© Ben Robertson 2006 -
2010 – Review article
A Golden Year for African jazz
Robbie Jansen, Busi Mhlongo, Hotep Idris Galeta, Ezra Ngcukana R.I.P. Long live the Internet
To see recommended recordings for 2010, click here.
In the twenty years I’ve been following this music, there hasn’t been a better year than 2010.
Many moons ago, in the first book I read about jazz, the poet Philip Larkin mused over the question of which part of Duke Ellington’s distinguished career was the best. He concluded, rightly, that Ellington’s career consisted of one Golden Age after another. Amid all the hype about the 1960's and 70's being a Golden Age or Belle Epoque in African music I’m often reminded of Larkin. I recall how he detested Ornette Coleman and especially John Coltrane. Larkin’s belief that Modern was synonymous with bad in jazz was as wrong as his verdict on Ellington was right. It’s easier to be accurate and fair about music that was made a long time ago than it is with a crop of challenging new releases. Apart from anything else Larkin probably suffered from musical indigestion. As jazz correspondent for a major newspaper in the 1960’s, he simply failed to keep pace with the times. The tidal wave of new releases of African jazz in 2010 has felt overwhelming at times too – but such was the quality of dishes on offer that one always longed for another helping. As 2011 unfolds one can only ask “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
2010 was a fabulous year for African jazz not least because so many of the best releases
were by women. Angelique Kidjo’s “Õÿö” features several tracks associated with the
late Miriam Makeba who was affectionately know throughout the world as “Mama Africa.”
There are guest appearances from the likes of aianne Reeves and Roy Hargrove but
the hallmark of this fine release is the presence of guitarist/ arranger Lionel Loueke
who like Kidjo hails from Benin. He had a busy year appearing as Herbie Hancock’s
guitarist live and on his “Imagine Project” CD as well as putting together his second
solo CD for Blue Note Records. But it’s the album with Kidjo that stands out and
begs the question-
My hunch is that an opinion poll of Sub Saharan Africans with an inclination towards jazz would show that Mbilia Bel quietly assumed Makeba’s crown a while back. She’s been quiet in 2010 as far as I can tell, but readers who are interested are urged to check out her performance of “Nairobi” on the recent DVD/CD set “Vivemont Simaro.” This is the finest Bel on DVD yet – just listen, watch and enjoy before you cast your vote.
Bel first rose to prominence with Tabu Ley Rochereau, arguably the greatest living exponent of Style Jazz Congolais who also makes an appearance on Simaro’s CD/DVD and who has sadly since suffered a stroke.
When Loueke and Kidjo were asked in an interview about musical influences, Loueke put Tabu Ley Rochereau at the top of his list. This tells us a great deal about both Loueke and Rochereau. At concerts, Herbie Hancok jokes that Loueke is “an alien” because he plays in a style that is so original. There’s an element of truth in this – Loueke is a genuine innovator – but the Style Jazz Congolais influence is clear. For example Loueke’s first and best solo CD “In a Trance” kicked off with a track that is reminiscent off Papa Noel’s guitar style and his first Blue Note CD featured distinct echoes of Franco’s style.
Of course ,Tabu Ley Rochereau isn’t a guitarist. The guitarist Loueke was most influenced by is almost certainly the long term lead guitar player in Ley’s group Afrisa: Dino Vangu.
When Mbilia Bel left Tabu Ley Rochereau and Afrisa, he replaced her with Feya Tess. While 2010 may not have produced anything new from Bel,we do have the next best thing: a collaboration between Feya Tess and Dino Vangu. Tess has always suffered by comparison with Bel and has never achieved her degree of fame or popularity. But musically she’s not far behind and her collaboration with Dino Vangu, “La Sirène d'Eau Douce,” is one of the best African Jazz releases of this exceptional year.
Of course Bel, Kidjo, Tess wouldn’t stand a chance of winning a poll to elect a new Mama Africa in Southern Africa. Who would win? Letta Mbulu maybe? Sibongile Khumalo, Thandiswa, Siphokazi, Judith Sephuma, Sathima Bea Benjamin or Simpiwe Dana perhaps? How about the young star Tutu Puoane whose 2009 CD “Quiet Now” deservedly won the last SAMA (South African Music Award) for traditional jazz? Her 2010 effort was almost as good as the Kidjo and Feya Tess releases and it wouldn’t be surprising f if she wins another SAMA with it. Like Kidjo’s her CD, “Mama Africa”, offers homage to Makeba but more in a spirit of paying her dues rather than in wishing to steal her crown.
Who would win the poll in such a crowded field? My money wouldn’t be on any South African: it would be on Zimbabwe born veteran singer/songwriter Dorothy Masuka. Happily,Masuka was active in 2010 releasing her first DVD “Live at the Mandela Theatre” featuring guest appearances from Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Sibongile Khumalo, Thandiswa and Abigail Kubeka. She’s in fine form especially when you consider that she’s 75 years old with a recording career stretching back to the early 1950’s She was a major star before Makeba and composed some of Makeba’s best known material. Now that Makeba has gone, it is surely fitting that in Southern Africa at least, she should be crowned Queen of African Jazz. Apart from anything else, she’s easily the oldest major recording star currently still active in the region. In African society this can only mean one thing: RESPECT!
Thankfully it’s been a great year for guys in African Jazz too and again it’s notable that the most prominent artists in the history of the music have been asserting their influence: Fela, Franco, Kippie Moeketsi, Dr Nico, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Masekela, Molelekwa, Osibisa, Malombo all made their presence felt in 2010.
Bra Hugh Masekela,for example,gave us his strongest CD in years. “Jabulani,” a jubilant rendition of wedding music from the townships, is by far his best CD since “Time.” It’s produced by Don Laka who has long been South Africa’s go to man when someone wants a hit. Expect to hear “Jabulani” at Southern African nuptials for many years to come.
But surely, if there’s a Papa Africa in this post Fela, post Franco era: it’s the aforementioned Tabu Ley Rochereau. Koffi Olomide, Africa’s biggest pop star certainly thinks so .In 2010 he released a truly beautiful 40 song CD/DVD set “Chante Tabu Ley” in his honour. There’s also been the second instalment in Stern’s superb Rochereau reissue series “Voice of Lightness.”
But surpassing even these fine releases have been two live recordings from Johannesburg: one by Philip Tabane and Malombo which is easily the best African jazz release of 2010 another which is a posthumous release of a live recording by Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.
New artists from Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa have made their mark too as have some of the younger established stars notably Bhudaza and Lágbájá!
In an otherwise Golden Year for African jazz the news from East Africa has been less encouraging. In a case which raised more questions than answers,the supremely talented Kenyan saxophonist/composer/singer Joseph Hellon who was this site’s Newcomer of the Decade for 2000 – 2009 was arrested for supposed religious offences. It is very much hoped that he’ll be recording again soon.
Inevitably there have been deaths in 2010 too, notably South Africans: singer Busi Mhlongo, saxophonists Robbie Jansen, Ezra Ngcukana and pianist/composer Hotep Idris Galeta whose last release, 2009’s “Funkin for Obama” passed me by despite the inclusion of a fine tribute to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. It was an MP3 only release and it’s somehow fitting that even at the end of his illustrious career Galeta was breaking new ground. His innovation is the tip of a gleaming iceberg. The advent of Youtube and MP3s are rapidly making African jazz more accessible than ever. The same is true of CDs and DVDs. While stores that specialised in African music and jazz close their premises at an alarming rate; the new online retailers mean that African recordings in all media are easier to obtain. The days of scouring the back streets of Yeoville (Jo’burg), Matonge (Brussels) and Ugandan greengrocers (London’s East End) to find the latest releases are drawing to a close. All one needs to track down the best in African jazz now is a good source of information, such as this website aims to provide, a broadband connection and a credit card.
Even dear old Wikipedia is finally starting to catch up. Perhaps, as a good encyclopaedia should, when it comes to jazz Wikipedia is a veritable bastion of the establishment. At the beginning of 2010,the good folk of Wikipedia, in a peculiarly perverse reinvention of Apartheid, defined African Jazz as a form of music that only came from South Africa. By the end of the year they had taken the bold step of expanding their definition to include one musician from outside South Africa: Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatke. Congratulations are in order for Astatke. His step in challenging Wikpedia’s bizarre musical apartheid is a crucial one and will surely prove the first of many. As the decade progresses, Wikipedia’s definition of African jazz is likely to prove a key barometer of the level of acceptance of the new thinking about Africa‘s jazz. The next step, surely, would be to acknowledge that the seminal Congolese band African Jazz, who Wikipedia also acknowledge under this heading pioneered a genre of music which the Congolese and most sub Saharan Africans regard as a form of jazz: Style Jazz Congolais. The greatest exponent of this style is the big band OK Jazz aka Bana OK who’s DVD “C’est La Fête!” was the best reissue of the year.
A major trend in this new thinking about Jazz is the unstoppable rise of Afrobeat. The stream of reissues and new recordings has swollen to a flood with the advent of “Fela!” the musical which is a hit on Broadway and in the West End. A Hollywood movie is on the way too.
But what would Fela make of all this? My hunch is that he would be rather restive. Fela didn’t believe in regurgitating old material. He didn’t play his back catalogue in his own shows. That’s one of the reasons why he was such a prolific composer. Fela’s music embodied the here and now – it embodied life itself. He wouldn’t want us going to see Musicals about him, nor wish us to be recreating his sound or imitating him. The problem with jazz festivals, a fined of mine said, is that they’re full of musicians copying other musicians. Fela never did that. He would want us to be listening to Mbilia Bel, Lágbájá! Malombo and Le Poète Lutumba Simaro. And he wouldn’t just want that. He’d want us to pay through the nose to see them top the bill at the world’s most prestigious jazz and world music festivals. The Black President didn’t want the world to pay homage to him. He wanted us to pay homage to Africa.
He’d say much the same about Mama Africa. Gesturing at an array of stunningly beautiful and musically gifted wives he’d chuckle at the notion of singling out one woman and calling her Mama Africa. Mama Africa isn’t a person, where jazz and the human race are concerned. She’s a living, breathing, glorious continent
When is this situation going to end? He’d ask. How many more Kippie Moeketsi’s, Blue Note’s, Molelekwa’s, Fela’s, and Franco’s is it going to take before the world wakes up to the fact that Africa and not the USA is the hub of the jazz world? How long is it going to take Wikipedia to wake up to the fact that the continent which produced the distinctive ingredients which went into the creation of African American jazz has been producing music for more than half a century which its billion citizens regard as jazz.? Rather than trying desperately and vainly to shoehorn this vast oeuvre into a coroner of the music market preposterously labelled “World Music”, it’s time the jazz establishment put African jazz firmly and permanently where it really belongs: centre stage.
Fela would have laid the blame for all this at the foot of the “Underground System” (US) which was the title and subject of his last release and one of his masterpieces. In the title track, Fela’s Afrobeat was so speeded up that it became almost impossible to dance to, suggesting obvious parallels with what Be bop’s pioneers did to the music of the swing era in the 1940’s. Like theirs, Fela’s anger and frustration with the state of the world were palpable. But looking at Africa’s jazz scene, one can’t help but sense that in jazz at least an unstoppable and permanent revolution is taking root. If so, 2010 wasn’t merely a Golden Jubilee for many former African colonies: it was a Golden Year for African jazz.
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