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© Ben Robertson 2006 - 2015


2015 – Reviews

2015 – An overview

Track for the Year End:- “Christine” from “Quelques classiques de Tabu Ley” by Feya Tess (DR Congo)

Central Africa

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 - these really are classics - making him an easy pick for composer of the year; but what really makes this album exceptional is the standard of performance by all of the instrumentalists and especially Caen Madoka who is this site’s guitarist of the year as a result. Madoka’s playing also played a big hand in making “Quelques classiques de Tabu Ley” the sites African jazz party album of 2015. The only central African artist that competed with Feya Tess in 2015 in terms of the sheer beauty of his music was Ferre Gola whose poorly engineered and poorly distributed live DVD “Concert Odimba et Accousitque au Grand Hotel de Kinshasa” features some of the most moving singing this critic has ever heard. In interviews Gola has been heard to say that the vocalist from the past he really admires is Carlyto Lassa who can be heard to great effect on the title track of the site’s reissue of the year: Le Poète Lutumba Simaro’s “Maya, l’Album des Albums” which really is one of the most beautiful African jazz albums ever recorded. Gola isn’t in the same league as Simaro as a composer, arranger or bandleader but his singing is more beautiful even than that of the great Carlyto Lassa. The Congolese star system seems to act as a kind of straitjacket on Ferre Gola when he’s in the recording studio - where all too often one only catches glimpses of his real talent - but when he chooses to do so in front of an audience as he does on his largely acoustic DVD he proves himself to be a vocalist of outstanding, unprecedented ability.

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-known tracks in a holistic way enabling listeners old and new to appreciate how just how astonishing that band and its leader were. Tabu Ley fans have been indulged to an equally high standard by the reissue of his 1994 post Afrisa medley of pan African cover versions “Baby Pancake” under the title “Chante Eboa Lotin” a jubilant album that never fails to lift the spirit and move the hips.

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.

East Africa

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 - with hindsight, her 2012 debut was a seminal moment in this decade’s African jazz. Bassist  Ricky Nanjero’s “Tucheze” which is the site’s 2015 East African jazz album of the year delights too. Like Joseph Hellon and Christine Kamau,  Ricky Nanjero has an uncanny ability to move to and fro between distinctively Kenyan inflected African American style jazz and Congolese jazz in a manner that is likely to prove important and influential over time - Kenyan musicians are unquestionably ahead of the game in this. The other East Africans ahead of the game in recent years have of course been Ethiopia’s jazz musicians and in 2015 the potency of their influence and inspiration is demonstrated again in the excellent compilation “Beyond Addis: Contemporary Jazz & Funk Inspired By Ethiopian Sounds From The 70s” which is another of this site’s party albums of the year. What is less well known is that pre war Somalia too produced some glorious jazz as demonstrated in the wondrous, skilfully documented, groundbreaking compilation “Light & Sound Of Mogadishu.” Finally, no survey of East African jazz in 2015 would be complete without mention of Uganda’s remarkable Afrigo band who celebrated their 40th anniversary in style with a memorable world tour.

Southern Africa

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.

West Africa

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 1954-66,”  predate his invention of Afrobeat and illustrate both his and its indebtedness to danceband highlife. These earliest sides “Fela’s Special “and “Aigana” (both by Fela Ransome-Kuti & The Highlife Rakers) were recorded in London in early 1960. “Aigana” is in fact a cover version of Victor Olaiya’s 1957 hit “Anyin Ga Na””.Victor Olaiya was a pioneering Nigerian danceband highlife trumpeter and bandleader whose style of music is unthinkable without the profound,  fundamental influence of E.T. Mensah. Olaiya acknowledged this as did all of the early Nigerian highlife stars. He also went on to record with E.T. .what turned out to be the great Ghanaian master’s final release. This interconnectedness is further illustrated by the fact that Victor Olaiya cut his teeth in  Bobby Benson’s Jam Session Orchestra. Key sidemen from that band learnt their skills in E.T.’s bad the Tempos: trumpeter Zeal Onyia and saxophonist Babyface Paul. Later, of course both Fela himself and Tony Allen cut their teeth in Olaiya’s band. A recent potent reminder of these influences is now veteran Olaiya’s 2013 remix of “Baby Jowo (Baby Mi Da)” with 2Face Idibia

One of Ghana’s premier latter-day highlife stars Pat Thomas made a very welcome return to the fray with his excellent album “Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band” that includes Afrobeat tracks and guest appearances by contemporaries Tony Allen and Ebo Taylor. Especially notable are the highlife tracks with Tony Allen which surely constitute some of the master drummers fineness post Fela recordings and again embody the interconnectedness and influence that Allen recounted in his recent autobiography - between Ghanaian danceband highlife and the new music that he and Fela were to create together. Listening to Pat Thomas’ beautiful album it isn’t hard to understand what motivated Allen to play so well – this is surely the best West African jazz recording of the year.

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- much better than his more illustrious late father in fact - begging the question again as to why he doesn’t perform this well on his own recordings. The suspicion must be that Femi, unlike his father, is one of those musicians who is much better at expressing himself and creating memorable music when he isn’t in charge. Fela’s former keyboardist Dele Sosimi’s “You No Fit Touch Am” is pleasing too, and would arguably have been the Afrobeat release of the year were it not for US band Shokazoba’s “One Destiny” which is another of this site’s party albums of 2015 and the year’s best big band recording despite strong competition from South Africa’s Marcus Wyatt & ZAR Jazz Archestra. What really sets Shokazoba apart is the tongue in cheek good humour with which they express their radical politics – a crucial component of the attraction of Fela that the vast majority of contemporary Afrobeat acts lack entirely.

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-American jazz establishment. In Europe, likewise the excellent opening track of Les Freres Smiths’ album is terrific, combining Mande music with Afrobeat to great effect. Then, from South Africa, the greatest keyboard/kit drum combo in contemporary African jazz – pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and drummer Ayanda Sikade - excel in their tribute to their illustrious predecessors Fela and Tony Allen on the track “King Fela” on Makhathini’s fine album “Listening to the Ground.” Their completely acoustic take on Afrobeat is both innovative and beautiful and is bound to be emulated around the world. Indeed, Afrobeat seems to know no bounds as the first release in the genre from Poland “Wëndelu” by the Warsaw Afrobeat Orchestra demonstrates. Afrobeat is also in evidence on a couple of beautiful tracks on Burkina Faso vocal star Amadou Balake’s top notch final album “In Conclusion” which alongside Pat Thomas’ was one of the outstanding West African releases of the year.

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-Blay Ambolley and Mali’s Midnight Ravers. On the reissue front too, 2015 has been exceptional, Manu Dibango’s “Home Made” isn’t exactly an Afrobeat album but it was recorded in Lagos with several of Fela’s musicians including trumpeter Tunde Williams in the aftermath of the breakup of Africa 70. Certainly, the album is one of Dibango’s finest and showcases the masterly Dibango making something out of the Afrobeat influence that is entirely and unmistakably his own. Like fellow African Jazz alumnus’ “Chante Eboa Lotin” it is also a reminder of how cosmopolitan that great seminal band and its musicians were Other highly recommended reissues  from Nigeria are “Best of Orlando Julius (Afrobeat, Funk, Soul & Highlife from the '60s-'80s)” and a revelatory reissue of “Ekpenyong Abas” by hitherto obscure chanteuse Mary Afi Usuah.

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 highlife - the very style pioneered by E.T. The whole of Afrobeat - which in this year’s recommendations came from places as far apart as Warsaw and Canada - would not have happened without E.T. Of course, it is not only Afrobeat that stems from Mensah – subsequent highlife musicians were indebted to him too. The most widely know and influential of these were Osibisa whose four disc “Singles As, Bs & 12 Inches” was another of the year’s top reissues.

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

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E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ relationship with jazz: thoughts and a review prompted by “King of Highlife Anthology”  

Track of the Month:-  “Owu Aye Me Adze” from E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ “King of Highlife Anthology” (4 CD Box set, Ghana) also at British Library Decca West Africa Collection here

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-1980’s by three people, at least two of whom are among the world’s leading authorities on contemporary African music. Co-founder Graeme Ewens went on to write “Congo Colossus” the definitive book on Franco, Africa’s greatest music star and certainly its greatest jazz musician. Equally significantly, fellow co-founder Ronnie Graham published the first comprehensive survey and discography of 20th-century African music in two volumes. Then , the sleeve notes for “King of Highlife Anthology”  are written by another leading authority on African music and E.T. Mensah in particular: John Collins, Professor of music at the University of Ghana. His sleeve notes are actually a revised edition of his groundbreaking book “E.T. Mensah: The King of Highlife .” In short there are very big guns behind this release.

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- the period in which the future King of Highlife was earning his reputation and the title by which he came to be universally known. This was when his creative powers were at their zenith and his music and its influence most potent. The four CD set affords an opportunity for us to hear what E.T. did and find out what it was that made him such a towering figure.

 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-Noi (Chris) and son’s friend `Bill Anobi, double bass came in. The youngsters did not like to play waltzes, quick steps slow foxtrot’s and other Victor Sylvester type numbers.”

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 and all-round musical education derived from his stint in a remarkable World War II mixed-race band Leopard and his Black and White Spots. There are no recordings but we do know that it was formed and led by Sergeant Jack Leopard, a Scottish musician serving in the British Army, with the objective of boosting morale during the early part of the war.

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-past ten to midnight. They were in almost no sense ‘jazz’ bands, but about every sixth piece they made a ‘hot’ number in which the one or two men in the band who could play jazz would be heard… I found these hot numbers so exciting that I would listen to hours of dance music in order to catch them when they came…Those hot numbers!”

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-anthem status that ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ had in the 50. Harry Roy had a band-within-a band called The Tiger Ragamuffins. Nat Gonella’s  stage show had a toy tiger lying on the grand piano. Trombonists and tuba players became adept at producing the traditional tiger growl.”

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-tempo trumpet style that seems to have been such a striking feature of his stage performances and it would give us a clearer idea of how he his style related to both danceband and jazz. It’s actually quite difficult to imagine how  “Tiger Rag” would have sounded in a band with no drum kit, no piano and the Tempos percussionists. The fact that, according to Collins,  it consistently drove E.T.’s audiences wild suggests it was pretty spectacular. It would be lovely to hear a contemporary band with the same instrumentation putting together a cover version of “Tiger Rag” along these lines as a tribute to E.T.

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-Americans were creating new music and becoming stars and that is what they approved of and wish to emulate. In all probability this jazz connection was as much a political as musical. The name “Jazz Kings” seems to embody political ambition. Kings are rulers and jazz black.

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-style bars and nightclubs and the advent of prostitution. With the nightlife came the music. The three or so years in which the Americans were present were the pinnacle of the big band swing years. Big band swing, though much derided today, contained far more jazz content than anything the British danceband movement had come up with. Many of the great American bandleaders of the day were genuine jazz musicians who had been playing for a decade or more. For example, two of the musicians featured on the 1930 recording of “Sheik of Araby” cited above were now major bandleaders: drummer, Gene Krupa and trombonist Glenn Miller. The dancing that accompanied such music couldn’t have been more different from the genteel ballroom style style associated with danceband. To get an idea of just how radical a departure swing must have been in Ghana at the time compare the famous photograph of Britain’s young Queen Elizabeth dancing ballroom with independent Ghana’s first leader Kwame Nkrumah on her second state visit to Ghana in the early 1960's with the remarkable footage of Ghanaba then known as Guy Warren, E.T. Mensah & The Tempos’ drummer, dancing the jitterbug in the early 1950's film “The Boy Kumasenu .” In fact the arrival of the Americans was life changing for musicians slightly younger than E.T. such as Ghanaba and Jerry Hansen.

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-edge American scholars such as Robin D. G. Kelley and Steven Feld. The salient thing about Ghanaba was that he was someone who could think outside the box as evidenced by his later creation of an African drum kit complete with pedals made up of traditional African drums.

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-evident that Ghanaba was devoted to developing a career in jazz. What Ghanaba did undoubtedly do however was to introduce Afro Latin percussion – and especially bongos - into the Tempos sound which was probably a critical factor in the band’s success because it meant they had an instantly recognisable and modern sounding element in the rhythms they played, setting them apart from everyone else. It seems the argument about “Afro Latin” when Ghana and Mensah parted ways was actually about who was to keep these instruments that Ghana had brought from London. It was Mensah who kept hem.

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 mid-1940's but it is difficult to pin down exactly what sort of jazz it was he liked at this stage. We do know he was partial to Ellington and Billie Holiday.

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 - the closest thing to bebop in pre Charlie Parker jazz – may have been what drew Ghanaba that night. What is not in doubt is that over the next few years Ghanaba became a devotee of bebop. He went to England for some months where he played with Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubist and it was on this trip that he learnt to play Cuban percussion and bongos in particular.

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-Cubists - Volume One‎– Mango Walk) distinguished commentator on the British jazz scene, Brian Rust, recalling his days as an early modern jazz lover in Britain wrote:

“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 - much as , in her singing, Billie Holiday made a conscious effort to emulate Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

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-Cubist ensemble in Ghana which performed at the 1953 inauguration of President William Tubman of Liberia.

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 - Calypso, Samba, highlife,etc. - the most striking thing about the band was the high quality of its rhythm section and especially the percussion. Could it be, that Ghanaba was the man who put the tempos in the Tempos? It is certainly hard to believe that the contribution of this supremely gifted, forward thinking musician isn’t one of the main reasons why  “Anthology” boasts such stunning poly rhythms and drum patterns.

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-Latin/ Cuban instruments didn’t prove crucially important over time:

“within a few years of this highlife dance-bands like the Tempos and others modelled on it were using actual African drums. So Cuban drums acted as a stepping-stone back to African drums. For example here’s a picture of King Bruce’s Black Beats Band around 1953, that was inspired by the Tempos and you can see that they include an African drum.” John Collins, from the same lecture as the previous quote)

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.

Mensah himself

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-Tom) and bongos specialist Dan Acquaye both of whom enjoyed lengthy careers with the Tempos. Dan Acquaye was also the band’s main lead vocalist for many years and effectively acted as E.T.’s right-hand man.

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 - nevertheless the selection of tracks is interesting firstly because it is highly probable that the tracks included were among the bands “frequently requested” tracks; secondly because Mensah was almost certainly consulted about the selection and because the sound quality and dynamic range were markedly better than on the 78’s on which the performances were originally released.

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-political problems both had to transcend in order to succeed were primarily about race. Armstrong’s performance of “What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue” at Mensah’s club and which he dedicated to and performed in front of, Kwame Nkrumah later released on the 1957 “Satchmo the Great” LP, reflects the political connection Armstrong felt at Ghana’s Independence.

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-Stars greeted them with a rendition of one of E.T. .Mensah’s biggest early hits “All for You”  refashioned as “All for You Louis.” This performance and the repeat of it on Armstrong’s departure featured in Ed Munro’s documentary about the visit and the soundtrack album “Satchmo the Great” where the song was attributed not to Mensah but to Lionel Belasco under the title “Sly Mongoose.” Lionel Belasco was a Calypso musician from Trinidad who had recorded the tune is an instrumental in 1923.  It was recorded again in 1925 by Sam Manning / Cole Mentor Orchestra with lyrics added and sung by Manning but the song spread far and wide over the next couple of decades. For example, Charlie Parker played it as evidenced by a live version. Another Calypso version by Lord Invader’s hit the US Billboard charts in 1946 and again in 1948. More importantly, in the context of Armstrong’s visit to Ghana, his pianist in the All-stars Billy Kyle had recorded it in 1938 with Jack Sneed & his Sneezers. Quite how E.T. and his alto saxophonist Spike Anyankor, who had left the Tempos by 1956 but had sung the lead vocal on their recording of the tune, had encountered “Sly Mongoose” isn’t clear but a subsequently released Liberian recording by The Greenwood Singers entitled  “All Fo' You” with an identical tune and chorus but gruesome lyrics must be a missing link of sorts because it was recorded before the Tempos version. These complex interconnections are a reminder of just how sophisticated musical transmission and communication was in the Africa and her diaspora in the mid-20th century. The interconnectedness between African Americans in the United States, West Africa and the Caribbean demonstrated by the story of “All for You Louis” is little short of amazing and may well have been one of the reasons why the visit to Ghana had such a profound impact on Armstrong and his musicians who must have been astonished to be greeted at the airport with a tune they already knew from a totally different context. Armstrong’s ancestors had certainly come to America as slaves via the Caribbean and during the course of his visit he became convinced that his own ancestry was Ghanaian.

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.

After Independence

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-time with the Tempos.

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-and-White Spots: playing cover versions to a high standard for people sipping their drinks and dancing. The big difference was, and one hopes Mensah appreciated it, was  that a huge proportion of the cover versions he was playing were in styles of music that simply wouldn’t have existed without his input. There are not many covers bands one can say that about.

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.

Annotated tracklist for “King of Highlife Anthology”  by E.T. Mensah & The Tempos

Disc A

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)

Disc B

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)

Disc C

C1.Munsuro (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)

Disc D

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)

D16. Ghana-Guinea-Mali (n)

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-Tom) or Dan Acquaye, bongos; Tom Thumb Addo (Tom-Tom) or Duke S Hesse, congas; Moi Lai, claves; Pappoe, maaracas

Early 1953

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-Tom) or Dan Acquaye, bongos; Tom Thumb Addo (Tom-Tom) or Duke S Hesse, congas; Moi Lai?, claves; Pappoe?, maaracas

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

D16. Ghana-Guinea-Mali 45-GWA 4012 reissued on Tempos Melodies LP, 10"  WAL 1022

D6. Onipa 45-GWA 4013

D7. Gbaa Anokwale 45-GWA 4013


Personnel as (l)

Probably circa 1963

D8. Abele 45-GWA 4083 reissued on King of the Highlifes LP, 10"  WAL 1032, 1963

D9. Odo Angyina 45-GWA 4083 reissued on King of the Highlifes LP, 10"  WAL 1032, 1963


Personnel as (l)


D10. Damfo Wo Eni Ewu original catalogue number not known; reissed on Various ‎– Hi-Lifes You Have Loved Vol. 1, Decca (West Africa) Limited ‎– (WAPS 45) 1972


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”

D5. 205

D11. Kaa No Wa

D12. Senorita

D13. Daavi Loloto

D14. 1914

D15. Medzi Medzi  

D17. Mee Bei Obada

27 December 2015

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Jazz at the 2015 South African Music Awards plus praise for Simphiwe Dana and disdain for xenophobia

Track of the Month:- “Hoza Mntakamama” from “Brasskap Sessions Vol. 2” by McCoy Mrubata (South Africa)

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-authored by Oskido of Kalawa Jazmee fame, has been released as a single with a good video clip on YouTube. In keeping with all this, Dana has been one of the first musicians to speak out against the recent spate of xenophobic attacks.

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 the award-winning South African movie "Themba - A boy called Hope” directed by Stefanie Sycholt which is available on DVD. In this moving film shot largely in the rural Eastern Cape where Dana comes from, she plays a - unusually for a jazz diva – a most unglamorous role which has nothing to do with music: that of the struggling mother of the young footballer at the centre of the plot. In doing so, she reveals herself to be a genuinely talented actress. It is a truly wonderful move that is strongly recommended. Dana has also become the first South African jazz musician of her generation to have a book written about her in the form of “A Renegade Called Simphiwe” by Pumla Dineo Gqola, associate professor of African literary and gender studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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-hop scene both of whom also played significant roles in the development of Kwai jazz. M’du Masilela, known as “The Godfather,” came to fame with hits such as “Tsiki Tsiki”, “Chomi Yabana” and “Mazola” but also produced two groundbreaking albums by veteran trumpeter Dennis Mpale: “Paying my Bills” and “More Paying my Bills” material from both of which has been reissued several times. Fellow Kwaito pioneer and the third 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Mandla Mofokeng better known as Spikiri is a founder member of the Trompies and a current co-director of Kalawa Jazmee, He too has had a long-standing involvement with Kwai jazz having worked with  Don Laka, Thandiswa, Mafikizolo and Molelekwa.

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 - a move much criticised in jazz circles in South Africa where it is rightly pointed out that the jazz award used to be one of the major prizes. One recalls for example that in 1999 the ceremony climaxed with an impromptu joint performance by the Kwaito trio TKZee who dominated the awards that year together with the winner of the year’s contemporary jazz prize Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Is there perhaps less of a connection than there was then between the country’s cutting edge popular artists and jazz? Could it be that the fact that jazz is now widely studied at University in South Africa, although very welcome in many ways, perhaps somehow distances jazz from the music and tastes of the street? Or is it that the popular artists of the pan African satellite and cable TV generation have become more commercialised and so are perhaps less aware of the traditionally close and fruitful relationship between jazz, dance and popular music in South Africa? Either way, if some such a trend is occurring it is surely in the interests of everyone to try and see it reversed because the close relationship between jazz and popular music in South Africa has been one of the country’s most distinctive and strongest musical traits that has long benefited both branches of music.

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

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Afrigo at 40

Track of the Month:- Nze Mpe Dembe” by Afrigo Band performed live in Kampala with bandleader Moses Matovu on alto sax and vocals plus  Joanita Kawalya, lead vocals; on   from Uganda DjDinTV (YouTube only, Uganda)

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-up to the show Yes, there were one or two organisational hiccups:  the programme began hours late; the sound, especially at the outset, was much less good than it could have been and the support acts came on in the middle of the show disrupting the flow of the main attraction. But what an attraction it was; what a band Afrigo are. Any musical ensemble that survives 40 years must have something about it and must at some point have succeeded against the odds, but there can be few in the history of music that have come through such difficult times as Uganda’s remarkable Afrigo, nor can there many on the planet that can match the joyous power of their music.

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 - it was in abundance at Afrigo’s triumphant 40th anniversary show which was the opening night of a six month world tour.

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-up that has been there since the start, played beautifully; so much so that he seemed to be telling us there were no words to express how everyone present felt about the band reaching such a significant milestone. Next up came the late 80’s hit “Afrigo Batuuse II” which set the hall alight, reminding everyone what Afrigo are all about: song and dance that expresses joy in being alive. To the delight of  fans the song’s composer, Deo Mukungu ,whose signature tune it is, made a gust appearance, rejoining the band for this special occasion. Other senior members of the band  featured were veteran conga player and composer Herman Ssewanyana;  Rachael Magoola, a singer from eastern part of the country who has notched up six solo albums and worked with the excellent South African trumpeter Claude Deppa plus lead guitarist Eddy Ganja whose Congolese inflected playing turned out to be one of he night’s great pleasures. The biggest applause of the night however was reserved for Joanita Kawalya who sings in a manner both utterly Ugandan yet somehow reminiscent of the great Mbilia Bel. Her rendition of “Jim Wange” proved a particular favourite. From a jazz perspective however the performer that stood out most was Moses Matovu whose masterly  playing on alto and plaintive, vocals never failed to impress whether recounting the emotion of a broken heart in song or driving the crowd into a frenzy with scintillating sax and exchanges with Abbey Katongole  the band’s  fine young trumpeter. The rest of the line-up consisted of Dan Kaggwa on keyboards, a cathedral organist whose distinctive  playing enables Afrigo to operate with only one guitarist rather than the two or more customarily featured in comparable Congolese bands; Charles Busuulwa on bass; Julius Shaba  on drum kit together with vocalist  Eddie Yawe. The high standard of musicianship on display was a reminder that whatever East Africa may lack in quantity when it comes to jazz, it makes up for in quality. Jazz aside, what this reviewer loved most was the exuberance of the audience and their high standard of dancing. A satisfying glimpse of all this can be seen and heard in this site’s Track of the Month: a YouTube clip (see here) of Joanita Kawalya singing “Nze Mpe Dembe “with Afrigo live in Kampala from Uganda DjDinTV.

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 - he seems to have worked and recorded with musicians from every Lusophone country in Africa. Inevitably, this raises the question of whether or not he is inspired and/or influenced by the great Gito Baloi. Certainly, when his lyrical bass runs combine with Souza’s vocals there is a comparison to be made and it would be simply wonderful to hear them do some sort of tribute to the great Mozambican and or for them to cover one or more of his compositions. Elias Kacomanolis impresses too. He uses a carefully arranged array of drum kit and percussion that enables him to play both simultaneously which he did to great effect especially when evoking the sound of those African trains.  Combined with Carmen Souza’s increasingly competent accompaniment on keyboards and guitar the trio provided a perfect backdrop to her magnificent vocals in a performance marked by characteristic humour and delightfully unpredictable flights of fancy leading to a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. The set was full of pleasing surprises such as a beautiful cover version of Paul McCartney’s 1968 masterpiece “Blackbird” and culminated with a sing-along rendition of “Afri Ka” during which Pascal played a kwassa kwassa bass line that would have thrilled Afrigo’s revelers at the Royal Regency; followed finally by cover version of Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” during which Elias Kacomanolis continued the Congolese vibe on drums.

The setting however, couldn’t have been more different from the Royal Regency - St Ethelburga's was a church but was bombed by the IRA in 1992 and has since been converted into a multi-faith peace centre making for an intimate, welcoming, relaxed venue with cushions on the floor, a glass of wine to welcome guests and good food cooked by volunteers all included in the modest cost of admission. It turns out they stage world music events on a regular basis which, if Saturday night’s performance is anything to go by are of a high standard. For more information see their website.

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-winning album shows once again the good ear of the judges have for beautiful voices. “Love & Life” couldn’t be more different from “Epistola” - it is an album that is very clearly targeted at the pop end of the South African market and jazz lovers may initially be surprised by at its selection by the award panel, but it grows on the listener with repeated listening and features strong contributions from several of South Africa’s most exciting younger jazz artists, notably the incredibly talented, cutting edge multi-instrumentalist and composer Mpumi Dlamini.

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-watering shortlist for 2015’s Best Jazz Album:

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 - highlife, afrobeat and crucially Franco when he went to DRC (then Zaire) for Muhammad Ali’s infamous “Rumble in the Jungle.”

 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-year-old composer/double and electric bassist has just released the first of what one hopes will be many albums under his own name entitled “Homecoming.” It is a measure of how highly he is regarded in South Africa that his album features two of the artists since nominated by SAMA for their 2015 jazz award: Kyle Shepherd on keyboards and vocals and Marcus Wyatt on trumpet both of whom give of their best for this remarkable young musician.

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.

March 2015

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A bonanza of good jazz - part one

Track of the Month:- “Down Freedom Avenue” from “Live Legend” by Sipho Gumede (previously unreleased  2 CD set. South Africa)

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-band combined. The sheer number of participants on the new recording make the Jazz Symphonica de São Paulo one look like chamber music. Lema uses no less than 260 children’s voices. The set comprises a selection of his best-known and best loved competitions many of which also appeared on the Jazz Symphonica de São Paulo release. As on that 2012 album what is most striking however is the quality of the arrangements. His own playing features no solos and is is pared right down enabling him to demonstrate the strength of his compositions and of the role of his instrument in the rhythm section. More importantly “Essengo” is a timely, uplifting set which doesn’t merely make a stand against racism and for a better future – it brings these notions to life making them irresistible . This is a good release in many ways – musically, morally and politically,.  The music constitutes a powerful antidote, a heeling balm for a world still reeling from the horror of the recent terror attacks in France where the album was made.  Other remarkable features include the use of guitar - a vital component of everyone else’s Congolese jazz but a rarity in Lema’s work – and the inclusion of a fine new rendition of  his signature tune, the hit “Marabout (Iyolela)” originally recorded with seminal  Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and ex T.P. OK Jazz guitarist Mose Fan Fan.  There is also a touching tribute to the late Nelson Mandela done in the quasi South African style. How long will it be before prominent South African jazz musicians repay this complement and attempt tracks in the Congolese style of jazz? Jazz lovers with children may well find themselves treasuring this warm hearted, melodic, beautifully arranged album and over time it may well be that the whole family will find themselves singing along. The more adventurous jazz lover without children may find this unique recording enjoyable and moving too.

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 Louis Moholo-Moholo. He has been working with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini since the last decade. They both appeared, for example, on Zim Ngqawana’s “Live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival,” recorded in 2008 which was released posthumous the in 2013 on DVD becoming this site’s Southern African album of the year. The duo also featured on Herbie Tsoaeli’s SAMA winning “African Time.” The newest member of the quartet,  saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, turns out to be one of the best newcomers on his instrument since Moses Khumalo.

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 blues - something of a rarity in South African music.. Lex Futshane’s playing is sensitive and tasteful throughout and some of his melodies, in particular, “Iculo” and “Ngu Makazi” unforgettable. Listen too to Sisa Sopazi’s drumming at the start of “Ngu Makazi” and to the absolutely gorgeous lead vocals and multi voice work all of which have made the number a tempting pick to be Track of the Month on this site. On the final two tracks Futshane switches to electric bass, and proves that he can be downright funky when he wants to be. “Eh! Hello” exemplifies all four band members working together.

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-1970's An example of his work during this period is the beautiful Ibrahim composition “Sathima” on the “African Herbs/Soweto” album featuring Duku Makasi, Basil Coetzee And Barney Rachebane on sax plus Dennis Mpale on trumpet. Gumede, Like Herbie  Tsoaeli,  was an undemonstrative bass player in the early part of his career who nevertheless found himself in very high demand and is featured on numerous recordings by all sorts of artists from the period including for example, alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi’s album  “Sikiza Matshikiza” recorded under the leadership of the recently deceased and much lamented pianist/composer Pat Matshikiza  Gumede was also like Herbie  Tsoaeli in that as his career and musicianship went on to develop into that of a bandleader and composer of the highest repute. In particular, he led the seminal 80’s band Sakhile later cited by artists such as Molelekwa as a key influence. Listen for example to his composition “Same Time Next Year” reissued in 1991 on the “African Echoes”album to get a flavour of the potency of South Africa’s jazz during that period with Khaya Mahlangu on sax and Mabi Thobjane on percussion delivering superlative performances over the top of Jabu Nkosi’s keyboards and Gumede’s bass. During this period Gumede was also starting to develop into a soloist of real stature and this aspect of his work became increasingly prominent in the latter part  of his career. By this stage and especially when appearing in his own bands he frequently featured a second bassist and seemed to take inspiration as much from guitarists as from bass players- with the second bassist playing the equivalent of rhythm guitar and Gumede as featured soloist. There were frequently two keyboardist’s too and although this instrumentation perhaps sounds dated by now, the best of the band’s performances from this period remain spellbinding. There are numerous examples on “Live Legend,” notably “Township Jive,” “Song for Johnny Dyani,” “Please Don’t Dance” and “Cato Manor” but the standout track to these ears is a stunning reworking of  “Down Freedom Avenue” which is infinitely better than the original studio version which was the title track of his 1996 album. This is the sort of jazz that makes one want to jump around the room. Future generations wanting to know what it felt like to live in the newly liberated South Africa will always be able to recapture that moment in this performance featuring Bongani Nkwanyana on second bass and Mandla Masuka on sax, who both play their hearts out. Choosing a single track of the month from this mass of marvellous releases is an impossible, thankless task but Gumede’s stature and lasting importance in the development of South African jazz enable him to pull rank.

January 2015

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A bonanza of good jazz - part two

Track of the Month:- “Eau Bénite” by T.P. OK Jazz from the DVD “Live Gérard Madiata, Franco et Bombenga” by  various artists (DR Congo)

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 -a prestigious award hardly ever granted to  jazz artists.  “Mntungwa” remains one of the best loved and most influential African jazz recordings of the current century. Then, in 2006, Mkhize was the  keyboard player on another of the decade’s most enduring albums: Marcus Wyatt’s groundbreaking “Language 12.” In between these achievements Mkhize worked as Miriam Makeba’s Music Director and features on two of her DVD’s from the period, one of which “Finale South African Tour 2006 Live At The Cape Town International Jazz Festival” was released last year. Afterwards Afrika Mkhize moved to Paris for some years where he had the opportunity to explore that city’s African jazz scene and play with luminaries such as master  ex T.P. OK Jazz guitarist Papa Noël. On his return to South Africa his performance on Marcus Wyatt’s “ZAR” album earned him the nod as this site’s 2011 pianist 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-evident that the two European band members, Bänz Oester on bass and tenor saxophonist  Ganesh Geymeier are fine musicians too but unsurprising that they lack that split-second timing of the South Africans - a reminder of ho just how hard it is it is to play really well with good African musicians. The reason for this lies in the radically different systems of music education that exist in the two continents. To this day in the vast swathes of rural Africa that lack electricity babies still begin to learn complex rhythms before they leave the womb when their mothers conduct day to day chores such pounding staple crops like cassava and working the fields. Before they learn to walk they spend their days strapped to their mothers’ backs again experiencing, feeling and joining in with those rhythms and now hearing the singing that accompanies so many everyday activities too. In remote rural areas, this profound music education remains universal and of an incredibly high standard. In Europe, by contrast, music is something that some people study and others don’t and even those that do stand little chance of attaining  the level of understanding that was traditionally  universal in Africa. Of course, in contemporary Africa especially in urban areas, the situation has become rather more like that found in Europe but if you observe the high standard of dancing in nightclubs or hear the church music in sub Saharan Africa it rapidly becomes apparent that much of the highly developed traditional system of music education that has existed for generations immemorial still survives. Afrika Mkhize has an added incalculable advantage because his father Themba is a renowned pianist too.  It is no surprise therefore that Bänz Oester and Ganesh Geymeier aren’t quite able to match the prowess of Afrika Mkhize and Ayanda Sikade who are both among their country’s finest musicians on their respective instruments. Miles Davis summed up the challege faced by non-Africans perfectly when he stated that he didn’t consider himself an African-American because he couldn’t dance like an African. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy on “Playing At The Bird's Eye,”  as well as being what must have been a wonderful experience for Oester and Geymeier. The first track “The Rainmakers” is the most striking, composed by Mkhize who here evokes not the spirit of his favourite pianist Bheki Mseleku but that of Molelekwa with playing reminiscent of “Genes and Spirits,” the definitive late 90's live version of which has recently been reissued on the misleadingly titled “Live At Kippies 2001 (Set Two),” and of Lwanda Gogwana’s beautifuful “Jam for Moses Molelekwa.”  As the track and the rest of the album develop Afrika Mkhize does much more than evoke the sounds of his great predecessors – he has developed a distinct manner of playing that top younger jazz stars such as the Thandi Ntuli cite as an influece. To the tips of his fingers Afrika Mkhize is a musician’s musician and Bänz Oester & The Rainmakers live album is a fine example of his work.

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-90’s was informed by a prominent African-American saxophonist then on the staff of the University that there was no jazz scene in Cape Town. This simply wasn’t true: there was world class jazz on offer every night in Cape Town from the likes of Basil Coetzee, Tete Mbambisa, Robbie Jansen, Paul Abraham and innumerable members of the Schilder family. Sadly however, it was obvious then that at least some of those involved in jazz education at the University at the time were intent on churning out students who were over awed by jazz from the United States , dismissive of jazz from South Africa especially its Cape variant and woefully ignorant of jazz from the rest of Africa. This was a desperately sad state of affairs and it is very much to Kyle Shepherd’s credit that he had sufficient courage and belief in his music to walk out. In doing so he did not only the music but also, one imagines, the University  great service because he is widely recognised as the greatest Cape jazz musician to have emerged for many years and his decision to leave must have caused  soul-searching ever since. One can only hope the standard of jazz education in Cape Town has improved as a result.

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-on favourite to win. Even so, he faces stiff opposition from other artists on the shortlist in the form of Mpumi Dhlamini's yet to be released “The Cultural Express,” which if anywhere near as good as his 2013 “Case Closed” project with the trio Lil’ Noise, will be a difficult act to beat; then there’s Thandi Ntuli’s lovely and important first solo album “The Offering;” Jonathan Butler’s “Living My Dream” featuring guest appearances by the likes of Marcus Miller and the late George Duke plus, finally, Mozambican chanteuse Wanda Baloi’s “Love & Life” which also features Mpumi Dhlamini. A key question the Metro FM judges will need to ask themselves is: how good an album is “Dream State?” It’s not an easy question to answer because the album frustrates and fascinates in equal measure.

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 - when he no longer thinks consciously about what is playing. Shepherd also to talks animatedly and with great sincerity about ho much he enjoys playing live and the buzz  he gets from an audience. Presumably, the live clip presents cited above is an example of these things happening. It must be incredibly difficult to generate a similar level of spontaneity and creativity with the tape running in a recording studio where there is virtually nono audience. As things stand, Shepherd seems to have reached the same kind of impasse as his great mentor Zim Ngqawana who was one of the truly great jazz musicians of his age but who rarely sounded at his best in the recording studio. To hear Ngqawana at his most incandescent one has to seek out live recordings especially his posthumously released “Live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.”  

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-winning recording especially when playing solos. In both cases, Kyle Shepherd deserves much of the credit because he has emphasised that the pieces on “Dream State” were written specifically to bring the best out of his long-standing fellow band members the third of whom is the talented drummer Jonno Sweetman who also impresses on the album every time he is put in the spotlight. Best of all,even though Shepherd is perhaps not at his best, the album offers tantalising glimpses of how he is beginning to develop a voice of his own. To sum up, while flawed, “Dream State” is an album brim full of promise from a musician who seems well on his way to becoming one of the continent’s best.

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-known but good live recording with  gifted trumpeter Feya Faku in his big band  The Spirit Jazz Orchestra with another of South Africa’s finest drummers – Kevisan Naidoo. Makhathini can be heard to good effect as pianist, composer and producer on singer Lindiwe Maxolo’s debut release “Time (Maxolaysa)”  too. Now, he has simultaneously released his first two solo albums “Sketches of Tomorrow” and “Mother Tongue.”

Of the two, “Sketches of Tomorrow,” recorded in 2012, is for the most part a relatively slow-paced ruminative album somehow slightly reminiscent in its style of Zim Ngqawana’s work. There is nice sax from Mthuinzi Mvublu and one major, pleasant surprise in the shape of “Love Story” on which, out of the blue, Makhathini plays in a style reminiscent of Nicky Hopkins work with the Rolling Stones on  “Exile on Main Street.” “Mother Tongue,” recorded in 2014, is a better album that starts well with the downright funky “Emaqongqo” followed by “Echoes of You” a beautiful tribute to the great Bheki Mseleku who was Nduduzo Makhathini’s teacher in student days at Durban and remains his muse. There is excellent bass throughout from the aforementioned Benjamin Jephta who is rapidly emerging as one of the country’s most promising younger musicians. Makhathini sounds more on the ball, relaxed and engaged. The compositions are better too and again Mthuinzi Mvublu impresses againon alto. Overall, “Mother Tongue” sounds more like Makhathini’s work with Herbie Tsoaeli and will surely be one of the best African jazz piano albums of 2015. Listen to his playing on “Nomajerusalema” for example. This is that rarest of birds in jazz: a piano player proven and practiced in the skill of thrilling  discerning live audiences at the highest level who is capable of doing the same thing in the studio. As a result,the record is at least as good as Kyle Shepherd’s “Dream State” even though it has nothing to match the power and poetry of that astonishing live clip of Shepherd playing the  title track. On the other hand, Shepherd offers nothing to match the supreme quality of interaction between Makhathini and drummer Ayanda Sikade on both “Sketches of Tomorrow” and “Mother Tongue.” Quite why Makhathini seems better at expressing himself in the studio than Shepherd is difficult to fathom. It may have helped that Makhathini worked for a while as a house pianist in the recording studio and just got used to the environment. Or maybe when he sits at his piano stool he’s the sort of person who just can’t help getting into the sort of dream state Kyle Shepherd yearns for. It could even be that Makhathini is one of those remarkable artists has the good fortune to be in such a dream state most of his waking hours…

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” - where different streams come together to create powerful music. The album’s final track “Re Filwe” featuring the artist’s gifted son Bokani Dyer on keyboards,  Lwanda Gogwana powerful and Masekela like on trumpet and Steve Dyer’s own best efforts on top of a Zimbabwean dance guitar rhythm is a good example. The really outstanding track however is “Chords: Cords” the final movement of an extended piece called “Rituals Suite” on which Thandi Ntuli’s playing on Fender Rhodes is so self evidently beautiful that  her fellow musicians have the sense to give her space and accompany her sensitively. The most notable of these from Ntuli’s perspective must be Andile Yenana who plays the acoustic piano equally beautifully and is the other living pianist she cites as a major influence. The other musicians on the track are of a similar calibre and play accordingly: Ayanda Sikade, who seems to be on everyone’s CDs at the moment, is on drums; Thomas Dyani plays percussion; Herbie Tsoaeli ,double bass plus of course there’s Dyer himself who can’t quite resist the temptation to overdub a second sax. That Thandi Ntuli shines so in such exalted company and that they all give her the opportunity to do so is testimony to the stature of this exceptional young musician who must surely be among the bookies favourites to win the coveted Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist next year. She and her revered Andile Yenana also feature together to good effect in the very different context of “Hot Music Volume One” by house music DJ QB Smith on a track entitled “Coffee and Honey” which, we are told, is Ntuli’s favourite drink.

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-year-old master musician and admire the fact  that he has developed a new, stately style well-suited to his advanced age and temperament. The DVD is what makes this release stand out because his comments and elucidation of some of his most famous compositions bring the beautiful performances to life. When talking about his best known composition “Manenberg” he sums up what is in fact his entire latter-day approach when he says “The problem is, you see, this music it sounds very simple but it is very difficult to play. It’s very complex, and I think that is the trick you know: if something sounds very simple but the profundity of the simplicity…”

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 - they are just weren’t pianos available for people to play. Later, when keyboards did start to become available the musicians that played them faced the challenge of figuring out a role for them to fulfil in forms of music that were not piano-based.

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 is well-documented and hugely important. Even more crucial was the influence of the first prominent Congolese electric guitar soloist Dr Nico and his older brother, rhythm guitarist Dechaud. Between them ,they developed a sound based on the Marimba dance music of the region. In short, they made a virtue out of the necessity and their innovation spread like wildfire across the continent influencing virtually every guitarist that followed.

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 - not only here, but throughout the DVD. The footage shows not only Dr Nico and his brother but also two of Africa’s greatest male vocalists band leader Joseph  Kabasele (aka Le Grand Kallé), who sings the lead, and Tabu Ley Rochereau whose death at the end of 2013 prompted a rash of fine reissues last year, plus of course the great bespectacled Manu Dibango on sax. This footage which seems to be the earliest we have of any of these artists is also available on YouTube here.

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-opener to many: the set includes numbers associated with Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), Miriam McCabe (“Malaika”) plus cover versions of standards such as “Mack the Knife” and "El Manisero", known in English as "The Peanut Vendor." These are intermingled with a generous selection of Congolese jazz standards including compositions by Kabasele, Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Mayaula Mayoni. The backing band is sparse by Congolese standards: there is a tenor saxophonist who doubles as a backing vocalist, a single electric guitarist, an electric bassist and a kit drummer. The venue is intimate - at a guess a small bar, club or café which makes gives this issue added charm because the overwhelming majority of live Congolese DVDs are filmed at much bigger venues. This one by contrast, enables the viewer to get much more of a feel for what it must have been like to actually be there.

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-70's making this some of the earliest footage yet available of this magnificent musician and his fabulous jazz band Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz. The first two tracks “Matata Ya Mwasi Na Mobali Esila Te,” which features one of Franco’s greatest vocal performances on film and “Tosambi Bapejiyo Raison Na Quartier,” with beautiful horns and superb Franco guitar, are both Franco compositions that first appeared as studio versions on on one of his best-known and best loved albums“20eme Anniversaire 6 Juin 1956 - 6 Juin 1976” the release of which marked the 20th anniversary of the band’s formation. Live versions of some numbers from this album have appeared before both on DVD and are often said to have been recorded in 1975. These performances which do not appear to have been reissued digitally before are possibly slightly earlier because Franco appears slightly younger and rather slimmer. The third and final such track “Camarade Nini Abomba Ngai Sango” doesn’t seem to have been reissued in any form since what was presumably a studio version was first issued on EP. It is sung and therefore presumably composed by Franco and on film is notable for the extraordinary fire in Franco’s eyes; an unforgettable moment that has this viewer wondering “Wow… Is this what genius looks like?” The next T.P.OK Jazz track “Coco Ya Ngai” which features a solo by the great Nigerian alto saxophonist Dele Pedro and superb Franco guitar has been reissued before on the DVD “Franco & le T.P. O.K. Jazz à 1-2-3 1980” but the composition seems to date back as far as the 1950’s. Few would question the overwhelming consensus about Franco’s breathtaking guitar solos of which the one on Lutumba Simaro’s composition “On Ne Vit Qu'une Seule Fois” is a fine example: certainly this is what genius sounds like. An added attraction that the lead singer on the track is the great Josky Kiambukuta. This live version doesn’t seem to have been posted on YouTube perhaps because the picture drops out during Franco’s solo doubtless because the owner of the VHS tape rewound that portion of the song so many times in order to watch it again. Delightfully, the track also includes a brief interview on stage with Franco during which she smiles and giggles uncontrollably almost certainly because, like Fela Kuti, he customarily enjoyed a traditional African cigarette before performing. Franco doesn’t feature on any of  of the four remaining T.P. OK Jazz numbers which means that other members of this great band have more of an opportunity to display their wares. All but the mysterious track “Zena” on which the best horn section in Africa gets to stretch its legs are composed by Lutumba Simaro, widely regarded as the band’s and therefore the continent’s best composer. “Mbongo” formerly released as part of the 1975 recordings referred to above boasts another Dele Pedro solo, beautiful mi-solo guitar by the groundbreaking Michelino,  widely credited with developing the Congolese guitar sound pioneered by Dr Nico and his brother to incorporate a third guitar part.  Michelino is the one with the big afro. The gorgeous lead vocal is by Ndombe Opetum. The lead vocal on the next track recorded at the same concert by the charismatic Youlou Mabiala is equally good and, yes, the spectacularly moustachioed Ntoya Fwala (Pajos Na Ndjili)  really does climb and stand on top of his drum kit and carries on playing without skipping a beat.

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 - that something new and good can be born out of inconceivable pain - struck a chord with Franco’s vast grieving fan base right across sub-Saharan Africa who had, after all, followed Franco’s career for more than three decades. It was a huge hit and remains Simaro’s best loved masterpiece as evidenced by the fact that since  posted on YouTube here  it has been listened to more than 700,000 times. That’s roughly 200,000 more times than his composition “Maya” sung by Carlyto Lassa with Papa Noël on guitar and the similarly popular “Testament Ya Bowule”: which has two major postings on YouTube and was co -composed with Franco  sung in duet by him and Malage de Lungendo. Of all T.P. OK Jazz’s staggeringly large back catalogue only Franco’s “Mario” sung in duet with Madilu is more popular than “Eau Bénite” if You Tube hits are anything to go by. Quarter of a century after it was first released the context has also changed - numerous comments on YouTube show that many who listen to t“Eau Bénite” today think not of Franco but of the song’s great  vocalist Madilu System who passed away in 2007.

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-Jazz, Rumba Sax, and Sam Mangwana & Odemba. It is obvious why Lutumba Simaro hired him and used him to play this important solo - it was simply a continuation of Franco’s long-standing policy of only employing the best.

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.

February 2015

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