By request, this is reposted from 17 January 2009.
If I mentioned Jazz Fusion or Smooth Jazz I might hear you running. Please don’t. South African jazz evokes neither Miles Davis nor the dreaded Kenny G-led brigade of monotonomeisters. It draws from jazz: from Davis, from George Benson (the Benson who made that insane fusion cover of White Rabbit, not the smooth soulster), from Grover Washington Jr et al. But more than that, it draws from the many sounds of the townships.
So a guitarist like the late Allen Kwela (1939-2003; the featured track was released a year before his death) drew from the mbaqanga style he knew in the Durban townships, while the Tony Schilder Trio, led by the eponymous veteran (and now sadly retired) keyboardist, borrowed from the imported international flavours of Cape Town’s harbour, the sounds of fellow Capetonian Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand, the langarm (roughly ballroom) music of the Cape, the rhythms of the Kaapse Klopse.
The Schilder Trio’s signature song Montreal is the sound of a party in Cape Town’s Coloured community (that is, those of mixed racial heritage thus classified under apartheid). Montreal was the name of the city’s premier jazz club of the ’80s, located in the township of Manenberg (made famous, albeit in its misspelled form, by Dollar Brand’s classic), among whose regular live performers were vocalist Robbie Jansen — an absolute legend in Cape Town’s jazz circles, whose version of What’s Going On needed to be heard more widely, but was never recorded — and house bandleader Schilder. Expect no lyrical greatness on Montreal, but experience the joyful soundtrack of the Cape’s party mood as Jansen is joined on vocals by fellow Capetonian Jonathan Butler. Tony Schilder died in December 2010 at the age of 73.
Also from Cape Town but younger and from a different background are saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, vocalist Sylvia Ncediwe Mdunyelwa, and Durban-born and classically trained Musa Manzini. Their names give it away that they are from an African background. Their township experience, the rhythm of their lives’ soundtracks, are very different from those of Schilder, Jansen or Butler — or, indeed, other featured Capetonians such as Errol and Alvin Dyers or Allou April (whose Bringing Joy may be this set’s most uplifting track). In Langa township or Gugulethu, the jazz was tinged with the gospel music of African inculturation, the traditional rhythms and the beats of kwela and mbaqanga and jive, R&B and the traditions of American jazz.
If there is one artist here who transcends all regional and local distinctions, it is Gito Baloi, who was so cruelly taken from us at the hands of criminals in 2004 just as his career was beginning to flourish at the age of 39. A Mozambican-born bass player and vocalist, Gito cut his musical teeth in the non-racial jazz trio Tananas, which was based in Cape Town, the country’s jazz capital, but enjoyed great popularity elsewhere, especially in Johannesburg.
I’ve mentioned Durban’s Allen Kwela and Cape Town’s Tony Schilder as representatives of an older generation. In Johannesburg, their equivalent — besides Hugh Masekela — was saxophonist Ratau Mike Makhalemele, whose Soweto Dawn from 1990 is a thing of beauty. Makhalemele played on records by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Champion Jack Dupree and Paul Simon (on Graceland), died some nine years ago.
The best-known name of this lot probably is Pretoria’s Vusi Mahlasela, a wonderful acoustic guitarist with a lovely voice whose earlier albums were quite beautiful. Alas, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo before him, he has benefited too much from the attention of international recording superstars. I can’t blame the man, by all accounts a superb human being, for paying his bills, but collaborations with Josh Groban and the Dave Matthews Band won’t do his street cred much good. Except in South Africa, where any brush with foreign celebrity is considered admirable. Or perhaps the magnificent guitarist Jimmy Dludlu is South Africa’s biggest jazz name, at least locally. If the man was American, he’d wallpaper his living room with Grammies. Stuck in the musical ghetto that is South Africa, he may glance with admiring jealousy in Vusi’s direction.
One performer on this selection pulls together the strings of South African jazz and pop history over the past three decades: Pretoria-born keyboard player Don Laka, who made his first appearance on vinyl as a 14-year-old, was a member of the influential Afro jazz-funk groups Sakhile and SA/Lesotho outfit Sankomota (who were decimated in a car crash), played with Sipho Mabuse and wrote for Brenda Fassie, and finally founded South Africa’s first profitable black-owned label.
1. Tony Schilder Trio – Montreal
2. Allou April – Bringing Joy
3. Don Laka – Ilang Sekolong
4. Gito Baloi – Hinkwafo
5. Vusi Mahlasela – Antone
6. Solly Mabena – Pehilindaba
7. Jimmy Dludlu – Zavala
8. McCoy Mrubata – Phosa Ngasemva
9. Ernie Smith – Lonely
10. Selaelo Selota – Painted Faces
11. Musa Manzini – Renaissance Song
12. Alvin Dyers – Wesley Street
13. Sylvia Ncediwe Mdunyelwa – Abazali
14. Ratau Mike Makhalemele – Soweto Dawn
15. Allen Kwela – Seven Days Ago
16. Errol Dyers – Kou Kou Wa