© Ben Robertson 2006 -
2012 – Reviews
Reviews archived from intuition online:
A series of articles about archaeology in African jazz
To see recommended recordings for 2012 click here
It’s been a busy year for African jazz. There were far more releases than in previous years. Compare, for example, the categories for saxophonists or piano/keyboards with the volume of releases in 2011 and 2010. The extent of knowledge about African jazz is increasing too as demonstrated by a quantity of recent books. Best of all, the quality of much of the music on offer has been excellent. What does this all add up to and why is it happening? What it adds up to is the stirrings of a paradigm shift in the world’s thinking about jazz. All of a sudden, it is the US jazz scene that is beginning to look ever so slightly parochial as the global jazz establishment slowly awakens to the fact that Africa is the real centre of the contemporary jazz world and may actually have been so for quite a while As one of the year’s best newcomers, Liberia’s Kojato, puts it in one of his songs: “There is no jazz without Africa.” There are myriad new reasons why this revolution in the world’s thinking about jazz is gathering momentum, which include:
The previous ,often appalling, ignorance about the genesis and history of Africa’s
jazz over the last half-
The overriding reason why this music is doing so well is that the truth about how good it is has begun to take hold more widely. Africa is moving towards becoming the centre of the world’s jazz scene where, arguably, it should have been for decades. It’s a truth that once glimpsed, can't fail to become more widely acknowledged.
Another question worth asking is: what specific trends were evident in 2012? The following are noteworthy:
The most notable trend is the predominance among the best recordings of older musicians and an ongoing fascination with and rediscovery of the glories of the past. Examples include fine releases from Les Bantous de la Capitale, Tete Mbambisa, Le Poète Lutumba Simaro, Moreira Chonguica and above all Getatchew Mekuria This trend was explored in a three part article on this site about the theme of archaeology. Respect and veneration for elders and ancestors is a great hallmark not only of today’s African jazz; rather, it is part of the very fabric of the continent.
This trend is a major factor in the fabulous array of newcomers and rapidly rising younger stars, such as Herbie Tsoaeli, Lágbájá, Zamajobe with Mpumi Dhlamini Shane Cooper, Concord Nkabinde, Erik Aliana, Tutu Puoane, and Ferre Gola who are documented in the reviews below and this site’s annual roundup of recommended recordings.
Another trend is the rise of Ethiopian Jazz. In the twinkling of an eye, it has become the second type of African jazz, after afrobeat, to become truly global. The plethora of new music by artists around the world is astonishing. There are Ethio jazz acts not merely in Paris, London and the USA but in Japan, Australia, etc. too and the music is rapidly shifting from hip to mainstream. Francis Falceto’s two CD compilation “noise & chill out: Ethiopian groove worldwide” is a masterly introduction to this trend and demonstrates again what magnificent ears he has.
How long will it be before the same happens to Congolese jazz which was, for many decades, the dominant form of jazz across most of Africa? One could answer that it might happen just as quickly as has happened with afrobeat and Ethio jazz, but afrobeat traditionally has lyrics in English and Ethio jazz can be mainly or entirely instrumental. The emphasis on singing in Lingala in Congolese music make it more difficult to learn, copy and understand. On the other hand, the Congolese and their music’s devotees would argue that it’s more distinctively African than any other form of African jazz, as well as being an addictive and profound type of music which, once it finally catches on, is likely to come as a tidal wave that changes the landscape for the long term. There's also the issue of Franco: whose talent and achievements are so momentous that one can either say he is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all or not a jazz musician at all. It doesn't help that his back catalogue is so vast that it's virtually impossible for us ordinary mortal or even great scholars to really get to grips with his legacy. In this respect he can be compared to Duke Ellington, the obvious difference being that Franco’s big band boasted numerous Billy Strayhorns.
Other notable trends in 2012 have been:
Of course, not everything that happened in the year is part of a trend and 2012 had
its share of memorable one off releases too such as a mere “200 Million Mumu” and
extraordinary live performances on DVD by Ray Lema in Brazil, Mbongeni Ngema’s mammoth
musical about apartheid, Albert “Dede” Nsounga’s solos and the guest appearances
by Victor Ntoni and the Soul Brothers' organist Black Moses with the gifted and
Finally, looking forward to 2013 and beyond, it’s worth pondering another question.
What does all the above mean for the future of jazz, especially in its revered African
American heartland? Is the rise of African jazz an opportunity or a threat? The best
answer to this question can be glimpsed in the glut of new fusion recordings , such
as Ablaye Cissoko and Simon Goubert’s excellent “African Jazz Roots” which despite
its rather misleading and slightly pretentious title is a genuinely innovative and
Reviews archived from intuition online
It isn’t possible to say yet what is the best new African jazz release of 2012 for
the simple reason that new releases are still coming out thick and fast -
I It is possible, however, r to assert with reasonable certainty that the best release of the year is Franco’s CD/DVD set ““En Live Les Annés 80” which was briefly reviewed on this site earlier in the year. This CD/DVD set is actually a reissue of a televised concert from about 1982 which marked Franco’s return to his hometown of Kinshasa after a lengthy stay in Europe. The set first appeared on DVD in 2005 as “Concert Inedit De Grand Maitre Luambo Makiadi des Années 80” on the same French JP Djamba label who are responsible for the current reissue which now also features several of these tracks on CD for the first time. Even in 2005, it wasn’t quite true to say that this material was previously unreleased. One song had appeared on CD ten years earlier: Franco’s composition “Kinshasa Mboka ya Makambo" (Kinshasa: Town of Problems) in which he pledged allegiance to his native city and publicly denied rumours that he had earned his wealth by trafficking marijuana into Europe Moreover, much of the same footage was released on a rival DVD at about the same time (2005 or perhaps 2004) on the Salulumu Productions label with the title “Les Mervailles du Passe; Franco et le Tout Puissant OK Jazz Live.” It is also highly probable that some or all of this material had already been released on VHS often referred to in Francophone Africa as “K7”.
The sound and picture quality of the new version are better than the Salumu version but perhaps not quite as good the initial JP Djamba DVD. On all versions there are blips in the sound and picture and the electric bass guitar (that of the great Decca Mpudi) is barely audible. Even so, for the most part the sound and picture quality are better than many contemporary Congolese DVDs and the accompanying CD which features about two thirds of the material on the DVD reproduces the same sound and is serviceable.
The track listings on all these releases are woefully inaccurate and this is compounded on the latest DVD by the fact that the order of the tracks has also been radically changed. In the rest of this review therefore the songs will be described in the order which they first appeared so that the listener can try to reconstruct the performance as Franco intended.
Following this logic it is best to start by playing tracks 10 to 14 on the new DVD
the first of which is “Beyou” sung by Wuta Mayi which builds into a superb sebene
(fast paced guitar driven chorus) which prompts a broad smile from mi solo guitarist
Thierry Mantuika Kobi Kobi and ends with the band shouting in unison “Pajos: lithe
name of the superlative kit drummer Ntoya Fwala Pajos. By the end of the song it
is apparent that the band, T.P.OK Jazz featured a six piece horn section (3 trumpeters,
two tenor saxophonists -
Track 12, “Visi” is a duet between Wuta Mayi and a great Josky Kimabukata whose
appearance signals that the show is really starting to warm up and the next track
(13) “Manguta” (aka “Elongi ya Cherie”) composed by Nguashi N'timbo and sung by Josky
is a full on crowd pleaser. This beautiful composition had been a major hit for Nguashi
N'timbo and T.P.OK Jazz -
This treat is followed by another just as good because the next track (14) is “Liyanzi ekoti ngai na motema (Mouzi),” composed and sung by Ntesa Dalienst, is one of that great artist’s best. Note however that it is not his “Bina Na Ngai Na Respect” as stated on the DVD’s track listing.
By this stage, the audience, the viewers and those hearing and seeing these wonderful performances for the first time are wondering if this show can possibly get any better. Then, the lights go down and the enormous figure of Franco appears in a a single spotlight for the first time. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic entrance and the mood of the music changes completely. Franco sings his new song slowly and with sparse accompaniment. The effect on the studio audience is spellbinding: he is alternately able to make them cheer and roar with laughter at the will. Then Franco, unquestionably Africa’s greatest ever jazz musician, asks for his guitar. His brown Fender is duly produced and he plays a staggering solo. No wonder this track, which is the first on the new DVD, was selected to appear on the “Rough Guide to Franco” compilation: “Kinshasa Mboka ya Makambo” is a work of pure genius, especially when seen and heard, like this in its original context.
Franco carries on playing guitar on the next three tracks too alongside Thierry Mantuika
Kobi Kobi and Franco’s second-
Franco’s final appearance at the show is as a guitarist on “Mamba” sung by Djo Mpoyi whose voice that day stood out as the best and most beautiful among T.P. OK Jazz’s dazzling array of vocalists.
It will astonish viewers and readers alike to learn that Franco felt no compulsion to reappear on stage for the final climatic four tracks of this historic performance but the truth of the matter is that he was right. Le Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinois Jazz (which roughly translates as the omnipotent jazz big band of Kinshasa) was so great that they didn’t actually need Franco on stage. Veteran vocalist Lola Checain’s performance of his composition “Meka Okangama” (track 5) whipped the tension back up to fever point and then Simaro, the best composer in the band, had his turn to present a song. He has Djo Mpoyi sing the best composition of the set “Mandola” in a manner that makes the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up. The horn section is at its best in this superb number too. Dele Pedro’s alto is beautiful but it’s the way that all the horns play together that makes this the best horn section in all African jazz. When they play together they don’t play in unison: rather they improvise collectively making a sound of unparalleled richness, beauty and excitement.
In the final three numbers (track 7, 8 and 9 on the new DVD), the band romps home
with Gege reverting to rhythm guitar and Ceskin Molenga, who has alternated with
Dessouin on congas, taking over on kit drums. “Heretier” (track 9) is one of Ndombe
Opetum’s greatest creations; Wuta Mayi’s “Avant Droit” (track 10) still sounds like
the hit that it was and the closer (track 10), sung fittingly by the great Djo Mpoyi
is singer Diatho’s superb anthem “Bolingo ya Moitie-
The accompanying CD is not long enough to accommodate all the songs on the DVD which is nearly 2 hours long. Confusingly it also places the tracks in a different order. The ten tracks which appear on the CD correspond with the following tracks on the DVD and appear in the following order: 3,6,8,14,2,7,4,11,12,13!
Those wanting to hear studio versions of these tracks, complete with audible electric bass, are advised to check out the following Franco CDs where most of these songs can be found: “En Colere” Vol 1 & 2 and “3eme Anniversaire de la Mort du Grand Maitre Yorgho.”
The secret of Franco and T.P.OK Jazz’s omnipotence was that their band was better than everyone else’s in every department, making the job of jazz critics selecting the best release of the year ever so easy. From the advent of the LP in Africa in the 1960's until his death in 1989, the best African jazz release of the year was simply the best OK Jazz release of the time. It is hard to imagine any band on any continent in any genre replicating the extraordinary dominance that Franco and OK Jazz had in Africa during these decades.
Things aren’t quite that easy any more Ed, but one of the best of 2012 new recordings
is undoubtedly the veteran Ethiopian saxophonist Mekuria Getatchew’s two CD set “Y’Anbessaw
Tezeta” with the avant-
Getatchew’s explanation of what he does is equally simple: he plays Ethiopian music
on the saxophone and was the first person to do so. This explains why his music sounds
so organic and organised: what Getatchew gives us is not merely a new voice for the
saxophone. He gives us an entire language with vocabulary, syntax, grammar, idiom,
the lot. The effect when hearing him for the first time extraordinary because it
is inconceivable that anyone operating in the African American jazz tradition could
have invented anything so breathtaking in its scale and ambition. And because virtually
no one outside the Ethiopian community was aware of this music until relatively recently,
he didn’t influence anyone outside the Ethiopian community. Now that his music is
emerging in the wider world, its effects are likely to be little short of cataclysmic:
Even in African jazz there is no saxophonist or horn player of any sort that has created anything remotely as fresh and important as Getatchew has. Even Kippie Moeketsi who is revered above all other South African jazz musicians did nothing on this scale. In fact it is virtually impossible to compare the two musicians whose styles of playing developed in complete isolation from one another. Kippie is credited with bringing bebop to African jazz but this would surely have happened anyway. His real achievement was to develop a voice for his alto sax and clarinet that expressed eloquently and sometimes with almost unbearable beauty the plight of his people under apartheid. Although undoubtedly a drunkard and a misfit , Kippie was an enormously inspirational influence in South African jazz and a genuine figurehead for the music at home and abroad. His remarkable story, the trials and tribulations he faced and the gorgeous music he gave us mean it is likely that he will always be regarded as South Africa’s greatest jazz musician. But his impact outside South Africa is still largely unrecognised because it was mediated through the musicians that chose to work abroad in in exile, such as his fellow Jazz Epistles (especially Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Abdullah Ibrahim) and the Blue Notes (notably saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and the pianist/bandleader Chris McGregor, both of whom had also worked with and revered Kippie).
By contrast, Getatchew doesn’t appear to have influenced anybody outside Ethiopia in the last millennium because no one had heard his music, but all that is changing now as Ethiopian jazz rapidly becomes part of the broader global jazz idiom. In the long run his influence and importance may well prove greater even than that of Kippie Moeketsi.
Musically, Getatchew has always had an adventurous and free spirit. He may not be
as articulate as fellow Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke but he knows exactly what he’s doing
and always has done as is evidenced in his earliest recordings. In the Dutch punk
rock outfit The Ex he has undoubtedly found a kindred spirit. The whole point about
punk was that it was bold: its proponents were people who weren’t afraid to say exactly
what they thought and felt in their music, in their dress sense and in their politics.
Their attitude and ethos is as potent and relevant today as it always has been as
is witnessed by the impact that the all-
Finally, our good Editor asks: who is the best newcomer of 2012? In African jazz, this is a straightforward matter this year and the answer is: Lwanda Gogwana, a South African trumpeter, composer and arranger, whose first solo CD “Songbook Chapter 1” was reviewed on this site earlier in the year.
1 December 2012
The wonderful new book "Africa speaks, America answers: modern jazz in revolutionary
times" by the African-
The single biggest site for excavation in this trend, and indeed a key stimulus for similar endeavour right across the continent, is the life and music of Fela Kuti who's previously unreleased two CD set "Live in Detroit 1986" features mammoth versions of some of his most ambitious works.
Honest aficionados will quietly let on that an enormous proportion of Fela’s work isn't all that good. Much of his work was ephemeral, long winded and/or consisted of jokes that weren't quite so funny second time around. He is an artist who is best appreciated by listening to a good compilation rather than by ploughing through the complete works. Conversely, Fela’s best work is worth its weight in gold because when on song he was absolutely phenomenal. Into which category does "Live in Detroit" fall? The two CD set consists of four extended tracks spanning two and half hours. The recording was originally made as a bootleg and never intended for release. The sound, ‘though acceptable, is less than perfect. It was recorded, presumably by a member of the audience, onto C 90 cassette tape. Thankfully, the machine must have been a good one and the tapes were well looked after. The only obvious flaws in the sound are PA hum during Fela’s spoken introductions and slightly compromised top end which masks some of the subtleties in the percussion. That aside, the sound is pretty good and could be described as Mid Fi, better for example, than most contemporary Congolese DVDs. The music and performances are of a good standard throughout with notably good solos by Y.S. Akinibosum on tenor sax and Nwokorma Ukem on flugelhorn who form part of a magnificent horn section led by bandleader/baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun. The greatness of this baritone saxophonist, who joined Fela in the 1960's and still leads Egypt 80 today, now fronted by Fela’s youngest son Seun, is on display throughout this 1986 Detroit show. Whenever Fela loses his way in these vast, complex songs, as he was apt to do at times under the influence, no doubt, of the large amount of cannabis the sleeve notes tell us he used that night, Animashaun can be heard blowing loudly on his baritone and steering the Egypt 80 juggernaut back on course.
Better still is Animashaun’s baritone when leading his horn section in call and response with Fela’s vocals. Here, Animashaun demonstrates that the most frequent criticism of Fela and Egypt 80, stemming , for example, from Michael E Veal’s otherwise definitive book on Fela, i.e. that the band and its soloists lacked virtuosity and finesse, misses the point. Critics revere saxophonists like Lester Young for the manner in which they could talk with their horn and that is exactly what Animashaun does. The difference is that between the conversation at a dinner party and a huge guttural roar of approval. No one in jazz has done the latter better than Lekan Animashaun and his thrilling horn section.
So far so good, but where do these four previously unreleased performances stand
in Fela’s canon? A review in the New York Times of another concert in the same tour,
read out to Fela by his young manager Rikki Stein in the documentary movie “Fela-
Antibalas, the longest lived of the Afrobeat revivalist bands are back with a beautifully packaged eponymous CD on the Daptone label. A sticker on the cover announces that this recording represents an attempt to go back to their roots. In practice this means they sound more like Fela’s much loved Africa 70 than ever. This is a great sound but the problem for Antibalas and all such revivalist bands is that their music pales in comparison to the original because the core combination of Fela and drummer Tony Allen in Africa 70 was so innovative and so strong that it is difficult to see how it can ever be bettered.
This was Fela's big problem in Egypt 80: that everything they did was compared unfavourably with what had come before. Tony Allen’s problem, post Africa 70 has been even worse. The sad truth is that much of his solo career has been a letdown. He can play his unmistakable Afrobeat drum sound standing on his head with his eyes closed and most of the time, in most contexts, he sounds bored and the musicians performing with him sound over awed as do the critics who review the recordings thus perpetuating what has turned into a vicious circle of mediocrity. His latest outing on the Ghanaian veteran highlife guitarist Ebo Taylor’s “Apia Kwa Bridge”CD is a case in point. The best tracks on the CD are those without a band, just featuring Taylor singing highlife and playing electric guitar. For a much better picture of Ebo Taylor, hunt down the recent two CD compilation of his material from the 70's and 80's titled "Life Stories".
Happily, Tony Allen has a far stronger release out this year in the form of "Rocket
Juice & the Moon" which is a trio consisting of Allen , Flea on bass and that
archetypal archaeologist of all things African, Damon Al barn on various 1970's synthesisers,
etc. There are also guest appearances from the likes of Mali’s Cheick Tidane Seck,
Fatou Diawara, etc. Tony Allen is no stranger to working with British rock aristocracy.Hhe's
been doing so for five decades right back to Ginger Baker, circa 1970. On this occasion
the combination works: Allen sounds razor-
Leaving archaeology to one side for a moment, another fine Afrobeat release is the
debut recording by London based Nigerian songstress Funmi Olawumi “Funmi Ti De”
which features the cream of London's Nigerian musicians. The involvement of Executive
Producer Barbara Pukwana, widow of the legendary South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana,
has long been a hallmark of quality in London's African jazz scene and this fine
release is no exception. Funmi’s sound incorporates elements of juju, gospel and
Congolese music as well as Afrobeat. The standard of musicianship especially that
of the backing singers, numerous drummers, guitarist Lekan Sobiyi and alto saxophonist
Mike Aremu is first rate as are many of Funmi’s compositions and her strong, earthy
singing. Her lovely, mellow “Mo Dupe,” “To Ba Di Lola”and the title track/dancefloor
work out “Funmi Ti De” that closes the album are standout tracks. This is one of
the best debuts in African jazz in 2012 so far and is highly recommended. Funmi’s
approach to reviving Afrobeat is much more promising and enjoyable than Antibalas
and Ebo Taylor’s backwards looking “roots” approach which at times can be akin to
looking to archaeologists discoveries in glass cabinets in a dusty old-
Back in Fela’s Africa 70's heyday all was forward-
Lusophone Africa offers exciting opportunities to musical archaeologists of all kinds.
Burkina Faso’s music especially has never been widely known .A new compilation of
Orchestre Super Borgou de Parakou “Bariba Sound 1970 – 1976” with the record label
Analog Africa’s customary gaudy packaging and indigestible sleeve notes, opens a
door on the music of northern Burkina Faso of that era. But the best and most sought-
In fact, “Khanimambo” is one of the best releases of 2012 and a fine example of archaeology at its best. All over Africa, the great jazz of the past is being dug up, dusted down and shown off to the world. As a result, the wider jazz world is slowly waking up to the fact that African jazz has been the biggest thing since bebop for well over half a century.
Next month, this archaeological survey will spread its wings across South African and Congolese jazz featuring artists such as the legendary veteran pianist Tete Mbambisa.
1 September 2012
This second of three articles about archaeology in African jazz covers recent releases that exemplify this trend in Congolese and South African jazz. The archaeologists under consideration come in many shapes and sizes: there are experts, scholars, loggers, record collectors, older musicians proving just how good they are and younger ones eager to discover, reinterpret and draw inspiration from the past and, above all, an enthusiastic global audience, hungry for newly unearthed treasure.
n this regard, one recent Congolese release, Les Bantous de la Capitale’s “50 Ans”
(DVD) stands head and shoulders above the rest involving, as it does, some of the
finest older and younger musicians from Congo Brazzaville brought to us with the
help of an expert in the field. The brief sleeve note by Clement Ossinonde, author
of “Les Bantous de la Capitale: Les Rois de la rumba Africaine – Chronologie des
48 ans d’existence” explains that this previously unreleased concert footage was
filmed in 2009 on the outskirts of Paris to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding
of this great jazz band, the oldest in Africa. Of the six distinguished elderly musicians
depicted in photographs on the front cover, only one, Chef d’orchestra Jean-
The circumstances were not auspicious. Surprisingly, for instance, there was little
sense of occasion presumably because this concert was preceded by a more glitzy show
at the Paris Olympia attended by Essous’ former colleagues Papa Noel and Manu Dibango
along with the cream of the capital’s Congolese jazz fraternity including, , Josky
Kiambukata, Dino Vangu and Ballou Kanta. By contrast, this follow-
As at the heart of all truly great jazz bands, the core of Les Bantous’ sound lies
in a superlative rhythm section. Rhythm guitarist Alphonse “Mpassi” Mermans who joined
the band in 1963 explains in the accompanying interview that his style of playing
is inspired by his predecessor Papa Noel and, when praised to the skies and asked
how he composes such lovely music, he is self effacing and lost for words explaining,
that he composes the arrangements with his guitar, plays rhythm accompaniment and
loves the solos. Throughout the concert one senses that Mermens is the chief source
of beauty in the music. Its propulsion, however, undoubtedly derives from drummer
“Ricky” Siméon Malonga who, by contrast, is anything but self-
The pivotal position of bass player is occupied by Joseph “Ellyngton” Elenga who joined in 1991 and who, according to his interview, finds his primary inspiration in the work of the great OK Jazz bassist Decca Mpudi. Mermans’s subtle, sophisticated rhythmic patterns and gift for melody combined with Siméon’s emphatic swinging style leave little room for “Ellyngton” to create anything as distinctive and instantly recognisable as OK Jazz’s bass lines but it is his intelligent playing that make Les Bantous’ rhythm section coherent. Rather like his illustrious namesake, the great Duke, who was famous for his ability to get the best out of contrasting players and meld their playing into something melodious and unforgettable, this similarly thoughtful and diplomatic “Ellyngton” is able to meld “Mpassi” Mermans’ and “Ricky” Siméon’s contrasting styles into a sound that listeners never tire of hearing .This superb rhythm section is complemented by the subtle playing of veteran percussionist Robert Massengo on congas and by a mysterious guest bassist sporting yellow shoes and a tobacco pipe who appears on a couple of numbers.
The rhythm section is complemented by a fine horn section consisting of Samuel “Sammy”
Malonga on trumpet who’s been with the band since 1969 and tenor saxophonist Franck
Nkodia, an alumnus of Ntessa Dalienst’s Grand Maquisards,who has the unenviable task
of making up for the loss of both Essous’ alto sax and Nino Malapet’s tenor. Three
singers, joined by Essous himself on a couple of numbers, have the job of interpreting
the various jewels on display from Les Bantous’ extensive songbook. Lambert Kabako,
who joined in 1972, sings solo beautifully on his composition “Osala Ngai Nini” and
is also composer of the lovely “Julie” which features delicate interplay between
all three vocalists and gorgeous guitar work. Simon Mangouani, who joined a year
later in 1973, stands centre stage throughout and seems to play a role analogous
to “Ellyngton” in the rhythm section . Newcomer François “Fregh” Ganga (2006) features
heavily in the Cuban style numbers such as “Guajira y Camara” maintaining the the
Certainly, Les Bantous and their star soloist, Albert “Dede” Nsounga, keep the dance
floor moving. Looking at the audience that night, it is noteworthy that it consisted
almost entirely of middle-
If one survives, or better still skips, the irredeemably dire "Saturday night fever"
lyric on the first track,Mose Fan Fan’s “Musicatelana” (CD/DVD set) will deliver
just that and is the best style jazz Congolais studio album since Mbilia Bel’s "The
Queen." Fan Fan’s Franco-
Purists and anyone that dislikes string sections, symphony orchestras and adventurous crossover should avoid the Congolese pianist,composer and vocalist Ray Lema’s new CD/DVD set “Live” with Brazil’s enormous Jazz Symphonica de São Paulo conducted by Maestro João Mauricio Galindo. Those with a more adventurous disposition, on the other hand, may find that they adore this ambitious and genuinely innovative project which arguably forms Ray Lema’s best release in years. His piano playing and idiosyncratic vocals work well in beautifully arranged versions of some of his best compositions performed with a massive ensemble which is like an amalgam of a symphony orchestra, a jazz big band and a vocal chorus. Remarkably, this i vast ensemble swings when needs be and equally surprisingly is able to sound delicate when the arrangements and compositions require it. This gigantic and hitherto unknown school of Brazilian archaeologists of African jazz have done a great job unearthing some of the best of Ray Lema’s compositions and have given the rest of us a master class to demonstrate how very gifted a composer and collaborator he is. Highly recommended.
The latest clutch of releases from South Africa is dominated by pianists of whom
one, like Les Bantous de la Capitale’s DVD, stands out as being very, very special.
Tete Mbambisa’s “Black Heroes” is easily the best release by an African jazz pianist
since Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s posthumous “Live in Jo’burg Nineteen Ninety Nine” which
came out in 2010 and, arguably, is one of the best solo piano releases in the history
of African jazz. Tete’s playing is less cosmopolitan and perhaps less challenging
than his better known contemporaries Abdullah Ibrahim and Chris McGregor but in no
way less profound. In Mbambisa’s style, every note counts: his playing is sparse,
rarely florid and despite his foot tapping and murmuring is more spacey and accessible
than that of his peers. Above all, his sound is more intensely South African than
Ibrahim’s and McGregor’s containing, as it does, more marabi inflected patterns than
theirs but this isn’t to say that there is no African-
New releases by fellow South African pianists Don Laka, Kyle Sheppard and Bokani Dyer pale by comparison but are all worth listening to. The pick of the bunch, to these ears, is Kyle Sheppard’s second studio album “South African History !X”which is even better than his promising debut “FineArt”. Sheppard is more than just a pianist and on this disc plays alto sax, xeru (one stringed mouth bow) and, on the last track, recites his own poetry. His fine small band features double bassist Shane Cooper, drummer John Sweetman and top flight tenor saxophonist Buddy Wells. On the track “Slave Labour” there is also what must be one of the very last recordings of the late lamented Zim Ngqawana on tenor sax. Throughout, Shepherd and his fellow musicians sound intent on an admirable mission to put The Cape back into Cape jazz. Sheppard, as the title of his album suggests, is an enthusiastic archaeologist and his CD will delight lovers of Abdullah Ibrahim, Robbie Jansen, Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee and the like. Also, along with Pops Mohamed and Hilton Schilder, Shepherd has a keen interest in more ancient forms of South African music. He blends these different influences skilfully in a coherent and enjoyable album which deserves to be widely heard. What it lacks, if anything, is a distinctive voice of his own but one can only admire his determination to understand and master the musical tradition in which he finds himself and over time this will surely enable him to develop music which is uniquely his own.
Bokani Dyer, whose second CD “Mirrors” perhaps isn’t quite as good as his superb debut “Emancipate the Story” is a more fluid and technically accomplished pianist than Kyle Sheppard. He too uses the excellent Shane Cooper on bass and benefits too from the presence of the fine new trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana on several tracks. Together his musicians produce a more outward looking, international sound than Kyle Sheppard’s intensely South African release. Influences like Abdullah Ibrahim and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa can be heard refracted, as though through a fragmented “mirrors” or a prism, in Dyer’s conception of music which, at its best on tracks like the lovely “Whisper,” is very much worth hearing. Bokani Dyer undoubtedly possesses prodigious talent and is an artist to watch. Don Laka, by contrast, is an established star, easily the most popular pianist in contemporary South Africa but he’s one of those musicians whose solo recordings don’t travel well. In point of fact, none of them have received much attention outside South Africa and it isn’t difficult to understand why. Often,his playing falls into the category of “smooth jazz,” a kind of upmarket Muzak. He sounds much better when collaborating with other major talents as on his excellent 2008 double CD set “Invitation” and on Hugh Masekela’s superb 2010 studio album “Jabulani,” which, coincidentally. is also a good example of archaeology consisting of rediscovered and reworked 1940's township wedding music. Despite the archaeological sounding title of his new release “Heritage,” Laka’s new album is much like most of its predecessors: the very thing for those that like South African smooth jazz; dreary hard work for those that don’t. Like Masekela's “Jabulani,” it is however a genuine piece of African jazz archaeology made up of rediscovered traditional compositions dating back to the time of the struggle against apartheid. Many of these tunes are beautiful, but the consummate ease with which Laka interprets them and his overdubs with synthesisers are a mixed blessing.
The superb Belgian -
1 October 2012
This, the last in a three-
A pair of contrasting new albums, from the Guinea Conakry’s superstar and former Bembeya Jazz front man Sékouba Bambino, released to mark the first 20 years of his career, demonstrate that he remains one of Africa’s best male vocalists. Of the two, “Innovation” is done in a more Bembeya like style with a horn section and electric guitars updated with some reasonably tasteful electronica. The sepia like retro cover with its black and white photo befits the archaeological theme: the CD is a conscious effort to revitalise a sound rooted in the glories of the past. Its title “Innovation” refers presumably to the fact that Bembeya’s music was innovative for its time and is updated on this recording.
The more modern cover of Sékouba Bambino’s companion release “Diatiguyw” belies the
fact that the music it contains is based on much deeper archaeological excavation.
The instrumentation of this companion album, which seems to be more of a tilt at
the “world music” market, consists of kora, balafon, traditional percussion, etc.
and the compositions are in a more overtly neo-
In this minefield of contradictory and competing demands in the local and international marketplace, Sékouba Bambino starts off with three incalculable advantages. Firstly, and unlike the vast majority of Francophone West African “world music” stars, he is a genuine superstar at home: little short of a West African Koffi Olomide. Secondly, having been a major star in Guinea’s respected and seminal big band Bembeya Jazz, he has an unimpeachable pedigree in the eyes of the critics: no one can belittle Bambino or approach his music with any attitude other than respect. Thirdly and above all, Bambino’s beautiful voice and masterly technique make him one of those rare artists who can silence his critics and audience alike with breathtaking, seemingly Godlike performances of unparalleled beauty. His superlative singing and deep understanding of Guinean musical forms are on display throughout both these new CDs. It is noteworthy however that only one of the two is being repackaged and re branded for the “world music” market: “Diatiguyw” is about to be reissued with a different cover and a more explicitly archaeological title: “The Griot’s Craft.”
Another Guinean with an unimpeachable griot’s pedigree is Mory Kanté who is an alumnus
of Mali’s indispensable Rail Band who’s hit “Yeke Yeke” has made him a household
name right across the French-
Another worthwhile kora release is a duo concert recording made by The Gambia’s Sura Susso with the British violinist Max Baillie entitled “Live” which combines serious archaeology with innovative musicianship and sparkling wit.
Two releases from Benin’s jazz superstars, both recorded in New York, are rather
less successful. Angelique Kidjo’s first live release “Spirit Rising” (available
on both CD and DVD) is plainly designed to impress, featuring a stellar cast list
including Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Dianne Reeves and Branford Marsalis. The
set list includes covers of numbers by Bob Marley, Gershwin and the Rolling Stones
all of which constitute archaeology of sorts. It’s all topped off with a string section,
dancers from the hit musical “Fela!,” and, on the DVD, interview footage. The power
of her vocals, technical skill of her musicians and musically ambitious thinking
are on display throughout. The way she reworks standards such as “Summertime” with
the addition of African lyrics and “Redemption Song” which is done convincingly in
a soukous style are innovative and memorable with the latter, in particular, making
for interesting comparison with Lágbájá’s afrobeat version of the same tune which
was released earlier this year as the B-
Sadly, Loueke’s own new CD is also beset by problems none of which relate to the
unquestioned ability and importance of this innovative guitarist who has already
worked alongside jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. This, his
fifth album under his own name, which just like the South African pianist Don Laka’s
new album, which was reviewed in this column last month, has the archaeological sounding
title “Heritage.” Loueke’s “Heritage” is released on the historic and prestigious
Blue Note Label,. The album is a dazzling workout with three of the finest younger
players in the US: keyboardist Robert Glasper, drummer Mark Guiliana and bassist
Derrick Hodge. Their dizzying virtuosity and the sterling reputations of all four
players have resulted in a string of respectful, polite reviews by critics who sound
like they feel they ought to be impressed by this release and who fear that they
will appear stupid if they step out of line and dare to carp at such blatantly gifted
and much vaunted young stars. It is striking however that no pattern emerges from
the various reviews about which are the standout tracks on the album. Arguably, the
same can be said of all four previous recordings made under Loueke’s name. The reason
for this is that despite his self-
The current crop of jazz and jazz related releases from Cameroun highlights the diversity
of music on offer from a country whose performers surely deserve more attention than
they usually receive. Veteran Parisian expat and African Jazz alumnus Manu Dibango’s
CD “Past, Present, Future” has received lukewarm reviews but is a thought-
Dora Decca’s “Belalo” is also aimed, fair and square, at the dance floor; albeit
Cameroun’s rather than that of Paris. Whether or not the title of the album is a
conscious hommage to Mbilia Bel is unclear but either way they are kindred spirits
and this collaboration with makossa superstar Sam Fan Thomas is a worthwhile release
despite the preponderance of a particularly ugly synthesised pseudo-
Erik Aliana & Korongo Jam’s “Songs from Badissa” is the sort of release that grows on one with repeated listening. It features a more overtly archaeological and tradition orientated Camerounian style with subtle percussion, thumb piano (sanza/mbira) and beautiful multi voice arrangements featuring faintly Francis Bebey like guitar and compositions. Highly recommended.
Just as much as Mali and Guinea Conakry, the musical scene of Senegambia (Senegal and The Gambia) is marred or enhanced, depending on your point of view and with the obvious exception of Akon, by a disconnect between the demands of the “world music” executives and the tastes of African listeners. Happily, this wasn’t always the case and it is instructive that the “world music” aficionados and experts often refer to the era preceding the invention of the “world music” marketing tag as a Golden Age, a key characteristic of which was that no such disconnect existed. As if to illustrate the point archaeologists of the vinyl junkie variety have unearthed and remastered a series of tracks recorded in the 1970's by the band Guelewa who hailed from The Gambia. “Touki Ba Banjul: acid trip from Banjul to Dakar ” is an interesting release which will intrigue those who love the glorious music of Orchestra Baobab and the like.
Francophone West Africa doesn’t stretch to Nigeria for obvious reasons but it would
be a serious omission not to mention the rather wonderful CD “Contraband Mentality”
made by the Paris-
It would be equally remiss to omit the similarly genre bending and undeniably rather
camp Congolese former superstar Général Defao’s peculiarly titled new album “The
Undertaker Vol 1.” This is easily Defao’s jazziest release since 1998’s excellent
“Copinage” which featured a duet with Mbilia Bel on the hit title track and seriously
good sax from Davin throughout. This time around, for “The Undertaker” Defao the
archaeologist has unearthed Congo jazzy elements in the form of two saxophonists
and Dr Nico like guitar solos on several tracks but as always it is Defao’s smoochy
vocals, which, jazz singer or not, clinch the deal because in this department he
is in the same exalted league as Bambino. On this album, recorded in Kenya, where
Defao has been resident for several years, he is also on tiptop form as a composer
and presents us with a strong new lineup of his famous Big Stars with guest appearances
from Papa Wemba and the legendary DJ Suke Chile, best known for his long residency
at the Lusaka outpost of the matchless Chez Ntemba nightclub franchise. Kenya, Tanzania
and Zambia have formed a major part of the market for Congolese music of all kinds
for decades and, as has happened so often in the past when Congolese musicians head
south or east away from the fashion crazy Kinshasa, the music becomes pared down
and streamlined for the Eastern and Southern African beer halls and dance floor s.
The result, in this case, is an irresistible release which will delight Defao’s long-
This survey of the trend of archaeology in African jazz has taken us all over sub Saharan Africa and beyond to New York, Paris, London, etc.. Across Africa and across the world, there is a mounting sense of excitement in rediscovering and reinterpreting the great African jazz of the past. Every archaeologist’s dream is to make a find that necessitates a fundamental rewrite of history. Taken en masse, that is exactly what is happening in in African jazz in 2012: a new paradigm in the way the jazz world thinks about Africa is being forged and this constitutes the biggest revolution in jazz since the advent of bebop. In short, the jazz establishment is slowly waking up to the fact that the reason much of today’s best jazz derives directly from Africa is because African jazz, in all its many forms and variants, has a proud distinguished history which has been consistently undervalued and often largely ignored for well over half a century. The new paradigm indeed necessitates a complete rewrite of jazz history. Hats off therefore to the African jazz archaeologists that fuel this unstoppable revolution: the musicians young and old, inquisitive music lovers, critics, scholars, blogggers, record collectors even the dreaded “world music” executives.
Next month’s article will focus on a musician who can be said to embody this trend
and its consequences more than any other: the stunning veteran Ethiopian saxophonist
Getatchew Mekuria who has just released a definitive double album consisting of new
material with the Dutch avant-
1 November 2012
by Robin DG Kelly
(Harvard University Press)
This book focuses on a period from the second half of the 1950's to the early 1960's,
during which, the author argues, artists like the Ghanaian Guy Warren, Nigerians
Bayo Martins and Zeal Onyia and DDR Congo's Joseph Kabasele were genuine and important
modern jazz musicians. In doing so, the author focuses in particular on Warren (later
known as Kofi Ghanaba) who recorded the first African jazz LP "Africa speaks, America
answers" in 1956 and was cited as a jazz musician in a Time Magazine editorial of
the era; on South African Sathima Bea Benjamin whose first recordings outside Africa
were produced by Duke Ellington and on two African-
The book is so well argued, so well researched and so well written that a casual
reader might wonder why i it needed to be written at all. Surely it's blindingly
obvious that the musicians discussed by the author were bona fide, important jazz
musicians? What has necessitated the writing of this rather wonderful book is that
much of jazz establishment, consisting of academics, promoters, record industry executives,
journalists, etc., and especially its often fiercely proud African-
"… we can no longer speak so confidently about jazz as an American art form, or render African jazz musicians outside the pale of the music's history." (Page 10)
The real importance of this groundbreaking book lies not so much in how well it is
written and argued but rather in who it is written by and who he is addressing. The
author, Professor Robin D.G. Kelly of the University of California is best known
for his definitive book on the great Thelonious Monk and this current book is published
by and derived from a series of lectures commissioned by Harvard. Its author is nothing
short of Jazz establishment royalty and is by a considerable margin the most prominent
While no praise is sufficient for this book it should be pointed out that the esteemed
Professor Kelly isn’t entirely right about everything. His understanding of the relationship
between African jazz and African American jazz outside the period he’s looking at
sometimes appears a little hazy. In particular, he doesn’t seem to fully comprehend
the relationship between big band swing and the music Guy Warren was playing with
E.T. Mensah and the Tempos. This isn’t an obscure point because E.T. Mensah and the
Tempos, of which Warren was a founder member and for which he is best remembered
in Africa, are widely regarded as one of the most important bands in history of 20th-
This is a shame, because in most respects, Professor Kelly is exceptionally good
at painting a picture of the historical context in which his subjects lived. His
book would have been even better had he done the same regarding the relationship
It might also have been intriguing to consider the influence of portrayals of Africa
in Hollywood film scores on Randy Weston and especially Ahmed Abdul-
Finally, in the “coda” at the end of the book, where Kelly looks beyond the early 1960's forwards to today’s era of globalisation, he doesn’t spell out the obvious consequence of his argument which is that if musicians of the early 1960's, like Bayo Martins, Zeal Onyia and Joseph Kabasele were jazz musicians then so too, a few years later, were Tony Allen, Fela Kuti and Luambo Makiadi Franco.
Nevertheless, “Africa speaks, America answers” is arguably the most important book ever written on the subject and ought to be required reading for anyone that wants to truly understand jazz in its all its global glory.
1 September 2012
As predicted in this column in December the superlative Mozambican guitarist Jimmy Dludlu has done well at the 2012 South African Music Awards being nominated for Best Male Artist , best engineered release and winning the coveted Best Jazz Album award for his CD “Tonota.”
Up against strong competition, Simphiwe Dana picked up the Best Live DVD award for
“An Evening with Simphiwe Dana” which is also available on Blu-
As always the SAMA award nominee lists are a rich source of information about South
African music and this article explores this year’s nominations from a from a jazz
perspective. The dominance of Zahara, a Tracy Chapman-
Foremost among these is the fabulous composer/arranger/trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana whose “Songbook – Chapter 1” was nominated for Best Newcomer, Best Male Artist and Best Jazz Album. His innovative, beautiful music announces the arrival of a major new talent and is highly recommended. His sound contains echoes of Hugh Masekela, Kwani Experience, Chris McGregor, Fela and especially Moses Taiwa Molelekwa as evidenced on the lengthy and moving jam session for this artist which appears at the end of the album on which Lwanda switches convincingly to piano. What makes this album especially convincing is not merely Lwanda ‘s understanding and mastery of these diverse influences but his ability to amalgamate them into a distinctive style of his own. Standout tracks include “Meditation”: a Molelekwa like groove with a dense percussion arrangement; Fela like horns and, at times, hints of the wildness and freedom of the Brotherhood of Breath and “Ekhaya” which showcases his ability as a trumpeter. The standard of musicianship from the 30 musicians on the album all of whom gave their services free of charge (including Jimmy Dludlu) is superb and tells us much about how highly rated this young musician is in South Africa. The presence of the gifted young pianist Bokani Dyer, who won Standard Bank’s 2011 young jazz artist of the year award, on one track seems especially significant and suggests that we are witnessing the birth of an exciting cluster of new talent in Cape Town.
The other nominees for this year's jazz album of the year are all worth checking
out. “ZAR” by trumpeter Marcus Wyatt’s quartet is beautifully performed and features
particularly fine piano by Afrik Mkhize but the album is nowhere near as strong as
Wyatt's previous release "Language 12." Vusi Khumalo’s ambitious two CD set "Reasons
for Seasons" has much to commend it too and features a glittering array of musicians
in sometimes Gil Evans like arrangements which are well worth hearing especially
on tracks like "African Mood" featuring saxophonist Barney Rachebane and "Intro-
The absence of any women on the shortlist for jazz category is puzzling butt a careful
look through the nominees for the awards reveals that Unathi’s excellent "With Love"
reviewed on this site in January was nominated for Best African album. Other nominees
include Swazi Dlamini’s “Gospel Meets Jazz-
The best performance by one of South Africa's many jazz divas amongst this year's
nominees however is a guest appearance by Gloria Bosman on Concord Nkabinde’s revelatory
"Live in Jo Joburg” DVD recorded in 2006/7 but not released until now. Bosman isn't
the only artist who excels on this surprising and exceptional release which focuses
on Concord's very first live solo gig. Unusually Concord includes a running commentary
on the meaning of his songs and his reasons for choosing to release a DVD of his
first concert. Improbably this adds hugely to one's appreciation of Concord’s music
As always in music, categorisation is difficult. African sounds and jazz are especially difficult to put boundaries around and define. It is commonly the case, for example, that some of the most interesting music from a jazz perspective to emerge from the SAMA process is not categorised by the judges as jazz. 2012 is no exception: for example, lovers of Hammond organ should not miss the winner of this year's Best Traditional Music Album: Black Moses’ efforts with the Soul Brothers are always worth hearing and his playing on this year's award winner “ Amaphutha” sounds especially good. The Kalawa Jazmee record label’s two CD set "King Don Father 2.5” by Spikiri is even more noteworthy and was nominated for Best kwaito album and best collaboration. To these ears and from a jazz perspective this is the best kwaito release for a considerable period of time and is well worth seeking out. This is very definitely a kwaito release but the ingredients that make up Spikiri’s sound are strikingly similar to those heard in Lwanda Gogwana’s music: township jazz, afrobeat (on “Baqwa” for example) and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa whose masterly collaboration with Kabelo “Akuna Niks” is quoted ion “Skeem Sam.”). Jazz aficionados doubtful about the hip hop/kwaito connection are best advised to begin with the second CD in this two disc set (subtitled “Black” )which has a more laid back mid tempo feel than the more dance orientated ”Red” CD. For a flavour of both discs try the two versions of the lovely keynote track “Africa.”
The aforementioned Kabelo’s recent CD, modestly entitled "Immortal Vol 1,” which is another kwaito nominee, isn't quite in the same league as Spkiri’s despite featuring a hit track with Professor. But it's good to hear Kabelo again and this is the best CD he's made for several years: better than the much vaunted but disappointing reunion with TKZee. At his best Kabelo is one of the most endearing artists in Africa combining irresistible melodies with delicate vocals and unique flights of fancy in almost nonsensical lyrics combined with a love of jazz and real expertise about what works on the dancefloor. Alongside this however one has to stomach a large dose of arrogance which may have been an asset when Kabelo was getting established but which becomes less and less appealing as the years go by. The best tracks on the new CD are the ones featuring Bez Roberts and Adam Howard on horns notably "The One That Saves Me" and "The Time is Now."
A review of “Khanimambo: Tributes To Legends Of Mozambique” Moreira Chonguica keenly-
1 June 2012
As is he usually does, Nigeria's superlative Afrobeat maestro Lágbájá shows everyone else a clean pair of heels with his current digital download single "Knock Knock Knock"/"Redemption Song."
On the surface "Knock Knock Knock" is a catchy pop song with a clear, pleasing message
about opening one’s heart to love. But as always with this great artist ,there are
layers of thought-
But Lágbájá!’s "Knock Knock Knock"” gives us more than a catchy single and a witty riposte of a rival: in contrast to Femi and his father the song and its accompanying artwork constitute an accurate and extremely funny commentary on the dating scene and sexism in contemporary Africa. Better still, the music and performance are of Lágbájá’s usual high standard featuring a memorable scat vocal and a beautiful arrangement. Sadly there's no sax solo but perhaps that's just Lágbájá nonchalantly demonstrating that he doesn't even need to get his sax out of his case to debunk Femi.
Sadly however, there isn't much else to report on the Afrobeat scene at the moment.
There have been some notable and pleasing reissues from 1970's Nigeria: the long-
New Afrobeat recordings on the other hand seem to be rather few and far between. There are Afrobeat tracks on Sia Tolno’s promising Francois Breant produced, "My Life", but they’re unconvincing. This is designer Afro eat included, one senses, in the same manner that the Cuban style track was always included in world music CDs for a years after the "Buena Vista Social Club" phenomena. Perhaps this is where Lágbájá! should turn his ire next. The hints of Afrobeat on the eponymous jazz funk release from the Zimbabwean bassist Mashasha sound more convincing. Here's a CD which is worth listening to, confirming a trend which has been notable for some years now: that some of the most interesting new Afrobeat tracks come from Southern Africa. How long will it be, one wonders, until we hear great Southern African music coming from Lagos? When Kunle Ayo, the phenomenal Nigerian born Wes Montgomery influenced post modern guitarist resident in Johannesburg, returns home, I suppose. A duet with Lágbájá! would be quite something.
1 May 2012
Once in a blue moon someone releases a definitive album. From the moment you hear it, you know that the artist in question is going to be in demand for the rest of their lives and that every time hey perform the audience are going to be shouting out requests to hear tracks from that career defining release. The respected South African double bassist/composer/vocalist Herbie Tsoaeli’s superlative new CD is a case in point. In a recent interview for South Africa’s Sunday World ,Herbie says it’s taken him years to put together his first solo album, jokingly titled “African Time,” because he wanted to find a formula that would speak from and reflect his musical soul. He’s pleased with what he’s done but worried that it might make him famous. His fear is entirely justified for two profound reasons: first, his core audience in the townships and raucous outdoor jazz festivals of South Africa are going to be dancing to and marvelling at “African Time” for years until it is etched permanently into the collective psyche and it is only a matter of time before discerning listeners around the world catch up. Second, and equally importantly,the history of star double bassist/composers in Southern Africa is one of extreme tragedy and loss: Herbie Tsoaeli is absolutely right to be nervous about walking in the footsteps of Gito Baloi, Harry Miller and Johnny Dyani who all died much too young and in horrible tragic circumstance. In a world that seems to crave the shallow pleasure of celebrity more than all else, it’s hard to appreciate that it must have taken real courage for Herbie to step into he limelight: so much so that it ought to make all true jazz lovers around the globe pause for a moment, take deep breath and wish him well. For Herbie Tsoaeli and his glorious music are going to be famous alright: with “African Time,” he steps with understandable trepidation but decisively and permanently into the front rank of Africa’s greatest jazz musicians. His new music is so deeply felt, haunting and disarmingly beautiful that it leaves this reviewer lost for words – just buy, beg, or borrow a copy at the earliest opportunity: it’s a decision you will never, ever regret.
As its tile wryly implies Herbie Tsoaeli has been playing professionally for a while
– more tan twenty years actually. In fact, since Mozambique’s fabulous Gito Baloi
was senselessly gunned down for his wallet in Johannesburg in 2004, Herbie has quietly
emerged as Africa’s most prominent double bass player. He has worked with everyone
who is anyone in South African jazz and has long been held in the utmost esteem by
his peers. Like Baloi,he’s an accomplished electric bassist too but in a continent
overflowing with world class electric bassists, it’s his work on double bass which
marks him out. Only last year, for example, he worked on two of the year’s best releases:
“Hugh Masekela Presents Songs of Migration” (CD) and “An Evening with Simphiwe Dana
Live in Concert” (available on Blu-
Herbie’s technique wouldn’t give a top virtuoso like Esperanza Spalding or the late
Harry Miller any sleepless nights. He rarely records solos but his playing is much
more than functional. Nor is it merely propulsive and soulful -
The same applies to everything on this fine CD – there is no hint of the afrobeat, style jazz Congolais, salsa or “World Music” elements which are prominent elsewhere in, for example, Masekela’s work. The feel here is more akin to Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi, Zim Ngqawana and above all the Blue Notes at their most African. The long list of acknowledgements to South Africa’s greatest jazz musicians which appears at the back of the “African Time” CD booklet shows that Herbie is thoroughly steeped in this tradition and justly proud to be part of it. The fact that he is especially conscious of and indebted to the Blue Notes is demonstrated in tracks dedicated to Louis Moholo and Mongezi Feza. The track for Feza “Wish I Knew You” is a response to Feza’s gorgeous hymn like standard “You think you know me but you’ll never know me.” It is genuinely poignant and many Blue Notes devotees will find it and Marcus Wyatt’s beautiful trumpet deeply affecting.
That’s what make this recording work: the bass playing is of Herbie’s customary high standard but it’s the aspects of his music that have been rarely heard before that make this recording so special: his choice of musical collaborators, and his hitherto obscure skill as composer/arranger/ band leader and singer. His singing by the way could not be more unlike Baloi’s or Richard Bona’s – he has a deep, lived in, rather ponderous voice that works perfectly with his music.
The musicianship is mesmerising from start to finish. Herbie knows and is respected
by everyone in South African jazz and on “African Time” he collects his dues in spades.
Long term associates like pianist Andile Yenana – who comes of age as a recording
artist on this CD -
And that’s just the beginning because Herbie Tsoaeli has done much more than open an interesting window on Jozi jazz. His compositions, arrangements and singing combine with his bass to create a compelling and coherent new musical world. The album consists of one standout track after another but if pinned to wall and forced to pick a current favourite otherwise… it would have to be “Asiyibambene Somke.” South Africa hasn’t had a double bassist/composer this good since the Blue Notes’ Johnny Dyani.
Happily, Herbie Tsoaeli’s new release comes at the same time as “Before the Wind Changes,” a previously unissued 1979 live set from the Blue Notes themselves. Unhappily it’s not one of their best recordings ,but it is notable that Dyani’s compositions predominate. His bass and vocals are strong and well captured but unfortunately, Louis Moholo’s peerless drumming is so prominent in the mix that both Dyani and pianist Chris McGregor sound rather buried in the soudscape which makes for challenging listening. As ever the Blue Notes repay the effort and there are interesting lessons to be earned from this recording. Especially so, from Pukwana’s sax which can be heard to good effect and at length: for example on Dyani’s “Ithi Guru” the first track, which is probably the best on the CD. It’s also intriguing to compare this CD with last year’s “Spatial Knowledge and Grace” which constituted the first half of this show before McGregor, who was running on African time himself that night, showed up. This is fascinating because it offers an unparalleled opportunity to hear what McGregor's famously oblique leadership style contributed to the Blue Notes. He sounds slightly below par – perhaps a bit disorientated by whatever it was that caused him to run late. Nevertheless the other three Blue Notes sound noticeably more animated with him at the piano stool. Its also interesting to compare the Moholo/Dyani rapport with the Moholo/ Harry Miller workout on last year’s superlative previously unissued 1981/82 live performances on the CD “Elton Dean's Ninesense Suite Becket/Miller/Moholo”. Perhaps the comparison is unfair because that Moholo/Miller recording is so exceptional but its difficult to avoid concluding tat there was simply no contest: by that time (late 70’s/early 80’s) Miller and Moholo had played together so much that their combo could run rings ‘round Moholo/Dyani. Where Dyani scored of course, much like Herbie Tsoaeli, was in his holistic approach to his own recordings where his music making was uniquely special. His best work is to be found on his solo albums “Afrika,” “Witchdoctor’s Son”and in his duets with Abdullah Ibrahim. Until the advent of Herbie’s “African Time” the only other person of similar calibre in this regard was Gito Baloi whose first solo album “Ekaya” was in the same league as Dyani’s best work and Herbie ’s wonderful “African Time.”
So if Herbie Tsoaeli is a latter day Dyani, does contemporary South Africa boast any obvious successors to Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana or Chris McGregor? As mentioned above, Herbie gives us an answer to the question about Feza by inviting Marcus Wyatt to guest on trumpet for his Mongezi tribute track. Like Herbie, Wyatt has an extensive discography but anyone wondering where to start is advised to hunt down his excellent 2006 studio CD “Language 12.”
But what of Pukwana and McGregor? McCoy Mrubata and Paul Hanmer offer a resounding affirmative answer to this question on their new live duo CD “The Boswil Concert.” Saxophonist Mrubata and pianist Hanmer have worked together extensively for more than two decades and have developed the same degree of telepathic musical understanding that the Blue Notes displayed at their best. Mrubata’s five SAMA (South African Music Awards) demonstrate that in South Africa he has the stature Pukwana enjoyed who was widely regarded as South Africa’s number two saxophonist after Kippie Moeketsi before he went into exile in the early 1960’s. Likewise, in contemporary South Africa Barney Rachebane is the only saxophonist with a bigger reputation than Mrubata. This concert recoding, made in 2009 to honour of his 50th birthday, provides a perfect opportunity to hear just how good he is. The comparison between Hanmer and McGregor is obvious too: a pianist, composer, arranger who has earned the respect of the South African jazz establishment – which a a major and creditable achievement. But Hanmer’s stature is much smaller tan McGregor’s. His “Trains to Taung” album is universally and justly admired but not much of his playing and composition on subsequent solo CDs has been as good and his playing can sound rather florid and meander. On the other hand. one can forgive him anything when he plays genuine township jazz – his marabi inflected licks on “Tshona” on this new recording are as good as anyone’s. Kippie Moeketsi’s alto and Basil Coetzee’s tenor sax solos on Pat Matshikiza’s original recording of “Tshona” are among the crown jewels of African jazz so Mrubata’s interpretation is a big moment in his career. Much aided by that Hanmer left hand, Mrubata lives up to his reputation and delivers an interpretation of “Tshona” which ,while respectful of the original,adds insight and displays delicacy and poise. Their stripped down version of Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s “Genes & Spirits” delights too with Hanmer playing what sounds like pipe organ but the standout track is Mrubata's “Face the Music” which is tour de force for both players.
This year’s SAMA judges are going to have their hands full when it comes to selecting this years winners. After perhaps rather loosing its way for a while following the deaths of Molelekwa and his protégé Moses Khumalo in the course of the last decade, the South African jazz scene has bounced back in some style and appears to be in great shape.
Correction: in the original version of this review I stated erroneously that the great South African pianist Paul Hammer is white. I am most grateful to Veit Arlt, Coordinator of the Centre for African Studies, Basel, for writing to inform me that "although these old racial categories should not matter in music: Paul is not white but coloured."
1 April 2012
For several years there has been widespread concern that Congolese jazz, historically the most popular and influential form of jazz in Africa has been slowly dying out. Only last month in my review of African jazz of 2011, I lamented the state of Congolese jazz. Happily a glut of strong new releases suggests that these concerns are misplaced. Foremost among these new offerings is Koffi’s “Chante Lutumba” (in two volumes each of which contain a CD/DVD set).
Lutumba (Le Poète Lutumba Simaro Massiya) joined Franco’s OK Jazz, Africa’s greatest band, as a rhythm guitarist in 1961. He served as Franco’s Vice President for many years and took over as leader after Franco died in 1989. He carried on when the band changed its name to Bana OK in 1994 and continues in this position to the present day. Throughout a career which already spans more than half a century Lutumba has been recognised as one of Africa’s foremost composers.
Love or loathe him, Koffi Olomide is Africa’s biggest music star. His latest venture, this two volume four disc set is a a collaboration with and tribute to Lutumba consisting of a live recording and film of his interpretations of some of Lutumba’s best known compositions. In its scale, this tribute is both unprecedented in the history of African music and ambitious because the original studio recordings of these songs feature some oft he most revered vocalists in African jazz including Franco, Sam Mangwana, Madilu System and Ntesa Dalienst. Wisely Koffi does not try to imitate the definitive earlier versions of these songs but rather reinterprets them in his own unmistakable vocal style. At its best his singing on “Mabele” and “Kadima”, for example, has real power.
The choice of musicians for this project was a critical one too because everyone
in OK Jazz was a star in their own right. “Chante Lutumba” doesn’t include a list
of personnel but Koffi refers on stage to Bana Ok and it appears likely from comparing
Like Koffi, the unidentified lead guitarist doesn’t attempt to sound like the peerless guitarists on the original studio recordings of these songs who include Franco, Papa Noel, Gerry Dialungana and Dizzy Mandjeku: rather he does his own thing. His playing, like that of the rhythm section is uncluttered but he uses more distortion than is usually heard n Congolese jazz – sounding at times almost like a member of Konono No 1. It’s a formula that works – his playing on tracks such as “Minuit Eleki Lezi,” “Affaire Kitkwala” and “Mbanzi ya Kumumdele” does full justice to these magnificent compositions and keeps the audience on the dance floor.
Best of all there’s a simply glorious full five piece horn section (two trumpets, trombone, tenor and alto sax) who play in true OK Jazz style: deceptively loose but coordinated collective improvisation in a manner reminiscent of the parade bands and street fanfares of Kinshasa and New Orleans. OK Jazz and Bana OK have always had the most exciting horn section in Africa: listen here for example to “Inoussa” and “Mabele.” The moment Koffi wanders across the big stage of Kinshasa’s opulent Grand Hotel to hang out with these horn players is one of the highlights of the show. Koffi doesn’t often use horns in his own music and before he wanders over they seem a bit reluctant to cut loose. Koffi’s super star touch and obvious personal magnetism change that in a flash and the whole concert steps up a gear.
As ever, Lutumba Simaro’s own role in all this is elusive and self effacing. He plays characteristically crisp, elegant rhythm guitar on a couple of numbers and shares a jokes with Koffi but for the rest of the show he is nowhere to be seen. Those familiar with his concert DVDs and live performances will recognise that this is perfectly normal for Lutumba just as it was for Franco. His style of band leadership is utterly hands off and explains in part perhaps why there is always such a powerful sense of freedom in his bands. His long stint as Franco’s Vice President probably helps too in giving Lutumba a blue print for how to collaborate with someone with a personality as big as Koffi’s. They both look as though they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. The songs, many of which are Congolese jazz standards, are ideally suited to this kind of freewheeling big band. Once one has heard compositions like “Maya” and “Eau Benite” a few times they become part of one’s psyche and presumably the effect on the Congolese audience is further heightened by the power of his highly respected poeticism. It is a great shame that there are no translations of his lyrics.
That aside, this is a magnificent release. Given such a mouth watering array of ingredients it is no surprise to find that “Chante Lutumba” is a sumptuous feast for the ears, eyes and dancing feet: this music will wear your socks out.
Next month’s review will continue the Congolese theme with coverage of new releases featuring lead guitarists who’ve worked with Lutumba: Papa Noel, Dizzy Mandjeku and Olivier Tshimanga plus strong DVDs from singers Sam Mangwana and Mbilia Bel. Styl jazz Congolais is alive and well.
1 February 2012
Connoisseurs of style jazz Congolais have known for more than 50 years that one of the music’s greatest exponents d is the guitarist Papa Noel who is an alumnus of African Jazz, Les Bantous de la Capitale and Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz. Happily his illustrious career is alive and well, especially these days as a supreme acoustic guitar soloist. He can be hard at his best on the veteran Senegalese singer Ablaye Ndiaye Thiosanne’s eponymous debut CD where Noel appears alongside Orchestra Baobab’s sublime saxophonist Thierno Kouate.
Noel aficionados and lovers of the Congo jazz style will delight in several other recent releases. Oliver Tshimanga established himself as lead electric guitarist of Bana OK a decade ago. Sine that time he has become highly sought after as a guitarist, arranger and composer in his own right. Like almost all Congolese instrumentalists, he rarely puts out recordings under his own name but is widely and correctly regarded as one of the best guitarists in Africa who’s every recoding is worth tracking down. On Ferre Gola’s three song maxi single “Avant Gout” (CD/DVD set) his acoustic playing is feature prominently on the second and third tracks on one of which he and Ferre pay homage to Tshimanga’s old boss and mentor Lutumba Simaro. Perhaps Tshimanga’s playing here isn’t quite as good as it was on Bozi Boziana's lovely CD/DVD set “Crise Financiere” or the “Madilu Forever” tribute album but it’s always a pleasure to hear him.
Another exceptional but unidentified style jazz Congolais acoustic guitarist can be found on Doudou Cpoa’s DVD “Concert Acoustique à Brazzaville.”
Lutumba Simaro himself can be heard and seen on two new reissues: Franco’s “En Live Les Annés 80” (CD/DVD set) and on his own “Chaude Ambience” (DVD). Like Louis /Armstrong in African American jazz, Franco is the only undisputed genius in African jazz so any recording of his is worth hearing. He and T.P.OK Jazz are in fine form (eg Franco’s performance of his composition “Locataire” and Josky Kiambukata’s singing ) but this issue is flawed by the fact that the electric bass – a crucial part of the OK Jazz sound – is a barely audible throughout. “Chaude Ambaince”, on the other hand, consists of clips of T.P.OK Jazz’s final studio CD (“Chaude Ambiance”) and of an early Bana OK’s CD “Faute ya Commercant.” Both CD’s were excellent; the remastering on this DVD reissue is of a high standard and this issue is historically important because it shows definitively that e last incarnation of T.P. OK Jazz under Lutumba’s leadership and the first incarnation of Bana OK also under Lutumba’s leadership were one and the same band but for the loss of the vocalist Madilu System
A criticism which world music and jazz fans tend to level against today’s releases,
including all of the above except Franco’s, is that they can’t stomach the synths
and cheap sounding electric keyboards. Happily Sam Mangwana’s “Live à Paris” (CD/DVD
set) is untainted by any keyboards of any kind. Moreover the musicianship here of
the band Odemba under the leadership of the ex T.P. OK Jazz guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku
is top notch. Mangwana is widely regarded as Franco’s favourite singer and he has
often performed with T.P. OK Jazz and Bana OK. Dizzy Mandjeku joined OK Jazz in 1882,
and Odemba’s two fabulous female vocalists Nana and Baniel joined OK Jazz in 1986.
There’s also a fine horn section consisting of Didon Dibwdi on tenor sax and the
late Michel “sax” Yuma on alto who used to play with L’Orchestra Afri-
The second part of this two month roundup of Congolese jazz suggests the genre is alive and well. The plethora of younger, often unidentified, musicians on many of these releases is especially encouraging like a rush of seedlings and saplings in a fine old forest.
1 March 2012
The Brothers of Peace (Bruce ‘Dope’ Seblito and Oscar ‘Oskido’ Mdongwa), a renowned South African kwaito/house duo and stalwarts of the influential Kalawa Jazmee label, don’ t perform on Unathi’s hit CD “With Love”. But she is one of their protégées who describes ‘Dope’ as her musical mentor and uses Oskido as Executive Producer. It is likely that Oskido had a big say in selecting the mouth watering assortment of young jazz musicians and producers who appear on the recording. These include the keyboard and sax maestro Moumi Dhlamini; Jimmy Mngwandi one of South Africa’s best bassists and Thandiswa’s guitarist Sunnyboy . It isn’t clear exactly what Bruce Seblito’s role as musical mentor involves but the fabulous photo of Unathi with a rather large African pipe which appears in the jewel case behind the CD ought to have been on the front cover.
Unathi’s own agenda is stated clearly in the lyrics of the anthem “Woman” in which she sings:
“Before we die, we'll make 'Mama' the coolest word in the world."
This is absolutely laudable but has Unathi got what it takes to deliver musically?
When writing an article at the end of 2010 about who was the new Mama Afrika following Miriam Makeba’s demise,I didn’t even mention Unathi. If you’d asked me at the time I’d have described her as a gifted singer/songwriter who was enjoying a career as a pop star but listening to “With Love” I find myself eating humble pie. It isn’t the presence of desirable musicians that makes “With Love” such an excellent listening experience – it’s what Unathi does with them. It’s as though she’s grabbed them by the scruff of the neck, dragged them to the middle of the best dance floor in Johannesburg and announced “We’re spending the evening her guys”. This is Jozi jazz at its sassy, streetwise best.
Unathi and her musicians are worthy additions to the vast array of talent that makes contemporary South Africa’s jazz scene even stronger than those of Kinshasa and Lagos right now. Four further releases by pre kwai jazz South African former exiles showcase sophisticated powers of arrangement and remind us that South African jazz scene has real depth. Caiphus Semenya is widely regarded as the greatest arranger in Africa and his DVD “Live at Carnival City “ shows us why. It’s a stunning release with strong guest appearances by vocalist Thandiswa, saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu and trumpeter Prince Lengoasa. Semenya is probably best known for his work with his wife Letta Mbulu who has perhaps the best voice and technique of all South African jazz singers of her generation. Happily she can be heard against her husband’s superlative arrangements on a recent reissue of “Naturally.” This long lost 1973 LP is a masterpiece and a must have purchase for lovers of African funk or anyone tempted by a horn section consisting of Wayne Henderson with Nat and Cannonball Adderly.
The other great husband and wife duo in South African jazz perform together much less frequently which makes Bea Benjamin’s “Sathima sings Ellington” produced by her husband Abdullah Ibrahim a highly desirable reissue Sathima is best known as an Ellington specialist and Ibrahim is a devotee too. So this long deleted 1979 LP is a major landmark for both artists. Ibrahim doesn’t play piano here but the small band which backs Sathima is top notch, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs included; the interpretations of the songs are peerless and the bonus tracks especially “African Songbird” are all excellent. It’s a fantastic disc. Ibrahim's latest release with his band Ekaya is surprisingly good too. Like Dibango’s recent “Ballad Emotion” this is a mellow disc with lovely arrangements and musicianship. I don’t rate many of the recordings Ibrahim has made without African musicians but this one works.
1 January 2012
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