Home Recommended Music Reviews Resources FAQ

© Ben Robertson 2006 - 2015


2013 – Reviews

The end of the beginning for African jazz December

Tabu Ley Rochereau: In Memoriam  December

Nelson Mandela remembered in South African jazz December

Le Grand Kalé’s empire:the seismic shift in jazz November

Homage to Tony Allen: a review of his autobiography October

Central African roundup: Papa Noël and a black box brimful of Tshimnagolagy September

The Brotherhood of Breath vs Bopol - a roundup of recent reissues August

The Jazz Maniacs behind Molelekwa’s “Rapela” and  Sathima & Abdullah Ibrahim’s  “Africa” July

South African jazz awards, the return of Mafikizolo and the profundity of Pops Mohamed June

Tradi-modern: the very latest thing? (Part 1) April

John Coltrane and the raw hurt at the heart of African jazz (Part 2)  May

Lil Noise & Masekela’s “Friends”  March

Salif Keita vs Ferre Gola & Tsepo Tshola February
The Orientation & Masekela Playing @ Work January

2013: The end of the beginning for African jazz

Track for the year-end:- “Africa Bola Ngombi” by African Jazz, recorded in 1961 withManu Dibango (Cameroun) on sax, Edo (DR Congo) on clarinet, Tino Baroza (Angola) on guitar, sung/ composed by bandleader Joseph Kabasele aka Le Grand Kallé from “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” two CD set, also available in two volumes as download albums (DR Congo)

Overview and album of the year

Anyone who has seen 80-year-old Cameroonian African Jazz alumnus Manu Dibango perform live, will know that he is one of that rare breed of musicians who can light up an entire auditorium with his smile. The photo on the sleeve of his new album “Ballad en Saxo,” which also adorns the cover of a new volume of autobiographical writings under the same title, depicts him grinning from ear to ear as he takes a bow. While one wishes Dibango many more encores, the symbolism is clear: this great jazz musician and his audience both know that he is approaching the tail end of his distinguished career. Happily, “Ballad en Saxo” is the best recording he’s made in many a long year and is easily the best sax release from Africa of 2013. “Easily” is an appropriate word to describe Dibango’s approach to music making which, like that of all Africa Jazz alumni, is unpretentious, never showy and seemingly effortless. Another good case in point is fellow African Jazz veteran, Congolese master guitarist Papa Noël whose duet album “Color” with French accordionist Vivianne A is the standout recorded performance of the year by a guitarist. These astonishing achievements by musicians reaching the end of their careers cannot compensate however for the recent loss of African Jazz’s most famous son, the composer and vocalist Tabu Ley Rochereau, who is mourned across most of Africa as the year draws to a close.

In 2013, the wonderful, seminal band African Jazz in which all these musicians made their name has at long last begun to be appreciated properly in the wider world thanks to the release of “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music”. (reviewed below), a double album focusing on the career of Joseph Kabasele who founded and led African Jazz. Beautifully packaged, like a hardback book ,with extensive illuminating sleeve notes, this release exemplifies a trend that has gathered momentum in 2013 - that of delving deeper into the rich heritage of jazz right across sub-Saharan Africa. It has been an extraordinary, mesmerising year for reissues and issues of previously unreleased recordings. Likewise, the rate at which books are being published on the subject is simply unprecedented. At the same time, and in part no doubt in symbiosis, jazz is becoming increasingly prominent again in the continent’s popular music and, better still, the number of new artists making promising debuts has increased sharply. In short, African jazz is in full bloom and is starting to overcome more than half a century of ignorance and prejudice that have long hindered its full recognition in the global jazz arena.

In recognition of these trends, in honour of the late Tabu Ley Rochereau and in confident expectation that it will be followed by an equally fine compilation showcasing the work of Africa Jazz’s greatest musician, the uniquely influential electric guitar soloist Dr Nico, “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” is this site’s album of the year.

Central African jazz

Baby Ndombe’s live big band tribute to his late father Ndombe Opetum, “Baby Chante Ndombe,” showcases some of the best loved compositions in OK Jazz’s vast songbook and features guest appearances by Michel Boyibanda, Josky Kiambukuta and “Pepe” Ndombe himself in what wass presumably his last recording. Opetum also features on “Santa,” one of the regions best reissues of the year together with Madilu System. Of the younger composers, Karmapa makes a fine return to form and Doudou Copa impresses, but the strongest new recording of all is a Ferre Gola double album “Boîte Noire” featuring the superlative acoustic guitarist Olivier Tshimanga. None of these studio albums consist entirely of jazz, each features at least one up-tempo “Generique” in the post-jazz style but all these recordings employ jazz predominantly and much more so, especially in the case of Gola, than on previous studio releases.They also all feature superb guitar playing, singing and plyrhythms of the very highest order.

On the reissue front, a five disc set from pianist/composer/vocalist Ray Lema including two of his best albums (“Green Light” and “Stop Time”) together with a rarely heard solo piano album (“Mizila”) and two others. Also unmissable are  Abeti Maskkini’s 1981 big band funk workout  “Le Tube Cheri Badé” and a compilation of early recordings by Max Messengo & Le Negro Band featuring Michel Boybanda before his stint alongside Opetum in OK Jazz. Lovers of Congoles jazz should also seek out Lokombe’s new Latin flavoured rendition of Ntesa Dalienst’s “Mari Mboka” featuring Dizzy Mandjeku and the West African big band Africando. Those willing to weather poor sound, distinctly Congolese production values and a great deal of material that isn’t jazz may also enjoy Ferre Gola’s spell binding performace of a couple of ballads from  BoîteNoire in front of a raucous audience at Kinshasa’s Grand Hotel during which he reduces Africa’s most critical audience to awestruck rapt attention – an abiding image of 2013, demonstrating to any doubters that remain that Central African jazz has delivered us a new genius.

East African jazz

Mulatu Asteke’s “Sketches of Ethiopia” features what are arguably the best new jazz compositions from Africa of 2013 on a strong album made with British musicians including the superlative trumpeter Byron Wallen. Even against this strong opposition however, Aster Aweke’s new album excels.

Fine reissues from Kenya and Tanzania demonstrate not only how broad the influence of African Jazz and OK Jazz wars in the region but also that each country had its distinctive take on the music. The year has also seen the emergence of the uncategorisable but very fine Rwandan/South African crossover band John Wizards, promising saxophonist from Tanzania called Rama and the groundbreaking reissue of a recording from prewar Somalia.

There have been further promises of a new album from the gifted Kenyan saxophonist/composer/vocalist Joseph Hellon and some fine clips of his appearances on Kenyan TV have been posted on YouTube but there is still no sign of his long-awaited follow-up to “Bikuttsi.”

Southern African jazz

As has been the case since the mid 1990’s, South Africa is by far and away the most productive country when it comes to jazz from Africa. Excellent newly minted recordings of the year include those of pianists Norman Chauke and Abdullah Ibrahim. Mpumi Dhlamini’s trio Lil’ Noise, Hugh Masekela, Pops Mohamed, Unathi, Cape Jazz Band and Mafikizolo. None of these however tops the late Zim Ngqwana’s previously unreleased revelatory live DVD (also available on CD) with a superlative quartet made up of Ngqwana on sax, flute,, vocals, harmonica and electronics,  Shane Cooper winner of 2013 Standard Bank young jazz artist of the year award of on double bass together with Nduduzo Makhathini (piano,vocals) and Ayanda Sikande (drums, vocals) both of whom featured on last year’s excellent “African Time” album under the leadership of Herbie Tsoaeli which deservedly won this year’s SAMA (South African Music Award) for jazz. Ngqwana was an infrequent visitor to recording studios particularly in the latter part of his career and rarely performed at his his best there apart from his 2004 “Vadzimu” album, but this live set shows exactly why jazz lovers in South Africa regard him as one of their all-time greats. Other stunning previously unreleased material from South Africa includes a live double album featuring the superlative double bassist Harry Miller and a early version of Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s “Rapela” which is perhaps the single greatest track released this year featuring him and a world-class Cameroonian rhythm section reworking Fela’s rfrobeat - a Molelekwa masterpiece.

Zim Ngqwana and Molelekwa pioneered contrasting approaches to making jazz in post apartheid South Africa that resurface in the two best newly recorded South African jazz albums of the year. Ngqwana’s could be described as neo traditional and mainly acoustic jazz which takes its cue from artists such as Mankunku, the Blue Notes and Coltrane and which is purposefully weighty, befitting  a nation that fought hard for and is proud of its freedom. Molelekwa’s approach was more eclectic: a distinctly post-modern style that recognises no boundaries in terms of what can and cannot be incorporated into jazz; also distinctively and uniquely South African,  this music could be described as rainbow jazz for a rainbow nation. Inevitably aficionados of each approach sometimes criticise the other with neo traditionalists complaining that some or much of what the post-modernists do simply isn’t jazz while the post-modernists criticise the neo traditionalists for undermining the verry essence of jazz and freedom by putting it in a closed box. For the most part however, the two approaches coexist very well as did Molelekwa and Ngqwana when they recorded or perform together. Between them, they left contemporary South African jazz a profound and rich legacy as is demonstrated in the two best newly recorded album is of 2013 fom pianist Norman Chauke whose music embodies Ngqwana’s approach and firm multi-instrumentalist Mpumi Dhlamini’s trio Lil’ Noise who exemplify Molelekwa’s way of thinking about jazz. In both cases, these musicians not only evokes the giants of the past but enable the music to develop her make progress too.

Amid a veritable flood of reissues consisting overwhelmingly of reissues of reissues, shorn of sleeve notes and original art work, the Brotherhood of Breath’s “Procession” augmented with lots of new material and Sathima Bea Benjamin’s previously impossible-to-find album with Abdullah Ibrahim standout as does the reissue on CD of the compilation put together by the scholar Christopher Ballantine that accompanies the second edition of his  book “Marabi Nights: jazz, ‘race’ and society in early apartheid South Africa.”

It is heartening to report that South Africa has also produced a an extraordinary array of gifted new musicians such as the drummer Tumi Mgorosi and his band, three exceptional singer songwriters (Lindiwe Maxolo, Nomfundo and Mbuso Khosa ) bass player Mano Simeli, trumpeter Pablo Seotlolla and the Rwandan/South African crossover band John Wizards.

Most Ethiojazz and afrobeat releases are targeted primarily at European, North American and Japanese markets. but in South Africa ,as in DR Congo, the music remains an important, integral part of the domestic popular market as is demonstrated in this year’s comeback album from Mafikzolo add from the three jazz tracks (“Okwami Ngokwakho,” “Umongameli” and “Iphupha “) at the core of the Zahara’s new album “Phendula.”

From other parts of the region come several fine reissues, notably from Angola and Zambia; an excellent new drummer, Legan “Tino D“” Breda, rom Zimbabwe, a country which also given us Monoswezi’ one of the year’s best crossover recordings made with Scandinavian jazz musicians .

West African jazz

Among the plethora of fine releases from Africa in 2013, the best newly made recording is surely Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s “Sekunde.” Equally welcome, is the reissue of his very first album “Simigwa” from 1975 which is sometimes described as the world’s first rap album and always cited as a seminal recording in the development of Ghanaian hiplife. His use of an instantly recognisable rhythm and endless repetition of the same vocal catchphrases certainly foreshadows and may have influenced the insanely addictive Coupe Decale music of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire too in which, seemingly, every song had the same lyrics, beat and melody. Ambolley himself described his music as “AfirKan Jaazz” and hs current record label categorise his sound as as “Hi-life Afro jazz.” A graduate of the seminal Uhuuru Danceband, beloved of Tony Allen (as we learned in his excellent autobiography this year), Ambolley, who is a gifted Ghanaian vocalist, band leader, arranger, composer, saxophonist, and percussionist has a sound which is instantly recognisable; that, although unquestionably influential, no one has ever even attempted to copy. With incredible aplomb, he has essentially made the same album over and over again since that 1975 debut and his many fans can simply never get enough of his unique combination of wisdom, wit and distinctive style. Of all the great masters of African jazz he is the one who perhaps excels most at that most basic ingredient of African music: repetition with ariation. The new album, recorded in Ghana with an excellent set of musicians including a particularly good bass player is one of his best. Savour, for example,  the humourin“Blakk Woman” where he takes his sisters to task about their hair dos and the opener “Afrika Yie” with its humbling, defiant credo and insistent marching beat. A truly great album from an artist with a seemingly limitless capacity for blowing away the blues.

Leaving aside Lágbájá’s “200 Million Mumu: the bitter truth” which is essentially an augmented version of last year’s top-notch singles, the best afrobeat release of the year are Bukky Leo & Black Egypt’s  “Anarchy” on which is as humorous and almost as good as Gyedu-Blay Ambolley. Another strong afrobeat album is the Afrobeat Makers’ “Tony Allen Rhythms Revisited” a slightly mysterious minimalist dub, near instrumental set released without fanfare on vinyl and download only. It is unclear whether this is some sort of remix album or an entirely new recording, but the closely miked drum kit is reminiscent of Allen’s contribution to last year’s excellent “Rocket Juice & the Moon” with Damon Albarn. This new found approach to recording Allen emphasises the subtlety and delicacy of his playing rather than its outright power, making this the second year in a row that Allen takes the top spot for African jazz kit drummer against strong competition from Louis Moholo-Moholo’s live recording with his long-term associate Evan Parker in Foxxes Fox and from Moholo’s heir apparent Kevisan Naidoo. Equally impressive, is Cameroonian drummer Brice Wassy’s contribution to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s previously unreleased version of “Rapela,” proving that Tony Allen isn’t the only great West African afrobeat drummer. A further noteworthy afrobeat release is Kola Ogunkoya & The Atlanta Afrobeat Ochestra 2013’s “Open Ya Eye,” on which a bass sax is added to the horn section: an innovation that is so obvious in its brilliance that it is amazing no one, as far as this critic is aware, has thought of it before and a move that is sure to be copied around the globe.

Other fine albums, from Cameroonian jazz musicians, include Richard Bona’s “Bonafied” which is arguably the best newly recorded album by an African jazz bassist of the year despite strong composition from numerous fine South African players. His singing and arrangements on the album are sublime too - this is Bona at his best. Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/composer Erik Aliana’s album is magnificent too and grows on the listener with repeated listening, suggesting that, above all, he is a fine composer.

The next best thing to Ambolley’s “Sekunde” from West Africa however is undoubtedly “Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1” a previously unreleased album recorded 32 years ago by Dieuf-Dieul De Thies, a short lived and hitherto completely obscure Senegalese band who elicit pure joy in lovers of Orchestra Baobab.

The region hass also delivered several unmissable reissues: Manu Dibango’s 1975 filmscore for “Kusini” which turns out to be a masterpiece, two essential tracks from the enormously influential Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren/Ghababa including one from his legendary “Africa speaks, America answers” LP; another fine reissue from Orchestra Poly Rhythmo, recordings by Zani Diabaté , a Malian guitar player who owes more to Jimi Hendrix and Franco than to the desert blues and Dr Nico, and, perhaps most remarkably of all, a revelatory set of recordings by Mauritania’s “Orchestra Nationale. Tthere have been several intriguing reissues of early West African synthesiser albums too that have had mixed reviews but which genuinely challenge the prevailing consensus about the impact of electronica on African jazz. Of such artists, the most compelling is Nigeria’s William Onyeabor.

A final thought on 2013

No wonder Manuo Dibango has such a big smile on his face. This website’s quote of the year reminds us that 2014 will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the band African Jazz in which he made his name and in which together with his colleagues and in parallel with jazz musicians all over sub Saharan Africa the music we enjoy today had its beginnings. The growth of appreciation and understanding of the heritage of this music around the world combined with the excellence of today’s African jazz scene suggest that, perhaps, after all these decades, the end of the beginning is at hand. African jazz has arrived.

Return to top of page

Tabu Ley Rochereau: In Memoriam

The death of African Jazz alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau in a Belgian hospital at the age of 76 following a stroke and a long period of illness is very sad news.

Tabu Ley’s career and achievements dwarf those of all but his very greatest rivals. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s his popularity in sub-Saharan Africa exceeded that of every musician except Franco. Only in South Africa, where Congolese jazz was suppressed along with all other Congolese music for decades did he remain virtually unknown for the reasons outlined in last month’s article on Le Grand Kallé in whose seminal band African Jazz, alongside Dr Nico and Manu Dibango,  he made his name.

For those unfamiliar with Africa’s music history of the period, it must be difficult to grasp just how dominant  Congolese jazz and its major stars such as Rochereau were during this period. Suffice it to say that the music’s biggest stars, particularly Franco and Rochereau, enjoyed a degree of fame and popularity akin to that of the Beatles in Europe and America in the 1960s, the chief difference being that in Franco and Rochereau's case this degree of success persisted for several decades.

Posterity will rightly remember that in the final analysis Franco was the greater of the two but there were at least two periods during their long rivalry when Rochereau had the upper hand even over Franco. The first such period began in 1963 when, together with the supremely gifted guitar soloist Dr Nico, Nico’s elder rhythm guitarist brother Dechaud, the top-notch trumpeter Willy Kuntima and other African Jazz alumni, he formed African Fiesta who were arguably Africa’s best band for the next couple of years until they too splintered. The second period in which he seriously challenged Franco and his OKJazz occurred in the l1980s when Rochereau worked with and married the singer Mbilia Bel, arguably the most wonderful of all Africa’s jazz divas.

To those wishing to know more, the two double compilation albums entitled “Voice of LLightness” are highly recommended as is the double album Mbilia Bel compilation on the same Stern’s label. Other excellent place to start would be the early 1980’s hit “En Amour y’aPas de Calcul,” a track which to this day it is almost impossible not to dance to. To hear how sublime a singer he was, “Sarah” from the same era is equally highly recommended. Or as an example of his work with MbiliaBel, try “Résidece Marina.”

Rochereau’s career after the split with Mbilia Bel had its highlights too and resulted in some beautiful recordings, the best known of which is his song “Muzina” which was a colossal dance floor hit for much of 1995, during which tens of millions of people learned how to make the sign of the cross on their chests while dancing. The song turned out to mark the end of the era of the dominance of Congolese jazz. In later years he made a couple more good albums and some stunning guest appearances demonstrating that he had lost none of his powers but, along with every other Congolese jazz artist, he never again achieved the same pinnacle of success.

His last studio recording seems to have been an appearance alongside numerous other Congolese stars on a song entitled “For Ever” commemorating the the greatest of Franco’s lead singers: Madilu System. There was also a live performance at a show honouring Franco’s vice president Lutumba Simaro (“Vivement Simaro,” CD/DVD set) and some interview footage on Koffi Olomide’s live “Chante Tabu Ley” which consists of cover versions spanning Rochereau’s whole career.

 Many of his most beautiful compositions live on in the repertoire of Mbilia Bel as demonstrated in her excellent 2011 live small band CD/DVD set "Bakolo Mindule.” In addition to Bel, prominent Congolese jazz musicians active today who are alumni of Rochereau’s band Afrisa includes the chanteuse Feya Tess; the gifted arranger and rhythm guitarist Maika Munan, mi solo guitarist Lokassa ya Mbongo, rhythm guitarist Bopol Mansiamina,  trumpeter Kaber Kabasele, pianist/composer/vocalist Ray Lema and two of the world’s best lead guitarists: Huit Kilos Nseka and  Dino Vangu who is also very highly regarded as a composer. There are also retired musicians such as saxophonist Modero Mekanisi together with Michelino the key pioneer of  mi solo guitar and the supremely gifted singer Sam Mangwana both of whom worked extensively with Franco too. Afrisa members who predeceased him include singer/composer Ndombe Opetum who died last year and central Africa's greatest saxophonist Empopo Loway Deyesse. Finally, Rochereau has left a vast legacy of recordings and concert footage which ranks as one of Africa’s largest and is indicative of how much he meant to his audience.

For a full 450 page study, see Jean Mpassi’s “Tabu Ley Rochereau: Innovateur de la Musique Africaine” published in 2003.

Note: The publication of this article was delayed until after Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Return to top of page

Nelson Mandela remembered in South African jazz

Track of the Month:- “Mandela” by Dorothy Masuka from the DVD accompanying her CD “Dorothy Masuka: The Ultimate Collection” (South Africa/Zimbabwe)

Dorothy Masuka’s “Live at the Mandela Theatre” issued on both CD and DVD in 2010 was a glittering affair in in which an unprecedented array of South Africa’s jazz stars, including Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Thandiswa, Sibongile Khumalo and Abigail Kubeka came together to perform alongside and honour Southern Africa’s senior jazz diva. The esteem in which this now 78 -year-old artist is held as a composer was summed up that night by Hugh Masekela who stated that, in all Africa, her achievements could only be compared to those of Franco - high praise indeed from Bra Hugh whose only selection from the great canon of African jazz in his appearance on “Desert Island Discs” was Franco’s “Fabrice Akende Sango.”

But none of the praise heaped on Dorothy Masuka that night in Johannesburg’s most prestigious theatre came remotely close to what she herself said about Nelson Mandela who we all mourn and celebrate today, having learnt yesterday that he is joining the ancestral spirits. Introducing her song “Mandela” while gesturing with authoritative jubilation to her audience and, as a South African born in Zimbabwe of Zambian parentage ,speaking to all Africa, she said:

“Ladies and gentlemen there is a song I've got to do... This song is about our father, the father of everybody here”

The song “Mandela” which she then sang and danced to with all her heart, much to the delight of her audience and co-performers, has been reissued this year as part of a two disc set “Dorothy Masuka:The Ultimate Collection.” The collection doesn’t include her even more beautiful studio version of “Mandela” which was issued as a CD single in 1999 together with several alternate remixes. This beautiful tribute to Mandela is just one of many recorded by South African jazz artists in the 1990’s and it is highly likely that his passing will inspire a great many more. Even prior to yesterday,  it was already the case that  no human being has ever inspired African musicians to compose so many tributes.

Moreover, Mandela’s life span encompassed and related to the entire genesis of South African jazz. A very special recording in this context  is the album “Siya Gida - We Dane” by the Elite Swingsterss and the late Dorothy Rathebe who was a contemporary of Masuka. Released in 1995, the album consists of a studio recording of the set that this veteran outfit had recently performed at the launch of Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and which they had also presented for President Mandela at London’s Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen and Prince Charles on the occasion of South Africa’s readmission to the British Commonwealth. The album is made up of South African jazz standards such as Mackay Davashe’s “Laku Tsho ‘Ilanga,” plus Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” that predate Mandela’s 27 year imprisonment. This ebullient music, it seems, is what Mandela himself liked to hear when the freedom he and his nation had attained were being celebrated.

Also recommended at this time is the trombonist/ vocalist/ composer Jonas Gwangwa’s 1993 album “Flowers of the Nation” and especially his masterpiece “Diphororo” written as an elegy to the  South Africans who died for the struggle against apartheid, the greatest of whom as of yesterday is Nelson “Madiba” Mandela.

With condolences to Mandela’s family, his nation and his beloved Mother Africa:

Viva Madiba

Note added,  9th December 2013:

Judging from broadcasts from South Africa,  the refrain sung most by mourners is the chorus of Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse’s composition “Nelson Mandela” from his 1996 album “Township Child.” The original version featured Mabuse on solo sax, lead vocals and, probably, drums and piano too; together with samples from the speech delivered by Mandela at his 1964 Rivonia Trial. “Nelson Mandela” has been reissued numerous times, most recently as part of the 2013 CD/DVD set “Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse: The Ultimate Collection” and now appears to be becoming part of the very fabric of the nation.

Return to top of page

Le Grand Kallé’s empire: the seismic shift in jazz

Track of the Month:– “Indépendance Cha Cha” by Joseph Kabasele & African Jazz featured on  “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” by Joseph Kabasele, two CD set, also available as two separate download albums (DR Congo)

African Jazz, widely and justly regarded as the most influential band in the history of Africa, was founded in 1954 more than half a century ago. The release of a two CD retrospective focusing on the band’s leader Joseph Kabasele, also known as Le Grand Kallé, with extensive sleeve notes and documentation in English and French is not merely a milestone in the history of African music: it is a milestone in the history of jazz.

One of the most hotly debated issues in jazz from now on is going to be about the significance of African Jazz in jazz as a global music form. As things stand, African Jazz barely get a mention in reference books and histories of jazz, nor does the band feature prominently in the standard jazz curriculum. The central reason for this is simple: it doesn't stem from some long-standing scholarly debate in jazz circles; it is simply a matter of pure unalloyed ignorance in the bulk of the jazz world.

Against this background, to say that the release of “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” is overdue would a gross understatement. This two CD set, with an accompanying hundred and eight page booklet, represents the very first time that any serious attempt has been made to market African Jazz and their music outside Africa and particularly in the English speaking world.

What was the impact of African Jazz in Africa and why has the band been neglected for so long beyond the continent’s shores?

The best point at which to start answering these questions is the song “Indépendance Cha Cha,” which was a huge hit across the bulk of the continent when released by Joseph Kabasele & African Jazz in 1960 to celebrate the independence of the Congo, the biggest country in sub Saharan Africa.

The key to the song’s, and indeed the band’s, success was their electric guitar soloist Dr Nico - by far and away the most influential musician in Africa’s recorded history. His beautiful solo was what sparked the song’s success. What Dr Nico did in the late 1950's and early 1960's was to create something as new, profound and exciting as what was happening in the continent’s geopolitical arena. In the eyes of the Congolese and his fans across Africa, the presence of Dr Nico in African Jazz gave Kabasele and his band a completely unfair advantage over everyone else. His admirers described him as “eternal,” “incomparable” and nicknamed him “God of the Guitar.” He took jazz in a direction that was diametrically opposed to that of Charlie Parker, who had moved jazz away from the dancefloor, making music that, while the departing colonial masters couldn't and wouldn't want to dance to, made the achievement of collective dancefloor ecstasy more or less unavoidable for everybody else. To this day, his guitar playing is perhaps the most articulate expression of pure joy in all jazz . This is the emotion his music elicited from its myriad admirers and is the medium by which he effectively changed the course of jazz in much of Africa.

The term revolutionary, much overused in music, is appropriate in a most literal sense. When “Indépendance Cha Cha” was released, no African country south of the Congo had achieved independence. Across the border in Northern Province of what is now Zambia, Kabasele’s song ignited and gave its name to the decisive Cha Cha Cha Campaign of early 1961;paving the way to that country’s independence in 1964 which was a crucial step towards the liberation of the whole of Southern Africa over the decades that followed. To this day, the most bustling street in Zambia’s capital Lusaka is Cha Cha Cha Road - the name granted to it  by the leader of the country’s United National Independence Party, Zambia’s founding father and first president Kenneth Kaunda known affectionately to his people as KK or “Super Ken” and one of the rare African elder statesmen who, like his contemporary Nelson Mandela, merits the respect with which he is lauded world over. So in fact, what Kabasele, Dr Nico and African Jazz played wasn’t just music: it was an expression of political idealism and triumph. No one who danced with his or her compatriots to the guitar solo on “Indépendance Cha Cha” could possibly doubt how good independence felt or give up the struggle until the freedom was attained.

Whatever attempt the British authorities made in their short lived Central African Federation (consisting of what are now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) to suppress what they must certainly and rightly have regarded as the dangerous music of Kabasele & African Jazz , they were utterly unsuccessful.

In the twinkling of an eye, Congolese jazz musicians built a musical empire that dwarfed anything the British and other departing colonial powers had ever imagined. The music achieved a degree of success undreamt of by Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. For more than three subsequent decades, Congolese acts such as Franco’s OK Jazz and  African Jazz alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau dominated the airwaves and dance floors of independent sub-Saharan Africa. The sheer scale of this achievement of Congolese jazz was unprecedented not only in Africa but in jazz.

Exactly how the authorities in apartheid South Africa .reacted to this musical revolution in what was then its immediate northern neighbour is obscure, but it is surely inconceivable that the Cha Cha Cha Campaign and the song behind it went unnoticed. Certainly, Congolese music was suppressed in South Africa for decades to come and the fact that Kabasele’s and Franco's records had the word “jazz” emblazoned all over them may well have been a factor in why the authorities made life so much harder for jazz musicians in South Africa from 1961 onwards.

To this day Congolese jazz and its importance are barely recognised in South Africa and the music, particularly in jazz circles, remains virtually unknown. It is to be hoped that the release of “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” will at last start to reverse this most lasting and pernicious musical legacy of apartheid.

One doesn’t need to be a scholar specialising in the period to appreciate why the white supremacist regime in South Africa didn’t want to hear “Indépendance Cha Cha” on the radio, but the reasons for the music’s neglect in the wider world for so many decades are more complex. The most interesting and perhaps paramount reasons were the radicalism in Kabasele's use of the word jazz and the complex politics that affected musicians during the Cold War.

The first eight tracks on “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” have not appeared on CD before and together with Ken Braun’s informative and well researched sleeve notes shed some light on this as well as on the intentions of the compiler. The previously obscure and stunningly beautiful opening track, “Valerine Regina” showcases Kabasele’s gorgeous singing and compositional skill right at the beginning of his recording career in 1951, several years before the advent of African Jazz. At first hearing the record sounds remarkably like the sort of riff the Congolese jazz pianist Ray Lema plays; but in fact consists of two closely intertwined guitars which, of course, is exactly what Congolese music is all about and is the source of what Lema does. The next two tracks are very early versions of two of the Kabasele’s compositions best loved by the Congolese today. “Kale Kato” and “Parafifi” also set a precedent that the compiler sticks to throughout this release: always preferring to include the earliest versions of every song. The reasons for this are probably that it enables the record company to include material which is effectively previously unreleased as far as the vast majority of people including the Congolese are concerned; because it mirrors the interests and priorities of collectors of rare vinyl and because it enables the compiler to focus on Kabasele’s life and times but, from an aesthetic point of view it is a questionable approach. While the first sketches of masterpieces are fascinating; have value in their own right and can shine a light on the creator’s thought processes and development ;they are in most cases simply not the same nor as good as the final masterpiece. In this respect, Ken Braun’s compilation is quite different from the benchmark “Le Grand Kalle volume 1 and volume 2” on the Congolese/French  Befraco label which invariably focused on the final and best-known versions of many of the songs that appear on “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music.” It is remarkable, in fact, how few tracks these two, two volume, compilations have in common; immediately highlighting just how much good music Kabasele made.

These first eight tracks have a charm and importance analogous to early recordings Louis Armstrong made with King Oliver and various other artists. The merits of Ken Braun’s approach are immediately apparent from the fourth of these tracks, entitled “African Jazz” and recorded in 1954. In his sleeve notes, Braun explains that from this point on Kabasele’s audience referred to him and his musicians by this name. What made Kabasele’s music different from that of older and previously more popular Congolese troubadours such as Wendo was the addition of horns and more specifically from 1954 until 1957, the band’s first saxophonist: Isaac Musekiwa who, although he is barely recognised as such, was one of the great Southern African jazz musicians of the era. He was born in Bulawayo in what is now Zimbabwe, according to Gary Stewart’s book “Breakout” around 1935, the same year in which the celebrated Southern African jazz diva Dorothy Masuka was born in the same city. Bulawayo had a vibrant jazz scene by the early 1950's which produced the first global hit by any African jazz musician in the form of “Skokiaan” by saxophonist August , Musarurwa popularised by, among others, Louis Armstrong and Johnny Hodges. Thanks to field recordings made by the legendary Hugh Tracey at the time, the music of Musarurwa and his contemporaries that both Isaac Musekiwa and Dorothy Masuka grew up in the midst of, can be heard on the highly recommended compilation “Bulawayo Jazz,” which illustrates that the music was akin to that of South Africans such as the noted composer and saxophonist Isaac “Zacks” Nkosi. Isaac Musekiwa’s career as a saxophonist was every bit as successful in important as that of Dorothy Masuka’s has been as as a singer and composer because when he parted ways with Kabasele and African Jazz in 1957, he joined the greatest of all Africa’s jazz bands, Franco’s Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz, where he remained a permanent fixture in the continent’s premier horn section until his death in 1990.

If the first eight tracks on the album can be likened to Armstrong’s earliest recordings; from the moment Dr Nico and his older brother Dechaud strap on their electric guitars we are in the realm of the Hot Fives in Hot Sevens of jazz from Africa. The remainder of the first CD constitutes a small selection of the most influential African recordings ever made. No such selection can be definitive, nor can any be unsatisfying but the limited number of first rate Dr Nico solos is disappointing. Had this selection of tracks been played to the band’s fans in the early 1960's with the explanation that this was the selection of tracks with which the band would be launched in America five decades later, there would probably have been a furious riot. You can bet your bottom dollar that the reason for this is that the current compilation is merely a taster for a two or four volume Dr Nico set to follow on the same Stern’s label. The band’s best known singer Tabu Ley Rochereau is equally under represented, presumably because a selection of his best work with African Jazz has already appeared on the first CD in Stern’s “Voice of Lightness” four CD Rochereau set . Even so, the selection of tracks on the rest of the first CD of “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” is magnificent and includes the standard for which the band is best known across most of Africa in the form of track 21, mistakenly referred to as“Miwela-Miwela”in the track listing but in fact “African Jazz Mokili Mobimbo” on which the two electric guitarists (Dr Nico on lead, Dechaud on rhythm) take advantage of the extended playing time afforded by the then new 45 rpm format to show off their considerable talents.

The advantage of Ken Braun’s approach compared to a conventional greatest hits type package is that it enables the listener to understand that African Jazz was much more than a vehicle for its biggest stars. For example, Musekiwa was far from the only important horn player to enjoy a crucial part of their early career with Kabasele’s African Jazz. Others who appear on the set include Jean Serge Essous and Nino Malapet from Congo Brazzaville, best known for their long association with that country’s leading jazz orchestra Less Bantous de la Capitale which celebrated five decades in the business in 2009. Willy Kuntima, one of Africa’s greatest trumpet players, who had an instantly recognisable, open and full sound made his name with the band and can be heard to great effect, for example on track 21 (again, listed as “Miwela-Miwela” but actually “African Jazz Mokili Mobimbo”). The Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango who is surely the best known of all sax players from Africa, first achieved fame with African Jazz too. At his recent 80th birthday concert the standout number was a new interpretation of “Jamais Kalonga”, composed by the Angolan African jazz alumnus Tino Brazza, the original version of which appears on “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music.” Another very fine reeds player in the band was the clarinettist Edo whose delicate interplay with Dibango’s equally lovely sax and Kabasele’s gorgeous singing on “Africa Bola Ngombi” is a highlight of the album.

All these musicians unquestionably had an understanding of what African American jazz wars, as did the various Belgian jazz musicians who played with and/or were associated with Africa Jazz such as the guitarist and former Django Reinhardt sidemen Bill Alexandre who reputedly brought the first electric guitar into the Congo. Over the years however, it has become customary to be condescending about Kabasele’s use of the word jazz and this explains why Ken Braun, in his otherwise admirable sleeve notes:  is distinctively sniffy about the jazz content of Kabasele’s music. As Manu Dibango says in the first volume of his autobiographical writings, African Jazz did not play jazz. What he meant by this was that African Jazz did not play African American jazz and he is absolutely right right: they didn’t, nor were they trying to do so but Kabasele and his musicians were not stupid: they knew what the words African and jazz meant. The problem that has developed over the years does not stem from any lack of clarity on the part of the musicians themselves, rather the condescension and confusion arises because of  the largely forgotten connotations of the word “African” in the context of the late 1950's and early 1960. The reason for this is that we have all spent most of our lives hearing bad news from Africa: of wars, coups, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, presidents wanted by the International Criminal Court and all the rest of it; but for a brief period in the late 1950's and early 1960's the news from Africa, from an African perspective and more broadly from the perspective of the free world, was overwhelmingly good because African nations were gaining their independence at the rate of knots. These seismic events in Africa’s history fostered idealism, optimism and excitement about Africa which was mirrored, captured and exemplified in the music of Kabasele’s African Jazz. Put yourself in Kabaseles’s shoes for a moment. Would you want to be playing and creating African American music to mark, celebrate and mirror the advent of African independence? Or would you perhaps prefer to create Belgian or French, British or Cuban or Latin music?, Of course you wouldn’t: you would want to be make African music. The word “African” in the band’s name was shorthand for a specific contextual agenda that was crystal clear to everyone in the early 1960’s. It meant independent, proud, free, defiant and undefeatable. Above all it implied a new beginning.

Kabasele’s use of the word “jazz” in this context changed its meaning across much of Africa for decades to come. This creativity in the use of language should come as no surprise to lovers of music from the African diaspora: Africans are surely the worlds most virile language makers :a trait that lives on in forms of music such as hip-hop. DR Congo has more than 200 languages. This, coincidentally, is also surely and to a large extent what jazz has always been about - continuously creating musical language, constantly developing and expanding through improvisation and interaction in musical conversation. When Kabasele, his musicians and his audience changed their use of the word jazz and started applying it to their own music they brought about the single most important development in the music’s history in the second half of the last century. From that point on, in a geographical area much bigger than the United States, the word jazz was no longer shorthand for African-American jazz and its variants. It was shorthand for African jazz.

While Kabasele’s use of the word jazz may have unravelled over time in the sense that, for example, new bands nowadays never use the word jazz in their names or publicity in the sense that he did, but for decades the word jazz was used in numerous band names in Africa in the sense intended by Kabasele. One well-known example is Cameroun/ Nigeria’s Rocafil  Jazz whose highlife/makossa /Congolese crossover track “Sweet Mother” was the biggest pan African hit of the 1980's.

African Jazz and the other Congolese jazz bands were the pre-eminent acts of the era that tried to Africanise or re-Africanise jazz but others were working and thinking along the same lines. Notable examples from around the continent included Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatke, Ghana’s ET Mensah and Guy Warren, Nigeria’s Koola Lobitos and, from South Africa, Miriam & the Skylarks and Philip Tabane’s Malombo Jazzmen.

A further source of confusion and controversy about the use of the word jazz in relation to Kabasele is that he himself stopped using the word in the second half of the 1960's and changed the name of his band to African Team. The music on the second CD of “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” dates from 1963 onwards which was the point at which Dr Nico, Rochereau together with others left African Jazz initially to form African Fiesta before they too went their separate ways as solo artists. Kabasele’s recordings from 1963 on are therefore much less important  than those he made in the early 60's but he nevertheless continued to play music of breathtaking beauty. Certainly, many Congolese music lovers regard the recordings he made in 1966 and 1970 with African Team as his greatest artistic achievement: Recordings from this period, although ultimately less influential than the earlier seminal recordings, are what the Congolese actually listen to and value today as witnessed by the previously mentioned and much loved two-volume compilation on the Congolese/French Befraco label. The final African Team releases of 1970 are also among this critic’s favourites. Recorded in Paris, they feature a superlative big band with strings, an array of superb African musicians including Dibango and Essous plus the Cuban flute virtuoso Gonzalo Fernandez. Together, this notably extravagant ensemble, made music that was more Latin in flavour than the African Jazz sides of the 1950's and 1960’s. Indeed it is arguable that these are the greatest Afro Latin recordings ever made.

“Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” closes with four of these tracks, one of which is the sublime “Ko ko ko – Qui est la?” which is, to these ears, a Kabasele masterpiece showcasing his soaring voice, masterly arrangement and his uncanny ability to find and get the best out of very great musicians. Another of the tracks is the unusual and rarely heard “Africa Boogaloo” which is a kind of missing link between African Jazz and Dibango’s trademark “Soul Makossa.” Readers who enjoy these African Team recordings should seek out other tracks from the same sessions, many of which are included on the Gefraco two-volume “Le Grand Kalle” CDs which also benefit from r superior sound/remastering on the 1970 tracks.

However, Ken Braun’s sleeve notes, which otherwise add vastly to our knowledge and understanding of this great music and which are a major plus point of the release are unfortunately incorrect h in suggesting that these 1970 recordings were Kabasele’s last. While they may have been his last session is in an audio recording studio and may have marked the end of his vinyl discography, he continued to perform and record for Congolese TV and there are at least two live recordings available on Congolese DVDs of performances from after 1970, in addition to a kind of playback show where he mimes and dances to some of his earlier studio recordings in front of a TV studio audience. The existence of these recordings rather casts doubt on Braun’s speculation about relations between Kabasele and his country’s head of state, the much feared dictator Mobutu Sese Seko for whose reign the journalist Bernard Levin memorably coined the word “kleptocracy.” Whatever their political differences may have been, they didn’t stop Kabasele performing, recording and being honoured at home. Indeed, he was created the country’s first Grand Master of music during this period.

Also of interest is footage aired on Congolese TV after Kabasele’s death under the title “Hommage à Grand Kallé,” available on the DVD “La belle époque Musicale” which veers, with poor editing ,between snippets of a tribute performance fronted by Kabasele’s protégé Pepe Kallé* featuring former African Jazz stars including Dr Nico, Dechaud and Roger Izedi interspersed with equally disjointed snippets of a Cuban band playing Kabasele's music in Cuba for an audience of very scantily clad beautiful young Cuban women. The latter, regardless of the equal beauty of the music, was very clearly a Cold War propaganda film depicting Cuba as a kind of earthly paradise. It is fairly clear from this that by the end of his life, the Cuban regime regarded Kabasele as an ally and an asset. Without the facts one can do little but speculate about when this relationship began but it may well explain the extraordinary extravagance of those 1970 sessions which was completely unprecedented in African music at the time and may perhaps have prompted Mobutu, who was essentially allied with the Americans in the Cold War, to make sure that Kabasele didn’t tour outside his home country again or make recordings that could be broadcast or marketed outside his home country either. If this version of events is remotely close to the truth, it may also very well explain why Kabasele stopped using the word jazz in the name of his band because during the Cold War and particularly in Cuba the term jazz was frowned upon and regarded as being symptomatic of American decadence and imperialistic ambition.

Had Kabasele outlived the Cold War and survived to the present day, it would long ago have become obvious that there was nothing remotely objectionable about his politics. The translations of his song lyrics in Ken Braun’s sleeve notes demonstrate that all he wanted was a democratic, non-ethnically divided, independent Congo and, like many African intellectuals, was a pan Africanist who yearned to see his continent united and not divided. He may well have had mixed feelings about Western powers who, we now know, were most certainly involved in the assassination of the Congo’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba who had been Kabasele’s personal friend, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that he was an unreasonable political zealot of any kind. It is much more likely that he was simply a wonderful musician and a good man who found himself caught up in the intrigue and idiocy of Cold War rivalries in Africa.

It would however be naive to think that politics have nothing to do with why it has taken so long for his music to be released and marketed properly in the United States. Aside from the absurdities of the Cold War, the dearth of new recordings after 1970, the failure of the major American record labels which dominated global music throughout the period to extend their tentacles to Kinshasa;  and Kabasele's death in 1983 probably all played a part. In addition, it didn’t help that the exiled South African jazz musicians who effectively introduced the world to African jazz had never heard of Kabasele. In addition, a new three CD retrospective entitled “Africa in America: rock jazz & calypso 1920 to 1962” illustrates that the jazz establishment had an absurd mixture of prejudice, ignorance and romanticism about Africa, the legacy of which casts a long shadow even over today’s more globalised jazz scene. While “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” may not be perfect, it does represent a great and noble step in the right direction, towards the kind of atonement that these two great continents and their interrelated but fractious jazz communities need so badly.

This set and its sleeve notes are also helpful in putting to rest another longest running controversies concerning Congolese music. It has long been argued, following the Congolese author Sylvain Bemba’s “Cinquante ans de musique du Congo-Zaire (1920-1970)” that there were two schools of Congolese music during the period: that of Kabasele and that of Franco. Ray Lema, the previously mentioned pianist and composer, for example, who worked with African Jazz alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau states that he is nevertheless in Franco’s school. But along with Lema there have been so many musicians who have been comfortable in African Jazz or African Jazz derived ensembles such as Rochereau’s and Dr Nico’s later bands who have also been able to settle comfortably into Franco’s OK Jazz that it is obvious that the two bands, while different and having different flavours, are two bands essentially in the same genre in the same sense that Ellington’s orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s ensembles played in the same genre too. The tribute album recorded jointly by Franco and Rochereau after Kabasele’s death with Michelino on mi-solo guitar and Matalanza on sax is further proof of this. Listen for example to the relaxed interplay between these musicians on the superlative track “Ngungi.” In fact, as we learn from Ken Braun’s sleeve notes, this cooperation dates right back to “Indépendance Cha Cha” on which the first solo voice we hear is that of Vicky Longomba who was the lead vocalist in OK Jazz at the time. His participation had been agreed by Franco and Kabasele on the grounds that both wanted a united Congo and decided to exemplify this in their music. Coincidentally, this also explains why there is no horn player on the track: because his seat on the plane was given up to make room for Longomba.

The main question that remains is this: what is the jazz world to make of Joseph Kabasele and African Jazz? It could be argued that one of greatest achievements of African American jazz is that when Africa gained her independence she chose to call the music with which her people celebrated African jazz. Is this not the single greatest compliment ever paid to African American jazz? - proof that all that Herculean effort made by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the African American jazz giants to create African music in America had not been in vain. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why Africans wanted to call this music jazz was because they knew that African-American jazz was black music and that it had triumphed artistically and commercially in a white man’s world. In a culture a crucial hallmark of which is respect, Africans were paying their African-American brothers and sisters a very great compliment.

Unfortunately and somewhat astonishingly, African Jazz and the entire revolution that they represented in music remain more or less unnoticed in the wider world of jazz. How will this music be received? How should it be received? If you had asked Joseph Kabasele, African Jazz and their fans this question as they celebrated their independence and danced all night long the same question, would they not have responded that they hoped their African-American brothers and sisters would embrace their African jazz and join in the celebration? America will slowly but surely fall in love with this music just as everyone who has ever listened to it has done.

Properly understood, “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music is an album which ought to prompt a seismic shift in the world’s thinking about jazz. What ought the jazz establishment do about its neglect and ignorance of Kabasele's African Jazz and, by extension, of all the great jazz from Africa that ensued? The situation today remains little short of appalling. If, for example, one goes through the entire list of links on Wikipedia under their entry for jazz you will find no mention whatsoever of k or Dr Nico or Kabasele. How can this be rectified? What could or should the jazz establishment and its most hallowed institutions do about the situation? The answer, as so often in the history of jazz, lies with the only undisputed genius in the history of the music: Louis Armstrong. Armstrong led the way in the late 1950's and early 60's with a series of tours of Africa during which he met, interacted with, played for and embraced the majority of the African jazz pioneers of the day. He loved what he heard and found in the mother continent, describing for example, his first visit to Ghana at that nation’s independence celebrations as the second most important event of his life after playing with King Oliver. Armstrong’s embrace of Africa was characterised by respect, curiosity and, above all, joy. As so often before in the history of jazz, Armstrong’s spontaneity and lead cleared the path for everyone else to follow. The time has surely come for the jazz world to wake up to this seismic shift, dust itself down, and once more heed Armstrong’s great clarion call.

The main barrier is ignorance. The thing that is going to break it down is the music. That is why “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music” is such an important and welcome release. May it herald true enlightenment in jazz founded in a justified radical  reinterpretation of the past. If so, in years to come, t will be axiomatic to regard these recordings as the point in jazz history at which the centre of the jazz world shifted seismically from the United States to Africa.

Note added 16th December 2013: sadly, the great singer and composer Tabu Ley Rochereu, referred to above, died the very day this article was published. An appreciation of his life and work was added to this site shortly after Nelson Mandela's funeral.

* Correction -  this was not Pepe  Kallé but Gérard Madiata . See review of the DVD “Live Gérard Madiata, Franco et Bombenga” for details.

Return to top of page

Homage to Tony Allen: a review of his autobiography

“Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat” by Tony Allen with Michael E. Veal (Duke University Press)

Track of the Month:- “Cross Examination of the African Colonial Soldier” from the DVD “Fela Live in Berlin (1978)” part of a three disc compilation “Anthology 2” by Fela Kuti

“One of the things that lovers of African jazz agree about is that the greatest kit drummer in the history of the music is Nigeria’s Tony Allen, famed above all for being Fela Kuti’s drummer in the 1960's and 70's and oft described as the man who put the beat into Afrobeat. A shelf full of books about Fela all confirm this. Given his enormous role in this most documented genre of African music, it is extraordinary that up until now no one has written a book about Tony Allen.

The publication of his autobiography “Master Drummer of Afrobeat” is therefore welcome news and a major event in African jazz. The genesis of the book is a measure of Allen’s stature: it is co-written by a  professor of music from Yale University, one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. In his introduction Michael E. Veal, who is also the world’s leading scholar on Fela, explains that co-authoring the book even afforded him the opportunity of learning from Allen how to cook West African food. Veal has plainly gone to enormous lengths to get to know and understand Allen the person and has worked very hard and with great sensitivity to capture his spirit, thinking and his manner of communication in the writing of this book. Veal’s own opinions and thoughts on Allen are presented in the introduction in which he eloquently and concisely explains the greatness and significance of Allen and shares with his readers his account of the wonderful way the book was produced.

To find out about anything in or from Africa, the best way is to ask a knowledgeable African the right questions and listen patiently and intelligently over a long period of time to the answers. This is not an easy process at all. It requires a considerable amount of time and skill and is all about building trust and developing a relationship with one's interlocutor. This is why the fashion for musicians’ statements exemplified by Jonathan Eato’s scholarship on South African jazz while a welcome development is also a process that requires tremendous skill on the part of the interviewer or scribe. Veal’s introduction, along with the first chapter of Paul Berliner’s now classic “The Soul of Mbira,” should be required reading for anyone wishing to undertake such a task.

Veal’s efforts have yielded handsome rewards not only in the content but also in the language and literary worth of the book. The tone is conversational and captures not only the recollections of Tony Allen, who turns out to be a gifted and engaging raconteur, but also the cadence of his speech patterns. It’s beautifully done and the result is captivating: narrative that will be enjoyed as much as a work of literature as it will be valued as a source of information about what makes Afrobeat tick. One senses an affinity between Veal and Allen who both come across as cool customers: detached observers of life who are sparing in the use of words and think before they speak. The reader is also conscious of the fact that the pithy polyrhythms in the language and structure of each anecdote are those of a man whose rhythmic sensibilities are in a different league from the rest of us. This isn’t just an important book: it’s one that’s hard to put down.

Between them they paint a warts and all portrait of Tony Allen - candid for example about a period of heroin addiction, his troubled relations with Fela and the difficulties he faces with recording studios. Allen speaks eloquently and generously about the musicians who have influenced him and is articulate about his style of drumming. Engagingly, although he plainly knows how good he is at what he does he seems to feel little compulsion to blow his trumpet about it.

The wonderful portrait of the development of his music contained in the early chapters is accompanied by an excellent “selected discography” of recordings by musicians who have influenced him, which, if and when the book is turned into a film, will ensure that it has an absolutely stunning soundtrack. As one might expect from such a prominent African-American scholar, both the discography and the text are especially strong on the relationship between Tony Allen’s music and jazz. The only significant omission from the discography in this regard is Louis Armstrong’s “Katanga Concert”  a two o disc set, released by Milan Records, in 2000, which captures his All-Stars featuring the drummer Danny Barcelona performing on the Central African leg of the tour that made such an impression on Tony Allen. While there may be little of Danny Barcelona’s influence in Allen’s playing, it is not difficult to hear in these live recordings why his position in the band and its effect on their audience had such a lasting impact on Allen. In the 1960 lineup of Armstrong’s group, judging by the audience reaction, Barcelona was the biggest attraction apart from Satchmo himself. As an example of how pivotal a drummer can begin a live band Barcelona was exceptional.

The biggest influence on Allen’s playing however was 1960's highlife, particularly its Ghanaian dance band variant and especially the Hour Dance Band and their kit drummer Rim Obeng.

It is very much hoped that Allen’s evident love of this music will stimulate a revival of interest among scholars, music lovers and especially the various reissue labels because Tony Allen is right: the best of 1960's highlife constitute some of the most beautiful music ever produced in Africa, more beautiful in fact and much more interesting than the bulk of reissues by inferior Fela imitators that pour out of the reissue labels at the moment. In addition to the recordings  cited in the “selected discography”, seek out the two disc compilation “Highlife High Up’s: La Musique du Gold Coast Années 60” released in 1996 on Original Music - Night & Day, which features many of the acts referred to by Allen including his beloved Uhuru Dance Band. Professional Uhuru Dance Band’s: “Freedom Tour in UK” (T. Vibe Records, 2000) is also worth tracking down because, , it consists largely of what appear to be older recordings featuring some indeed superb drumming.

Allen’s account of the emergence of Afrobeat and the pivotal Fela/Tony Allen band, Africa 70, out of their earlier highlife/jazz crossover outfit Koola Lobitos is definitive.

One of the best known things about Allen is that his were the only parts in Fela’s music that were not written by Fela: Allen had absolute freedom to play what he wanted, a freedom which led to the creation of one of the greatest bodies of work in 20th-century music. Fela’s lengthy songs, skilled arrangements and excellent band (Africa 70) gave Allen an unparalleled opportunity to develop his drumming and show us what he could do.

The chapter on Africa 70 will be required reading for students of this music henceforth and form the core of the book: so much so, that it would be a mistake to try and summarise Allen and Veal. Suffice it to say that Allen was much more than just a drummer in Africa 70: He held the position of bandleader. He modestly explains that this entailed making sure that everyone’s instrument was in tune before they started to play but his role was clearly much greater than that because when he left Africa 70, a substantial portion of the band decided to go at the same time. In short, Tony Allen’s leadership was a force to be reckoned with.

He doesn't really give a clear single reason for the split with Fela, rather he alludes to several factors including a discreetly unidentified issue with one of Fela’s wives and Fela’s  obstructive behaviour  concerning his first solo recordings but the recurring theme that runs through his narrative of the relationship is financial differences. According to Allen, things came to a head when he was put in an impossible position vis-a-vis payment of the members of the band after their appearance at the 1978 Berlin jazz Festival which turned out to be their last live performance together. The repercussions of the bust up were profound, leading to an extended solo career for Allen and, effectively, necessitating Fela to assemble a new band in the shape of of Egypt’s 80 which continues to this day fronted by Fela’s youngest son Seun under the leadership of Koola Lobitos and Africa 70 veteran Lekan Animashaun. Allen sums up the situation as follows:

“If I kept waiting around for money from Fela, I would still be in the Egypt’s 80 today!”

(Page 105)

The split with Fela had little to do with the music which remained excellent to the very end of the Berlin Jazz Festival show that broke the camels back. Musically, Tony Allen's drum patterns were the very essence of Afrobeat as, evidenced in remarkable footage of the last number they performed together which is this site’s Track of the Month (see above).

Although neither Tony Allen or Prof Veal actually say so, it is striking that the root of Allen’s problems with Fela lay not in their differences but in what they agreed about. Time and time again, Allen explains that Fela was the great composer; that Allen was a drummer that no one could touch and that he was the sole member of Africa 70 who was free to play whatever he liked. But if Fela didn’t compose the drum parts that Allen played, then who did? When is drumming merely an act of accompaniment and when is it an act of composition? If there was ever a drummer who broke down conventional thinking about such matters it is Tony Allen. The reason he is so highly rated is that he has smashed such preconceptions into little pieces with his drumsticks. It is hardly surprising that neither the music industry nor the royalty system kept pace with what he and Fela were doing. Their differences about money were caused by exactly the kind of colonial thinking that he and Fela opposed so virulently in every other part of life. Had the copyright system in Nigeria been reformed to make it more equitable and more reflective of the African creative process involved in creating the music, Tony Allen would have been a wealthy man and would have had no cause to fall out with Fela. Moreover, from the perspective of those of us who broadly agree with Michael E. Veal’s critique, set out in “Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon,” the retention of Tony Allen and such a redistribution of wealth might conceivably have deterred Fela from some of the musical and personal excesses that marred much of the latter half of his career.

As it was, ironically, Allen’s final recording with Fela, “Africa Centre of the World” with Roy Ayres, presaged a permanent move to Europe and a lengthy solo career.

His solo career was beset by difficulty from the outset. The unreliability of NEPA the state run electricity supplier in Lagos resulted not only in his humorous song of the same name (aka “Never Enough Power Always”), it also  meant that effectively there was very little opportunity for live music because it simply wasn’t safe to move around the city in darkness. Later in Europe, Allen faced immigration and financial problems, record producers who wanted to smother his sound with electronics, fellow musicians who wanted him to play djembe rather than his drum kit, etc.

What Allen and Veal do not remark upon however is t that the biggest irony of Tony Allen’s life is that having created such great and liberating music with Fela, he himself then became ensnared by it. Veal makes the point in his introduction that Allen might have made a living performing cover versions of Fela’s most popular compositions. While It is true that Allen has not done so, the sad fact of the matter is that all too often in his solo career, he has found himself regurgitating the same Afrobeat drum licks, frequently in much less stimulating musical contexts than he enjoyed with Africa 70. He usually sounds bored doing so, particularly in studio recordings, and sadly much of his post Fela work is relatively dull, clichéd even .Veal points out that Allen’s solo albums make a good soundtrack for Amsterdam’s coffee shops, but,post Fela how, often has Allen made recordings that can blow the listener away without being stoned? This is a serious question because the supremacy of his musicianship has never been in doubt. While there have been a great number of forgettable recordings, given Tony Allen’s quite extraordinary pedigree it is not surprising that there have also been exceptional ones. What are the highlights of his solo career?

One obvious facet of Tony Allen’s solo work is his singing which, oddly, in a book in which the subject’s voice plays such an integral part, is barely mentioned. On stage, Allen can be self-conscious and openly apologetic about his vocals. The problem has worsened over time, helped along, as he freely admits by the fact that he has been smoking everything under the sun since he was young. But seeing and hearing Allen sing and play drums simultaneously is one of the great joys of African jazz. Partly, it is the thrill of seeing and hearing a true virtuoso at work: there simply aren’t many musicians who can drum and sing to a high standard at the same time. More importantly however, his singing brings out the connection between his drum patterns and the music, demonstrating not only that he is a master of polyrhythm but also that he is the most melodic of drummers. The lack of concert footage of Allen doing this is a great shame but an  excellent example on disc, which also brings out the highlife aspect of his music, is the track “Yeshe” recorded at the Montreal Jazz Festival featured on his sole live solo album entitled, simply enough, “Live” (Comet Records, 2004). In the autobiography of a musician who claims that he is at his best performing live, the mission of this release from the generally very good “selected discography” is regrettable. The recording also highlights a basic problem in assessing Allen’s solo career because it is very likely that his stature will grow as and when more live material surfaces.

Allen’s best work, has always been delivered when faced with a challenge. This was precisely what had been so exciting about his time with Fela. Essentially, Fela would compose and arrange another masterpiece and lay down the gauntlet to Allen, saying, in music rather than words, what are you gonnna do? It was this relationship: between two supremely gifted and innovative musicians sparking off each other that fostered the creation of Afrobeat and that series of amazing recordings with Africa 70. After Fela, Allen has rarely found himself recording in really challenging musical environments Most of the time his musical collaborators know exactly what they want of him, he knows exactly how to deliver it and does so with consummate ease. While, particularly since the resurgence of Afro beat following Fela’s death, this has enabled Allen  to earn living, one is left with the feeling that he has painted himself into a musical corner in which his freedom of expression and head room for new development are hampered. But, Allen remains a supremely gifted musician and therefore whenever he has been challenged, post Fela, he has made amazing music. To their credit, where studio recordings are concerned, both Allen and Veal are good at sorting the wheat from the chaff in the second half of Allen’s solo career. Veal refers to some such examples in his introduction and discography, notably the work with the Jamaican jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin and with British rock adventurer Damon Alban. Allen draws attention to the minimalist Afrobeat and dub amalgam on “Black Voices” which is arguably his best post Africa 70 solo album.

If their very special book has a weakness however, it concerns the music of the first decade and a half or so of Allen’s solo career, possibly because his memories of the period are dominated by problems he had in putting together solo albums and by the many struggles he faced in his life at the time. On top of that, expert on Afro beat though he undoubtedly is, Veal does not seem quite so surefooted about the various shades of African jazz that flourished in Paris the 1980's and 90's where Allen lived and worked at the time

Like most sub Saharan African professional instrumentalists, Allen is primarily a dance orientated player. He talks about being inspired by particular dancers among Fela's troupe and frequently uses the term "jumping" to describe successful gigs. This, above all, is why the footage of his performance  of “Cross Examination of the African Colonial Soldier” with Fela  and his Queens. at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival is this site’s Track of the Month: the interplay between his drumming and the dancers is the very essence not only of Afrobeat but of Tony Allen. A key starting point therefore for assessing any part of his career is to ask: what worked on the dance floor?

Whatever the reason, Veal doesn’t appear to have asked Allen this question and there is nothing in their otherwise excellent book to indicate or explain why the 1985 track “Marabout (Iyolela)” was the biggest dancefloor success of his post Fela career to date.

“Marabout (Iyolela),” the opening track on the Congolese keyboardist/vocalist/composer Ray Lema’s album “Medecine,” is also remarkable because of the presence of guitarist Mose Fan Fan, an OK Jazz alumnus. This is the only recording ever released featuring prominent members of the two best bands in African jazz, Africa 70 and OK Jazz working together - a challenging context par excellence - which brought out the best in all the great musicians involved. The result is arguably one of the most enticing African crossover tracks ever. Certainly, this musical summit meeting, presided over by Lema, provided all three musicians with the biggest dance-floor hit of their solo careers. Anyone hearing this 19855 track for the first time and expecting Africa 70esque drumming and  Lema’s acoustic piano is in for a shock. “Marabout” is a full on 80's electronic work out featuring much of the wizardry that, with hindsight, Tony Allen dislikes so much. But in this instance, it worked. One wonders if Michael Veal or indeed Allen himself really appreciate who Mose Fan Fan is? Fan Fan certainly knew who Allen was as did Ray Lema who presumably set up this clash of the Titans and who, with his distinctive interjections on synthesiser, expensed approval and spurred the two great men on. The encounter between Allen and Fan Fan still sounds electrifying and it is not difficult to appreciate why this track has been the biggest hit in the solo careers of all three of the main participants.
An equally glaring omission, which doesn’t even feature in the “selected discography” let alone the body of the text, is Allen’s appearance on Manu Dibango’s 1992 album : “Negropolitaines Vol. 2” (Melodie 85905-2) W=which is certainly one of Allen’s most interesting post Fela recordings and arguably his best.

It's hard to believe that a Yale professor specialising in Tony Allen is unaware of the existence of this recording. Perhaps it was omitted because he and/or Allen felt uncomfortable with its title. Had the album been called something like “Afrojazz Cosmopolitanism in Paris vol  2,” as it might well have been because that is exactly what Dibango and his musicians were trying to embody, the esteemed Professor Veal would surely have been all over it. Misguided or not, the title of the album was an attempt, to reclaim and decolonise the term “Negro.” Whatever the reason for its complete omission from the book: it is a great shame, not only because it contains some of Tony Allen’s best drumming,but also because it is one of the definitive African jazz albums of the 1990 and a landmark in the careers of the musicians involved.

The project was stimulating for all the participants because they faced three challenges of, unusually for all of them, making a purely instrumental album; of reinterpreting neglected compositions by major African composers of the past and of recording with Tony Allen for the first time. The musicianship was made all the more mouth-watering by the presence of Cameroonian master bassist  Etienne M’bappe; string arrangements reminiscent of Dibango’s stint with Le Grand Kallé’s African Team plus another fine Congolese guitarist, Jerry Malekani, best known for his work in the French Caribbean with Jean Serge Essous in RyCo Jazz which was seminal in the development of Zouk,. Standout tracks on the album include the opener “Alome,” an utterly contemporary reworking of a pre Afrobeat Ghanaian highlife standard composed by Jerry Hansen, leader of the Ramblers Dance Band, the inclusion of which fired up Tony Allen to produce some of the most beautiful drumming of his solo career. He played equally well, as do the other participants, on cover versions of tracks by Francis Bebey (“Loge Lesse”); by veteran Cameroonian bassist/composer Dikoto Madengue (“Mango”) and on Dibango’s own excellent “Aloko Party.” If these were the only recordings Tony Allen ever made in Paris, they would justify his relocation to Europe because this was a recording right at the cutting edge of African jazz and on a par with his work with Fela. “Negropolitaines, Vol 2” was one of the first post-modern recordings in African jazz and is an album that has stood the test of time.

Nevertheless, despite such omissions, Tony Allen’s autobiography will surely make its mark as a beautifully written and thought provoking volume that is enlightening about subjects that are not even mentioned. For example,  it enormously increases one’s respect for the other African kit drummers who have managed to make a career in Europe such as Manu Katché  and Brice Wassy who have not only survived but have taken Allen’s musical advances and developed them in contexts far beyond Afrobeat. Tony Allen is such a shrewd observer of the African music scene that one longs to know what he makes of such players and, of course, of his great but utterly contrasting contemporary, South Africa’s Louis Moholo-Moholo, who is Allen’s nearest rival for pole position when it comes to African kit drummers. The problems Allen has faced also increase our understanding of and sympathy for the great African musicians who haven’t made it in Europe such as the great Nado Kakoma, OK Jazz's kit drummer from 1982 ‘til 1989  whose appearances on the albums “Maya” by Lutumba Simaro, Franco’s “Mario”,  Madilu’s “Boma Ngai Na Boma Yo”, Simaro’s “Tala Merci Bapesaka Na Mbwa” and  “Testament ya Bowule” won him successive best Congolese drummer of the year awards. There is so much one would like to ask Tony Allen. It would have been fascinating, for instance, to learn more about his work with the great Malombo percussionist, Julian Bahula, whose efforts to develop traditional African percussion along the lines of a drum kit parallel those of Guy Warren/ Ghanaba and who, we learn tantalisingly, worked with Allen in London.

When it comes to the portrait of the musical relationship that has defined Tony Allen’s life, the book is lucid and moving. The rounded and credible portrait of Fela that emerges, the highs and lows of their troubled relationship and Tony Allen’s insight into the music they made make for what, in all probability, will come to be regarded as one of the best loved books ever be written about African music.

A more difficult question is what the implications of this book will be for Fela’s reputation in the long term. What are we to make of Fela’s managerial style and the way he seems to have mistreated his musicians? The obvious accusation is it he seems to have been just as bad as the Nigerian politicians he lampooned. How would Fela respond to such an accusation? At a guess, he would argue that the question be looked at and answered in an African way and that his style of leadership was truly African: that of a largely and essentially benign headman who maintained his position by keeping everyone on their toes. If Tony Allen were to refer the matter to the “African Court” presided over by the “great wise chief” described in in Fela’s song “Cross Examination of the African Colonial Soldier,” what would happen? Fela’s defence team would undoubtedly highlight numerous entirely genuine mitigating circumstances that occurred during the tensions with Allen, not least the violent death of his mother at the hand’s of the Nigerian military. If Fela was successfully prosecuted, one would like to believe  the trial would end in forgiveness amid good-natured laughter from all quarters of the court and with Fela (plus Lekan Animashaun perhaps) being sentenced to reconcile with their great drummer by playing together again to delight the dancing ancestors for evermore.

Finally of course some readers might wish to know what Tony Allen’s position in jazz is? Delightfully, wisely and proudly, Africans and Afrobeat musicians in particular dislike straightforward answers to such questions. And anyway who could give a definitive answer? Mr Allen? Or Professor Veal? The best answer might come from Fela, who musically was first and foremost a lover of  jazz. We can't ask him for obvious reasons but, thanks to this marvellous book, we can read how he chose to complement Allen when hearing him and Africa 70 play “No Accommodation,” one of his earliest compositions:

“ ‘Allenko, you are there - you are merely there!’ He told me, ‘The way you write, it’s going to take a jazz bass player to play your lines!’ ”

(Page 124)

The “great wise chief,” referred to above, might also smile and enquire: what is the right question to ask? Mightn’t it be more appropriate to ask whether or not there has ever been a jazz drummer better than Tony Allen? Or to put it another way: is Tony Allen merely “The Master Drummer of Afrobeat” or is he simply the master drummer period?

Return to he top of pathe ge

Central African roundup:Papa Noël and a black box brimful of Tshimnagolagy

Track of the month: - “Kiti Ya Libala” by Ferre Gola from his double album “Boîte Noire” (2 separate CDs, DR Congo)

Antoine “Papa Noël” Ndule Monswet has been one of the top guitarists in African jazz for more than 50 years. There has never been a major guitarist in the music who could boast such weight of years. Nor is it likely that anyone ever again will attain his stature because he worked as electric guitar soloist for the only two Grand Masters of Congolese music ever elected by that country’s musicians union: Le Grand Kalle, whose seminal band African Jazz set the ball rolling in Congolese jazz and Luambo Makiadi Franco, who’s matchless Tout Puissant OKJazz ,later renamed Bana OK, was Africa’s most popular and important band for decades thereafter.

Alongside Papa Noël’s participation in these and other groups, since the early 1980s he has released infrequent solo albums some of which such as, “Bon Smaritain” and “Haute Tension” both partially reissued on the “Bel Ami” compilation, are among the best ever jazz guitar recordings from Africa. Happily, his latest offering “Color,” which is neither a band nor a solo album but rather a duo with the French accordionist VivianeA finds him at his best and is is an object lesson in Congolese jazz.

 When Noël hung up his electric guitar about a decade ago and opted to focus solely on acoustic work it seemed an absolutely bizarre course of action. With hindsight, and as has no doubt happened frequently during his long, distinguished career, Noël was actually ahead of his time in doing so and, looking back, there is no doubt that it was a wise and prescient course of action. The fact of the matter is that electric guitar solos, the staple of Congolese music for decades, have pretty much gone out of fashion. Likewise, Noël’s decision to make a second duo album, the first being a live recording with the Cuban acoustic guitarist, vocalist and composer Adan Pedroso that was excellent in parts, may prove to be ahead of its time too. Certainly, “Color” is a beautiful recording ,which is greater than the sum of its parts. Noël’s playing is understated and subtle, while still sparkling with the unbridled excitement that is the hallmark of Congolese music. The intimate setting and the fact that he is the only guitarist enable us to hear all this as never before. What is more, it is patently obvious that he is enjoying himself and that he and his musical partner, accordionist VivianneA, have a genuine and tangible musical rapport. Her singing in duet with Noël, whose vocals have never been heard at such length before, is affecting too and proof of the special musicality of Lingala.. A forerunner, it is to be hoped, of numerous other Western musicians learning to sing in this most musical of tongues. Listen for example to their vocals on “Margarita.” Her accompaniment on the accordion is equally sensitive and effective, for example on the gorgeous folkloric track “Calabasse.” But inevitably, it’s Noël’s guitar playing and skill as a composer, that steals the show. Listen for example to his playing on the instrumental “Flamme” on which he demonstrates that despite his venerable pedigree and white beard, he is more than capable of blowing the listener’s socks off.

The more intrepid lover of Congolese acoustic guitar is also likely to be fascinated by two major new recordings featuring Papa Noël’s heir apparent: Olivier Tshimanga. Like Noël, Tshmanga made his name as an electric guitar soloist in the Congolese jazz style working alongside the rhythm guitarist, composer and bandleader Le Poète Lutumba Simaro, in Bana OK formerly known as the aforementioned T.P.OK Jazz. From several excellent live DVDs Bana OK released at the start of the last decade, it was crystal clear that Tshimaga’s inspirational solos and playing galvanised this  great juggernaut of a band to a level of excitement not experienced since their former leader Franco’s passing. . From that point on, Olivier Tshmanga was established as one of the top jazz guitarists in Africa who’s every move has been closely watched by those in the know. In recent years, in parallel with and perhaps inspired by Noël, Tshimanga has eschewed the electric guitar and concentrated on acoustic and semi acoustic work, arranging and composing; not usually as a solo artist but rather as a contributor to albums by the likes of Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Bozi Boziana and Côte d’Ivoire’s Meiway. The two new releases which feature his playing and arranging are both under the leadership of singer/ omposer Ferre Gola with whom he has also worked, on and off, for many years.

Tshimanga’s growing association with Ferre Gola is symptomatic of this great popular singer’s increasingly evident affinity with jazz. Gola made his name performing alongside major mainstream stars such as Koffi Olomide and Werrason and has gone on on to develop a hugely successful solo career and. like them, is by now an A list Congolese star. At the same time, with relatively low-key concert albums and guest appearances on Congolese jazz releases, he has established a reputation as an interpreter of Congolese jazz, performing cover versions of classics of the oeuvre and reviving rare gems. Now, on “Acoustique Showcase 1789,” , (available on CD and DVD) he has further developed the Congolese jazz element in his repertoire by using Olivier Tshimanga’s skills as a guitarist and arranger, not of classic jazz standards but rather of some of Gola’s own compositions. In the current Congolese manner, there is a distinct lack of guitar solos but Tshimanga’s playing is superb throughout. The arrangements and instrumentation are interesting too. There is no drum kit, no keyboard and no electric instrumentation. Rather, alongside Tshimanga the musicians consist of a hand percussionist, double bassist and a small string section.

On the vocal side Gola’s singing is complemented by that of an unidentified voice with whom he perrforms in duet. This mysterious figure has a far deeper voice than Gola’s for whom he fulfils a role that is utterly Congolese: halfway between an atalaku and a true singer, often providing introductions, commentary and even advertisements with his distinctive half sung voice. Artists of this sort often perform with their backs to the audience - making their voices and commentary even more otherworldly as though communicating directly from the world of the spirits. A cool feature of the “Acoustique Showcase 1789” footage is that this personage isn’t on stage and we never see any trace of him, making his role and performance even more surreal. His role is exemplified by the very first word one hears on the recording: “Tshimangolagy,” he slowly murmurs, expressing his approval for the collaboration between Tshimanga and Gola, stressing its innovativeness and importance while simultaneously and ambivalently diverting attention away from his own role whilst at the same time fulfilling it with considerable aplomb. There is also a fine female singer on one track and, on the DVD only, over the closing credits, a track featuring a saxophonist.

Such an instrumental line-up is downright bold in the context of Congolese music. The only example of anything remotely similar that comes to mind is Le Grand Kalle’s late 1960's excellent series of LPs with African Team. The unnamed male vocalist’s contribution is innovative too because one does not usually hear a performance like his in such a jazzy or acoustic context. As such, this is an album to be warmly welcomed - it is refreshing to see and hear Congolese musicians of this calibre trying something new, and the resulting album certainly has its moments.

On the footage of the most compelling track “100 Kilos,” for example, it is rather wonderful to see Olivier Tshimanga, a live performer of magnetic charisma, firing up the string section by virtually conducting them with the neck of his guitar,whilst  grinning, dancing and playing beautifully. Intriguingly, this particular composition dates back to 2005 when Gola and Thshimanga collaborated on the double album “Miracles” by the short lived super group Les Maquis de Maison Mère. Comparing the new version with the original is instructive because it demonstrates the progress Gola has made as a vocalist. He is a singer whose power lies not so much in the beauty of his voice, but in the artistry with which he uses it and this is why his stature and popularity have increased so greatly since 2005: he is simply a far more accomplished and skilled performer than he used to be. This is surely why the album is entitled “Showcase:” The whole purpose of the novel instrumentation, arrangements and beautiful guitar parts is to create the perfect backdrop for Gola’s by now stupendous singing.

Unfortunately however, the album doesn’t quite live up to its promise. For one thing, it is unclear what type of recording this is meant to be. The footage, some of the singing and instrumentation seem to come from a live performance but much of the instrumentation one hears can’t actually be seen and presumably consists of overdubs including, bizarrely, some truly dreadful canned applause. Also, Gola’s singing, while beautiful by anyone else’s standards, is somehow slightly below par. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is: did the novel instrumentation make him slightly ill at ease perhaps? It is as is as if he is trying slightly too hard. All the tampering with overdubs arouses the same suspicion - as though both he and Tshimanga were aware that something about this recording wasn’t quite right. However, it would be wrong to imply that this is a recording void of interest: On the contrary, although it frustrates at times, it will also make you want to hear these artists perform again.

Happily, Gola’s new double studio album, “Boîte Noire,” (= black box), available as two separate CDs, also features Olivier Tshimanga as acoustic guitarist and arranger on most tracks. However, the album needs to come with a health warning for jazz lovers because Gola is a major star with a band, fan base and background akin to Werason & Wenge Maison Mère’s or Fally Ipupa’s; so the album is by no means all Congolese jazz. Rather, t is aimed fair and square at the mainstream Congolese market and is designed to maintain Gola’s status as a star. The title track, a bona fide hit,  and first and last tracks on the second CD, for example, are full on dance floor workouts in n the Wenge style at its most raucous and there are also ballads reminiscent of Koffi Olomide’s recent work. It also needs to be stressed that, in the usual Congolese manner, many tracks, including all the more raucous ones, although credited to him as composer don’t actually feature Gola’s singing at all.

Despite these caveats, this is an album in which the jazz lover will find much to savour. The tracks on which Ferre Gola actually does perform all have elements of jazz, as do many of the others..Tshimanga’s playing and arranging feature prominently. There is admirable melodic bass playing and Gola's array of singers, including his long term associate Biva Ray, are of a consistently high standard. Their singing and the vocal arrangements are gorgeous, exhibiting sensibilities and skill refined by frequent live performance. Rather confusingly, several tracks feature a lead vocalist referred to as a protégé who sings in a Gola-esque style.

It is notable that Tshmaanga and all the musicians on the album sound more relaxed on the tracks which don’t feature Gola as a performer. At a guess ,they are circumspect when Gola is at the microphone  because they believe that what he has in that mysterious black box of his is sheer, unadulterated, flesh and blood  genius.

Is Ferre Gola a genius? This is the sort of conundrum that leaves critics lost for words, but fortunately, in this instance, the ever effervescent Congolese have done the job for us. With catechistic wit, they have coined a nickname for Gola which explains in three words why they  believe they have, walking in their midst, one of the greatest singers that ever lived. In view of what they regard as the supreme subtlety of Gola’s vocal style, they call him “Jesus de Nuances,” the Jesus of Nuance.

Whether they are right or not is for you, the reader, to judge but when a nation as musically sophisticated and important as DR Congo starts enthusing about one of their sons to this extent, it is time for the world to sit up and take note for the simple reason that the Congolese know a great deal more about their music than anyone else does. The correct way to answer the question for yourself is to listen to the music in the way it is intended to be appreciated which is not merely by playing it but by it being listened to attentively again and again. Not an easy task, admittedly, with a complex double album featuring lots of performers and more than one genre but possible surely, if one focuses on one or two songs.

For this purpose, the track “Kiti Ya Libala” is recommended. It starts off with a half spoken introduction by the male vocalist  that was heard but not seen on “Acoustique Showcase 1789,” in which he sets the tone stating, in French, that that love is a crocodile on the river of desire. Ferre Gola's vocal begins with a sentence containing the word “Pourquoi” (meaning “Why”).In the mixture of Limgala and French that follow, Gola in conjunction with the first voice we heard  allude, it seems, to everything under the sun including: movies, sex, politics, witchcraft, cosmology and  folklore. The music moves slowly but with undeniable power like a crocodile through water driven by a melodic bass line and Olivier Tshimanga’s thoroughbred acoustic guitar . There are equally powerful contributions from the vocal chorus who are deployed like the horn section of a big band. The piece climaxes with a sebene like increase in tempo and the feeling that the crocodile has reached its destination.

 “Kiti Ya Libala” is  an interesting composition that keeps the listener’s attention and suggests that Gola’s skill as a composer, previously the weak point in his musical armoury, has strengthened. You may find the syrupy keyboards a destruction: they can most charitably be described as a Parisian delight that doesn't travel well. The key thing however, is to listen, preferably many  times, to Gola:  the way he bends and shades each note, speeds up, slows down, savours every word and phrase.

If this experience leaves you cold, so be it. At least, hopefully, you will have gained an insight into just how skilled Gola and his musicians are. If, on the other hand, as so many Congolese do, you find yourself moved to the verge of tears by Gola’s singing and then feel, especially towards the end of the track that you would like to dance:- congratulations, you are  a Jesus de Nuances convert. Welcome to the chief glory of contemporary Central African jazz. Other fine examples of his singing on the album include. “Tunnel,” and “Pakadjuma.” And don’t stop there, his ensemble is overflowing with beautiful voices and the arrangements and Tshimanga’s acoustic guitar offer abundant pleasure even on tracks that don’t feature Gola’s quasi divine vocals.

Those seeking a more conventional Congolese album replete with guitar solos to dance the night away to need look no further than Jeaannot Bel’s “Cherie Na Ngai.” Best-known for his series of soukous guitar tutorial DVDs, this London based guitar teacher put out his first audio CD, “Etike” last year: a fairly lightweight affair redeemed by the inclusion of one lovely track in the Congolese jazz style sung by Togolese female vocalist Claudia Bakisa entitled. “Retrovieur.” Happily, she resurfaces to equally good effect on the new album which also boasts pleasing saxophone on most tracks courtesy of a Tanzanian named Rama. But what raises this album to a seriously high standard is the presence of two genuinely heavyweight Congolese stars - male vocalist Canta Nyboma and electric guitarist Burkina Fasso. Nyboma will need no introduction to lovers of Congolese jazz because his beautiful singing has been cropping up all over the place for decades most notably alongside the late great Madilu System who featured him at every opportunity on his solo albums.

Burkina Fasso may be a name less familiar however because his background and fame have nothing to do with Congolese jazz but rather with the music of both branches of Wenge Musica and a host of mainstream Congolese stars. At the height of his influence, during much of the 1990's and early 2000's, it was obvious to those who followed such matters that Burkina Faso was a giant figure in Congolese music whose contributions frequently made a complete mockery of that country’s much vaunted star system. The fact of the matter was that throughout this period, where it really mattered - on the dancefloors of sub Saharan Africa - the success or failure of new Congolese recordings was not determined by whose name and picture appeared on the sleeve, nor by whom it was sung or composed. What really mattered, was who had secured the services of Burkina Faso whose guitar licks were the very essence of mega hits including tracks such as “Titanic” by J B Mpiana & Wenge BCBG and Werrason’s “Kibuisa Mpimpa.” Throughout this period, he was quite simply the most irresistible dancefloor orientated guitarist in Africa occupying a position akin to that of Diblo Dibala a decade earlier.

To those who didn't witness it first hand it's difficult to convey just how important Congolese music was at the time. Across the bulk of a continent more than three times the size of the US; before the proliferation of mobile phones, the Internet, satellite TV and Nollywood movies, tracks like “Titanic” and “Kibuisa” were danced to by tens of millions of people over and over again for months at a time. In the earlier era of Congolese jazz that stretched from the late 1950's until the 80's,the same had applied to Papa Nëol’s appearances on tracks such as Franco’s “Mario” and Simao’s masterpiece “Maya.” Such songs, both from the jazz era and beyond until the beginning of the current millennium, were much more than mere pieces of music: they were part of the very fabric of society and daily life. Understood in this light, Burkina Faso’s participation in Jeannot Bel’s latest project is a remarkable coup, akin to Michael Jackson rocking up at an open mike night. The occasion is made all the more special by the fact that Faso is every inch a post-jazz Congolese guitarist and it is very rare to hear him in this sort of context. The only previous occasion this critic can recall, on which Burkina Faso could be heard in a relatively mellow, jazzy context and alongside a saxophonist was on Defao’s superlative album “Copinage” featuring Jeannot’s more illustrious namesake M’bilia singing lead vocals on the hit itle track. Faso’s appearance may have something to do with the fact that he, like Jeannot Bel (and Diblo Dibala, for that matter), has put out a soulous guitar tutorial DVD. In this era, in which electric guitar solos are out of fashion in Kinshasa, it seems that this is how DR Congo’s great guitar soloists eke out a living. It is only a matter of time, surely, before this trend leads to an Afrobeat like boom for Congolese guitar music in the “world music” arena. One can only hope that the presence on this album of British guitarist, Peter Lumley-Saville, and Don Keller, both presumably tutored by Jeannot Bel and/or Burkina Faso, heralds the start of such a trend. What is wholly unsurprising is that Burkina Faso and Canta Nyboma deliver the goods, transforming Jeanot Bel’s “Cherie Na Ngai.” into what will certainly be one of the African jazz party releases of the year.

 Those who would do away with the guitar entirely in Congolese music, might try pianist/vocalist/composer Ray Lema’s new quintet album titled “V.S.N.P.” which stands for “Very Special New Production.” Lema is on good form throughout as the  equally gifted Cameroonian bass player Etienne M’Bappe. That said, the album is rather an anticlimax after Lema’s  last effort: an extraordinary live DVD/CD set with the gigantic Jazz Symphonica de São Paulo, which was always going to be an impossible act to follow.

Return to the top of the page

The Brotherhood of Breath vs Bopol - a roundup of recent reissues

Track of the Month: - “Afric’ Ambiance” from the digital download album “Bopol” by Bopol Mansiamina (DR Congo)

The Brotherhood of Breath’s “Procession” is actually much more than a reissue because three and a half  of the six tracks featured on the new CD are previously unreleased. They include the earliest recorded version of Mongezi Feza’s composition “You ain’t gonna know me ‘cos you think you know me” which over the years has become an African jazz standard performed frequently by artists such as fellow Blue Note Louis Moholo-Moholo and the late Zim Ngqawana. Recorded live in 1977, a couple of years after  Feza’s untimely death this version features Harry Beckett and Mark Charig prominently on trumpet - giving the listener much greater insight into what was surely trumpeter Mongezi Feza’s original conception of the piece. In the absence of any recording featuring Feza himself, it is highly likely that this important new insight into this beautiful composition will lead to new interpretations by contemporary South African trumpeters such as Lwanda Gogwana, Marcus Wyatt and Bra Hugh Masekela.

Astonishingly, this isn’t the best track on this remarkable album which may partly explain why Feza’s masterpiece it didn’t feature on the original 1978 LP. That honour goes to an 18 minute version of Dudu Pukwana’s “Kwhalo” which gives this glorious big band an opportunity to stretch out. What a magnificent line:up they had: featuring all four surviving Blue Notes - bandleader Chris McGregor on piano, Dudu Pukwana (alto), Johnny Dyani (double bass) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums) plus their long-term South African associate Harry Miller (double bass) together with stars of the calibre of Evan Parker (tenor), Mike Osborne (alto), the Austrian trombone virtuoso Radu Malafti and Bruce Grant on baritone and flute plus the aforementioned trumpet section. This was a genuine all-star outfit which, under McGregor’s r quietly evolutionary leadership, was arguably the greatest free jazz big band not merely in the history of African jazz but in all improvised music. This particular recording of theirs is especially noteworthy because it is the very last available recording of a lineup of the Brotherhood featuring Blue Notes other than McGregor; because it is the only recording available of Johnny Dyani performing with the Brotherhood and the only recording available of Johnny Dyani performing alongside fellow South African double bassist Harry Miller. For all  these reasons but above all for the sheer quality of the music this is a reissue that will be relished for many years to come.

As an aside, fans of the Brotherhood of Breath and the Blue Notes are also pointed in the direction of a new live recording by Foxes Fox entitled “live at the vortex” recorded in London in 2007 featuring two key Brotherhood alumni- Louis Moholo-Moholo and Evan Parker who are both on fine form alongside Steve Beresford (piano), John Edwards (double bass) and special guest Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn). British tenor saxophonist Parker and Moholo have worked together since the late 1960's which certainly makes this the longest and arguably most important musical relationship of Moholo’s extraordinarily distinguished career and one which has had a substantial impact not only on Parker but on much improvised music especially in the UK and across Europe.

Of the handful of African jazz musicians whose careers stretch back longer than Moholo’s, Congo Brazzaville’s tenor saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and bandleader Max Masengo is one of the least well known. The reissue of some of his earliest recordings, apparently compiled by Masengo himself is  a noteworthy event. Happily the music on “Anthology: 1958-2013 Re-edition des Merveilles du Passe” by Max Massengo et Le Negro Band is gorgeous, demonstrating how and why this now little known band was able to coexist alongside and compete with contemporary acts such as African Jazz, OK Jazz and Les Bantous de la Capitale. Unusually, for a central African reissue, this release also features proper sleeve notes, a list of band personnel and artwork from all  ten of the original releases. At little more than 40 minutes long the CD is about the length of an LP and may conceivably have been reasserted from an earlier compilation in that format but despite its relatively short length and limitations in the sound quality of these vintage recordings this is an unmistakably important reissue showcasing some beautiful and largely forgotten music.

 Ultimately however, Masego’s significance in the history of central African jazz is relatively minor compared to that of the Congolese rhythm guitarist Bopol Mansiamina whose career has been as long as the relationship between Evan Parker and Louis Moholo-Moholo and whose influence on the music has been of similar or even greater importance and who along the way has left a vast legacy of recordings which, were it ever to be documented in detail, would surely constitute one of the most complex and remarkable discographies in the history of jazz.

As a young man, in the late 1960's and at the start of the 1970's he was hand-picked to work by two of the three greatest electric guitar soloists of the age: Papa Noel and Dr Nico. As the 1970's progressed,he worked with Tabu Ley Rochereau alongside his pioneering mi-solo guitarist Michelino; with Mpongo Love, the greatest female central African jazz diva of the age; with Sam Mangwana; with Josky Kiambukuta, that most exciting of male jazz singers and with the supremely gifted alto saxophonist Empopo Deyesse. In the 1980's he went on to work extensively in West Africa (Togo and Cote d’Ivoire) before settling in Paris where he was closely involved in the development of soukous - the style of music that would ultimately largely supplant Congolese jazz and which ruled sub-Saharan Africa’s airwaves and dance floors until the earliest years of the current century. In the 1990's he continued to perform as part of the band Les Quatre Etoilles alongside lead guitarist Syran Mbenza together with the singers Canta Nyboma and ex OK Jazz star Wuta Mayi all of whom were comfortable working both in the older jazz style and in soukous. He has also been continually in demand from artists such as Madilu Systeme, Richardo Lemvo and Mose Fan Fan.

The position of the rhythm guitarist in all jazz is often underrated or even overlooked as exemplified by Freddie Greene who worked as Count Basie’s guitarist for decades and also appears on many of Billie Holiday’s greatest recordings. At first hearing, Freddie Greene’s contribution can sound relatively insignificant but just like Count Basie the many great musicians who have hired Bopol over the decades have recognised that his playing fires up the greatest soloists and singers while consistently delivering on the dancefloor. Classic examples of this in Bopol’s case include Tabu Ley’s  1975 hit “Karibu ya Bitou” and Mpongo Love’s equally successful “Ndaya” from the following year. Neither track featured a lead guitarist and both feature the great Empopo Deyesse on sax augmented on “Ndaya’” by the equally gifted keyboardist Ray Lema.

Unlike Freddie Greene however, Bopol has also gifted us a number of solo albums over the years, three of which have now been newly reissued as digital downloads: “Manuela” from 1983; the eponymous “Bopol” from the following year and “Innovation” from 1991. While, none of these albums established Bopol as a truly great solo artist, they do shed light on his musicianship during what is perhaps the most interesting part of his career during which Congolese jazz transformed into sukous. The opening track’s, invariably the most important on Congolese releases of the period, simply because the rest of the album was never played if the first track wasn’t any good, are illuminating .These curtain raisers on the first and third albums demonstrate the radical change in the music vividly. “Manuela” which opens the first album is irresistibly lovely:the sort of composition and performance that could fit snugly into the repertoire of Tabu Ley or any of the great Congolese jazz stars. By contrast, “Djieneba” which opens the 1991 album is a full on soukous workout of the type that was setting dancefloors alight right across sub-Saharan Africa by that stage and which one would never hear in a more traditional Congolese jazz context. Fascinatingly, the middle album “Bopol” is pitched somewhere between these two extremes. The opening track “Samedi Soir” is an early example of a generique - a number geared purely for dancing rather than a conventional song. The lyrics, or more accurately “animation” in the Congolese term, are sung in French, English and even Arabic to reach as wide an audience as possible and the intention is purely and simply to whip up the dancefloor - a task well within Bopol’s substantial capabilities and, in this instance, easily identifiable as an early example of soukous. The third track on the album entitled “Afric’ Ambiance” is more ambivalent - a sort of embryonic generique without a drum kit or a guitar soloist but featuring a fine saxophonist and showcasing Bopol’s skills as an improviser. It is an uncategorisable performance: is this jazz or soukous? Or is it somewhere halfway between the two? Or does it render such labels meaningless? Or, most daringly of all, does it suggest that jazz lovers ought to take soukous more seriously? Whatever one’s position on these possibly semantic questions it is a great piece of music and proof of the immeasurable importance of Bopol whose rhythm guitar playing has been the heartbeat of so much goodCongolese music for decades.

In its heyday the dominance of Congolese music stretched not merely to Bopol’s domains in Francophone West Africa: it ruled the roost in Anglophone East Africa too as demonstrated in a clutch of fine re releases from the region. Orchestra Super Mazembe’s “Mazembe @ 45rpm” Vol1 (available on CD and as a digital download) and the even better Vol 2 (digital download only) sound like they were designed to be played in a beer garden at high and distorted volume and are the very thing for an old school African braai. Recorded largely by expatriates Congolese musicians working in Kenya with intriguing contributions from others too such as Zambia’s talented maverick Nashil Pichen and the great singer/composer Samba Mapagala who remains a stalwart of the East African jazz scene. This is demonstrated on his excellent recent CD “Maishanimtamu (Life is Sweet)” with Orchestra Virunga and a stellar line up including guitarists Popolop (ex Zaiko), Huit Kilo (ex Tabu Ley/Afrisa) and Syran Mbeza (who along with Bopol was one of Les Quatre Etiolles) together with singer Wuta Mayi (ex OK Jazz and Quatre Etoilles) plus the gifted saxophonist Jimmy Mvondo (Of Jimmy and Fredo fame).

The more adventurous might also like to try the latest double album of obscure reissues on the Soundway label entitled “Kenya Special selected East African recordings from the 1970's and 80's” consisting of tracks that mostly sound like they have been selected for their rarity value rather than their musical quality. As is usual with this label several tracks have managed to sneak in which are musically interesting such as a lengthy James Brown style number by the excellent and important Congolese saxophonist Veckys and his Orchestra Veve entitled “Niarudia” in which he assures a Kenyan female admirer that he will be back soon while he and his musicians wail the opposite with their deliciously wayward horns plus a Nashil Pichen track. There’s also at least one genuine Kenyan gem, by Nairobi Matata Jazz - a track with the potential to chase even Super Mazembe out of that thirstily imagined beer garden.

Return to top of page

The Jazz Maniacs behind Molelekwa’s “Rapela” and  Sathima & Abdullah Ibrahim’s  “Africa”

Track of he Month: - “Izikhalo Zika Zuluboy” by Solomon ‘Zuluboy’ Cele and his Jazz Maniacs. recorded in 1939, reissued on the CD accompanying Christopher Ballantine’s book “Marabi Nights: jazz, ‘race’, and society in early apartheid South Africa” (South Africa)

Once in a while, a recording comes along that soars above everything else. Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, widely regarded as Africa’s greatest ever jazz pianist, had an extraordinary talent which enabled him to do this all the time. A new and previously unreleased track entitled “Rapela (Live)” featured on the album “Live at Kippie's: 2001 (Set One)” (digital download only) is a case in point.

Many consider Molelekwa’s second solo album, “Genes and Spirits,” the last to be released in his lifetime, to be one of his finest achievements. “Rapela,” was Molelekwa’s own favourite track on the album, and is a good example of what he achieved  on “Genes and Spirits” which was to take well known musical styles and rework them into something distinctively his own.  In “Rapela’s” case the raw material was Fela Kuti’s afrobeat. There is nothing unusual about drawing on Fela’s influence: in South Africa. f or example, Hugh Masekela, McCoy Mrubata, Oskido, Revolution, Bazwaana have all recorded in this style. But Molelekwa does much more than imitate and pay homage to Fela – this is afrobeat transformed. The original album version of “Rapela” kicked off with brief musical allusions by Molelekwa to the opening bars of Billy  Strayhorn's “ Take the A Train” and by his guest drummer, Cameroun’s Brice Wassy, who plays momentarily in the manner of  Fela’s superlative kit drummer: Tony Allen. It is as though Molelekwa and Wassey were announcing that they were about to try and do something as ambitious and remarkable as the greatest masters of jazz composition and African rhythm.

 After comparing it to a “killer recipe” with many different ingredients Molelekwa described what happens next in “Rapela” as follows “The tune is actually in 4/4, but if you count it with sixteens it becomes something else, some odd time like 16/9, or something like that. Then it goes into a 7/4 groove. So it's just me playing around with time and making it enjoyable and exciting at the same time." (in interview with Adam Haupt, Mail and Guardian,  4 September 1998).There is no disputing the complexity of the composition: the British classical pianist Joanna McGregor who performed the piece in concert duet with Molelekwa found it so hard to learn and play that she habitually referred to it as  “The Dreaded Rapela” in the wonderful diary she kept at the time which was published after Molelekwa's death  in “Art, Not Chance – nine artist’s diaries;” (Ed Paul Allen;  2001; pp 9 to 21)  Anyone wishing to follow in Professor McGregor’s footsteps and master the composition for themselves would be well advised to acquire Molelekwa’s DVD “Live at Nantes” in which he and Wassey can be seen casually and delightedly tapping “Rapela’s” rhythms on their chests in bright sunshine outside the recording studio. Fela himself would have been unable to resist their smiles.

Oddly, the superlative ,new and previously unreleased “Rapela (Live)” which opens “Live At Kippie's 2001 (Set One)” isn’t t a live version, nor does it date from 2001 nor was it recorded in Johannesburg. The reason we can be certain of this is that it features the distinctive voice of the afrementioned Cameroonian drummer Brice Wassy who appeared on the original recording along with the Cameroonian bass player Hilaire Penda. Anyone doubting this should compare the cover version recorded by Wassey in 2010  on the eponymous trio album “Sawadu” on which he is the only vocalist with the voice of the singer who immediately precedes Molelekwa’s final solo on the newly released version. While Wikipedia state correctly that little has been written in prose about Molelekwa, this was not the case in February 2001 when his death at the age of 27 was headline news in South Africa for days and was also widely reported around the world. It is inconceivable that Brice Wassy, one of the greatest drummers in Africa, could have performed live with Molelekwa at Johannesburg’s premiere jazz club Kippie's in the weeks leading up to Molelekwa’s death without anyone in the media noticing. It is infinitely more likely that this wonderful new version of “Rapela,” which is a studio recording, was recorded in 1996 in the UK, probably at Brownhill Farm in Sussex, during the “Genes and Spirits” sessions with Molelekwa on all keyboards and vocals, Wassey on drums, percussion and vocals, Hilaire Penda on bass together with a distinctly South African sounding female vocalist (Lungwiwa Plaatjies perhaps?).

Molelekwa and co-producer Andrew Missingham presumably thought this version lacked finesse compared to the version they put on the album and certainly it is less subtle in several respects: Fela’s name actually appears in the lyric; Wassey’s  drumming is more overtly Tony Allen like throughout;;the female vocalist, who sings beautifully by the way, brings out the spirituality of the theme more overtly (the word “Rapela” means prayer) and there is no reference to Billy Strayhorn and the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s classic curtain raiser “Take the A Train”. However,, the newly released version makes up for all of this in sheer excitement in part perhaps to the fact that this was probably the musicians first attempt to record this composition but mainly because Molelekwa’s solos on his Korg Trinity keyboard are irresistible,epitomising the ecstatic style of playing with which he routinely roused tens of thousands of his fans in South Africa to dance at the open air jazz festivals which were such an important feature of the country’s jazz scene at the time. Molelekwa and Missingham seem to have felt that the inclusion of such solos on “Genes and Spirits” was inappropriate because they also carefully removed such a solo which had appeared at the end of the original version of “Dance to Africa” and which can be enjoyed unedited on the “Jazzin’ Universally” album. In fact, sadly, thus far are very few such solos are to be found in Molelekwa’s released recordings with the two tracks he recorded with Brothers of Peace” a few days before his death being notable exceptions. That is what makes “Rapela (Live)” such an excellent release - this is a raw and relatively unproduced and thrilling version of one of his greatest compositions.

 Those who download this new track and fall in love with it will want to know where else they can hear Molelekwa play afrobeat. Astoundingly, the answer is – nowhere; not because Molelekwa’s career was so short but because he wasn’t that kind of musician. Rather, he was a post modern polymath who was continually digesting different  influences and creating something new. Two excellent examples of this can be found on the other tracks on “Live At Kippie's 2001 (Set One )” all of which was previously released on Molelekwa’s “lLve in Jo’burg Nineteen Ninety Nine.” On “Down Rockey Street,” the studio version of which was the most popular track in South Africa from  “Genes and Spirits,” Molelekwa and his fabulous teenage saxophonist Moses, Khumalo transform reggae in the same way that ”Rapela” transforms afrobeat and with his beautiful piano playing on a band version of “Bo Molelekwa” he does the same with the church hymn form - a musical form beloved of numerous South African jazz composers such as Abdullah Ibrahim and Mongezi Feza.  

These lovely live Molelekwa recordings cannot date from both 1999 and 2001. The absence of the superb trombonist Mokone Sengane, who was a member of the Molelekwa band that recorded the definitive live version of “Ntate Moholo” at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in late 1999 (subsequently released on the posthumous “Wa Mpona” album) and who played on  two excellent albums the band recorded after their leader’s death (Moses Khumalo’s “Mntungwa” and Pops Mohammed’s “yesterday, today and tomorrow”) suggests that the earlier date of 1999 is more likely than 2001. A member of the audience can be heard crying out “Happy New Year” during the version of the track “Genes and Spirits” and Molelekwa’s impromptu decision to entitle a new composition “Kippie's Samba” suggested it almost certainly was recorded at Kippie's early one January - perhaps in 1999 or even 1998 but certainly after the release of the “Genes and Spirits” studio  album and probably before trombonist Mokone Sengane joined the band.

Wikipedia aren’t able to claim that little has been written about the great South African torch singer Sathima Bea Benjamin who has had two books written about her in recent years as well as a chapter in Robin Kelly’s important study “Africa Speaks, America Answers” and has been the subject of the sublime 2010 DVD `documentary film “Sathima’s Windsong” written and directed by Daniel Yon.  The enjoyable and enlightening  2011book “Musical Echoes: South African women thinking in jazz” co-authored by Benjamin and the academic Carol Ann Muller cites the extraordinary Hollywood movie “Cabin in the Sky” as a key early influence on the singer “Cabin in the Sky,” made in 1943 with an all-black cast that included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and directed by Vincente Minnellli, despite some great performances, is a thoroughly racist picture in which jazz is  literally portrayed as the devil’s music. Benjamin’s ability to steer a course through hideous racial politics and focus on the music has stayed with her all her life and as her ability to express the pain she feels has grown ,so too as her stature as an artist.  

Against this background the reissue of her previously virtually unobtainable debut album release “African Songbird” recorded with her former husband Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) is very welcome news. Recorded in Johannesburg in 1976 shortly before the couple went into political exile, the album came at a crucial point in both artists’ careers. The first track “Africa” is Sathima’s first recording of what is surely her masterpiece. This lengthy version features not only Ibrahim, and arguably the most important of all his musical collaborators: saxophonist/flautist Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee but also no less than three bassists;, two kit drummers and a trumpeter in a dense, complex arrangement which seems designed to evoke the imagined music of Africa north of the Limpopo River. It would be 15 years before Ibrahim could return to the recording studio with Coetzee and the impact on his music was both profound and immediate. Their 1991 recording “Mantra Mode” was by far and away Ibrahim’s best work since he went into exile. Benjamin had to wait even longer before she got the opportunity to record in South Africa again - some 24 years passed before she had the opportunity to do so and when she did, like Ibrahim, she chose to work with a key South African collaborator: the superb double bassist Basil Moses who was one of the three bassists that worked with the couple all those years ago on “African Songbird” in 1976.

Aside from its considerable historical importance, the album remains musically appealing and offers insight into the musical thinking of all the major players involved. While this first stab at recording “Africa” is nowhere near as good as Benjamin’s definitive 1984 version which can be found on her excellent compilation “Song Spirit”, the dense arrangement of bass players and drummers combined with Ibrahim and Coetzee’s contributions make for compelling listening. The attention and thought given to the arrangement are reminiscent of Ibrahim and Benjamin’s great idol Duke Ellington and his efforts to imagine Africa in his compositions. Moreover, much like Molelekwa’s newly released early version of “Rapela” this version of “Africa” captures the excitement of these great musicians recording this important composition for the first time. On the remaining two tracks, “Music,” and “African Songbird”, Ibrahim’s electric piano is absent and the instrumentation becomes simpler and simpler until only Sathima’s remarkable voice remains. These are not definitive versions of these compositions either. The third and best version of “Music” can also be found on the “Song Spirit” compilation while the best version of the title track “African Songbird” was recently reissued as a bonus track on the excellent “Sathima sings Ellington” album, Nevertheless, this reissue of Benjamin and Ibrahim’s 1976 album “African Songbird” can be warmly recommended to aficionados of both musicians and to Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee’s many devotees.

By far the most important new reissue of South African jazz is a compilation of tracks recorded in the first half of the last century which accompanies the new and expanded edition of Christopher Ballantine’s book “Marabi Nights: jazz, ‘race’ and society in early apartheid South Africa.” This revelatory compilation first appeared as a separate cassette tape that was available alongside the original 1993 first edition of the book. One of the tracks, the superb marabi workout  “Zulu Piano Medley, No.1: Part 1” recorded in 1944 by the otherwise obscure Thomas Mabiletsa was subsequently released on CD by Gallo as the opening track of their excellent “From Marabi to Disco” compilation but the other tracks are new to CD .

Foremost among them are two tracks recorded in 1939 which the author describes as follows:

“Undoubtedly the most brilliant recorded examples of early South African big-band swing, these two pieces were also hugely popular in their day.. And these recordings are of great historical importance in another sense: they are the first recordings the legendary Jazz Maniacs ever made, and the only ones to feature their charismatic leader, Solomon ‘Zuluboy’ Cele who was murdered almost 5 years later.” (p 217).

Of the two sides the Jazz Maniacs cut that day “Izikhalo Zika Zuluboy” is especially powerful, It is described by David Coplan, the other great scholar specialising in this period, as “the first marabi jazz recording” (“In Township Tonight,” 2008 2nd ed, p 164).  It combines forceful swing trumpet with Marabi piano; a call and response lament about life in Johannesburg with memorable drumming and a horn section led by Zuluboy himself on first alto sax.

It is difficult to be certain of the exact personnel on these 1939 Jazz Maniac’s sides. From contemporary accounts by Walter M. B. Nhlapo and a photo of the band annotated by Ballantine in “The World of South African Music: A Reader” (Ed.  Christine Lucia, 2005, p 187 it is possible to speculate but impossible to be certain about the exact identity of the trumpet soloist, lead vocalist an drummer. But the musical lineage between the Jazz Maniacs we can identify and later South African jazz is astonishingly direct. The greatest of all South Africa’s jazz stars,alto saxophonist, clarinettist and composer Kippie Moeketsi ,who played with and was idolised by Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor and many others, was himself inspired to take up jazz by his elder brother Jacob who was the Jazz Maniacs pianist. Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, like many of his generation, stressed that his primary inspiration lay not with Ibrahim and the other jazz exiles but rather with the musicians that had flourished in their absence:

"Abdullah [Ibrahim] inspired me to choose my direction and be confident in it. But the musical tradition I'm picking up on… is much more the jazz fusion tradition of great bands like Sakhile in the 1980s." (Molelekwa  quoted in Mail and Guardian, 26 May 1995)

. Sakhile’s keyboard player,Jabu Nkosi,was the eldest son of   the Jazz Maniacs’ most celebrated alumnus,, Issac “Zacks” Nkosi,  who was second altoist at the time the 1939  sides wee made. Zacks Nkosi went on to become a major star in his own right in the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s prompting the reissue of three CDs of his material by Gallo and EMI n the early 1990’s. His exceptional gifts as a saxophonist and composer are exemplified by his beautiful track “”B.M.S.C.” (= Bantu Men’s Social Club) recorded in the 1950's or early 60's and reissued on the EMI CD “Our Kind of Jazz” CDORG (WL)1026 (40640942). His, son Jabu Nkosi, of the celebrated group Sakhile so beloved of Molelekwa and his generatuon, made only one solo album, recorded in 1997, entitled “Remembering Bra Zacks” consisting of cover versions of his father’s material.

Slomon ‘Zuluboy’ Cele was at the cutting edge of South African jazz for a consuderable period, initially as a pioneering Marabi pianist and then, for the last ten years of his life as leader and alto saxophonist with the Jazz Maniacs. Scholars such as Ballantine situate his musical career in the political context of the day, with Ballantine in particular stressing that the now banned ANC Youth League was started by Nelson Mandela and his peers in exactly the same period and neighbourhood that Zuluboy Cele was murdered, This cocktail of radical politics and inexplicable violence resonates both with Sathima’s tireless and courageous work with the ANC for which she has since been decorated and with Moses and Flo Molelekwas’ senseless deaths and their commitment to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement.

To sum up, as reissues go, hearing the Jazz Maniacs’ seminal 1939 recordings on CD for the first time is little short of miraculous – akin almost, to stumbling across that apocryphal Buddy Bolden 78. Absolutely unmissable.

It's much too early to say whether or not any of the crop of new jazz releases from South Africa will measure up to these giants of the past, but of the new releases two stand out as being worth a listen. Both feature musicians who have considerable reputations at home but remain virtually unknown abroad.

The mountainous and independent minded realm of Switzerland has long been a delightful exception to such generalities. A cherished recording by the still hugely underrated African-American trumpeter Bill Coleman entitled "Swinging in Switzerland," and recorded in 1957 is absolute proof of this. More than half a century on, it is heartening to report that the Swiss are still championing underrated trumpet players: in this case, South Africa's Marcus Wyatt whose latest quartet album “One Life in the Sun,”like Bill Coleman's all those years ago, is recorded in Switzerland witjh highly skilled  and knowledgeable sounding European players. A front-line consisting of trumpet and clarinet is always sufficient to quicken the breath - but the point of reference here is not so much those fabulous 1932 Pee Wee Russell and Henry "Red" Allen sides with Billy Banks and the Rhythmakers but more Pee Wee's later "modern" albums with the piano-less quartet with valve trombonist Marshal Brown and, and, even more so, Miles Davis’ 1980s workouts with Marcus Miller. Whatever the impetus, the combination of Marcus Wyatt's fine trumpet playing with Dmenic Landolf’s bass clarinet, Baenz Oester’s double bass and Dominic Igli’s drums is pleasing to the ear and an ideal antntidote to Hugh Masekela's indigestible recent five hour duo release with pianist Larry Willis. Especially good is the lengthy tribute to Johnny Dyani and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa entitled "A Semi-serious Conversation." Echoes of Molelekwa’s piano in the bass clarinet playing; of Dyani in the bass playing and of Louis Moholo-Moholo in the drumming are offset by some extraordinary trumpet playing by Wyatt who really does sound like he's talking with his horn. On the downside, "One Life in the Sun" is nowhere near as good as Wyatt’s superb 2006 studio album "Language 12" which, with hindsight, is surely one of the best African jazz albums of the past decade.

The same decade has seen the reputation and popularity of jazz songstress Judith Sephuma consistently rise within South Africa while failing to get off the ground anywhere else with recordings that have often sounded glib and saccharine, not helped at all by an almost unbearably self congratulatory and overblown performance on a concert DVD released last year to mark her first 10 years in the business. Her latest offering, unpromisingly, is an unashamed foray into full on gospel music in the form of another concert DVD entitled "The Experience In Concert." Happily, those able to endure or enjoy such material are in for a pleasant surprise. Sephuma's singing on this release is genuinely first rate and at long last one is able to appreciate what it is that appeals so much to her many fans. Improbable though it may seem, this is the best new release by an African  female jazz vocalist of the year to date thus far  and, in this critic's estimation,  by a considerable margin Sephuma's best recording to date.

Return to top of page

South African jazz awards, the return of Mafikizolo and the profundity of Pops Mohamed

Track of the month – “Indlal'ibhokile” by Herbie Tsoaeli’s album “African Time” (South Africa)

Herbie Tsoaeli’s “African Time” has deservedly won the 2013 South African Music Award (SAMA) for jazz. From the moment it came out, this supremely good album has been winning more and more admirers not only forTsoael’s double bass playing, composing, arranging and singing but also for the extraordinarily high standard of musicianship of Tsoaeli’s collaborators throughout. It will surely be remembered as one of the best South African jazz studio recordings of the current decade - certainly, there has been none finer to date. For a full review, see this column’s April 2012 edition.

Other fine 2013 nominations for this most prestigious award in South African jazz included Tutu Puoane’s “Breathe,” arguably the best African jazz recording by a female vocalist since the start of last year and, to these ears,  a better album than Angelique Kidjo’s “Spirit Rising” which recently won Songlines magazine’s annual prize for African music. Either way, Puoane is certainly a major jazz diva in the making. Likewise, fellow nominee Kyle Sheppard’s “South African History !X” showcases an important young talent. Indeed, many regard this gifted multi-instrumentalist, composer and poet to be one of the most exciting young prospects in contemporary South African jazz. For reviews of these Puoane and Shepherd releases see this column’s October 2012 edition. Other nominees included Steve Dyer whose “Ubuntu Music” album was reviewed last month and is pleasant enough but not really in the same league as Puoane, Shepherd and Tsoaeli. Lindiwe Maxolo’s “Time” was also nominated but her album has thus far proved completely unobtainable outside South Africa, so it would be unfair to comment on its inclusion at this point but a review will certainly appear as soon as the recording becomes available. The most startling omissionsfrom SAMA’s 2013 shortlist areTete Mbambisa’s superb solo piano recording “Black Heroes” which, in an exceptional year, was surely the second-best South African jazz album after Herbie Tsoaeli’s magnificent “African Time.” It too was reviewed here in October.

What it is also surprising perhaps, is that neither the winner nor any of the nominees for South Africa’s other major jazz award – Metro FM’s prize for Contemporary South African Jazz - featured in SAMA’s reckoning at all. . Nor were any of SAMA’s shortlist nominated for the Metro FM prize ,In the case of the winner, it is certainly surprising that he wasn’t short listed for any SAMA award.  Soulful male vocalist Mbuso Khoza’s “Zindile” is a very fine album which places the artist n the front rank of South Africa’s male vocalists - right up there with Shaluza Max, Tsepo Tshola and the late Jabu Khanyile. Indeed, here is a vocalist who, if he fulfils his promise, just might prove to be South Africa’s answer to the great Congolese singer Ferre Gola. Like Gola, Mbuso Khoza seeks not to impress not by the outright power of his vocal chords, but by connecting with his listener closely with beautiful phrasing that conveys and evokes deep emotion. Another parallel with Gola is that he operates on the borderline between popular music stardom and jazz. Listen, for example, to the opening track “Eshowe” and track 6 which, badly botched track listing aside, seems be entitled “Mayoyo.” These tracks also demonstrate that Khoza’s digital download album boasts a skilled rhythm section, strong compositions and the excellent Johnny Chonco on acoustic guitar, all uder the skilled direction of veteran jazz arranger Themba Mkhize.

Other nominees for Metro FM’s contemporary jazz award include two young female singer songwriters who sound like they’re more intent on achieving the kind of success enjoyed by artists like Zahara and Asa than winning over jazz critics. Maleh’s “Step Child” is certainly well sung and well played but the jazz content is slight. With its come hither lyrics and a tilt at fame and celebrity, this is an album whose main intent is surely commercial Whatever her true merits, Maleh has certainly won over the powers that be at SAMA who awarded her the prize for Best Adult African album The other Metro FM contemporary Jazz nominations which it has been possible to track down are the equally commercial “Conquering Spirit” by Berita which won Metro FM’s Best African Pop Album award but which also lacks much in the way of jazz interest but sounds, nonetheless, rather less soulless than “Step Child.” Finally, female singer-songwriter Ndoh Dlamini’s album "Sekusile" is an appealing debut featuring characteristically understated and refined arrangements and guitar playing by Lawrence Matshikiza, Dlamini is an energetic singer with a beautiful voice and her compositions show a  gift for melody - talents honed, by all accounts, during a long apprenticeship as a backing vocalist and dancer for Ringo Malingozi. Even the twinkly production values that mar so many studio recordings by South Africa’s jazz divas and some dodgy electric guitar solos   can’t mask Ndoh Dlamini’s talent: listen for example to “Ntatewa lapeng.”

The apparent disconnect between Metro FM and SAMA about what constitutes jazz raises some interesting questions. Drawing the line between jazz and the rest of music is always a difficult business, especially in the case of vocalists but nowhere more so than in contemporary South Africa. There are two fundamental reasons for this: firstly, jazz is genuinely popular in South Africa, more so, arguably, than in any other country on the planet. So musicians and audiences alike  are generally  more aware of and alive to the possibilities of jazz than they are elsewhere which means that elements of jazz tend to spill over into contemporary pop music much more than they do elsewhere. Secondly, and more importantly, as right across sub-Saharan Africa, the relationship between local versions of jazz and the dance floor is much, much closer than it is in modern day Europe or North America  In this respect the music scene in Africa is akin to the North American music scene of the middle of the last century when elements of jazz and swing were widespread across a broad spectrum of music and there was a much stronger connection between jazz and dance than there is today. In Africa, one or two pretentiously snooty clubs in Cape Town aside it is difficult to imagine this connection has ever being lost.

While this may create a dilemma for those whose job it is to act as judge for jazz awards in South Africa, for the rest of us it brings incalculable blessings. South Africa’s popular music is infinitely more interesting to the jazz lover than that of almost anywhere else and this year’s South African music awards and nominees for categories other than jazz illustrate this point richly. Who for, example, is a better Hammond organ player in contemporary jazz than the Soul Brothers Black Moses, whose album “Isiphithiphithi” deservedly wins this musical institution their umpteenth SAMA.? Black Moses’ many devotees with a jazz bent will also salivate at the prospect of getting their hands on his latest release “Mbaqanga Jazz” recorded in partnership with the great saxophonist McCoy Mrubata. Sadly, this mouth-watering combination of two of South Africa’s greatest jazz musicians doesn’t quite gel. Both soloists sound terrific but there is a notable lack of rapport between the two.

A good example of a younger artist who has dabbled in jazz and who at her best will excite jazz lovers is Kelly, Kumalo who’s “The Past, The Present, The Future” wins her the SAMA for Female Artist of the Year. From a jazz perspective, this is a rather patchy album. There is a duet sung in English with Sibongile Khumalo and some fine vocals on other tracks but this album isn’t as jazzy as her debut “TKO” which featured some great bone fide jazz performances.

The one thing, the SAMA and Metro FM judges do agree about is the Kalawa Jazmee label’s gifted protégé Professor who’s “The  Orientation,” reviewed here in January, deservedly wins both their prizes for Best Kwaito Album of 2013 ; However,. those wishing to hear Kalawa Jazmee’s best and most popular current offering simply must check out Mafikizolo’s ccomeback album “Reunited”.

Mafikizolo’s many successes include “Ndihamba Nawe” from their 2002 album”Sibongile," winner of Song of the Decade at the 10th Metro FM Awards and a massive hit everywhere that mattered from London’s Naija dancefloors to Joseph Hellon's shows in Nairobi The long awaited new album “Reunited”, their first since 2006, currently dominates South Africa’s music charts. The interesting thing,in relation to this column,is that Mafikizolo are easily the jazziest major Pan African pop act today and have spent more than a decade skilfully blending contemporary dance floor rhythms (notably kwaito and South African house)with retro elements of South African jazz (marabi, kwela, jive, etc.) reflected in a visual image that evokes the dress sense and style of Sophiatown and the heyday of South Africa’s jazz

Their new release maintains their high standards and combines all these elements in a rich and delicious selection of songs which is like a box of delicious Belgian chocolates. The chief ingredients are the contributions of Mafikizolo’s two surviving members Theo Kgosinkwe and Nhlanhla Nciza, the third, Tebogo Madingoane, having been shot and killed in an incident on Valentine’s Day 2004 which illustrates that the Johannesburg Mafikizolo inhabit is at least as edgy and violent as Sophiatown ever was. After their long period apart, Nhlanlha’s sensitive singing of Theo’s lyrics sounds even better than of yore . She has an unmistakable and subtle way of shading notes and phrases which, along with the combination of her voice with Theo’s are the most instantly recognisable aspect of their sound. The weight of years and ,doubtless, the experience of tragedy have added depth to their music and as a male and female vocal duo, on “Khani Mjongeni” for instance, they are now undoubtedly the greatest Africa has known since the heyday of the partnerships between Mbilia Bel/Tabu Ley Rochereau and LettaMbulu/Caiphus Semenya.

Another distinctive feature of their sound,in today’s world, is their love of live instruments. Listen for example to the gorgeous but uncredited sax and flute duet on Spikiri’s characteristically and irresistibly melodic “Saka Harabe Bone;” the sparse, graceful, Ellingtonesque piano and keyboards throughout the album, exemplified by Ma Piano’s solo on the hit single “Khona,” and the equally compelling guitar work from Khaya Mthiyane,Ggodfrey Sleso and Sunnyboy Mthimunye. As ever, the University of Kalawa Jazmee’s dance orientated production rewards careful listening too; for example,in their intriguing reworking of the beat from Professor’s superlative “Shoba Shobane” on “Happiness” The production is so sophisticated and discreet that, at times, it is difficult to know what is played by live instruments and what is electronic. What is beyond doubt is that the contributions of both are superb and include on the electronic side Mafikizolo’s long term collaborator Oskido and new Kalawa recruits Uhuru (DJ Clap, Maphorisa and Xelimpilo) together with , on the live instruments side, left handed electric bassist Tshepo Mohlala,and drummer Bethuel Mbonani . The artistry of Kalawa stalwart Bruce “Dope” Seblito in mixing all this into a seamless and unmistakable Mafikizolo album is considerable. In doing so, he had to contend with a cosmopolitan variety of international styles too: such as Naija jam, (“Happiness”) Latin (“Amor Da Mia Vida”), afrobeat (“Kuze Kuse”) reggae (“Luna Mandla”) and old school kwaito (“Ngenxa Ka Thixo”).

All these ingredients make “Reunited” even better than that box of Belgian chocolates because you can swallow the whole lot guilt free and grin from ear to ear while you dance. What is more, repeating the experience can only mutiply the elation and exercise. In short Makikizolo’s “Reunited” is a cure all and currently the outstanding front runner in the contest for African jazz party album of the year.

Recent efforts by similarly minded South African multi voice jazz/popular music outfits such as the Bala Brothers’ DVD “Live at Emperors Palace “,” and the Jaziel Brothers “The Journey Defined” are enjoyable too but neither comes remotely close to the, potency and popular appeal of Mafikizolo.

Two CD/DVD set retrospectives “Dorothy Masuka: The Ultimate Collection” and “Sipho Mabuse: The Ultimate Collection” illustrate that the delicious intertwining of jazz and popular song in South Africa goes back decades. The documentation for both sets is lamentably poor but both feature excellent compilation CDs and accompanying DVDs of latter day live performances. A particular treat is the last track on the Sipho Mabuse DVD – a ravishing, raucous live version of the hit song “Harare” performed in a theatre in South Africa circa 1990 featuring Hotstix himself and a youthful Sibongile Khumalo in a wonderful vocal and dance duet backed by, among others, Hugh Masekela on flugelhorn, Khaya Mahlangu on flute and a teenage Moses Taiwa Molelekwa on piano. This is, by a considerable margin, the earliest performance by both Molelekwa and Khumalo available on DVD and also the earliest example on film of Masekela playing back in South Africa after his decades in exile. More importantly, the performance is a tour de force for everyone involved.

The wide appeal of jazz in South Africa is also evident in devotional music. At this years SAMA awards gospel organist Sizwe Zako, deservedly won a lifetime achievement award. Anyone doubting the jazz content in his playing is strongly advised to check out his solo instrumental albums as well as his better known work with gospel stars such as Rebecca  Malope. But the biggest jazz star on the South African gospel scene is unquestionably the guitarist composer and vocalist Jonathan Butler whose superb album “Grace and Mercy” was nominated for Best Contemporary Faith Music Album. Butler’s vocals on this album are simply sublime and the compositions catchy: an an irresistible album even by this great artist’s high standards.

Heaven knows how the critics and panels of award judges will categorise the newly released “A Celebration of Togetherness” by the Southern Rhythms All-stars featuring Pops  Mohamed. The album had its gestation in a television documentary series made by the South African Broadcasting Corporation about the different faith communities in the country but Pops Mohamed’s CD is quite different from a conventional soundtrack album. Using sampling techniques and music of his own, Mohamed has moulded this huge array of material from different faiths into a coherent whole. In a nutshell, his theological purpose has been to create rainbow faith music for the rainbow nation. The success or failure of this enterprise in theological terms falls outside the scope of this review, but as a musical experience it is stunning.

None of the original sources of this music constitute jazz but the album will garner the attention of the jazz fraternity for two reasons. First off, by any reckoning, Pops Mohamed is part of Africa’s jazz aristocracy with an extensive discography and a devoted following. Judged as a Pops Mohamed album “A Celebration of Togetherness” is superb - his kora and mbira playing, singing and sampling have never sounded better. This project is clearly very close to his heart and Mohammed’s own music on the album sounds more delicate and reverent than ever. Secondly, while what he does as a producer on this album might be problematic to some people from a faith perspective, his approach indisputably owes a great deal to jazz improvisation. He splices and mixes sounds and religious beliefs in ways that could never have been envisaged by the faith communities that recorded the original material. In doing so, he creates something original and new with an altered message which, whether visionary or not, is certainly his own. Musically, this makes for an extraordinary and deeply moving album. If there were music awards for the categories that really matter such as beauty and profundity the great Pops Mohamed and the Southern Rhythms All-stars would be serious contenders because no matter what your perspective “A Celebration of Togetherness” is genuinely  innovative and simply glorious a s a piece  music.

Return to top of page

Tradi-modern: the very latest thing? (Part 1)

Track of the month - “Ayné hulgizé vèsasaleshal,” featured on the CD “Maratch Musica” by Trio Kazanchis (Ethiopia/Switzerland)

The expression “tradi-modern” seems to have made its first appearance a couple of years back on the sleeve notes to a Congolese CD/DVD set  of live modern acoustic music played on traditional instruments including giant banjo entitled “The Karindlah Sessions.” Tradi-modern is, of course, a particularly evocative term for jazz lovers many of whom define themselves as devotees of trad or modern jazz. This month’s roundup of recent African jazz releases focuses on jazz and jazz related recordings that feature traditional African instruments, all of which, it could be argued, fall into the tradi-modern category.

From Congo Brazzaville, comes “Sur La Route Des Caravannes” by Les Tambours de Brazza.  This large percussion ensemble, founded in 1992, play in an abundance of styles featuring rumba, hip-hop, taarab, reggae, etc, which perhaps ake for a rather disjointed album. The jazz element however is frequently excellent, notably on the track “Nza” which features a superb trumpet solo on a good Congolese track  and “Sur Ray” which showcases characteristically tasteful and elegant Fender Rhodes playing by Central Africa’s best-known jazz keyboardist Ray Lema. Other notable tracks include “Tat Ngoudi” which has Grand Kallé/ African Team like strings and piano and “Wotché” which is a hip hop fusion with good percussion, bass and horns: in summary, an eclectic album with much to offer.

In many world music lovers’ minds however the real centre of Africa’s tradi-modern sound lies not in Central Africa at all but rather in the troubled state of Mali. Musically, to this critic’s ears, Mali was musically troubled for many years before the actual fighting started. The problem lay in a seemingly endless succession of designer recordings and artists specifically targeted at the West.  By contrast, “ Jama Ko” recorded by ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyaté and his ngoni/percussion group Ngoni Ba has garnered rave reviews that, for once, are entirely justified. This is a strong release that merits real attention from jazz and blues lovers. The recording, made in Koyaté’s front room in Bamako while a military coup was going on, has a palpable sense of immediacy and excitement. The absence of bass and drum kit creates space for the percussionists and ngoni players who form a magnificent backdrop to Kouyate’s brooding, bluesey electric solos. The album is strong throughout and will surely be rated one of the best West African releases of the year. Standout tracks include the Congolese inflected”Segu Jajiri” and a fine duet with the African American blues maestro Taj Mahal on “Poye 2.” Not the usual formulaic world music product from Maali that we've all come to dread and very much recommended.

Not even Kouyaté however can match the raw f excitement generated by the Ethiopian krar virtuoso Mèssèlè Asmamou on the CD “Maratch Musica” by  Trio Kazanchis. Anyone doubting this needs to hear the standout track  “Ayné hulgizé vèsasaleshal,” on which the other members of this superlative Switzerland-based trio complement his krar licks with explosive kit drums (Fabien Duscombs)and baritone sax (Jeroen Vilsser). All in all, and on this track in particular, this trio sound like African jazz’s answer to The Who. Those wishing to learn more about Mèssèlè Asmamou, and to see and hear more of his krar playing are advised to check out his performances on the excellent DVD: “Mohammed Jimmy” made in 2006 by the Mohammed Trio with Dutch drum maestro Han Bennik.

Those looking to chill out after such high octane offerings are advised to check out Monoswezi’s “The Village” on which Zimbabwean traditional instruments and music meet Scandinavian jazz. Attractive delicate interaction between mbira, sax and double bass are the order of the day for example on a lovely track entitled “Nhemamsasa.” This is a well thought out, coherent release which will appeal to many at the end of a busy day – a beautiful and relaxing listening experience.

South African saxophonist, composer and music impresario Steve Dyer’s “Ubuntu Music” is equally chilled but despite the presence of his son Bokani Dyer on piano, who is excellent throughout, and the highly rated young trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, this pleasant sounding album is ultimately rather dull. Steve Dyer’s sax and compositions simply aren’t sufficiently inspiring. On the plus side the album includes a fitting tribute to Dr Philip Tabane and his group on atrack entitled “Malombo” and one other track “Threads 2 of (for Marie)” which  is appealing but on balance one is left with the impression that this is a rather calculatingly commercial  cocktail kind of jazz destined to be used as Muzak in the less adventurous South African household. The inclusion of this release in the short list for this year’s South African mMsic Award (SAMA) i for jazz s therefore a bit surprising.

A not quite so chilled but much better South African jazz album is Norman Chauke’s “Jazz Dikas No. 2” justly subtitled “Smooth Shangane Jaaazzz.” This Chauke album is even better than the promising 2008 solo debut by this fine Trinity College London educated pianist, composer and vocalist who cites Abdullah Ibrahim, Ellington and Zim Nqawana as influences. On  this second solo album, he uses the same top flight  trio as on the first consisting of Jeph Nomvete on alto sax; Steve Mabona on bass and Jerry Dibakoane on drums. But on the best track “Song of Samuel,” the bassist is omitted creating space for Chauke to demonstrate the excellence of his left hand. On this fabulous song he and saxophonist Nomvete evoke comparison not so much with Ibrahim and Zim Nqawana but with pianist/composer/vocalist Pat Matshikiza, the peerless alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi and their timeless jazz standard “Tshona.” To these ears “Song for Samuel” is easily one of the greatest South African jazz tracks of the decade to date and deserves to be widely heard: It’s one of those performances which simply sounds out of this world and gets better and better as it progresses to a beautiful solo towards the end by the pianist who then exchange is exquisitely lly timed phrases with the saxophonist who sounds equally good. This breathtaking work out would romp into the track of the month slot were it not for the fact that although the album has only just emerged on the global market, it seems to have been released in South Africa back in 2011. Expertly chilled “Smooth Shangane Jaaazzz” it may be, but did the marketing really need to be quite so laid-back? This also presumably explains the album’s omission from this years SAMA nominees. Ironically Chauke doesn’t sound entirely unlike Herbie Tsoaesli, who with hindsight may well have influenced by Chauke and whose excellent album “African Time” is surely favourite to win this year’s SAMA Jazz prize. Chauke’s piano playing puts Kyle Sheppard, who is also a 2013 nominee, into the shade too. Given that, in fairness to the judges, they are in fact quite relaxed about release dates because “African Tme” came out early last year. Hopefully therefore, Lil’ Noise’s superlative album “Case Closed” reviewed in this column last month will capture the SAMA judges attention in 2014.

Another notable feature of Norman Chauke’s album is that although highly effective in evoking shangane tradition, he doesn’t actually use traditional instruments. His chanting and rhythms combined with call and response patterns with his musicians are more than enough to create a convincing and enchanting tradi-modern soundscape.

So could it be perhaps that tradi-modern, far from being the very latest thing, is actually what great African jazz musicians have been doing for decades? Next month’s article will consider this issue again in the light of some reissues by major acts of the past and by referring to Steven Feld’s thought-provoking recent book “Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra.”

April 2013

Return to top of page

John Coltrane and the raw hurt at the heart of African jazz (Part 2)

Track of the month – “Yakhal' Inkomo” by Winston Mankunku Ngozi from his 1968 LP “Yakhal' Inkomo” (available from iTunes)


In the sleeve notes for the original 1968 LP, Ray Nkwe, President of the Jazz Appreciation Society of South Africa, commented on “Yakhal’ Nkomo,” the title track of tenor saxophonist and composer Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s debut album:

“… Literally translated “Bellowing Bull.” The sound of the bull bellowing mournfully at the loss of one of his kind, is one from deep down in his heart. It is with this sound captured musically, that Mankunku expresses his deep grief at the loss of one of the greatest tenor players in the world, Daddy Trane, as he called the late John Coltrane.”

The track quickly established itself as a South African jazz standard and to this day can be heard performed every night in jazz clubs all over the country. There is no jazz lover or jazz musician in the country that doesn’t know “Yahal Nkomo” and there have been myriad recorded cover versions. Recent examples include drummer Vusi Khumalo’s ambitious rearrangement on his double CD “Reasons for Seasons;” Nomofundo’s vocal version with Buddy Wells on sax on her promising debut album “Kusile” reviewed on this site in March and above all the Kevin Davidson Ouartet’s version on their CD “Breathing Winston Living John” for which robust tenor player Davidson concisely explains the spirit of “Yakhal’ Inkomo” in his own sleeve note :

“This ain’t no background music album. Play this music LOUD/ It’s rock that needs to be played softly not jazz.”

But what was it exactly that the 23-year-old Winston Mankunku  Ngozi and his superb fellow musicians Lionel Pillay (piano), Early Mabuza (drums) and Agrippa Mangawanza (bass) were bellowing so loudly in their masterpiece? And why did it have such a profound and lasting impact on fellow musicians and their audience? The answer couldn’t be simpler as every black and “coloured” (significantly,the superlative pianist, Lionel Pillay’s, ethnicity was Indian) who heard or played Mankumku’s tune kew straightaway whether or not they had ever heard of Coltrane. The fact of the matter was that Coltrane’s tragic, premature death was a pretext that allowed Mabnkunku and his quartet to bellow their lungs out in accord with all the young political activists who were so vocal around the world in 1968 and above all so that they could speak eloquently from the heart exactly what they felt about the political situation in South Africa under apartheid white rule without attracting undue attention from the authorities.

The contribution that musicians like Mankunku made to the struggle against apartheid is incalculable and will always live on as a permanent testimony to the power of jazz and “Yakhal’ Inkomo” will live on as a piece of music with which to vent one’s spleen. It remained the greatest expression of raw hurt and mournful rage in African jazz until the release of Franco’s monumental “Attention Na SIDA”  in `987.

Coltrane’s role was not inconsiderable either, nor has his influence  on African jazz been restricted to the southernmost tip of the continent. Lágbájá, the great masked Nigerian saxophonist, composer, singer and band leader cites Coltrane as a major influence as of course do Ghana’s unique small band Accra Trane Station. Their extraordinary Coltrane inspired music features Nii Noi Nortey on afrifones (an array of traditional Ghanaian wind instruments modified to incorporate sax mouthpieces),and Nii Otoo Annan on a drum kit played with jazz drum sticks but assembled from traditional drums together with American academic Stephen Feld on squeeze box bass (ashiwa). Feld gives an account of his role in these recordings in his recent book “Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra.” A compilation/companion CD of the same name has been released separately. This purportedly scholarly work is in fact a thoroughly humane and endearing narrative account of Feld’s attempt in Ghana, encumbered by the title “prof,” recording and photographic equipment, a car, and many of the resources one expects from a citizen of the wealthiest nation on earth,to try and engage with and understand Accra’s musical landscape and especially those aspects of it which relate to jazz. It’s a joy to read and includes priceless accounts of incidents such as Ghanaba’s (Guy Warren’s) extraordinary funeral in which he was cremated standing up having been embalmed in this fashion and with his drum sticks in his hands; and Warren’s marvellous anecdotal account of Louis Armstrong’s recollections of his first visit to Ghana, which is arguably, one of the defining moments in the history of jazz. Indeed, Guy Warren, who Robin Kelly in his marvellous book “Africa speaks, America answers” so justly describes as “enigmatic” looms large throughout Feld’s book and much of the music it prompted. Feld summarises the key issue about Warren as follows:

“… I can only continue to feel an anxious irony about how Guy Warren, Ghana’s most famous jazz musician, comes into the ring swinging that the whole narrative of American jazz as a site of racial pride is a racist insult to Africans because it freezes them in the past and denies them both a real historical and contemporary presence.”


In relation to the discussion of the term “trad – modern” in this column last month, Warren’s perspective would surely be that Africans play contemporary African music regardless of whether they use traditional instruments or not. It is likely  that he would be suspicious of the expression which has been coined to describe contemporary African music played on traditional instruments. and might well argue that the expression has a racist undertone. The definitive answer however is to be found in Warren’s own music, two important examples of which are to be found on the “Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra” companion CD. “Eyi Wala Dong” (That Happy Feeling) comes from his legendary and hitherto completely unobtainable 1957 album “Africa Speaks, America Answers” which was the firsr African jazz LP. The second is his extraordinary “Hallelujah Finale” which combined a new performance of “That Happy Feeling” with Ghana’s National Anthem and the climax of Handel’s “Messiah” recorded towards the end of his career, recorded and filmed live by Feld and previously only available on a prohibitively expensive teaching aid DVD. These tracks alone make the “Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra” CD a must have issue. They also demonstrate that Ghanaba/ Guy Warren’s jazz defies categorization.

  The late South African saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist composer and bandleader Zim Ngqawana's take on Coltrane is somehow both more convincing and more satisfying than Accra Trane Station’s. Like Mankunku and Guy Warren’s, Zim Ngqwana’s  life was shaped by appalling racism. According to Dudley Moloi of the South African jazz magazine “Discography,” he grew up in the township of New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth that had been constructed from rusting corrugated iron sheets recycled from concentration camps set up by the British during the Boer War. Like so many of the apartheid era jazz greats, as a young man he made the journey to Johannesburg’s now legendary Dorkay House where he first encountered John Coltrane’s music in the form of a copy of  “Infinity” on LP.  Zim’s music was forever afterwards indebted to Coltrane as was the seriousness of his musical intent and spirituality. From the mid-1990’s until his death in 2011, Zim was a major star of the South Africa jazz scene. He succeeded where many others had failed, in incorporating into South African jazz the innovations of musicians like Coltrane and South Africa exiled jazz musicians, such as the Blue Notes. His achievement in attracting substantial audiences for this music was considerable and several of his former side men and younger musicians in South Africa are effectively his musical disciples, for example double bassist composer Herbie Tsoaeli, multi-instrumentalist poet and composer Kyle Sheppard and pianist/composer Norman Chauke. Zim was unquestionably a major and influential figure. On the downside he seems to have been much less effective in the recording studio than he was live and his ideas (he called his philosophy “Zimology”) often came across as half baked and pretentious. At he top of his game however, in front of and in interaction with a South African audience his music could be electrifying as demonstrated in the previously unreleased “Live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival” (available on both DVD and CD). At this 2008 concert, the other members of his Zimology quartet were Ndoluzo Makhatini (piano and vocals) and Ayanda Sikade (drums and vocals) both of whom made a strong impression recently onHerbie Tsoaeli’s excellent “African Time” album plus Shane Cooper on double bass who recently, and deservedly, won Standard Bank’s South African Young Jazz Artist of 2013 award. This is is a world-class quartet and their performance of Ngqwana’s compositions and Mongezi Feza’s “You Think You Know Me” will surely prove to be one of the definiting jazz releases of 2013. Certainly, this is now the best Zim Ngqawana recoding available and as such is a must have release for lovers of jazz and improvised music everywhere.

 Despite the fact that this set is recorded on conventional jazz instruments, subjectively it sounds more convincingly rooted in African traditions than Accra Trane Station’s four albums The singing and the audience’s enthusiastic response are factors in this because it is self-evident that everyone present is at ease and engaged with the music. By contrast, the Strphen Feld/ Accra Trane Station recordings leave this critic feeling ill at ease. Both Feld’s book and the recordings made during his five years involvement in in Accra attempt to formulate a response not so much to John Coltrane but to Guy Warren and specifically to his painful experiences in the US jazz scene. This whole approach starts from the premise that what is interesting about Warren is his influence upon and relationship with US jazz. Robin Kelly made much the same assumption about Warren in his recent book,but in looking at Warren’s career from such a US centric perspective it could be argued that both writers miss what is really significant about Warren which is that the most important and interesting part of his career took place before he went to the US. In Ghana, Warren is best remembered for the fact that he was a founder member of ET Mensah and the Tempos: a seminal danceband highlife outfit whose influence on the development of West African music including Afrobeat was profound and who also had an impact far beyond in the Congo and South Africa. The unanswered question about Guy Warren is this: how much of ET Mensah’s musical innovation and influence was down to Warren?

 Recent reissues of Blay Ambolley’s superb first albun “Simigwa,” Ebo Taylor’s “Conflict” and early Osibisa albums “Heads” and “Happy Children” all demonstrate the lasting impact of danceband highlife. Ambolley has a Coltrane connection too in that more recently he has developed, arguably, into Africa’s greatest and most distinctive purveyor of cover versions of African American jazz standards such as “All Blues” and “Round Midnight” but it’s the question about Guy Warren’s influence on all these stalwarts of 1970s Ghanaian music that  is more interesting. Kevin Davidson, the Mankunku devotee quoted above, wouldn’t approve of Osibisa’s highlife derived rock but the band’s trumpeter, Mac Tontoh, who began his career as a dance band highlife musician, was one of the few people  able to coax the elusive Guy Warren into the recording studio in the latter part of his career. Warren appears on Torontoh’s excellent Ghana recorded solo CD “Rhythms and Sounds.” Osibisa’s own early albums sound dated but remain historically importance because Osibisa’s music and their success had an impact on on musicians such as Masekela, Pukwana,  Feza, Julian Bahula, Black Moses Ngwenya of the Soul Brothers as well as rock musicians all over 1970s Africa, proving as Mensah and Warren did, that in music, Ghana pinches above her weight.

Return to top of page

Lil’ Noise & Masekela’s “Friends”

Track of the month - “Hip Jazz” featured on the CD “Case Closed” by Lil Noise (South Africa/Zimbabwe)

Hugh Masekela, one of the best-known jazz musicians on the planet, has without fanfare and almost completely unnoticed, released a four disc set of new recordings entitled “Friends.”

This boxed set by Masekela and the African American pianist Larry Willis is dedicated to John Mehegan who was both musicians’ tutor in New York in the early 1960s. Masekela’s association with Mehegan dates back even further because they had met and recorded together in South Africa beforehand in 1959 The set is a celebration of the friendship and musical relationship between him and the now near lifelong friendship between his two pupils.

Fittingly, the set kicks off with “Body and Soul” a version of which was the best track on Mehgan’s 1959 “Jazz in Africa” LP. Back then, Masekela stood aside allowing Kippie Moeketsi to play a beautiful extended solo. The new version showcases Masekela’s own playing and sets the tone for the four discs that follow which feature mainly instrumental versions of African American jazz standards. In this respect the new release is a follow-up to Masekela and Willis’ last album “Almost lLike Being in Jazz,” but this time they have opted to record and make their music in South Africa.

Their four disc set is also like Masekela’s recent two disc release “Playing @ Work,” reviewed on this site in January, in that one of the dominant themes is mortality.

“Judgement day’s almost here”

Masekela sings before scatting on his version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair” forever associated in jazz lovers’ minds with the 1929 version featuring Hoagy himself and the great Louis Armstrong who, later in life, sent schoolboy Masekela one of his trumpets.

The bulk of the release is made up of three discs of mainly instrumental duos. As one might expect of musicians of this calibre who have worked together for five decades and entitle their project “Friends” the tone of these performances is relaxed, reflective and conversational. All the tunes are played at slow to mid tempo and at no point does either musician try to show off or attempt anything flashy. Like all great conversationalists they’re much too busy listening to one another to do that and listening to the results one feels like a privileged eavesdropper. This is a promising idea in two respects. Firstly, what we hear is a side of Masekela that the majority of his fans have hardly heard before and secondly because, this format is perfect for his latter-day style of horn playing which is tempered by failing physical powers on this most demanding of instruments compensated for with phrasing and musical forethought of, for Masekela at least, unprecedented and exceptional beauty,. That is also what this project has in common with his superlative recent stage version of “Hugh Masekela presents Songs of Migration” the format of which allowed Masekela to demonstrate this wonderful late flowering of his talents in a live setting.

Some of this distinguished duo’s new recordings are unforgettable too: “Laura” for example. There are others one wouldn’t want to be without such as the aforementioned “Rocking Chair” and it is wonderful to have a recorded performance by Masekela of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” which is the number he and Sibongile Khumalo performed at Flo and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s funeral in 2001 At that tragic juncture in the recent history of African jazz, the funeral and Masekela’s performance in particular set the tone for the many breathtakingly beautiful musical tributes to Moses and his late wife which form one of the most astonishing and moving bodies of work in contemporary jazz. Virtually all the artists involved in these various tributes were in the congregation that sad day and heard what Masekela and Sibongile did.

However, despite such treasures there are obvious criticisms to be made of this huge set. First off,  it is indigestible and frankly difficult listen to. It isn’t hard to see why jazz musicians rarely do anything on this vast scale. This is a release best enjoyed in small doses and as such the listener will find him or herself returning to it to listen intently to one or two tracks at a time. . Moreover, while this release is fascinating in what it tells us and shows us about Masekela and Willis; one can’t help but wonder whether or not anyone would listen to if it didn’t feature these elder statesman of the music .Posterity will  digest and  judge this large body of work over a lengthy period of time during which Masekela’s many fans together with the critics and scholars will hold these performances up against the great trumpet piano duets of the past such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines “Weatherbird” and Bill Coleman and Herman Chitson’s immortal 1936 Paris  rendition of “I’m in the Mood for Love.”

Thankfully, those to whom this task falls and the rest of us will be able to turn for some relatively light relief to the remaining disc in this extravagant but perhaps rather self-indulgent release. It consists of similar material performed by Masekela and Willis augmented by Masekela’s regular drummer Leroy Sauls and the rarely heard double bassist Victor Massondo, probably best known for his work with the major South African pop star Ringo. On this band recording the tone of the conversation is quite different as it always is when old friends are interrupted by people they know less well. On these tracks, Masekela plays in a manner much closer to that which we are used to hearing. He sounds more fiery and passionate. Willis too sounds different - less sensitive and sensual perhaps, but more alert with sharp ears listening attentively to his new collaborators. The performance presents an unprecedented opportunity for the young drummer to shine in the recording studio and he delivers. - this is Leroy Saul’s most convincing recording to date. All of which, mean that this disc is by far the most accessible of the four and the one most likely to appeal, to start with anyway, to those familiar with Masekela’s work. Certainly some of his horn playing is breathtaking. In particular, “Cantaloupe Island,” easily the most upbeat performance of the whole four disc set, is an exceptional  workout which deserves to be widely heard and makes for an interesting comparison with Masekela and Willis ‘ 1965 live recording of the same Herbie Hancock composition.

It’s very difficult to sum up a release on this scale. What does one compare it with? Armstrong’s “Musical Autobiography” perhaps? But it will be surprising if this release doesn’t turn out to be one of the more remarkable jazz releaseof 2013. But then delightfully and of course, the year is still young and Masekela for one, and despite his advancing years, is in prolific form and full of surprises. After a good two disc set a couple of months back we now have this monumental four disc effort. What on earth will he do next?

In the unlikely event that he needs any inspiration,he might turn to two other recent fine African jazz trumpet duet albums. “Ancestors” by the African-American  free jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the like-minded, distinguished veteran South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo showcases both musicians to great effect. Moholo has done several duo albums before but this is his first with a trumpeter and is well worth hearing. The release is particularly well packaged as well and the sleeve notes, especially those about Moholo, are very fine indeed - giving a fascinating and informed new account of his style of playing and his influences. “Amanké Dionti,” the second album by Senegalese kora player/ vocalist Ablaye Cissoko and German trumpeter Volker Goetze is both the most ambient and the most African sounding of this clutch of trumpet/flugelhorn duo releases. Note however that it is nowhere near as good as the same kora player’s recent “African Jazz Roots” album with the French pianist/drummer Simon Goubert.

Better still is Lil’ Noise’s first album “Case Closed,” an amalgam of hip-hop and South African jazz which is sure to be one of the defining releases of 2013. Lil Noise consist of the prominent pianist/multi instrumentalist/composer Mpumi Dhlamini, a truly superb 22-year-old debutant Zimbabwean drummer Legan “Tino D“” Breda and self-taught keyboardist turned bassist Mano Simeli who cites Cameroun’s Richard Bona as an influence. Together these three musicians form a stunning trio who make music that sounds telepathic, innovative and moving. There have been numerous attempts to fuse African jazz with hip-hop dating back to the early 1990s but none as good as this. Two things set this release apart: firstly this trio sound entirely at home with hip-hop and secondly their collaborators are of an equally high standard especially with regard to the quality of the verbal content of the songs. For example, feminist poetess Bulewa Basse’s meditations about the nature of love on “Still,” and her take on femininity and sexuality on “Lyrical Sass” are genuinely tender, hought provoking and witty. “Don’t Let Go” which has more of an R&B flavour with vocals and lyrics by Metro FM 2013 award winner Brycce Anderson sounds like a potential crossover hit.

The keynote track “Hip Jazz” features excellent rhymes on the history and character of jazz in South Africa memorably delivered and presumably composed by Garlic Brown together with more of Bryce Anderson’s fine vocals and lyrics. As further demonstrated in the instrumental version, “Hio Jazz” features great jazz performances by all three trio members too. In short this entire release is an uplifting, high-grade album whose release may well mark a turning point in contemporary South African jazz. Certainly, it marks out Mpumi Dhlamini as one of the great South African jazz musicians of our time. Relish his Molelekwa-esque piano playing, the dexterity and sheer beauty with which he arranges voices and his increasingly good tenor sax playing and horn arrangements. Above all marvel at his uncanny knack of composing themes and melodies that take up permanent residence in one’s consciousness and prompt one to want to hear them repeatedly. “Case Closed?” Yes, this is a seriously good album with the potential to change the way we think about the relationship between hip-hop and African jazz.

Lastly, there is “Kusile” an excellent debut recording from South African songstress Nomfundo featuring Botswana’s Bokani Dyer on piano and the excellent Buddy Wells on sax. She has a fine voice, a good ear for jazz and this is a strong debut. Listen for example to her vocal version of the John Coltrane tribute “Yakhal 'Inkomo”  composed by Winston Mankunku, one of the great African jazz gurus listed by Garlic Brown in “Hip Jazz” and proof, if it were needed, that not all the greatest jazz standards derive from African Americans.

March 2013

Return to top of page

Salif Keita vs Ferre Gola & Tsepo Tshola

Track of the Month -200 Million Mumu, part 1” album version from “200 Million Mumu (The Bitter Truth)” by Lágbájá (Nigeria)

Salif Keita has one of Africa’s most instantly recognisable and best loved voices. The experienced music lover, however, will feel nervous when reading the marketing blurb on the sticker afixed to his new CD  “Talé” which reads “Un album digital vintage, retro-futuriste” which, we all know, means that Keita and/or his management have decided his music needs a makeover. In this instance the makeup artist employed is the French producer Phillippe Cohen: Solal best known for reworking the Tango  with the Gotan Project. Unfortunately, this is not a marriage made in heaven. Keita doesn’t sound fully engaged for the most part and Solal adds little, especially to the more traditional Malian tracks. The album does however benefit from three strong guest appearances most notably that of Manu Dibango on “Apres Demain” a superb sax/dancefloor work out which betters anything on his recent “Past, Present, Future” album. Bizarrely, Keita doesn’t feature at all on this Dibano track but he can be heard fully fired up and to wonderful effect in duets with Bobby McFerrin on “Simby” and best of all with Esperanza Spalding on “Chérie S’en Va” which is the standout in track on this otherwise somewhat lukewarm offering.

Lesotho’s Tsepo Tshola isn’t as well known outside Africa as Salif Keita but his voice, best known from the “Stop the War” anthem with the group Sankomota, is just as distinctive and powerful. His new album “The Quintessence of Tsepo Tshola” sports some marvellous musicians, notably Kevin Gibson whose drumming is excellent throughout and Mpumi Dhalmini on keyboards and sax. There are strong tracks to open and close the album plus three gorgeous Dhalmini compositions demonstrating that he has developed a real talent for multi voice arrangement but the album is marred by clichéd rock guitar solos and the presence of less than convincing gospel tracks which not all listeners will enjoy. Although it’s always good to hear this great singer he, as so often in the recording studio, doesn’t quite sound at his best. He seems to be one of those artists who, more often than not, requires the presence of an audience to fully open the throttle and perform at his best.

Salif Keita’s and Tsepo Tshola’s young rival Ferre Gola, by contrast, is bewitching and sublime on his live CD/DVD set “Nuit des Oeuvres: concert live Kinshasa” which consists largely of cover versions of classic compositions by OKJazz alumni: Madillu System, Carlyto Lassa and Papa Noel. Ferre’s vocal chords aren’t as powerful as Keita’s but with repeated listening one starts to appreciate why so many lovers of Congolese music are beginning to say that of all that country’s array of immortal male vocalists, Ferre Gola is the greatest. Scholars and rival singers are going to be dissecting his magic for decades, trying to understand exactly how and why he moves his audience so much. Partly, his gift seems to lie in what he does at the end of high notes when his voice seems to detach from the humdrum world around us and soar skywards not in tone or volume both of which can be diminishing but rather with extraordinary timing. Josky Kiambukuta has the same ability but at a lower register which makes his listener want to dance and hear his songs over and over again but when Ferre Goka does this with high notes the effect is indescribably moving. His greatest rival is Carlyto Lassa whose works Gola often features but not even Carlyto has ever been quite as mesmeric as Gola. A small light footed, loose limbed and nimble backing band provide subtle and delicate music which will delight listeners, especially on the CD. The DVD, although technically accomplished and atmospheric, is less satisfactory because the musicians are often hidden behind an array of backing singers and rather indifferent dancers interspersed with lengthy chitchat between numbers and long shots of the glitzy audience sipping their drinks - all of which rather distracts the listener from the gentle and sophisticated delights of this wonderful music.

Reddy Amisi like Gola guested on Le  Poète Lutumba Simaro’s last studio albumSalle D’Attente,” and on his current live CD/DVD set “Concert Live Maman Angebi” it’s not difficult to hear why. He may not be in the same league as Gola as a singer but he has a tight band, better dancers and singers than Gola and is a fine composer. Thankfully and unusually “Maman Angebi” is reasonably well filmed and has genuine hi-fi sound too enabling the listener to appreciate the strength of Reddy Amisi’s current lineup which features an array of good singers, a world-class bass player combined with unusual and highly effective percussion consisting of a classy conga player and a musician playing what looks like a log with a carefully carved indentation by hitting it with two stubby wooden beaters. Amisi is a contemporary of Papa Wemba and is not usually considered a Congolese jazz star, nor is there a horn section or even much in the way of guitar solos but if this recording and his guest appearance with Simaro are anything to go by, Amisi has much to offer the Congolese jazz aficionado.

Lágbájá’s eagerly anticipated new album “200 Million Mumu (The Bitter Truth)” (digital download), features the two strong singles and B-sides he put out last year in new versions plus new material. His excellent hit “Knock Knock Knock” which opens the album is barely distinguishable from the single reviewed on this site last year as is its B-side, a cover version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” done in Fela Kuti’s style. The much extended versions of “200 Million Mumu” parts 1 and 3 form the core of this strong album and several of the new tracks relate to the same theme. In Naija parlance a “mumu” is someone deaf and dumb. The “200 million Mumu” in question are Nigeria’s voters who have elected, among others, former President Obasanjo, an interview with whom forms the basis for “200 Million Mumu, Part 3” which leads into a characteristically indirect critique of elements of the Church in Nigeria all carried out with Lágbájá’s customary wit and sharp observation. For example, in “200 Million Mumu, Part 1,” when explaining how his political ideas have developed from those expressed in one of his best loved earlier songs (“Bad Leadership”) Lágbájá chokes so badly on “The Bitter Truth” that his backing singers have to offer him a glass of water.! Like all Lágbájá’s output this is an essential, enjoyable and enlightening throughout. The only disappointments are the lack of sax solos and the sense that the previously unreleased tracks are relatively lightweight compared to the singles. Nevertheless, this is a good release from Lágbájá, who is arguably the best jazz musician in Africa, and is recommended wholeheartedly.

February 2013

p of page

The Orientation & Masekela Playing @ Work

Track of the month - “Shoba Shobane” featuring Avante, Sbo and Ray Phiri from the album "The Orientation" by  Professor (South Africa)

“Playing @ Work ,” Hugh Masekela’s new double album features much the same small band as his excellent 2011 CD/DVD “Live at Carnival City.” However, this new studio recording, produced by Masekela himself, has a more intimate, after hours feel and finds Bra Hugh in a reflective mood – quite different from that encountered at his live shows and most previous recordings.

This pensive mood can be heard in tracks such as “A Person is A Sometime Thing,” a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and, above all, on a lengthy reworking of “Mama” which is one of three unusually long tracks that form the core of the album. The other lengthy tracks are a cover version of “Sister Fania” by the late Hotep Idris Galeta, to whom the album is dedicated, and who was an excellent pianist for Masekela until the 17-year-old Moses Taiwa Molelekwa took over at the piano stool. The remaining fine lengthy track (“Where He Leads Me”) is a jam featuring Masekela’s current keyboardist, Randal Skippers, and his new guitarist Cameron Ward, who has the difficult task of replacing the excellent Malawian Erik Paliani.

Close observers of the South African jazz scene will be aware that Skippers, drummer Leroy Sauls and Paliani all worked with the singer Zamajobe for several years before joining Masekela and also know that Paliani was the composer and leading light in this group of talented young musicians. Replacement, Cameron Ward, is a fine guitarist too and one of the few South Africans that can make a reasonable stab at playing in Congolese and West African styles but he is not quite in the same league as Paliani whose absence is a factor in making this Masekela album perhaps a shade less strong than “Live at Carnival City.”

However, “Playing @ Work” has one incalculable advantage which is the extraordinary ongoing development of Masekela’s flugelhorn playing. In recent years,Bra Hugh’s stamina as a horn player has been in decline but it is a mark of this truly great musician that despite his failing powers, his musicianship becomes more and more appealing. How does he do it? In recent live appearances, he usually limits himself to shorter and less frequent solos but as a result he seems to put more and more thought into what he does to the point where the melodic structure, phrasing and timing of his solos is more beautiful than ever. The recording studio offers an even better environment for Masekela to exhibit these qualities and in years to come when music lovers and jazz historians come to place Masekela in the hierarchy of the world’s greatest jazz trumpet and flugelhorn players, they will surely return again and again to “Playing @ Work” and marvel at this 73 year old’s inventiveness and subtlety. Bra Hugh’s singing voice isn’t quite what it was either but his interpretations of tracks such as Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel,” the highlife tune “Rekpete” and the aforementioned “Mama” are just as skilful and memorable as his instrumental solos. The album also benefits from superb bass playing throughout by Fana Zulu, percussion from long term collaborator Francis Fuster plus Masekela’s characteristically beautiful arrangements for backing singers. In summary, this is a must have release for the serious jazz lover.

 Those seeking a more party orientated trumpet/flugelhorn release, more in the mould of Masekela albums of the past, need look no further than “Nadabazbantu,” the new album from Lesotho’s Peter Nthwane which is also excellent from first to last  The album features hip swivelling bass lines, soaring compositions/ arrangements, superb vocals and, although somewhat more sparingly thane one might wish, Nthwane’s distinctive gravelly flugelhorn.

By happy coincidence, there is also a new release from the enigmatic singer Zamajobe whose former musicians make up much of Masekela’s recent bands On “Trail Blazer, ” her third album, she too, like Masekela, faces the difficult problem of how to replace Erik Paliani. The list of personnel in the booklet accompanying the CD suggests she did so by recruiting not one but two of the best jazz guitarists in Africa: Mozambique’s Jimmy Dludlu and Nigeria’s Kunle Ayo. This, however, is slightly misleading because although much of the guitar playing on the album is tasteful there is relatively little of it apart from a dubious rock solo on the opening track. Her real replacement for Paliani is not a fellow guitarist at all but rather the  keyboardist and composer Mpumi Dhlamini who, one senses, is the main source of the beautiful music which can be heard throughout this fine recording. Zamajobe’s understated vocals and sophisticated percussion from Lebo and Jimmy Dludlu’s first rate John Hassan are contributing factors too but the presiding talent here is Dhlamini and the overriding influence is that of the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa of whom Dhlamini is clearly a devoted musical disciple in much the same way that Kyle Sheppard is of Abdullah Ibrahim. Of course, Shepherd isn’t as good as Ibrahim, nor is Dhlamini as good as Molelekwa but they are both seriously good keyboard players who are a pleasure to listen to. The sleeve notes don’t identify the saxophonist on “Trail Blazer” but it is also probably Mpumi Dhlamini, for like Kyle Shepherd, he is gifted on this instrument too

So many of Molelekwa’s former collaborators (Magesh, Oskido, Spikiri) and admirers (Ringo, Speedy, Brickz, Stoan) can be heard on “The Orientation,” Professor’s keenly awaited follow-up to his  successful , critically acclaimed debut “The University of Kalawa Jazmee,” that, were he alive today, one senses that Moses too would be sitting at this young academic’s feet to hear his latest lecture. Readers unfamiliar with this decade and a half old institution may first want to know what exactly is “Kalawa Jazmee?” Is it a musical genre, a university, a school of musicians, an elaborate joke or merely an innovative record label? Currently, the best answer is that Kalawa Jazmee seems to have become something of a latter day Kalakuta Republic with a collective leadership fulfilling a role akin to the late Fela Kuti.

Certainly, Fela would have been taken with “Shoba Shobane” the keynote track on “The Orientation.” This song, featuring Professor’s star pupils Ray Phiri on lead vocals (also known for his work with Paul Simon), Avante as a vocal chorus formerly known as a gospel group) and rapper Sbo, is ostensibly about a massacre that occurred on Christmas Day, 1995 when supporters of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party clashed causing much lamented bloodshed and loss of life. Fela, however, would immediately smile and recognise, as every South African who hears it does, that ‘though “Shoba Shobane” is carefully oblique, it is a pronouncement on the tragedy that occurred recently at the Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg when police fatally shot 34 miners and wounded 78 more. Jazz or not, this is a track we all need to hear: not only for its moving and universal message, which brings to mind Miriam Makeba’s  dictum that she wasn’t political, she just sang the truth; but also because Professor’s  rhythms mak e all South Africa dance and have applicants queuing ‘round the block to enrol at an unparalleled university.

January 2013

Return to top of page