview of Vusi and Norman's heritage.


I reviewed Abdullah Ibrahim's scarce first album, Dollar Brand Trio plays Sphere Jazz, on here not so long ago, when it was reissued. While he has not appeared in these pages often, he has been a constant in my life, up to this most recent album which came out at the end of 2021 and which has been nominated for a Grammy. Jazz was big in Ibrahim's native South Africa in the 1930s, a quite unique spot for this cultural exchange, and there a band called the Jazz Maniacs played Basie and Ellington with a Zulu tinge! In the 'fifties young men like trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Ibrahim began playing jazz too. In 1959 Ibrahim (born Adolph Brand; he got the name Dollar Brand because he was always scoring foreign currency to try to buy jazz records off American servicemen), and Masekela formed the Jazz Epistles (inspired by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers) with Kippie Moeketsi and Jonas Gwanga, becoming the first South African bebop band and the first to record. But in 1960 the Sharpeville Massacre (when Afrikaner police killed 69 unarmed demonstrators against apartheid) caused the band to flee the country: Masekela to the USA and Brand to Switzerland. Masekela soon had a pop hit with "Grazin' in the Grass" and Brand (who converted to Islam in 1968 and became Abdullah Ibrahim), was spotted in a Zurich nightclub by touring Duke Ellington who got him a recording contract. He soon moved to the USA also where he deputized for Ellington on tour. I have been fortunate to see Ibrahim in concert several times, in fact any time he comes to the Bay Area, I am there. The last time, 4 years ago, was quite funny in a perverse way. Ibrahim was scheduled to perform at San Francisco Jazz (which started out as an annual festival but then they bought a building and now have a regular schedule). When Masekela died in 2018, SF Jazz held a memorial concert with the remaining Jazz Epistles, now performing as Ekaya. Wadada Leo Smith was invited to play the trumpet with this distinguished group, but clearly the rest of the band were not impressed with the American, playing over his solos, changing the charts on the fly, in short, making him feel left out and sound like a chump whenever he tried to show off. So it was a weird night. Nevertheless it is always a treat to see Ibrahim perform, even though he is 88 and has slowed down a bit. This solo album has many of his familiar grooves and licks: he will throw in a quote from "Getting Sentimental over You" or "Caravan" and then invert it, change the emphasis and find a new riff buried within. The set was recorded live in a concert hall near his home in Chiemgau, East Germany (from where he did a memorable Tiny Desk concert last year). "Blue Bolero" (which appears thrice), "Blues for a Hip King," and "The Wedding" show some variations from earlier recordings, which is where we listen and learn. Like Monk, Ibrahim has no compunction about playing the same tunes over and over: In 1973 he released The Pilgrim and then Good News which featured another take of the "The Pilgrim" on it. In 1977 Cape Town Fringe also had a long workout on "The Pilgrim." "The Wedding" showed up on a soundtrack album he did and also on Water from an Ancient Well (1986), and African Marketplace (1984), and I am only referring to albums I own. "The Wedding" is now reflective, no longer a joyful processional but an introspective musing. (The Duchess complained it sounded like a funeral! — she is not entirely wrong...) While he is slower, his touch is sure. And the pensive majestic building underscores his compositional strength, like the way "Blues for a Hip King" merges into "District 6" with a stately vamp. The tracks flow together, a nice touch, as he takes the lid off to show us the workings. As if to say, here it's quite simple, but can you do it? Just how big are your hands?! Some of the pieces are 14, 22 or 40 seconds. Just long enough to get a breath.

1970-76 (Analog Africa AACD035)

Africa in the 1970s was feeling the impact of American music like never before, through radio and the expansion of global travel: Africans felt they could be as sophisticated as Europeans and Americans, at least in their minds. We saw how the gospel of James Brown was brought back to Nigeria by Fela Kuti after his visits to the West, but a lesser-known influence was the Booker T sound, not to mention the whole of Memphis and Stax-Volt and it resonated in South Africa, where the Movers were a tight organ-led combo up to the task of emulating the Scallion Master. They achieve strong effects with simple chord progressions and tight playing. And they have soul. These are mostly two-and-a-half to three minute tunes with the driving organ to the fore and the tight bass and drums holding down the bottom. It's not until track 5, "Kudala Sithandana," that they show their ability to play what we came to know as Zulu Jive, or Mbaqanga, though doubtless it had many other aspects and names. But we are soon back in the "Midnight Hour" as the chords for "Oupa is Back" indicate. Oupa is guitarist Oupa Hlongwane, the organist and band leader was Sankie Chounyane, and vocalist Blondie Makhene. Instrumental music was a key to a band's success in Apartheid South Africa, so there are few vocals on here, but the music is jamming. "Six Mabone," (different from the version by Boyoyo Boys) has the same chords as the Troggs' "Love is all around," from 1967 — can there be a connection? The Movers' first album from Teal in 1969 sold half a million copies and they became the first band to cross over to the white radio stations, according to Samy Ben Redjeb's liner notes. He also tells us that they seem to have vanished from the face of the earth: not surprising given the ups and down of life as a musician. The original band members were all replaced over time, but Analog Africa presents the cream of their output here.

AFRO MODERN DREAMS 1974-7 (Matsuli Music MM125)

If you lived in South Africa in the 1970s and hankered for a bit of nightlife you might find yourself at Club Pelican, Soweto's first nightclub (which was definitely on the wrong side of the tracks). This album recreates the epitome of what you might have encountered in this spot, with a sample of groups playing Soul, Funk, Disco and Jazz. I am trying to remember concerts I went to the in the 1970s, living here in California, and remember Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pharoah Sanders, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner, Captain Beefheart and a ton of rock and roll acts from the Pretenders to Ian Dury & the Blockheads opening for Lou Reed — but of course most of those bands did not tour to South Africa. (Remember "I ain't gonna play Sun City"!?) Instead we hear here bands called The Black Pages, The Drive and The Headquarters. The jazz tracks are engaging; the Disco one sucks, like all disco. Standouts include "Pelican Fantasy" by jazz Ensemble of Rhythm and Art, featuring Khaya Mahlangu on tenor and Dennis Mpale on trumpet. It's an interesting mix, and most of it instrumental. Lyric content was censored to avoid anyone working in oblique criticisms of the Apartheid government. The Shyannes' sound is sophisticated in a Commodores kind of way; Almon Memela's Soweto perform "Pelican City" with a driving Booker T-like organ and massed "Tower of Power" horns. It's hard not to compare them to better-known American acts as it seems they are all trying to sound like they are from Detroit, Chicago or Philadelphia. But their rotating presence in this one club drove them to high levels of competition and quality playing. My favorite band, who backed Mahlathini, are here as Makhona Zonke Band with Teaspoon and West Nkosi on alto saxes, Marks Mankwane on guitar, Joseph Makwela, bass, and Lucky Monama on drums. Other luminaries of the scene appear here and there, including sax player Duku Makasi, keyboard player Bheki Mseleku, and bassist Sipho Gumede. Skip the disco track and you have some fine, sharp playing. And, as usual with Matsuli, the remastering is flawless, giving crystal clear audio, and the packaging with rare photos and histories is impeccable.

MAKGONA TSOHLE REGGI (Umsakazo Records UM-106)

Ever since my first concert -- Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, back in the 1960s -- I have seen many bands perform live. The Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Animals from England; in America I have seen great acts from Toots and the Maytals to Morris Day & the Time, from Zappa and Beefheart to James Brown and his Famous Flames. From Africa I have seen Sunny Adé, Fela Kuti, Empire Bakuba, Sam Mangwana, Quatre Etoiles, Papa Wemba; most of them more than once. But if you asked me who were the hottest live band I ever witnessed, I would instantly tell you the Makgona Tsohle band. But wait, you say, who are they? They toured behind Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and tore up the stage in concert. I saw their show at Slim's in San Francisco and drove down the coast to Santa Cruz to catch them the next night. They were in the parking lot of the club, having just done the sound check when I got there, so I went up to tell them I was a fan. You drove all this way? they asked, incredulously. I saw them on every tour after that, with Simon Mahlathini and also, after his death, backing the Mahotella Queens. Back in the day, with West Nkosi, they created South African sax jive. This is an instrumental album, along the line of Booker T & the MGs or Tommy McCook and the Skatalites and they do indeed cover R&B and ska sounds on here, as well as their own rough & ready Zulu jive, called Mbaqanga. Some enterprising soul dug into the Gallo archives to find uncollected tapes by the band in their early days so these dozen tracks constitute their first album, though they appear in several guises. The album appeared in 1970 and has been pressed again in a limited edition of 400 copies. West Nkosi plays sax, Marks Mankwane is lead guitar, Vivian Ngubane plays rhythm, Kid Moncho plays organ and the ultra-tight rhythm section is Joseph Makwela on bass and Lucky Monama on drums. They should be well-known as the hardest working band in show business, but maybe this album will get them some more credit for the tsunami of music they blasted forth from the townships 50 years ago.

SPRING (Matsuli Music MM118)

2020 was a bad year and now winter is upon us with its short days and long cold nights but we have Spring to look forward to! And like a Spring breeze fluttering the daffodils, here comes an airy waft of warming South African post-bop jazz. Matsuli have a good track record of reissuing lost gems of South African music but this one scores high on both counts: not only was it lost but it is a diamond. I suppose the cornerstone of South African jazz piano has to be Abdullah Ibrahim's work and this indeed recalls him in patches (especially on the title cut), but it also evokes the Americans Errol Garner and McCoy Tyner. Yes, this group reminds me more of the classic Trane quartet than Abdullah Ibrahim's outfit. Like Abdullah Ibrahim, this Ibrahim Shihab adopted Islam and changed his name from Chris Schilder. The tenor sax player, Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, is indeed a Coltrane acolyte as is clear on his version of "You don't know what love is," which Trane recorded in 1962. He also admired Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver and covered the latter on his solo album Yakhal' Inkomo, recorded contemporaneously with this. Here we are in 1968 when Shihab's quintet spent three months touring from their base in Cape Town. It was good they were road-sharp because they only had two hours in the studio to cut this disc, which means everything was done in one take. The album was pressed but an ignorant studio executive destroyed the master tapes, causing it to become a lost gem. Thanks to Matsuli it has been lovingly restored and can be appreciated by fans of classic jazz, no matter the country of origin. "Mankunku" shines radiantly, but the piano is wonderfully lyrical and the young rhythm section rock solid--all of them were in their early 20s. It's one album to put on repeat.

PLAYS SPHERE JAZZ (Honey Pie Records LP008)

It's interesting to hear the earliest, oft-forgotten recordings of some artist, in order to get a sense of their progression. I had always thought Abdullah Ibrahim's earliest recording was the 1964 Duke Ellington presents the Dollar Brand Trio: the story being that someone dragged Duke to a little after hours club in Zurich and he was blown away by the genius kid at the keyboard. That early album on Reprise was dedicated to Ellington (who hooked him up with his label) and had echoes of Duke, but also included "Brilliant Corners" by Monk and a tribute to South African saxophonist Kippi Moeketsi. However this 1960 South African release was recorded before Brand went into exile. (He also made a quintet recording later in 1960, with Hugh Masakela.) Brand got the nickname "Dollar" because he was always buying American jazz records from GIs, though few people were really into American jazz in Cape Town in the 1950s. His grandmother had a piano and sometimes he would wake up the house in the middle of the night with a thunderous "Take the A Train." By the mid-60s Brand had moved to New York and was subbing for Ellington in the Duke Ellington Orchestra! Ironically it was after his move to America that he began to incorporate African themes and elements into his music. In 1977 Brand became a Muslim and changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim. By the time of "The Pilgrim" (1977), "The Wedding" (1978) and "The Mountain" (1986), Ibrahim had developed a rolling left hand arpeggio, involving a root-fifth-tenth run (for which you need big hands) and he himself was being copied by other pianists (for example the Köln concert of Keith Jarrett, as I have said before). Here in his earliest recorded work as a pianist, Brand shows us what he learned from Monk as well as Ellington. There's also Blues, and churchical rolling crescendoes. The second side, particularly, has a great sequence of Monk's "Misterioso" followed by Tin Pan Alley evergreen "Just you, just me," (which Monk also covered, and remade as "Evidence") and ends with a swinging "Eclipse at Dawn," an original composition. The effect of this LP is it leaves you wanting more, or starting it over.


This was a real let-down. Rough Guides have been doing well lately (especially their remastered Blues compilations) and then this thuds flat with barely 36 minutes that nowhere begins to tell the story of South African Cape jazz. It evolved independently of the rest of the continent and ranks alongside Dutch jazz (Misha Mengelberg, Willem Breuker) or French jazz (Hot Club, Barney Wilen) as a parallel strain to American jazz. Father Huddleston, Philip Tabane, Spokes Mashiyane, Dollar Brand, where are they? Sure, the Manhattan Brothers and the Skylarks have been anthologized before, but there's definitely room to revisit them. Basil Coetzee, saxy sideman to Dollar Brand, and Cape Jazz Band are familiar but the others come across as easy listening on a dinner jazz channel. Turns out this is a Mountain Records sampler, drawn from one label, which is why it has a homogenized sound and doesn't really explore the dynamic range of Cape Town's jazz scene. There is a vaguely ersatz Cape feeling when accordion and funk bass enter "The Dance of our fathers" by the Cape Jazz Band and pianist Ebrahim Shihab does a reasonable impression of Abdullah Ibrahim on "Give a little love." "7th Avenue" by guitarist Jonathan Butler is familiar: maybe it's "Cast you fate to the wind" variations. I think I know the melody from an Abdullah Ibrahim record. It's mellowness is quickly replaced by the dated synthesizer lead on "The way it used to be" by Pacific Express. I know Jan Hammer was big in his day (June 2, 1972), but I am not rushing out to listen to him now. It's a fact that a lot of really exciting jazz was released in South Africa during the apartheid era and Matsuli music of London is doing the best job of bringing it back to our ears. Maybe Rough Guide would consider a Matsuli sampler to remedy this mis-step.