Tete Mbambisa: Jazz giant among the heroes

‘The most powerful map of the New World,” says jazz historian Robin Kelley, “is in the imagination.” That was certainly true for the black jazz players honing their chops in South Africa from the 1940s onwards.

Imported albums and the bioscope offered images of “Africans in America” who had apparently made it socially and displayed high levels of accomplishment. The films showed black urban roles and aesthetics for communities of colour systematically excluded from their own city life by apartheid. Characters such as Duke Ellington, suave in white tie and tails, were “our black heroes”, recalled trumpeter Johnny Mekoa.

With that phrase, Mekoa invoked one of the biggest jazz hits of 1976: the composition Black Heroes by pianist Tete Mbulelo Mbambisa, which first appeared on his only big-band album, Tete’s Big Sound. Now Mbambisa has ended a 20-year recording drought with a solo piano album bearing the same title and carrying two versions of the melody.

In 1976, those heroes had a many-layered identity. The World’s jazz critic Vusi Khumalo identified them in the liner notes as “all our great musicians who have left us”. But when Mbambisa told the story of the song’s birth to jazz scholar Jonathan Eato, who produced this new album, he was firm that the tune was dedicated to Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. It was a few months before the 1976 uprising, township emotions were hot and, although the pianist never posed as a politician, he was a socially conscious member of his community.

Until recently, Mbambisa’s achievements have been hidden from jazz history. Born in East London’s Duncan Village in 1942, he learned to play the piano his mother had put in her modest shebeen. He credits the place’s pianist, “an old man called Langa”, with teaching him his first chords, marking the notes with scraps of newspaper to show the combinations. Then “I checked: Ah, so the chords are built like this … so this is a major chord … I didn’t even know the names, but I used to hear the difference”. From his brother’s record collection, Mbambisa listened to Frank Sinatra, Louis Jordan and the Four Freshmen. In his teens, he formed a highly successful vocal group, the Four Yanks.

As the pianist with the Jazz Giants, he took a prize at the 1963 Cold Castle Jazz Festival in Johannesburg and they attracted much teasing from Johannesburg players: “[Because we were all short], they used to say this is not the jazz giants — they used to call us ‘the Japanese’!” By 1969, the pianist was working with Winston Mankunku and playing, composing and arranging with tenor-player Duku Makasi’s band, the Soul Jazzmen, on the landmark album Inhlupeko.

Close-knit community

There is a myth that South African jazz died during the 1970s. But, although increasingly harsh legislation silenced the music in many public spaces, the decade was a time of intense compositional creativity, as Mbambisa’s subsequent recordings attest. And, if a shared approach to harmony and risk characterises the work of the Jazz Giants, Mankunku, the Soul Jazzmen, bassist Zulu Bidi’s group Batsumi and other outfits of the era, it is because there was a close-knit community of creative players who composed and debated as they travelled the country, trying to patch together an income.

Mbambisa’s brain is behind much of the decade’s best jazz. He was the uncredited pianist and arranger on the Mankunku/Mike Makhalemele 1976 album, The Lion and the Bull.

Then came the big-band album. In 1979, he composed all the material for the edgy, modernist quartet outing, Did You Tell Your Mother?, with reedman Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee, Bidi and drummer Monty Weber.

That significant but largely uncredited influence was one reason Eato invited Mbambisa to be on a panel of speakers at a Stellenbosch musicology conference in 2010. Mbambisa did not have much to say, but, as the panel discussion was ending, he strode over to the piano and gave his contribution in music. That was the genesis of the new album, in which the pianist in maturity revisits 10 tunes from his own canon and ­tradition.

But nothing sounds quite as it did on past outings. In Kelley’s words: “Even in the search for tradition, its chains do not always bind us.”  When the Four Yanks sang Mbambisa’s composition Umsenge (Milk Tree), back in 1962, what we dub its “Xhosa” chords (harmonies echoing overtone singing and bow music) were clear, but the tune got a literal interpretation from the voices. Here, the space it affords the improvising imagination emerges too.

Mbambisa shares with one of his own musical heroes, Bill Evans (“so romantic and full of chords”), a fondness for juggling the rhythmic relationship between right and left hands, and a sure feel for dynamics; the rousing lament that Black Heroes expressed on Tete’s Big Sound here gets richly contemplative passages of softness and space.

Black Heroes is released by Jisa Records under a deal in which all proceeds go directly to the pianist — buy, don’t rip!

The package has informative liner notes and archive photographs. If it whets your appetite, the Electric Jive website offers an 18-minute download of Arabia, recorded in 1964 by Mbambisa with a sextet including Pukwana and trumpeter Dennis Mpale at Cape Town’s short-lived (it lasted a month) Room at the Top, a venue the pianist helped to found.

If you are seeking heroes, Mbambisa not only wrote about them, he also lived the life.

Gwen Ansell
Guest Author

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