© Ben Robertson 2006 -
2015 – Reviews
Track for the Year End:-
There have been fine releases from Benz Petrole, Elba, Ferre Gola, Karmapa, Ray Lema,
etc. and a truly outstanding one from Feya Tess. “Quelques classiques de Tabu Ley,”
her selection of cover versions by African Jazz alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau, one of
Africa’s greatest composers, arrangers, bandleaders and singers of all time, is an
irresistible album. Tess’ deep love and understanding of this music was nurtured
by the great man himself and has had many years to mature since she joined his Afrisa
in 1986. Her vocal style has blossomed too justifying the faith that Tabu Ley showed
in her all those years ago and making Feya Tess this site’s female vocalist of the
year despite stiff competition from South Africa’s Nomfundo Xaluva. The standard
of Tabu Ley’s compositions is of course beyond reproach -
Part of the problem for today’s Congolese stars is the extraordinary stature of their
predecessors such as Tabu Ley and, of course, Franco. Fans of Franco and his OK Jazz
were treated in 2015 not only to Simaro’s glorious solo project “Maya” but also to
the concluding three volumes of his “The Very Best Of” compilation of his work with
Franco and a double album marking the 25th anniversary of Franco’s death “Hommage
a Franco 25 Ans” that wisely presents less well-
The contemporary artist whose stature and longevity comes closest to that of these illustrious predecessors is Koffi Olomide who’s live DVD of Franco cover versions was this site’s album of the year last year and was the latest release in what is now his quite long line of live DVDs by the great Congolese jazz artists of the past. While Koffi never presents himself as a jazz artist and nor does his audience think of himself as such his careful study and reworkings of material by Franco, Tabu Ley and Simaro does seem to have had a beneficial impact on his own music the latest of which, a gargantuan, absurdly titled four CD set “13eme Apôtre” (13th Apostle) is in fact an undeniably good album that those intrigued by Central African music willing to venture beyond jazz might like to try.
Finally, two albums by promising newcomers suggest that Congolese jazz though no longer the force it once was is still very much alive.
New East African jazz releases have been few and far between but it would be quite wrong to think that this means the music is in the doldrums. On the contrary, Kenyan jazz in particular has been on the rise for several years and Nairobi seems to sport one of the most interesting jazz scenes in all Africa at the moment. A good recent survey of the country’s jazz can be read here.
The reissue of trumpeter Christine Kamau’s “This Is for You” as a digital download
is especially welcome -
Heartrendingly there have been some excellent and coherent jazz releases from Southern Africa this year: from the likes of Feya Faku, Louis Moholo Moholo, Afrika Mkhize, Don Laka, Tony Cedras, Linda Sikhakhane, Bokani Dyer, Nduduzo Makhathini, Marcus Wyatt, Nomfundo Xaluva, Kabelo, Kabomo, Soul Brothers and Elias Kacomanolis. The region also offered up three of the continents best newcomers including Botswana’s chanteuse Kearoma Rantao who’s “When the Music Plays” is outstanding and reaffirms Southern African jazz’s longstanding connection with the dancefloor. Strong reissues from the region included masterworks by Johnny Dyani, Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and Bheki Mseleku plus rare gems from Duku Makasi and Ndikho Xaba. The best of all these releases however was surely pianist/ composer Afrika Mkhize’s long overdue solo debut “ Rain Dancer” which rather like double bassist Herbie Tsoaeli's equally tardy “African Time” feels like an instant classic. Mkhize pays tribute to Bheki Mseleku with a cover version of his “Beauty of Sunrise” and invokes the inspiration of “Genes & Spirits” era Moses Taiwa Molelekwa when he uses two keyboards but Mkhize has developed a style that though rooted in the past is utterly contemporary and instantly recognisable as his own – a remarkable feat given the strength of South Africa’s jazz scene in the keyboard department. \\For more on Mkhize see the review of “Playing At The Bird's Eye” by Banz Oester & The Rainmakers which also came out his year and on which he played.
An interesting trend in 2015 was the increased number of collaborative recordings involving South and West African jazz musicians such as Nigerian guitarist Kunle Ayo’s work with uber chic South African jazz diva Simphiwe Dana on her album “Firebrand;” South African guitarist Mongezi Ntaka’s work on male Nigerian vocal star Kuku’s strong album “Ballads & Blasphemy;” Jonathan Butler’s memorable guest appearance on Camerounian Makossa star Grace Decca, George Duke produced, “Mouna” and, best of all ,Nigerian saxophonist Ayo Solanke’s performance on Don Laka’s innovative, convincing crossover jazz/classical album “Afro Chopin.” Solanke also forms part of the sparky horn section on Kabelo’s “Immortal, Vol 3,” an afrobeat inflected album that is the TKZee jazz aficionado’s best release in many years. The reissue of Dudu Pukwana’s band Assagai’s debut album is a reminder that such collaborations have occurred sporadically for decades but there seems to have been a marked increase of late. The best South Africans are also increasingly adept at playing in West African styles without the input of their musicians as demonstrated in the discussion of Nduduzo Makhathini’s beautiful track “King Fela” below.
There has been a glittering array of releases from this region. Fela Kuti’s earliest
recordings, reissued for the first time on the compilation “Highlife On The Move:
Selected Nigerian & Ghanaian Recordings from London & Lagos 1954-
One of Ghana’s premier latter-
Two other former members of Fela’s bands released first rate recordings in 2015.
Femi Kuti’s guest appearance on the opening track of Gangbe Brass Band’s “Go Slow
to Lagos” demonstrates again what a gifted alto saxophonist he is-
This is not to say however that there haven’t been other exceptional new Afrobeat
recordings. On the contrary, 2015 has been a good year for the genre but the standout
performances have been individual tracks rather than complete albums. Shining examples
include, from the USA, the opening track of Marcus Miller’s album “Afrodezia” which
is not only a wonderful piece of music but also demonstrates the extent to which
Fela’s influence has captured the heart of the African-
Other very fine releases from the region include albums by guitarist Lionel Loueke
who’s “Gaïa” is streets ahead of his previous solo albums for the prestigious Blue
Note label; several excellent relapses by jazz musicians from Cameroun: Etienne Mbappe,
Blick Bassy and Gino Sitson; albums by Cabo Verde’s Carmen Souza; Ghana’s Gyedu-
Picking an album of the year has however been straightforward. E.T. Mensah & The
Tempos’ monumental four disc “King of Highlife Anthology” complete with a revised
edition of Prof John Collins definitive book on Mensah is an obvious winner. Looking
through the rest of the year’s releases it is not difficult to see why E.T. is such
a seminal figure. Especially instructive in this regard are Fela Kuti’s aforementioned
earliest recordings which remind us that everything he did was rooted in danceband
The best new recording of the year however was Feya Tess’ gorgeous “Quelques Classiques de Tabu Ley” and this is somehow fitting given that in for the bulk of the post E.T. era right up until the end of apartheid, Congolese music was the single most potent force in jazz in Africa.
16 December 2015
Track of the Month:-
E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ “King of Highlife Anthology” is the first issue by RetroAfric
in many years and marks a welcome return to the fray for this pioneering record label
founded in the mid-
Refreshingly moreover, RetroAfric always had an exemplary approach compared to many African music reissue labels. The knowledgeable authorities behind “Anthology” plainly believe that what the world needs is to hear the best, most influential and important African recordings whereas so many younger specialist African reissue labels seem to be run by record collectors who believe, quite mistakenly, that what we want is music that is rare.
Certainly, when it comes to importance few figures match the stature of Ghanaian
danceband highlife pioneer E.T. Mensah. True to form, the compilers of “Anthology”
have focused on the early years of E.T.’s career-
All the music on “Anthology” was originally released on the Decca West Africa label and about a third of the tracks are also available to listen to free of charge online as part of the British Library’s Decca West Africa collection. Decca’s original catalogue numbers and printed labels for each track are also available on the British Library’s site and by using this discographical information together with that of several specialist discographical sites such as www.afrodisc.com it is possible to establish the order in which tracks were recorded and released. Occasionally, the original labels on the records state dates and personnel too. By combining this information with careful listening and with statements about the band’s personnel and chronology set out in sleeve notes to Decca West Africa is first two 10 inch LP's, both of which were Mensah compilations, together with the wealth of information provided by John Collins it is possible to put together much of the chronology and personnel for the recordings. Better still, the wealth of recordings by other Ghanaian acts of the period in the British Library Decca West Africa collection enable one to appreciate just how and why E.T. Mensah & the Tempos were.so innovative and influential. An annotated track list for “Anthology is set out below.
As one might expect Prof John Collins extensive sleeve notes that come as a hard back book attached to “Anthology” are authoritative and enlightening on the paramount issue: how E.T.’s music relates to Ghanaian and West African music. This article offers nothing to add to what Collins says about this. He is equally good on the issue of how E.T.’s music relates to Trinidadian calypso but while he proffers invaluable insight on how it relates to danceband and jazz too the remainder of this article is an attempt to flesh out his thoughts.
The style of music Mensah played is often referred to as “Danceband Highlife.” From the mid 1930’s,to early 50’s in Britain and in British colonies, of which Ghana then known as the Gold Coast was one, “danceband” was not primarily a type of band or musical unit but a now more or less defunct genre that was quite distinct from African American jazz and that is now usually referred to as “British danceband” but at the time was simply known as “danceband.” The confusion is compounded by the fact that the instrumentation for British danceband was similar to that of African American jazz of the period and by the fact that some of the repertoire was shared too.
The reason why this matters is that danceband was a major influence on E.T. Mensah as demonstrated by Prof Collins who writes that in 1967 the Tempos’ longstanding star lead vocalist and bongo player Dan Acqaye:
“…decided to leave and took everyone else with him. His [ E.T. Mensah’s] son Nii-
Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra, formed in 1935, were leading exponents of danceband. As was customary in danceband, Sylvester’s records were carefully categorised as slow foxtrot’s, quick steps, tangos, rumbas, waltzes, etc. so that ballroom dancers would know which steps to employ and could minimise the risk of treading on one another’s toes. Mensah followed suit as can be seen at the back of the booklet accompanying “Anthology” which painstakingly sets out the style of each song as stated on the original record labels so that those who wish to do so may still dance to this music in the styles originally intended.
British danceband was virtually unknown in the US but throughout the jazz age there was popular music in the US that was not jazz. A wonderful and succinct, if somewhat tongue in cheek example of the difference between jazz and conventional popular music analogous to British danceband of the period can be heard in the first 20 seconds of Red Nichols and The Five Pennies 1930 recording of “Sheik of Araby.” It begins with banjoist Treg Brown playing the role of a conventional crooner who is interrupted and blown away by trombonist Jack Teagarden’s jazz rendition of the vocal.
It may seem rather odd to be reading about this in a site about African jazz but the danceband genre was a critical component in E.T.’s musical development.
Leopard and the Black and White Spots
Much of E.T.’s refinement as an instrumentalist/ arranger, his professionalism, presentation
It is sometimes stated, although not by Prof Collins, that Leopard and the Black and White Spots were a jazz band but this is unlikely because in a British context, jazz was not the popular music of the day. According to British jazz critic Philip Larkin, recalling his adolescence in Britain at the time, jazz was:
“… a fugitive minority interest, a record heard by chance from a foreign [radio] station, a chorus between two vocals, one man in an otherwise dull band. No one you knew liked it.
Nevertheless, it had established itself in my life several years before I consciously
heard anything that could be properly be called real jazz. This happened by way of
the danceband, a now vanished phenomenon of 12 or 14 players (usually identically
uniformed) that was employed by a hotel or restaurant so that its customers could
dance. Their leaders were national celebrities, and had regular time on the radio:
5.15 to 6.00 in the afternoon, for instance and half-
The ‘hot’ number most likely to have been in Leopard and his Black and White Spots’ repertoire was “Tiger Rag” about which Larkin states:
“The classic ‘hot’ number was ‘Tiger Rag’: it had that kind of national-
It is highly probable that this is why “Tiger Rag” was a mainstay of E.T. Mensah & the Tempos live shows. Harry Roy and his Orchestra 1933 version can be heard here.
It’s a great shame that we don’t have a recording of Mensah playing “Tiger Rag” because
to do so would give us an opportunity firstly to hear his up-
Even if Jack Leopard described himself as a jazz musician it is highly likely that he wasn’t much of one and wouldn’t have been recognised as one by Jack Teagarden or any well informed self respecting jazz lover of the period.
Retentions from danceband in E.T.’s music included his gentle alto sax style and trumpet playing; the polite rhythms often played by his horn section, Joe Bosman’s double bass playing; the band’s smart uniformed stage presentation; foxtrot’s; waltzes; quick steps plus, of course, “Tiger Rag.” Doubtless, all these elements were factors in E.T. Mensah &The Tempos startling success. By the late 1950’s such retentions from British danceband made Mensah’s music sound dated and led Fela Kuti to dismiss it as “kolo” (colonial). Given however that the British danceband from which such elements derived became extinct while forms of music heavily indebted to danceband highlife, including Afrobeat have gone strength to strength, it is arguably much more important to consider not what E.T. retained from British danceband but what he changed and why.
Again by far the the most important of such changes were rooted in West Africa’s own music – as Prof, Collins’ sleeve notes and other writings elaborate. But here were influences from African American jazz too.
Before the second world war there had been Ghanaian bands that in presumably incorporated
elements of jazz such as The jazz Kings and Cape Coast Sugar Babies. We don’t know
what their music sounded like. The first jazz recording known to me from Ghana is
a cover version of Duke Ellington’s “Rocking in Rhythm” by the Gold Coast Police
Band If this is anything to go by the jazz content in the music that the Jazz Kings,
etc. played may not have been all that great. What their choice of name almost undoubtedly
shows however is that the band were aware that African-
Uncle Sam and the Swing era
What is clear is that both British danceband and pre war Ghanaian articulations of
jazz were swept away by the entry of the United States into the Second World War
which was a watershed in the development of popular music and nightlife in Accra.
All of a sudden there were large numbers of American servicemen stationed in and
passing through the city on their way to theatres of war. With them came large quantities
of money resulting in the establishment of numerous new American-
Elements of E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ music much indebted to swing include Mensah’s tenor sax solos which are in a style quite distinct from his other horn playing. There are also elements of swing in the style of the bands best soloist, alto saxophonist Spike Anyankor. Anyankor was an original musician with a style of playing that resulted in what surely deserve to be termed highlife horn solos but, at a guess, his tone and approach owe something to Duke Ellington’s premier soloist – the great Johnny Hodges.
Good sources of further information about the swing era in Ghana include the first of the two interviews recorded with E.T., Mensah recorded with Voice of America radio in 1981 in which, on the one hand, he was a pains to distance himself the jazz enthusiasts that passed through the band, Ghanaba and Joe Kelly, who were in fact besotted with bebop; while on the other hand expressing his admiration for big stars from the US swing era such as tenor player Tex Beneke, trombonist/band leader Tommy Dorsey and trumpeter/bandleader Harry James of whom E.T. said: “I like him very much.”
Another good source of information about Ghana in the swing era is a delightfully informal, unvarnished interview with Jerry Hansen conducted by Will Magid in parts one and two. Hansen, who Mensah claimed to have and probably did train was a tenor saxophonist whose popularity in Ghana eclipsed Mensah’s in the 1960’s. Like South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim he had what he described as an “obsession with Duke Ellington.”
Ghanaba: the first African to play bebop
Perhaps the greatest source of confusion and complexity that has arisen in understanding the relationship between danceband highlife and jazz is the elusive, potent, influence of percussionist Koffi Ghanaba known in those days as Guy Warren.
Having been a musician In the late 1940's and early 1950's, Ghnaba went on to make groundbreaking recordings in the United States including the first African jazz LP album “Africa Speaks, America Answers” in 1956. But Ghanaba wasn’t just a musician, he was a polymath: a broadcaster, jazz DJ, film star, journalist and, most probably and incredibly, a US intelligence officer. This set of attainments, that would have been noteworthy for a young man in any era, is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that he was a young black African from colonial West Africa. Ghanaba, or Guy Warren as he was known in those days,was plainly a somebody of the first order. The question is, what sort of somebody was he?
The short but rather unhelpful answer is that he was an enigma: exemplified by the fact that he is by far by far the most celebrated alumnus of the Tempos apart from E.T. himself and yet he never recorded with the band. If his subsequent career is anything to go by, there can be little doubt however that he had a significant influence on the Tempos. For example, those seriously impressed by his music in the future would include Fela Kuti, Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Moreover that 1956 LP “Africa speaks, America answers”, the first African jazz album of any sort, was and remains a milestone in the development of jazz the stature and significance of which has increased over the years.
Even though he somehow failed to get established as a professional jazz musician
in America subsequently, his contribution to music t has excited great interest in
recent years from prominent cutting-
In the context of this discussion about the origins of danceband highlife and its
relationship with jazz Ghana is arguably the key figure. E.T. reports that when Ghanaba
left the band it was because he and tenor saxophonist Joe Kelly were jazz fanatics
and wanted to develop the music in that direction. The account given in Collins'
sleeve notes is rather different and suggests that Ghanaba and Kelly wanted to take
the band in an Afro Latin direction. This is a doubtful explanation because the music
both parties made after the split suggests it was E.T. who was keen to have the Tempos
play Afro Latin numbers and self-
Jazz wise, the first thing to say about Ghanaba is that he was younger than E.T.
and therefore not involved in the danceband music scene of the early 40's but rather
fell in love with jazz and everything else American when the USA joined the war.
He went on to become a radio disc jockey playing jazz on the radio in Ghana in the
We also know that when he was in Chicago in 1943 ,Ghanaba jammed with Miff Mole at
Nick’s which suggests he had already figured out that was a lot more to jazz than
the popular juggernaut swing bands of the day. History doesn’t relate whether or
not the great Pee Wee Russell was on the bandstand that night but it is tempting
to speculate that the hope of hearing his clarinet playing -
Again, frustratingly, Ghana left the Kenny Graham’s band shortly before they made
their first recordings but they are widely regarded as the first band to play bebop
in the UK. In his sleeve notes to the late 70s vinyl compilation of all the band’s
earliest releases dating from February 1951 to February 1953 (Kenny Graham's Afro-
“Many years ago as a young man among many who ate, slept and lived modern jazz, Kenny Graham was the shrine as far as the British scene was concerned.” (Rust’s italics)
The Nigerian percussionist Ginger Johnson features prominently on the earliest tracks on bongos, presumably replacing Ghanaba. Later still another Nigerian Billy Olu Sholanke replaced Johnson.
Ghanaba seems to have left a profound impression on the band as he seems to have done everywhere. By today’s standards it might be argued that the inclusion of black conga and bongo drummers in a predominantly white band merely reinforced racial stereotypes but in the British jazz scene of the early 50's it was a genuinely radical step and the music they made together remains fascinating. Graham’s utilization of Ghanaba also needs to be considered in the light of his subsequent frustration in the US where no major jazz figure other than Charlie Parker really seemed to get Ghanaba. It is also instructive to compare bebop bongo drummer pioneer Sabu Martinez’s recordings with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, which seem to date from December 1948 onwards and are usually cited as the first of their kind with Ginger Johnson’s contribution to the Afro Cubists. There is remarkably little similarity and it could be argued that Ginger Johnson’s probably Ghanaba influenced style is the more striking.
While Ghanaba never recorded with the Tempo’s, he did leave his bongos with the band and it is equally fascinating and instructive to compare the use of bongos in the earliest E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ sides, included in “Anthology,” with the first sides cut by Kenny Graham and the Afro Cubists with Ginger Johnson on bongos. To this critic’s ears the similarity is palpable and, moreover, the bongo playing is the most remarkable feature of both bands. If this is correct the likely explanation is that Ghanaba was major influence on both Kenny Graham and E.T.
Interestingly, Ghanaba consistently denied that he played Latin or Afro Cuban rhythms
and stresses that he played African rhythms. This was probably an over simplification.
Ghanaba seems to have encountered bongos not in a Cuban or jazz context but in Trinidadian
calypso of which he was a fan and of which he encountered much in London’s Soho.
A much bigger influence however was bebop. Kenny Graham and the Afro Cubists was
first and foremost a bebop band – and is often cited as the first in Europe. Certainly,
Ghanaba was an early and lifelong convert to the genre and the impact it had on him
was huge. That is why he sought out Charlie Parker in the US and named one of his
sons Glenn Gillespie. He was the first African to play bebop: the band in which he
did so was Kenny Graham’s Afro Cubists and the instrument he played was bongos. With
this in mind the similarity between the bongo playing on the earliest recordings
by the Afro Cubists and the Tempo’s is obvious. The freedom with which the bongos
express themselves in relation to the underlying rhythm and frontline horns derives
directly from Ghanaba’s love of bebop. The likely explanation is that Ghanaba was
making a conscious effort to play bongos the same way Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie
played their horns -
The first person to point out he bebop element in the Tempo’s use of percussionists was Max Reinhardt in the sleeve notes to his “Highlife Time” compilations who stated, incorrectly, that this was Ghanaba's playing. Nevertheless Reinhardt is surely right in thinking that he hears the influence of bebop in the Tempos music and in assuming that it originated from Ghanaba.
If so, the implications are huge. If the influence of bebop via Ghanaba was a critical component in the success of the Tempos and the style of music they created then that, surely, is Ghanaba’s greatest contribution to the history of jazz, overshadowing his later career in the US and Ghana. If, again via Ghanaba, Charlie Parker’s innovations were a key factor in the development and success of danceband highlife and the afrobeat it that followed; it could also be argued that it makes a big difference to the position bebop occupies in the global history of jazz. It also makes one look again at the famous photograph of Charlie Parker and Ghanaba taken right at the end of Parker’s life shortly before the two musicians planned to play with one another for the first time, in which the two musicians had exchange clothes – Parker wearing Ghanaian Kente attire standing behind Ghanaba in a jazzman’s suit. There seems to have been a remarkable affinity between these two men and the picture seems to embody the interconnectedness of the contribution both made to jazz in their respective continents and in each other’s.
The centrality of bebop to Ghanaba’s world at the time is also demonstrated by the
fact that after he split with the Tempos e formed his own Afro-
Years later, he also wrote a short essay “The Evolution of the Drums in Jazz” which explains his understanding of the place of “Africa speaks, America answers” in jazz history in which he leaves one in no doubt about the centrality of bebop and stresses the importance he assigns to Dizzy Gillespie’s Cuban congas player but makes no mention of bongos, or Kenny Graham's Afro Cubists or the Tempos.
Ghanaba seems to have regarded his split with the Tempos as a war that he lost and although one can’t know what he thought about the Tempos’ subsequent music and the danceband highlife boom that followed, it is probable that, like Fela Kuti, he thoroughly disliked the elements of British danceband in the music. The irony is that if the analysis of Ghanaba’s legacy set out above is correct, while Ghanaba may have lost a battle when he parted company with Mensah he certainly hadn’t lost the war. On the contrary, it seems much more probable that Ghanaba’s influence on the Tempos and subsequent highlife was far reaching and fundamental.
He did not turn highlife into a branch of bebop but rather transformed and re Africanised elements of it into a new form of highlife that was to dominate West Africa’s dancefloors for years to come.
It is likely that the main thing Ghanaba brought to the Tempos was the seriousness
about percussion, drumming and rhythm. In later recordings no matter what genre the
Tempos played -
It is also interesting to speculate about why Ghanaba chose to make his contribution with bongos rather than his customary drum kit. There may have been any number of such reasons but it is noteworthy that according to Collins:
“E.T. always told me that whenever they were playing highlife Warren would play with one hand, but if they were playing jazz he played with all his feet and hands. He was basically a jazz freak.” (From brass band lecture)
But Ghanaba, jazz freak though he undoubtedly was, continued to feature highlife in his recordings right up until his death. It may well be that he couldn’t figure out how to play highlife with both hands on a drum kit. Certainly, this was a problem that it took musicians many years to solve: Uhuru's kit drummer made strides in that direction in the 1960’s and then the great Tony Allen provided the definitive solution. With this context in mind, it may well be that Ghana adopted bongos, played in conjunction with congas and shakers, because it enabled him to generate the sounds he wanted to play.
It is also interesting to note that the use of Afro-
“within a few years of this highlife dance-
Over time, of course, Ghanaba famously did exactly the same thing. Note however that Bruce cut his teeth in highlife as a percussionist with the Tempos shortly after Ghanaba had left. In short the crucial ingredient wasn’t the type of hand drum employed but rather how it was played.
It is also likely that hand drumming wasn’t the only area in which Ghanaba’s love of jazz had an important impact on the Tempo’s music. There is a phonograph of the Tempos in 1950 with Ghanaba in shades and there was a female in the band. Collins thinks Mensah was inspired in this respect by jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald but Mensah made no mention of female artists when asked by Voice of America radio to name his favourite US musicians.
The soundtrack to “The Boy Kuasenu” a movie made in Ghana in 1951 and 1952 is, from a Ghanaba point of view, tantalising and typically mysterious. It was made # after Ghanaba left the Tempos and he starred in it as a hustler with shades who, as mentioned above, can be seen dancing the jitterbug to a a highlife tune in a bar. The score, attributed to British classical composer Elizabeth Lutyens actually contains small band Jazz and highlife that must have derived from another source. At a guess, at the very least, this soundtrack may well have reflected the sort of music that Ghanaba liked at the time but it also begs the question: who were the performers? The highlife track is particularly intriguing because the instrumentation is similar to that of the early Tempos before E.T. took over. Could it be that this part of the soundtrack is by Ghanaba and possibly Joe Kelly? If not who was this music by? What makes this question so interesting is that the soundtrack predates the Tempos first recordings and was therefore incurably advanced for its time. It is difficult to think who else other than Ghanaba could possibly have recorded it. Whatever the answers to this question the soundtrack and remarkable footage contained in “The Boy Kumasenu” are historic and of the utmost importance in understanding the early genesis of danceband highlife and its relation to jazz. Two things in particular stand out. Firstly, though the sound is poor there don’t seem to be any bongos nor a drum kit. Indeed there there doesn’t seem to be any recording of Ghanaba playing bongos in existence. At the time this was probably simply because he’d given his to E.T. but the fact that he never used them in his future career suggests that , like King Bruce, he didn’t think the type of hand drums one used was critical – what mattered was how they were played. Secondly, the jazz part of the score features a woman singing.
In Robin DG Kelly’s “Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times ” the author argues that Ghanaba’s use of female vocalists in later recordings had a profound influence on Fela Kuti. Given the score of “The Boy Kumasenu” there is surely a strong possibility E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ unusual use of female lead vocalists derived from Ghanaba’s influence too.
Much the best starting point for understanding Mensah is his own account as set out by John Collins in the sleeve notes to “Anthology” and especially in the wonderful recorded interviews he gave for the Voice of America in 1981. From all his accounts of the origins of highlife and its relationship to jazz it is clear that he quite rightly regarded his danceband highlife primarily as a form of music derived from Africa. He goes out of the way to stress that he himself was not a jazz fanatic and at no point does he refer to his own music as jazz. All this is unquestionable and anyone wishing to understand Mensah is strongly advised to seek out his own accounts because he was clearly articulate and intelligent.
What is most noticeable about these interviews is the extent to which his personality comes across as being akin to his music – likeable, concise, straightforward, relaxed, humane, well thought out. E.T. was not a wayward, romantic figure. On the contrary he was trained as and ran a successful business as a pharmacist. It is not unreasonable to draw an analogy between pharmacy and Mensah’s approach to music that skilfully utilised elements of traditional Ghanaian music and especially early forms of highlife with elements of British danceband, American swing, Trinidadian calypso and Ghanaba’s maverick originality to make a new formulation that was to have widespread, lasting appeal. The relationship between jazz and danceband highlife is interesting and important nonetheless not primarily because of the influence of jazz on highlife but rather because of the scale and influence of what highlife has done and is still doing for jazz
Two aspects of E.T. that stand out as being important to the success of and future of the music are his business acumen and his ability as a music teacher. In the sleeve notes to “Anthology,” Collins quotes E.T. Saying:
“When you establish a professional band you put all your energy into it or else you starve”
But in the Voice of America interviews he also quips that in relation to his pharmacy he was “Like a man with two wives.” This versatility was important. The long and short of it was that no matter what the economy or popular taste threw at him he was always able to continue with the music.
In his heyday and during the danceband highlife boom, his ability as a music teacher was both one of his greatest assets and one of the reasons that other bands came into being and spread the genre. His primary teaching method seems to have involved new recruits learning how to play from listening to recordings by their predecessors. It is likely that he picked up this technique from Sergeant Leopard and that he in turn passed it on to many musicians who themselves emulated it when establishing their own bands. Certainly musicians that had worked with and or been trained by Mensah formed the core of highlife for many years to come
Initially there were no danceband highlife players so Mensah had to train them up. As the music became popular his musicians and promoters and other bandleaders saw opportunities elsewhere. The bulk of Collins’ sleeve notes constitute a seemingly endless account of changes of personnel, of waves of new musicians leaving and joining the band accompanied by much hand wringing and grumbling by Mensah who seems to become increasingly jaded and fed up over the years but the bigger picture is that this high turnover of musicians was a huge factor in the highlife boom: the Tempos were a veritable factory churning out danceband highlife musicians many of whom picked up on Mensah’s skills and techniques as a teacher. Musicians that Mensah had trained formed the backbone of the initial phase of the highlife boom. Mensah’s style of leadership and his training of musicians was actually a major factor that fuelled the danceband highlife craze. The very fact that there came to exist a realm over which a King of Highlife could preside was largely down to Mensah himself. He wasn’t merely the first king: he actually played a huge role in creating the realm too. There wasn’t anything for him to be king of beforehand.
The removal of piano and drum kit from the early Tempos’ lineup proved advantageous too because both instruments were hard to get, expensive, difficult to maintain and virtually impossible move around. The absence of both gave more space for the percussionists to express themselves and cultivate their poly rhythms; the guitarist and bass player also had more space enabling Joe Bosman in particular to become more melodic in his playing.
Ironically, the relatively stiff and by African American jazz standards unsophisticated rhythms of British danceband may well have been advantageous too because in reality they presented a more or less blank canvas for the rhythm section and percussionists especially to work with. It is interesting that throughout his career, Fela's horn section was also very much arranged – again giving percussionists and especially Tony Allen the maximum amount of space in which to express themselves.
E.T. also plainly believed that it was the band leader’s job to be the inner source of creativity and innovation in music .Collins account of his 1969 trip to London is instructive in this respect. His new young band’s repertoire included “hey Jude” and they learnt reggae in London which was a big hit when they got home. Apparently, they were the first band to play it in Ghana. This shows that E.T. was still an innovator at heart with a keen ear for what people would like.
Independence and E.T.’s politics
E.T.’s music may have been dismissed as “kolo” (colonial) by musicians such as Fela Kuti who did away with the elements of the British danceband style in E.T.’s music and tried, in vain initially, to replace the prevailing danceband highlife style with his own highlife jazz but it is important to appreciate that there was nothing remotely “kolo” about E.T.’s politics. “Anthology’s” compilers justly emphasize this by opening their selection with “a Kwame Nkrumah” and closing with “Ghana Freedom |Highlife” recorded shortly after independence. E.T. may not have been notoriously rebellious like Fela was but it should also be remembered that Nkrumah was one of Fela’s most revered political heroes and had he been a Ghanaian musician of E.T.’s ea rather than a Nigerian one of a later period we might well have had a very different Fela.
Further glimpses of E.T.’s political thinking can be gleaned from the fact that he fought for the establishment of a Musician’s Union and in 1950's for higher royalties for all recording artists. The Union was established 1961 with E.T. as first chairman. Moreover in the thorny area of West Africa’s gender politics it could surely be argued that some of the ideas expressed in E.T. and his band’s music were light years ahead of Fela’s thinking – listen for example to the two remarkable tracks on “Anthology” sung by Julie Okine: “Nothing But Man’s Slave” and “The Tree and The Monkey.”
Other prominent members of the Tempos
and the band’s heyday
While E.T. himself and Ghanaba are the best known members of the Tempos, this is not to say that there were not a great many skilled and important other musicians in the band.
Musicians that had been members before the first recordings were made in 1953 included King Bruce who together with fellow ex Tempo Saka Acquaye went on to form a group called the Black Beats who were the first band to rival the Tempos in danceband highlife. Saka Acqaye's later cover version of “Bus Conductor” which was one of the tracks the Tempos recorded at the earliest recording session is a reminder.
Tommy Gripman, trombone player and vocalist did stay with the Tempos long enough to be featured on that same first recording session but left shortly afterwards to form his Red Spots who like the Tempos and the Black Beats were major players in the early danceband highlife scene.
Spike Anyankor, alto saxophonist, was, to this critic’s ears, the best soloist that ever worked with the band. His sound perhaps owed something to Johnny Hodges but he played with great originality and stayed with the band until he left to form the Rhythm Aces in 1954. His successor as alto soloist Rex Ofusu was another fine musician who played in a style heavily influenced by Anyankor.
Joe Bosman, double bassist, who had worked with Mensah since their time together in Leopard’s Black and White Spots seems to have drifted in and out of the Tempos suggesting that E.T. was always keen to have him in the band. His beautiful danceband influenced and melodic style of playing acted as a bridge between the percussionists who played with a degree of freedom probably drawn from both Ghanaian tradition and bebop, and the horns/ vocalists who played in a more arranged style. More importantly, and especially when heard live, Bosman’s double bass will have been what people actually danced to. Listening to the Tempo’s first recording session in the order that the tracks were originally recorded it is interesting to note that the engineers seem to have taken great care about how he was recorded because his double bass becomes more and more prominent as the session progressed.
Guitarists Tricky Johnson, then Aggrey and later Dizzy Acquaye played a key role too. Like Anyankor, Tricky Johnson seems to have been a key figure. His role was to introduce semi acoustic guitar and bring in the influence of Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. Just as Rex Ofusu seemed to pick up where Spike Anyankor left off so too did Tricky Johnson’s successors Aggrey and Dizzy Acquaye.
Key percussionists in the band certainly included conga player Thumb Addo (Tom-
Other prominent vocalists included Bing Quartey and Julie Okine.
There were also two prominent Nigerian musicians from Bobby Benson’s band who passed through the tempos Babyface Paul on tenor sax and Zeal Onyia on trumpet.
The Nigeria connection was hugely important – that country's population an market for music being much larger than Ghana’s. The band’s visit to Nigeria in 1953 is often cited as providing the stimulus for the highlife boom. The key Nigerian in this, Bobby Benson had been active on the music scene before this, but it seems mainly playing big band jazz and calypso but the Tempo’s influence went much further. Rex Lawson, for example, who was to become one of Nigeria’s biggest stars idolised Dan Acquaye. Likewise another of Nigeria’s big stars,Victor Uwaifo, was deeply indebted to Dizzy Acquaye.
The band’s success also spawned the Tempos’ first 10” LP which was the first LP to be recorded in Africa and seems to have been issued in 1955, targeted primarily at the market outside Ghana. It probably resulted from or was finalised during Mensah’s 1955 visit to England which seems to have been organised at the instigation of his record company Decca. The sleeve notes state:
“This record is representative of the band’s activities over a period of three years, 1953 to 1955 and contains most of the bands frequently requested titles.”
While this statement is slightly misleading because by 1955 the band had a large
repertoire of hit recordings making it unlikely that “most” were included on this
first 10 inch album -
The second most important moment in Louis Armstrong's life
and the tale of “Sly Mongoose”
According to Louis Armstrong, his May 1956 visit to Ghana on the verge of that country becoming the first to gain independence in Africa was the second most important moment in his life after playing with King Oliver for the first time. He can be heard stating this in Ed Munro’s documentary film “Satchmo the Great” and on the 1957 Columbia soundtrack LP of the same title on which she can also be heard performing in Accra in the presence of Kwame Nkrumah at E.T. Mensah’s Paramount club.
A CBS/Ed Munro film “See it Now” from 1955 had concluded with some footage of Mensah’s club The Paramount and highlife and gave Munro the idea of taking Armstrong there on the eve of Ghana’s independence.
The idea seems to have run into all sorts of practical difficulties. For example, E.T. had never heard “St Louis Blues” before being asked to jam with Armstrong on that number the night before he arrived in Ghana, which is a r reminder of just how little E.T. and his musicians knew of African American jazz prior to the US joining the Second World War.
For the same reason no doubt, Armstrong’s music had a mixed reception too. It seems that while swing was popular earlier forms of jazz and revivals thereof such as Dixieland were not.
Nevertheless, Armstrong wasn’t the only musician in the touring party to be deeply moved by the encounter. His clarinettist, Edmund Hall, actually returned to Ghana afterwards with the intention of setting up a band and settling in Ghana.
According to Collins, E.T. reflected that Armstrong’s visit had “quite an impact on the local music scene of the time” he added that Ragtime and later swing were what had been known previously. As a result many Accra trumpeters started using his phrasing and singers copied Armstrong’s voice. Some of the bands began to perform “trad” jazz numbers such as “St Louis Blues” which became part of the Tempos repertoire too. To those familiar with the impact that Armstrong’s subsequent tours of Africa for the State Department this will be hardly surprising. It is in fact difficult to overstate the influence that Armstrong’s example and live performances in sub Saharan Africa were to have.
Despite the fact that Mensah and his musicians didn’t know “St Louis Blues”and the
fact that Armstrong must have been at least equally ignorant about danceband highlife
,the two men had much in common. They both shared a great love of and idealism about
Ghana and they were both catalysts for huge change in music. By 1956 Mensah was three
years into his career as a recording artist and already he had completely changed
the recording industry and popular tastes in all Anglophone West Africa.The only
person in the history of black music to have made a similar impact in a similarly
short space of time had been Armstrong. The revolutionary musical thinking that each
was responsible for had other parallels too. Not only were they both trumpet players
revered and emulated by their peers but also the scion-
Undoubtedly, there were strong connections between the types of music both musicians
played. The richness and complexity of such connections is illustrated by the history
shared experience of the piece of music Armstrong first heard on landing in Ghana.
The assembled highlife bands of Accra that came to meet Armstrong and his All-
The eyewitness account of Armstrong’s historic visit to Ghana, including the moment when he thought he recognised his mother in the crowd, in Robert Raymond 1960 book “Black Star in the Wind,” though very much a period piece, is highly recommended as a source of further information.
Although there was much beautiful music to come from E.T. Mensah & The Tempos after
Ghana’s Independence in 1957 the year seems to have marked the point at which E.T.
and his musicians ceased to be at the very cutting edge of West Africa’s music scene.
His Paramount Club was forced to close that year and after 1957 there was to be only
one more lucrative tour of Nigeria. By 1962 E.T. went back to the government pharmacy
service and became part-
It is very much to the credit of the compilers of “Anthology” that they tacitly recognised this change and include relatively little of E.T.’s post independence output apart from a good selection of tracks from his 1969 stereo LP “Mensah's African Rhythms.”
At the tail end of Mensah’s career in the 70s, according to Collins, the Tempos continued
with much the same sort of line up as for the 1969 album i.e. electric guitars and
bass, two trumpets ,Cuban style rhythm section, three vocalists. By this stage however
they were mainly a covers band playing not only playing Congolese music, soul and
reggae as they had in 1969 but now Afrobeat and contemporary highlife hits too. In
a way, Mensah had reverted to doing what he had done with Leopard and the Black-
There were to be two further LP's firstly in the 1970's in which he was reunited with the great alto saxophonist Spike Anyankor and finally in the 1980's when he recorded with Nigerian highlife star Victor Olaiya.
Conclusions – (i) About E.T. Mensah and he Tempos
In his lecture on brass bands cited above Professor John Collins states that he has a list of 150 bands that:
“all played highlife with a touch of swing and Latin music as well as the Trinidadian Calypso music of Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, whose records were very popular in Ghana.”
In a nutshell, this is why West Africa started referring to E.T. as their King of Highlife. A parallel could be drawn with the USA’s King Oliver and it could further be stated that just as King Oliver paved the way for Louis Armstrong; E.T. pave the way for Fela Kuti. Alternatively, to use an African analogy one could say that E.T. was West Africa’s Joseph Kabasele and that Fela was the region’s equivalent of Franco. Whichever way one looks at it E.T. and his musicians, they played a seminal role in the development not only of danceband highlife but also of Afrobeat.
Jazz was by far and away not the most important influence on the development of this music; nevertheless it does contain influence not only from wartime Swing, but also that of contemporary African American jazz divas and Louis Jordan era jive plus, almost certainly, bebop mediated through the pioneering bongo playing of Ghanaba then known then as Guy Warren.
Conclusions – (ii) About “Anthology”
Salient features of E.T. Mensah & The Tempos' “King of Highlife Anthology” are that more than half of its tracks have not been reissued in the digital era before and that the accompanying hardback book/ sleeve notes i are actually a new edition of Collins book on E.T. Mensah which is by far and away the best and most definitive work on the subject to date and has been out of print for many years. Further good news for anyone in doubt about whether to acquire this substantial four disc set is that about a third of the tracks are available free of charge at the British Library’s Decca West Africa site so it is possible to get a good feel for the music before making up one’s mind. The majority of those that do make the effort to seek out and listen to this music will surely conclude that “Anthology” features some of the most original and influential recordings ever to have originated from Africa and should form an essential part of every serious jazz lovers collection and baseline knowledge of the ingredients that make up today’s global jazz scene.
There are however two minor frustrations from a jazz lovers perspective: first and foremost the lack of discographical information. We jazz lovers actually want to know who plays that sax solo and when. The second frustration is that the sleeve notes shed relatively little light on how the music relates to jazz. This is of course far from the most important question about E.T. Mensah & The Tempos, a much more important question, for example, is how his music relates to me other earlier forms of Ghanaian music but the sleeve notes and several other sources are excellent on this and many other questions but the thinking about the relationship between danceband highlife and jazz is not spelt out as clearly as it might be. This article and the accompanying annotated tracklist are attempts to begin t addressing both issues.
A1. Kwame Nkrumah (k)
A2. Muntum (k)
A3. Ngele Waewae (k)
A4. Auntie B (k)
A5. Makoma (j)
A6. Yei Ngbewoh (j)
A7. Hweyie (k)
A8. Menye Wo Bowu (k)
A9. Akuafo Cocoa (i)
A10. Natsui (i)
A11. The Tree and The Monkey (g)
A12. Onua (g)
A13. Owu Aye Me Adze (i)
A14. Mr Mouse (i)
A15. Nimpa Nawie (m)
A16. Akole Manuma Dibi (m)
A17. Club Girl (f)
B1. Nothing But Man’s Slave (g)
B2. Akpanga (Vulture) (f)
B3. Sanbra (g)
B4. Onua Pa (a)
B5. Shemi ni Oha (a)
B6. Korle Bu (a)
B7. Small Boy (a)
B8. Afi Fro Fro (a)
B9. Bus Conductor (a)
B10. Nkebo Baaya (b)
B11. Donkey Calypso (b)
B12. Tea Samba (b)
B13. Adainqua (b)
B14. All For You (b)
B15. St Peter’s Calypso (b)
B16. Essie Nana (b)
B17. John B Calypso (b)
C2. Odofo (b)
C3. Inflation Calypso (c)
C4. Nkatie (c)
C5. Assembon Tie M’ansem (d)
C6. Wiadzi (d)
C7. Agriculture (d)
C8. Fom Fom (d)
C9. Sunday Mirror (e)
C10. Don’t Mind Your Wife (e)
C11. Ahongyee (g)
C12. Mucho Mambo (g)
C13. Novimye (i)
C14. Loffoh Bibio (i)
C15. Bashia (i)
C16. Because of Money (i)
C17. School Girl (j)
D1. Day By Day (q)
D2. Calabar O (j)
D3. Comfort (l)
D4. Renkyebo (l)
D5. 205 (q)
D6. Onipa (n)
D7. Gbaa Anokwale (n)
D8. Abele (o)
D9. Odo Angyina (o)
D10. Damfo Wo Eni Ewu (p)
D11. Kaa No Wa (q)
D12. Senorita (q)
D13. Daavi Loloto (q)
D14. 1914 (q)
D15. Medzi Medzi (q)
D17. Mee Bei Obada (q)
D18. Ghana Freedom (h)
Note: Catalogue numbers for 78’s that follow that are not held in the British Library’s Decca West Africa collection appear in brackets.
E.T. Mansah, trumpet and tenor sax; Spike Anyankor, alto sax; Tommy Gripman, trombone;
Joe Bosnan, double bass; Tricky Johnson, acoustic guitar; Tom Thumb Addo (Tom-
B8. Afi Fro Fro (WA 634) unidentified female, vocals
B9. Bus Conductor (WA 634)
B6. Korle Bu WA 635 possibly Dan Acquaye, vocals
B7. Small Boy WA 635 unidentified female, vocls
B4. Onua Pa WA 636 unidentified female, vocals
B5. Shemi ni Oha WA 636 Tommy Gripman, vocals reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band” LP, 10 WAL 1001
E.T. Mansah, trumpet and tenor sax; Spike Anyankor, alto sax; ? trombone; Joe Bosman,
double bass; Tricky Johnson semi acoustic guitar; Tom Thumb Addo (Tom-
1953 post April
B10. Nkebo Baaya (WA 701) reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band LP, 10" WAL 1001
B11. Donkey Calypso (WA 701) reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band LP, 10" WAL 1001
B12. Tea Samba (WA 702) reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band LP, 10" WAL 1001
B13. Adainqua (WA 702) reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band”= LP, 10" WAL 1001
B14. All For You WA 703 Vocals, Spike Anyankor reissued in 1956 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band No. 2 LP, 10" WAL 1002; rerecorded by ET in 1976
B15. St Peter’s Calypso WA 703 reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band LP, 10” WAL 1001
B16. Essie Nana (WA 704)
C1.Munsuro (WA 704) reissued in 1955 on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band LP, 10" WAL 1001
B17. John B Calypso (WA 705) reissued in 1956 on “Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band No. 2 LP, 10"
C2. Odofo (WA 705) rerecorded by ET in 1976
The personnl was largely unchanged between (b) above and (f) below except that Glenn Koffie joined on trombone; Tricky Johnson was replaced by Aggey; joined by two Nigerians from Bobby Benson’s band Babyface Paul on tenor sax and Zeal Onyia on trumpet.
Then in 1954 Spike Ayankor, Glen Koffie, Babyface Paul, Aggrey, and Zeal Onyia leave to form the Rhthm Aces under Spike Anyankor
After the 1954 split he personell was
E.T. Mesah, Dan Acquaye, Tom Tom and “Bing” Quartey joined by Amoo Dodoo Aon alto; Dizzy Acquaye on semi acoustic guitar; Joe Ransford on double bass; Rex Ofusuon alto; Rich Kodjo on trombone and Edoh maracas. One photo in “Anthology” shows two guitarists and it may be that Aggrey didn’t leave the band for long before returning.
Date not known but between 1953 and ‘55
C3. Inflation Calypso (WA 721)
C4. Nkatie (WA 721)
See (c) above for personnel
Date not known but between 1953 and ‘55
C5. Assembon Tie M’ansem WA 726
C6. Wiadzi WA 726
C7. Agriculture (WA 727)
C8. Fom Fom (WA 727)
See (c) above for personnel
Date not known but between 1953 and ‘55
C9. Sunday Mirror (WA 748) reissued on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band LP, 10" WAL 1001 1955
C10. Don’t Mind Your Wife (WA 748)
Date not known but between 1953 and ‘56
A17. Club Girl WA 768 vocal, Bob Veale
B2. Akpanga (Vulture) WA 768 vocal, Dan Acquaye
The personell included E.T. Mensah, Dan Acquaye, Joe Ransford, Tom Tom, Dizzy Acquaye, Rex Ofosu,
C11. Ahongyee (WA804)
C12. Mucho Mambo (WA804)
A11. The Tree and The Monkey WA 805 featuring Julie Okine reissued on Decca Presents E. T. Mensah And His Tempo's Band No. 2 LP, 10" WAL 1002 1956
A12. Onua WA 805 vocal, Jimmy Hagan
B1. Nothing But Man’s Slave WA 806 featuring Julie Okine
B3. Sanbra WA 806 vocal, Jimmy Hagan
See (g) above for personnel
D18. Ghana Freedom (WA 826) vocal, Dan Acquaye
See (g) above for personnel
1957 or ‘58
A9. Akuafo Cocoa WA 842 vocal, Dan Acquaye
A10. Natsui WA 842 vocal, Dan Acquaye
C13. Novimye (WA 843) vocal,Dan Acquaye
C14. Loffoh Bibio (WA 843) vocal, Dan Acquaye
C15. Bashia (WA 844) vocal, Dan Acquaye
C16. Because of Money (WA 844) vocal, Dan Acquaye
A13. Owu Aye Me Adze WA 845 vocal, Dan Acquaye
A14. Mr Mouse WA 845
See (g) above for personnel
C17. School Girl (WA 857) reissued on Star Of Africa LP, 10" WAL 1003
D2. Calabar O (WA 857) reissued on Star Of Africa LP, 10" WAL 1003
A5. Makoma WA 858 1958; reissued on A Star Of Africa LP, 10" WAL 1003
A6. Yei Ngbewoh WA 858 1958; reissued on A Star Of Africa LP, 10" WAL 1003
See (g) above for personnel
A3. Ngele Waewae WA 898 vocal, Christine Mensah also issued on Ghana Rhythms EP WAX 101
A4. Auntie B WA 898 also issued on Ghana Rhythms EP WAX 101
A1. Kwame Nkrumah WA 899 vocal, Dan Acquaye also issued on Mensah Melodies EP WAX 104
A2. Muntum WA 899 also issued on Mensah Melodies EP WAX 104
A7. Hweyie WA 900 also issued on Ghana Rhythms EP WAX 101
A8. Menye Wo Bowu WA 900 also issued on Ghana Rhythms EP WAX 101
Personnel included E.T. Mensah and Dan Acquaye
D3. Comfort (WA 932) vocal, Jos Ackins & Dan Acquaye
D4. Renkyebo (WA 932) vocal, Jos Ackins &Dan Acquaye reissued on Tempos On The Beat LP, 10" WAL 1009
Personell as (l)
A15. Nimpa Nawie WA 968 vocal, Joss Aikins
A16. Akole Manuma Dibi WA 968 vocal, Bob Cole & Mensah’s Trio
Personell as (l) plus Kofi Aviyor on bongos on Gbaa Anokwale
Probably late 1960 or early 1961
D6. Onipa 45-
D7. Gbaa Anokwale 45-
Personnel as (l)
Probably circa 1963
D8. Abele 45-
D9. Odo Angyina 45-
Personnel as (l)
D10. Damfo Wo Eni Ewu original catalogue number not known; reissed on Various –
E.T. Mensah first trumpet and second alto: Obi Awuletey vocals: Mr Mingle, second trumpet: Plus possibly Kwao guitar, unidentified second vocalist; unidentified alto; unidentified trombone; unidentified kit dummer and two or three unidentified percussionists
Note: the names of the band members are sound checked on Kaa No Wa (track D11)
All from Mensah's African Rhythms LP, Stereo, WAPS 27
D1. Day By Day, actually a new version of “Stormy Ass”
D11. Kaa No Wa
D13. Daavi Loloto
D15. Medzi Medzi
D17. Mee Bei Obada
27 December 2015
Jazz at the 2015 South African Music Awards plus praise for Simphiwe Dana and disdain for xenophobia
Track of the Month:-
It is a pleasure to report that of the four strong releases on their shortlist for South African jazz album of the year 2015; the judges for this year’s South African Music Awards (SAMA) selected McCoy Mrubata's “Brasskap Sessions Vol. 2” as the winner. The same fine album was this site’s Southern African jazz release of the year in December and Mrubata’s latest accolade warrants making his “Hoza Mntakamama” Track of the Month.
Amid the less welcome news of horrifying xenophobic attacks in South Africa, it is also pleasing to report that this track features standout performances by Malawian guitarist Erik Paliani and percussionist Tlale Makhene from Swaziland alongside first rate contributions from South Africans including Sandile Gontsana vocals, Paul Hanmer on Fender Rhodes, Peter Sklair bass and, of course, Mrubata himself on alto and tenor sax.. Indeed, looking at the shortlists for this year’s SAM A jazz award and Metro FM’s Urban Jazz award won by Wanda Baloyi, it is noteworthy that the musicians involved come from at least seven different nations. This is nothing new: South Africa has acted as a magnet for good musicians for generations and the country’s jazz scene has benefited immeasurably as a result.
A good example from this year’s SAMA shortlists is Simphiwe Dana’s album “Firebrand”
which was nominated for Female Artist of the Year and Best African Adult Album. Dana’s
background is that of a jazz diva who has become a celebrity in South Africa much
feted by the press and attracting endless comment from gossip columnists about her
hair dos and love life, etc. Her key collaborator on her current album, which was
launched in Kenya, is the Nigerian jazz guitarist/producer/percussionist Kunle Ayo
who has been a stalwart of the South African jazz scene for many years. There are
overtones of Nigerian Afrobeat on tracks such as “Killjoy” and there is a song entitled
“Chibok” about the 200 or so schoolgirls abducted by Islamic extremists in Nigeria
just over a year ago. Indeed, Dana is one of the most politically outspoken musicians
in contemporary African jazz. There are several tracks on the album about the appalling
massacre which took place at South Africa’s Marakana platinum mine in 2012. One of
these, “Nzima,” co-
Nevertheless, “Firebrand” won’t be to everyone’s tastes firstly because, as previously noted on this site, she has an unusual voice that, though it grows on many listeners with time and frequently inspires great affection in the end, may put people off initially. Secondly, although there are elements of jazz across the album, “Firebrand” is a less overtly jazz orientated release than her previous offerings. In this critic’s view, it is not quite as good an album as it could be because of several songs sung in English with rather banal lyrics. When, however, she digs deep into the South African jazz groove there is much to admire. Check out for example the excellent “Jikel’ Emaweni” with Africa Mkhize superlative on piano.
It may be that the uneven quality of “Firebrand” accounts for why she hasn’t done as well with the SAMA judges as in previous years: having been Best Newcomer in 2005 with her debut “Zandisile;”then Best Female Artist and Album of the Year winner in 2007 with “The One Love Movement On Bantu Biko Street.” Her third album, “Kulture Noir” won her Metro FM Music Awards for Best Produced Album and Best Female Artist and in 2012 she won the SAMA prize for Best Live DVD for “An Evening with Simphiwe Dana Live in Concert” which is perhaps her best release to date and is certainly a good place to begin an acquaintance with her music.
Alongside these achievements Simphiwe Dana has also acted the role of Mandisa in
As the title of the book and the underlying theme of the movie (which I won’t disclose for fear of spoiling the plot for those who haven’t seen it), Dana has become increasingly visible in the political landscape over the years. In 2012, for example, she released a digital download single entitled “State of Emergency” written around the theme of the 1976 Soweto uprising. Like the current single “Nzima,” “State of Emergency” was also a political statement about contemporary South Africa and was accompanied by an excellent clip on YouTube.
In short, Simphiwe Dana is a fascinating, unusual, outspoken and multifaceted artist who, over the last 10 years, has become a major star in South Africa and put together a remarkable body of work both in and out of jazz that deserves to be more widely acclaimed.
Another major figure, Zim Ngqawana, whose posthumous DVD “Live at the Cape Town
International Jazz Festival” was this site’s 2013 Southern African Jazz Release of
the Year won one of three Lifetime Achievement Awards at SAMA 2015,; the other two
going to key figures in South Africa’s Kwaito/hip-
The Trompies latest offering “Delicious” is one of three Kalawa Jazmee releases
short listed for the 2015 SAMA Kwaito award, the others being “Legend” by Thebe and
the winner: Professor’s “University of Kalawa Jazmee Since 1994.” However, none of
these releases seems to have caught the public’s attention in the way that the best
previous Kalawa releases have nor do they offer much hint of jazz leaving the overall
impression that the Kwaito scene and the Kalawa Jazmee label in particular are ever
so slightly off the boil. Another change at this year’s SAMA ceremony was that the
jazz award was not televised -
Finally, returning to the xenophobia theme, it is hoped readers will be amused rather than simply annoyed to learn that the good folk at Wikipedia, who long argued unsuccessfully in their entry on “African jazz” that such music came solely and entirely from South African now state categorically in their article on “South African jazz” that it is a mistake ever to refer to that nation’s jazz as African jazz… Thank goodness artists like McCoy Mrubata and Simphiwe Dana provide such compelling evidence to the contrary. A characteristic of all good music surely is its capacity to transcend ethnic and geographical boundaries. Wikipedia are plain wrong: the broader African heritage and influence in South African jazz and indeed in all jazz should not be met with suspicion or denial: rather it is something to embrace wholeheartedly and celebrate.
International Jazz Day, April 2015
Track of the Month:-
At London’s Royal Regency in Manor Park on Saturday, the turnout was so great that
many had to be turned away. Uganda’s Diaspora was out in force enabling people who
hadn’t seen one another in years to catch up, creating an incredible volume of ambient
noise and a palpable sense of excitement during the long build-
Afrigo and their fans come from a generation of Ugandans that has endured the horrors
of war, brutal dictatorship and worst of all, being hit early and hit hard by the
HIV pandemic which ravaged the country’s population during the period when the band’s
popularity was at its zenith. Reading the band’s 40 year history, a recent account
of which can be viwed here, is like walking through a garden of remembrance but there
is nothing remotely funereal about their music. Far from it, Afrigo make uplifting
music of the highest order which is precisely why the music has survived and is so
close to the heart of fans. This music has not only enabled a band survive: it has
consistently lifted the spirits of a nation, even at times of an unimaginable adversity.
If ever proof were needed of the power of music -
Appropriately, the performance kicked off the with night’s only instrumental in which
Afrigo’s alto saxophonist and leader, 65 year old Moses Matovu, the only member of
the current line-
Those unable to catch Afrigo on their world tour who also lack the option of attending their usual haunts in Kampala, East Africa’s party capital, such as Jazzville, Bugolobi but able to reach London are encouraged to seek out Galaxy Band who currently have a regular Saturday late night spot at the wonderfully African West Green Tavern in Seven Sisters. The same venue still hosts the fine Congolese/Tanzanian band African Jambo on Fridays, as reviewed on this site in May last year. Galaxy Band boasts musicians in its line up of the same generation and calibre as Afrigo’s players including a very fine guitarist/vocalist; Samuel Kafhume on trumpet; Ngobi Godfrey on bass; a Ugandan keyboard player and female vocalist. Cocktail lounge style background music replete with cheesy keyboards for an hour or so from about nine won’t be to everyone’s tastes but once the band get into their stride they are a force to be reckoned with, with strong Franco like guitar, good trumpet, stunning singing and multi voice work. Their repertoire features a number of Afrigo songs, notably Deo Mukungu’s big hit “Afrigo Batuuse II” and rarely heard standards by Elly Wamala whose beautiful music proceeded Afrigo’s; check out, for example, his “Nkakasa nti Tolindekawo” which has fabulous horns and a sound that demonstrates again that Ugandan music is much more than a reworking of OK Jazz era Congolese music.
Miraculously, London’s disjointed, unpredictable African jazz scene produced another concert just as memorable as Afrigo’s earlier the very same night in the shape of a performance entitled “African Railway project” by the PSK Trio at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in Bishopsgate. PSK stands for the surnames of the three performers: the Portuguese born Cabo Verdean singer/guitarist/keyboard player Carmen Souza; the Portuguese bass player Theo Pascal and the Mozambican percussionist/ drummer Elias Kacomanolis, all three of whom also appeared on Souza’s superlative DVD/CD set “Live at Lagny Jazz Festival” last year.
The trio format enabled the listener to form a clear impression of each of the three
members. Theo Pascal is a genuine virtuoso on both double and electric bass and a
truly afrocentric musician -
The setting however, couldn’t have been more different from the Royal Regency -
Turning to recorded music, Carmen Souza & Theo Pascal also have a new album entitled “Epistola” in the offing, to be launched next month at Jazzahead in Bremen, Germany. Happily, “Epistola” continues and builds on the good form established on “Live at Lagny Jazz Festival.” Theo Pascal and Carmen Souza are plainly on a roll and long may it continue. On this set, Shane Forbes takes over at drums, Matt King plays organ and Craig Yaremko is on sax and clarinet. Together, these musicians make a kind of post modern African jazz forging something new out of all sorts of different influences from the past. Parallels from other parts of Africa include the work of Nigeria’s Lágbájá, Kenya’s Joseph Hellon and South Africa’s late lamented Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. The many delights on the album include Souza’s scat vocals and guitar on the opener “Cape V Blues” which is a radical and highly effective reworking of Horace Silver´s “Cape Verdean Blues” (click here for a clip.) “Kutequatekassa Quamundos” is an old Theo Pascal composition in Angolan dialect with a double tracked vocal that gets embedded in one’s psyche. “Twenty Choices” is affecting in a com pletely different way: the story Souza tells of how and why she chose music as a way of life has the ring of truth about it. “Oui ou Non” featuring clarinet, a hint of reggae and organ is another beautiful track full of characteristic twists and turns. “Strathheden Rd” has great organ again, funky sax and bass. In fact, throughout “Epistola” Pascal is superb whether on electric or upright bass; listen for example to his double bass solo on “CV Railways” (click here for clip). Saving the best till last, the album ends with a cover version of “Moonlight Serenade” that is just wonderful. This old chestnut by Glenn Miller with lyrics by Mitchell Parish dates from a period in jazz that is much derided but with Souza’s hushed, heartfelt vocals and acoustic guitar, Pascal’s melodic electric bass combined with percussion that keeps tempo much faster than previous versions such as Sinatra’s, this closing track showcases these musicians at their incandescent best. To sum up, the music on “Epistola” is inventive, joyous, characterised by lightness of touch leaving virtually everyone else in the shade. It’s a lucky thing Carmen Souza doesn’t seem to be eligible for South African jazz awards because with recordings like this it difficult to imagine how anyone else could ever win. This music sounds so alive – “Epistola” is a very special album indeed.
As it is, the South African judges charged with selecting a winner from the very
strong shortlist for this year’s Metro FM Urban Jazz Award, discussed on this site
last month, have given the nod to another very fine Lusophone chanteuse: Mozambique’s
Wanda Baloyi for her album “Love & Life.” Baloyi is to be congratulated on her success
in a year which marks not only the 40th anniversary of the founding not only of Uganda’s
Afrigo but is also the 40th anniversary of the independence of every former Portuguese
colony. Wanda Baloyi’s now award-
R&B star Kabomo, another key contributor to Wanda Baloyi’s “Love & Life,” also puts in an appearance on the title track of South African jazz diva Tutu Puoane’s new album “iLanga.” In fact, their duet is the pick of her new tracks and like Baloyi’s album grows on the listener with repeated listening. Puoane’s artistry is at least as great as Carmen Souza’s but while the new album has its moments such as the duet with Kabomo it mostly sounds exploratory and is not entirely coherent as a set of songs; perhaps it will turn out to be a transitional recording. A dark, slow, moving version of “Body and Soul” featuring rarely heard lyrics is a reminder of the profound talent Tutu Puoane undoubtedly possesses because this is one of the hardest tracks in jazz to make a distinctive version of.
While the awards season may be over for the Metro FM judges, those for the even
more prestigious South African Music Awards (SAMA’s) are just getting started and
have put together a mouth-
Herbie Tsoaeli – “African Time Quartet in Concert”
Kyle Shepherd Trio –“Dream State”
Marcus Wyatt –“Maji in the Land of Milk & Honey”
McCoy Mrubata – “Brasskap Sessions Vol. 2”
Nduduzo Makhathini – “Mother Tongue”
Mrubata’s “Brasskap Sessions Vol. 2” is also nominated for the Duo or Group of the Year award which encompasses all types of music from South Africa, not just jazz. Other nominations that will interest jazz lovers are Simphiwe Dana’s “Firebrand” has been nominated for Best African Adult Album , again a prize embracing all forms of music plus Professor’s “University of Kalawa Jazmee Since 1994” which has been nominated for Best Kwaito Album alongside two other releases from older artists in the Kalawa Jazmee stable: Thebe’s “Legend” and the Trompies’ “Delicious.” “Firebrand” which is produced by the Nigerian guitarist Kunle Ayo, another of contemporary African jazz’s foremost post modernists, and featuring Afrika Mkhize on keyboards plus Professor’s latest will be reviewed on this site in due course.
Surprisingly, given South Africa’s rich musical heritage, SAMA who have awards
for every conceivable kind of music have never had one for best reissue. Were they
to do so a newly reissued eponymous 1971 album “Ndikho Xaba and the Natives” would
surely be a contender if only for the superb quality of its 12 minute first track
“Shwabada” on which pianist and composer Xaba proves that he was very much in the
same league as other more illustrious exiles of the era. 1971 was also the year in
which Abdullah Ibrahum and Kippie Moeketsi recorded “African Sun” which makes for
intriguing comparison with Ndikho Xaba’s “Shwabada.” The rest of the album doesn’t
quite live up to the standard of its first track and sounds somewhat derivative;
a reminder of just how difficult it was for musicians exiled in the United States
to escape the influence of that country’s jazz and funk scene of the period. Singers
had an advantage but Masekela and even Makeba only really started to fly when they
encountered newer forms of African jazz in situ: Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz, etc. in
Makeba’s case; in Masekela’s -
Ndikho Xaba’s lack of commercial success at the time meant he was not afforded such opportunities to travel but Frances Gooding’s well researched sleeve notes leave us in no doubt that this reissued 1971 album is significant nonetheless in that it’s saxophonist Plunky Branch became a committed jazz afrocentric as a result of working with Xaba. This in turn seems to have been an important factor in the formation of Branch’s “Oneness of Juju,” who regardless of what one thinks of their music, were unquestionably one of the first afrocentric outfits in African American jazz. This influence doesn’t seem to have entirely rubbed off on Frences Gooding howeve, who’s sleeve notes state:
“Coming from South Africa, the country with the most fully developed jazz tradition in the world outside America, Ndikho was also able to do what all South African exiles did: weave the adopted jazz tradition of South Africa back into the original fabric of American jazz.”
What new talents did the United States have in jazz in 1971 to match the likes of Franco’s OK Jazz and Fela’s Africa 70 for starters? Surely, whether many African Americans realised it or not, by 1971 Africa was already the centre of the jazz world. The time when lovers of South African jazz had to prostrate themselves at the altar of African American jazz and could be dismissive about jazz from the rest of the continent are long gone.
The key reason South African jazz musicians such as Ndikho Xaba were being persecuted and chhosing exile was because of the apartheid regime was afraid of African jazz particularly, no doubt ,since the definitive band bearing that name had released its hit “Indépendance Cha Cha” in 1960 fuelling the decisive phase of the independence campaign in what is now Zambia but was then part of the colonial federation of states which was all that lay between South Africa and newly independent Africa in the shape of Patrice Lumumba’s Congo. South African jazz musicians of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were largely ignorant about jazz from the rest of Africa simply because the apartheid regime prevented them from hearing it. More than 20 years after the shackles were lifted from South Africa, it is depressing that so many scholars and commentators on the country’s jazz still seem blinkered by all those years of isolation.
Conservative sleeve notes aside, “Ndikho Xaba and the Natives” is a genuine gem and well worth hearing: like Afrigo’s 40th anniversary concert it is proof of the abiding power of music. It is also pleasing to read in the credits that Chris Albertyn is one of the movers and shakers behind the reissue of Xaba’s album. One can only hope this heralds a change of heart about the payment of royalties to copyright holders and artists in relation to the numerous recordings on the Electric Jive file sharing website with which he is associated. As argued on this site before this practice not only financially disadvantages and is unjust to artists and their legitimate heirs; many of the recordings on Electric Jive are of such importance that it simply isn’t right to place them beyond the reach of the great many music lovers who do not agree with and don’t practice “free” file sharing except when musicians and copywrite holders have authorised it themselves.
Last but not least, the Benjamin Jephta Quintet led by a 22-
Another remarkable thing about “Homecoming” is its cover art which is striking for two reasons: firstly it is beautiful, seriously, seriously beautiful. The thing that will first strike many South African jazz lovers and discerning aficionados abroad however is that the artwork is in exactly the same style and colours as the equally beautiful cover of Thandi Ntuli’s recent excellent debut “The Offering” on which Jephta and Wyatt also plated. Is there any precedent for two young jazz musicians releasing debut solo albums with covers that make them instantly recognisable as a pair? It’s a generous gesture on the bassist’s part because it shows how much he and presumably the rest of the the quintet think of Ntuli and presumably of what the plainly very gifted visual artist Mzwandile Buthelezi thinks of both musicians. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing for everyone concerned too: Thandi Ntuli, Benjamin Jephta and Mzwandile Buthelezi. Anyone who already owns a copy of Tandi’s album will be drawn to Benjamin Jephta’s because hers is a beautiful album with an equally beautiful cover. Anyone who buys the Benjamin Jephta album because Kyle Shepherd/ Marcus Wyatt are on it will equally be drawn to and to Ntuli and everybody is going to think the world of Mzwandile Buthelezi.
Delightfully, the music on “Homecoming” is of a high standard and it may well be that in years to come, music lovers and critics alike will look back on Benjamin Jephta’s and Thadi Ntuli’s albums as the beginning of something new in South African jazz. Standout tracks include “One for the Plein,” Parts 1 and 2. Part 1 starts gently and then revs up with a beautiful wordless vocal and piano. Part 2, hymn like and stirring, is equally good. “Be Strong,” also in two parts is lovely too: an uplifting Herbie Tsoaeli like composition on which Wyatt and talented tenor saxophonist Sisonke Xonti shine and Shepherd, who one senses rather enjoys not being bandleader, sings his heart out. Jephta’s bass playing is strong throughout as is that of the quintet’s drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. In summary, Benjamin Jephta’s “Homecoming” is warmly recommended and marks the emergence of a musician full of promise.
A bonanza of good jazz -
Track of the Month:-
The tail end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 have been a treat for lovers of African jazz with a flurry of fine releases.
For starters however, Ray Lema's album “Essengo” is an unusual inclusion for this
site because it is not aimed at a conventional jazz audience; rather, this is a children's
album. It is reviewed here nonetheless on the same basis that a jazz critic would
have reviewed a children’s album by, say, Count Basie. Congolese pianist, composer
and vocalist Lema is simply too great and too important an African jazz musician
for any of his recordings to go unremarked. In fact, being a children's album is
not the only remarkable feature of his latest recording. Lovers of his 2012 CD/DVD
live collection recorded in Brazil will be astonished to learn that this new album
features even more performers than were used then where the ensemble Jazz Symphonica
de São Paulo consisted of a gargantuan classical orchestra and jazz big-
Herbie Tsoaeli’s “African Time:Quartet In Concert” (double CD set) is another exceptional
release. Herbie Tsoaeli is South Africa’s best double bassist/composer /vocalist
since Johnny Dyani and the continent’s best since Gito Baloi. Tsoaeli’s playing is
less fleet of foot then Dyani’s and his voice is much deeper but, make no mistake,
he is held in the highest esteem by jazz musicians right across the country; the
first album under his own name "African Time” released in 2012 won the prestigious
South African Music Award for jazz the following year and transformed his reputation.
“African Time” deservedly remains the best loved acoustic jazz album to have hit
the South African market in many a long year. The new double album features live
reworkings of many of its numbers plus some new compositions. As such it is an album
that many who fell in love with the studio album will relish and find richly rewarding.
A key factor in its appeal is the quartet’s drum and piano pairing. Arguably, Nduduzo
Makhathini and Ayanda Sikade form the greatest such pairing since Moses Taiwa Molelekwa
and Sello Montwedi. Kit drummer Ayanda Sikade sounds little short of a dance orientated
To get an idea of the quality of this release check out the hymn like tribute to Mongezi Feza “I Wish I Knew You” which makes for an interesting comparison with “Mark of Respect,” the standout track on the Louis Moholo Moholo Quartet’s recent strong “4 Blokes” album. Herbie’s singing on “Asiyibambeni Sonke” and his playing on “Kerekeng” are highlights and of course there is a new version of his much loved “Malume” the title of which has been adopted affectionately by fans as Herbie Tsoaeli’s nickname since its release. All these compositions are and will surely ever remain some of the best loved in South African jazz of this era. Their quality and popularity suggest that when it comes to composing Herbie Tsoaeli is actually a cut above Johnny Dyani. But the musician who really excels on this release is pianist Nduduzo Makhathini who somehow manages to sound more uniquely South African then any of his esteemed contemporaries. Two features of his playing stand out, firstly his excellence in the lower register. The whole band seems to pivot around his left hand which in part explains no doubt why the the other members of the rhythm section have so much space in which to do express themselves. Secondly, there is no pianist in South Africa today who is more skilled than he is at interacting with fellow musicians and it goes without saying that this is one of the greatest gifts an improviser can have. A review of Nduduzo Makhathini’s two newly released debut solo albums will appear in part two of this article next month.
Lex Futshane’s “Innocent Victims & Perpetrators” demonstrates that Herbie Tsoaeli isn’t the only gifted bassist/compose in contemporary South Africa. In fact “ Innocent Victims & Perpetrators” is by far the best album that won in no category in this site’s roundup of 2014 releases. It made Lex Futshane a contender for Best Newcomer until it was pointed out that he made his first album, “Art Gecko” with the group Counterculture, in 1993:. He was also in the running for Best Arranger and his ensemble was a serious possibility for Best Small Band. The musicians featured on the album include some of the best and most celebrated younger South African stars notably Thandi Ntuli on piano, who actually was the site’s 2014 Newcomer of the Year for her album “The Offering;” Mthuinzi Mvublu on sax, who also impresses on the two Nduduzo Makhathini albums to be reviewed next month and Sisa Sopazi on drums whose recent SAMA nominated debut “Images & Figures” made him another of this site’s 2014 shortlist for Newcomers of the Year. All three of these gifted musicians excel on “Innocent Victims & Perpetrators”. As demonstrated more than two decades ago on “Art Gecko” Futshane, like Herbie Tsoaeli, has great talent when it comes to eliciting outstanding performances from fellow musicians. Of those he features, Thandi Ntuli is the jewel in the crown. There is architecture in her playing: her solos have real symmetry and geometry. In this respect the quality of her improvisation mirrors that of Moses Taiwa Molelekwa but her delivery/style of playing is quite different from his and seems to owe more to Bheki Mseleku. Like both those great masters of South African jazz piano, she too is more than a gifted improviser: there is genuine originality in what she does that sets her apart from the many other good pianists with whom the contemporary South African jazz scene is blessed. She hasn’t just got to where she is through a combination of brilliance and hard work, there' s a touch of magic in her playing. Relieved perhaps at having navigated the challenge of showcasing her talents on her first solo album, her playing actually sounds more fluid, relaxed and, above all, idiomatic with Futshane than it did on “The Offering.” The impression one gleans is that there’s a possibility she might go on to become the best contemporary South African jazz pianist of the lot.
Highlights of the album include her solo on the opening track “Ubhuti No Hopa” on
which both saxophonist Mthuinzi Mvublu and drummer Sisa Sopazi show that their playing
is very much in the same league as hers. Lex Futshane’s arrangement and composition
of the next track “Do You Remember Dri? / Somagwaza” is reminiscent of Victor Ntoni.
Thandi Ntuli is simply wonderful on the title track, next, on “Mindo” comes a lovely
Amidst this bonanza of new releases from South Africa bass players the one that really
stands out however is “Live Legend:” a previously unreleased two CD set by the late
Sipho Gumede who is widely regarded as the country’s greatest ever electric bassist.
Gumede first came to the attention of music lovers outside Africa for his work as
an accompanist to Abdullah Ibrahim in the mid-
Track of the Month:-
South Africa’s Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist of the Year accolade has been awarded to pianists in three of the last four years. All three have recently released albums affording the listener an opportunity to hear them all and ponder the state of jazz piano in the country.
Undoubtedly, the senior figure of the three is 2012 winner Afrika Mkhize who is slightly
older and therefore has had a longer career than more recent winners Kyle Shepherd
(2014) and Nduduzo Makhathini (2015). That the judges were right to honour Mkhize
first is demonstrated by his discography. Although he has never made a solo album,
his recordings include appearances on two celebrated releases that have already become
part of the African jazz canon and will be listened to and studied for decades to
come. The first, in 20002, was Moses Khumalo’s career defining debut “Mntungwa” on
which saxophonist Khumalo took over the leadership of what had been pianist Moses
Taiwa Molelekwa’s greatest band with Mkhize replacing the then recently deceased
genius on keyboards. The inspired, cathartic album Khumalo, Mkhize and their fellow
musicians made was this site’s Album of the Year and went on to win SAMA (South African
Music Awards) 2003 Newcomer of the Year -
As on “ZAR” Mkhize’s latest appearance, on “Playing At The Bird's Eye” by Bänz
Oester & The Rainmakers, recorded live in Switzerland, features an all acoustic quartet.
As his many fans have come to expect over the years, Mkhize’s playing on the new
album is stunning from first to last as is that of fellow South African Ayanda Sikade
on drums. It is self-
Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist 2014 winner Kyle Shepherd has been heralded as South
Africa’s next big thing in jazz for a good few years now. He is justly lauded for
having reinvigorated Cape jazz. In doing so he has shown remarkable wisdom and integrity
most notably when he took the decision to abandon his studies of jazz at the University
of Cape Town. From interviews it is clear that he felt his love of Cape jazz and
his playing in that tradition were sneered at in the University. This comes as no
surprise to this reviewer who when researching jazz in Cape Town in the mid-
Glowing reviews of his recent double trio album “Dream State” suggest Shepherd has
gone on to fulfil his undoubted potential as a recording artist. The renowned Gwen
Ansell, author of “Soweto Blues,” one of the better books on South African jazz and
a keen lucid observer of the country’s jazz, for example had no hesitation in describing
2014 as ”the year of Kyle Sheppard.” That “Dream State” has since been short listed
for the 2015 Metro FM Urban Jazz Award therefore comes as no surprise and were there
a sweepstake on the outcome he might well be odds-
The chief frustration is that Kyle Shepherd is a much greater artist than “Dream
State” suggests. Compare for example the studio version of the title track with the
live version posted on YouTube here.The live version, recorded with the same musicians,
enables one to appreciate straightaway what all the excitement in South Africa about
Kyle Shepherd is about. It’s mind blowing and leaves one in no doubt whatsoever about
Kyle Shepherd’s brilliance. The trouble is that the studio version is nowhere near
as good and the suspicion must be that the critics who rave about the album in South
Africa have been reviewing not the album Kyle Shepherd has actually made but the
one they want him to have made and know him capable of making. Another issue is that
at around 145 minutes in duration many will find “Dream State” too long. That’s around
double the length of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” or The Beatles’ “White Album” and
there’s a reason why even the greatest artists rarely put out sets this long: the
attention span of even the keenest music lover isn’t finite. We’re human beings and
this critic can’t believe t he is the only Kyle Shepherd devotee who has found himself
in an involuntary “Dream State” as a result of this sprawling two disc set. Shepherd
has explained that “Dream State” is in fact the state that he aims for and achieves
when playing at his best -
However, none of this is to say that “Dream State” does not deserve its nomination
by Metro FM. On the contrary, what makes the album difficult to review, is that there
is very much to admire despite the frustrations. If he goes on to win the award or
indeed this year’s SAMA for jazz, the first person he should shake by the hand is
saxophonist Buddy Wells because although this is a trio album, Wells appears as a
guest on several tracks and is on the form of his life. In Gwen Ansell’s review article
about the album she simply refers to him as “the peerless Buddy Wells” and in this
context it is impossible to disagree. On “Dream State” Wells easily surpasses the
quality of the performances he put in as a sideman on both the albums that won South
Africa’s jazz prizes last year by Nomfundo and Shane Cooper. Shane Cooper too, who
is the double bassist in Shepherd’s trio, outshines his 2014 SAMA-
Encouragingly, on another recent release “Jubileejam” by Claude Cozens Trio, on which Kyle Shepherd appears as sideman, his playing sounds somewhat more relaxed. The album also starts endearingly with a moment of real humour. One of Shepherd is more habits shared by many other pianists in South Africa is his that of playing in a manner reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim’s composition “African Sun.” In this instance, drummer Claude Cozens begins by playing the instantly recognisable drum pattern from “African Sun” but then violently deconstructs it with aggressive, wild playing almost as though he saying to Shepherd “Let’s get this out of your system for my album shall we?” Shepherd responds in kind and the track ends up sounding like something by John Zorn’s Naked City eliciting some delicate beautiful playing on an electric keyboard by Shepherd. The bass player on the album is the young Benjamin Jephta who also appears on the most recently recorded of the two albums issued by pianist Nduduzo Makhathini who is the 2015 Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist.
As discussed in this column last month, Nduduzo Makhathini has had the good fortune
to work on exceptional recordings with leaders of the very highest order in the early
part of his career: Herbie Tsoaeli and Zim Ngqawana. Under both he has benefited
from and being able to develop a quite exceptional rapport with drummer Ayanda Sikade.
He has also made a less well-
Of the two, “Sketches of Tomorrow,” recorded in 2012, is for the most part a relatively
Three more top notch South African jazz keyboardists feature on Steve Dyer’s “Confluence.”
In fact, the album boasts a surfeit of instrumentalists of every sort and its credits
read like a Who’s Who of contemporary Southern African jazz. This results in dense
instrumentation which unfortunately on many tracks means that there is limited opportunity
for the great musicians involved to really express themselves. The album is redeemed
by a couple of outstanding tracks both of which encapsulate Steve Dyer’s basic idea
of “Confluence” -
Abdullah Ibrahim’s releases have been legion over the years but his latest “The Song
is My Story” (CD plus DVD set) is a bit special. The CD has its moments such as the
final track on which Ibrahim shows with his sax what an enormous debt he owes the
late, great Zacks Nkosi. Throughout, Ibrahim plays in the honed down, economical
style that he has perfected in old age. This isn’t to everyone’s taste. Not long
ago, I was fortunate enough to ask a very prominent South African musician what he
really thinks about Ibrahim and he grumbled “he’s good: when he gets going.” It’s
perfectly true that Ibrahim rarely raises the tempo these days but surely we can
forgive this in an eighty-
In summary, South Africa certainly remains one of the greatest countries on earth
for jazz piano. This is not to say that the rest of Africa is devoid of good keyboard
releases. An example is a wonderful recent reissue of the hitherto rare 1970's Ethiopian
album “Tche Belew” by Hailu Mergia & The Walias. It’s important to remember too that
there are very good reasons why piano jazz is relatively rare across much of Africa.
The simple fact of the matter is that because of climatic conditions that made the
maintenance of acoustic piano problematic; the instrument simply wasn’t used in the
bulk of sub Saharan Africa and jazz keyboards didn’t really become a practical proposition
until electric keyboards began to appear from the 1970's onwards enabling musicians
such as Fela Kuti and Ray Lema to begin making a mark. The result was that musicians
who wanted to create African variants of jazz in the 1950's, 60's and earlier didn’t
have the option of using keyboards. Out of necessity therefore styles of music such
as highlife and Congolese jazz developed and matured without piano. It was not that
the musicians involved didn’t like the sound of piano they heard on radio and gramophone
Nowhere was this more true than in the Congo basin. Fortunately, there was a precedent
in jazz in the shape of the music pioneered in the 1920's, 30's and 40's by guitarists
such as Eddie Lang and especially Django Reinhardt. Being a Belgian colony, the Congo
was particularly open to the latter and the contribution of former Django Reinhardt
sidemen Bill Alexandre who introduced the first electric guitar to Congolese musicians
A new DVD compilation spanning 30 years of Congolese jazz from the beginning of the
1960's until the start of the 90's is a timely reminder of just how potent and popular
this music became. The earliest clip on “Live Gérard Madiata, Franco et Bombenga”
comprises the only footage known to me of the most influential group in all African
music: African Jazz, the band in which Dr Nico and his brother made their name and
played. It’s a three minute version with a rather indifferent picture and slightly
less indifferent sound of African Jazz performing “Miwela Miwela.” While not as
good as the studio version of this beautiful song, the clip is historic. Note the
absence of keyboards -
Chronologically speaking, the next music on the DVD was recorded in the late 1960's and appears at the end of it the disc under the title “Bombenga et le Vox Africa.” Visually, this is the least satisfying part of the DVD because the footage consists of people miming to the studio versions of the songs. At a guess these clips were filmed several years later and certainly by and large the people involved are not the same people that made the recordings. However, if one closes one’s eyes or turns the picture off and just listens to the music; it is beautiful. At least two of the tracks are not actually by Jeannot Bombenga’s band Vox Africa but by Joseph Kabasele: on the other tracks however vocalists Bombenga, an alumnus of both African Jazz and OK Jazz can be heard as at times can the voice of the unmistakable Sam Mangwana. The other musician whose sound is instantly recognisable and can be clearly heard is that of guitarist André Kambite (Damoiseu) widely regarded as one of the Congo’s finest, best known for his contribution to the African Jazz track”BB 69.”
The chronology gets more difficult here on in firstly because the Franco tracks span three decades and secondly because the Gérard Madiata section has not been released digitally before and is not dated. The latter consists of a concert film called “La voix d’or du Congo” (the golden voice of the Congo) which almost certainly derives from Congolese TV. The singer’s performance on the first two tracks which are cover versions of “Keleya”, an early 60’s African Jazz standard composed by Tabu Ley Rochereau and the same band’s massive pan African hit “Africa Mokili Marimba” which was this site’s Track of the Month in October immediately look and sound disconcertingly familiar. It turns out that it was Gérard Madiata who sang both these tracks for the famous televised show recorded in honour of Joseph Kabasele after his death in 1983. The reason that that footage is so well known is because it is the appears to be the only film we have of Dr Nico performing his signature tune, also posted on YouTube here agin with poorr picture and sound.
I hasten to add that these newly released versions do not feature Dr Nico of whom footage is as rare as hen’s teeth but it is interesting for two reasons. Firstly the fact that Madiata was chosen to be the lead vocalist at such a prestigious and historic show speaks volumes for how highly he was regarded at the time. Secondly, sharp readers will realise, as I do, that I was mistaken in believing as previously stated on this site in 2013 that this vocal performance was that of the large young Pepe Kallé when in fact it was undoubtedly Gérard Madiata.
Watching and listening to “La voix d’or du Congo” which has better sound and picture
than the clips referred to above, is a fascinating experience. Madiata as the vocal
range and power of an opera singer combined with the charisma of a showman. Delightfully,
the footage enables us to see his interaction with the audience by whom he is plainly
adored. His versatility is unparalleled by any other Congolese recording known to
me: he sings in German, French, Spanish, Swahili, English as well as Lingala; he
whistles beautifully to and is able to scat in a manner that plainly refers to Louis
Armstrong. His repertoire too will be an eye-
An even bigger attraction of this DVD however is the section devoted to the greatest
of all Africa’s jazz musicians: Franco. There have been a vast number of Franco DVDs
over the years and there is a huge array of material posted online too but as far
as this critic is aware the first three tracks on this DVD have not been issued digitally
before. They are filmed in black and white and appear to date from the mid-
The biggest treat of all however on“Live Gérard Madiata, Franco et Bombenga” is a
rare live version of “Eau Bénite” that doesn’t seem to have been issued in digital
format before. To those that don’t know the song, “Eau Bénite” an occasional piece
whose significance and meaning, like that of Moses Khumalo’s “Mntungwa” discussed
at te start of this article, are best appreciated through an understanding of the
context in which it was first recorded and released. Following the death of T.P.
OK Jazz’s leader Franco from AIDS in 1989, President Mobutu ordered his band to be
silent for one year. At the end of this extended period of national mourning T.P.
OK Jazz recorded and released in 1990 the album “Héritage de Luambo Franco” under
the leadership of Lutumba Simaro. This context is emphasised by the fact that although
the album begins with “Eau Bénite” the track that follows is a beautiful lament performed
for Franco sung by Djo Mpoyi a reprise of which also closes the album. Ostensibly
“Eau Bénite” expresses the feelings and thoughts of a broken hearted man facing divorce
as his wife leaves him for a new partner. He blesses this new couple with the blood
of his broken heart and urges his departing wife to be loyal to her new partner and
to see that their relationship is blessed with“Eau Bénite” (holy water), a reference
to the water used in church ritual. The song’s message -
The newly reissued live version does not supplant the much loved studio version which
is best appreciated by being played loud and repeatedly for many months just as it
was across the bulk of Africa in 1990. Madilu’s singing still has extraordinary power
and the song’s gentle poly rhythms and beautiful interweaved guitars gradually become
etched into the soul. The graceful lead guitar part sounds like and probably is
played by Papa Noël and there are also keyboards introduced almost certainly by arranger
Souzy Kasseya which, interestingly, are played in a manner reminiscent of a Congolese
guitar part. The sublime alto sax solo by Michel “Sax” Yuma (1941 – 2005) is justly
regarded as the high point of a career that began in 1959 when the horn player made
his debut in the delightfully named man Racing Jazz. By the time he joined T.P. OK
Jazz after Franco’s death,Michel “Sax” had an unparalleled CV/ Résumé encompassing
stints with Franco’s late brother Bavon Marie Marie & le Negro Success, African Jazz,
Les Grands Maquisards and Tabu Ley's Afrisa International. In subsequent years he
went on to work with L’Orchestre Afri-
Nor does this newly reissued live version even become the definitive live version. Far from it, the previously released live version released on the DVD “À La Mutualite a Paris” was filmed when the song’s popularity was at its zenith . The band’s adoring fans dance and sing in defiant joy in spite of their grief and the performane is a prime example of what Kyle Shepherd refers to when he talks about the importance of audience in the performance of African jazz. Not for nothing is Lutumba Simaro customarily referred to as Le Poète. “Eau Bénite” consists of 12 verses of complex analogy metaphor and folklore but whenever Madilu stops singing, turns his microphone round to point at his audience they were able to sing every single word. It is difficult to think of a more convincing example of the power of a truly great lyricist. This Paris live version, which has subsequently been reissued on YouTube here with compromised sound and a picture distorted by being stretched to a wide screen aspect ratio, also features an extended sax solo by Michel “Sax” Yuma who,, unlike on the studio recording, plays hauntingly and with great delicacy behind Madilu’s vocal.
What is delightful about the new live version is that it brings out the relationship between Madilu and Simaro who can be seen next to one another interacting in a manner that is deeply touching and close to the heart of how improvisation works in Congolese jazz. As such is a perfect illustration of what another great T.P. OK Jazz saxophonist Verckys said in a recent interview about working with the band which has been belatedly added as this site’s 2014 Quotation of the Year. The beauty of Simaro’s playing is also a reminder of the importance of rhythm guitar in forms of African jazz that developed in the absence of and are not structured around keyboards. If sooner or later, as most aficionados do, you find yourself dancing to “Eau Bénite” you will be moving primarily to the sound of Lutumba Simaro’s guitar, no matter which version you listen to and his playing in the song is every bit as profound as the role those great South African pianists perform in their rhythm sections. Simaro never does anything remotely flashy in his playing but he is every bit as good as guitar player as he is composer, poet and bandleader.
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