Sumo Studios ushers in the independent era of jazz

We manage to arrive at Linden’s Sumo Sounds Recording Studios just before 8pm, musician and owner of Sumo, Peter Auret, comes out to open up for us. Inside the compound, a residential area that is today’s go-to recording place for all things South African jazz-related, a session is underway.

Msaki, a musician and artist based in East London, is recording parts of her full-length debut entitled Zaneliza, and has assembled a list of musicians which reads like a gift pack to the gods. Among them are former Kwani Experience member, Gontse Makhene; the drummer Sisa Sopazi, (this was before he tragically passed away in June 2015); and the 2014 recipient for the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for jazz, the pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini.

Inside, in one of the studio booths, Makhathini is on the piano playing the melody to what would later become King Of Kings, off his then-unrecorded third album Listening To The Ground. Everyone else is on a break. In true musician fashion, everything else but music happens on a break: jokes fly about, laughter fills the control room where everyone’s gathered, and someone will go missing only to return with a plate full of food which no one else knew was available.

Over two days (tonight being the first), Msaki will record some five songs in total, and plans to finish off the rest when she’s back in East London. Johannesburg, she says, has elements of life that she wanted to bleed through the music; hence her decision to lay down some cuts here. Among them are Golden, a song which starts off as a straight-ahead jazz piece before taking a shot-left to pick up salsa rhythms which then imbue new life into it. It’s so beautiful, pure and honest in its intentions that Makhathini’s statement the next day, that he “believes in magic”, could very well be used when speaking about it.

Auret is aware that the space he provides for musicians facilitates for magic to happen. “The way I’ve set up [my studio] and planned my career as an engineer was to focus on jazz and instrumental music because that’s really where my heart lies.”

Born and bred in Jozi, the self-taught musician and mixing engineer started out playing in rock bands during his high school years, “like any 16 year-old white kid,” he adds. He was also always fascinated by the studio and how it works, so when the opportunity presented itself to set one up in his parents’ garage towards the end of the 90s, he took it up. He’d record all types of things there, and created memorable moments while doing it (“I did some demos for [guitarist] Ernie Smith just before he signed to [the now-defunct] Sheer,” he says).

“I actually studied Fine Art, and I had this dream, initially, to become a comic book artist,” says Auret. “I used to draw quite a lot for myself; I’m almost 40 and I still am into comic books, but I really haven’t drawn anything since the mid-90s.” His school marching band participation completely derailed the comic book artist dream. “Music consumes you. There’s so much to check out; so much learning that [it becomes] a full-time commitment.” 

His love for and familiarity with jazz music grew out of his involvement with the studio environment. Bassist (and one-time winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Jazz) Concorde Nkabinde also tracked parts of his first album in that very studio, in the early 2000s. “I’d befriended Concorde a couple of years before that. [Through him] I got to meet more jazz and Afro-jazz cats,” says Auret, who also had a jazz-fusion project called Tsunami which was signed to the Gallo Jazz imprint, also now defunct.

Msaki recording tracks for her album at Sumo Studios (Tseliso Monaheng)

Asked how many sessions he has backed up, Auret says that he normally asks musicians to bring along their own hard drives. Once everything’s been handled (that is, once the studio fees been paid up and the musician has a physical CD available), he’ll delete the entire recording. He’s also an artist at odds with the realities of operating a recording studio. “I’m not a logistics man and an admin person. I want to be responsible for the creative process, making [the music] sound nice and providing the place for that thing to happen. I’ve created a studio that can accommodate musicians improvising together,” he says, and then “I just want go play a gig and not stress about this admin shit.”

South African jazz music has become an independent game. Auret points to artists such as McCoy Mrubata and Sibongile Khumalo, both of whom he’s recorded, and who were a big deal in the 90s (and still are), as two examples of musicians who are forging ahead as independent artists. “That’s quite hip, that now everyone is doing their independent thing. In a lot of cases, people are sharing their knowledge. I think it’s empowering, the musicians themselves are getting their shit together to manage their own records. I don’t think in the future you’ll have that thing of ‘a great artist’ but ‘with their last record.’ Because guys are like, “It’s my thing, I paid for it, it’s mine! So I’ll make sure that it’s available for people to buy, and that some reference copy of that thing stays in existence.’”

It’s a sentiment similar to that expressed by pianist Afrika Mkhize (who has also recorded at the studio), when interviewed by PowerFM’s Paul Mnisi. “I think jazz in South Africa has never been healthier. It’s much better right now than before…we don’t have record companies, we don’t have support from the State,” said the pianist, composer and producer whose debut album Raindance has just been released.

This may seem like a bad thing: Kippie Moeketsi, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba are, arguably, big because of record label support.

Mkhize views it otherwise. “For me, what this means for jazz is that we’re in control of the art. We’re the first generation of jazz musicians in South Africa that are expressing themselves truly, because we don’t have to impress nobody.”

Following the formative years in his mother’s garage, Auret migrated to Westdene where he had a two-room studio that he later expanded. He currently operates Sumo from Linden, at a place suggested by his wife, whom he says offers the greatest support to him.  “She was like, ‘Well, let’s find a place that’s either got a building that you can use as a studio, or that you can potentially build a studio on to.’ So we found the place I’m currently in. It was a big entertainment area. I bought it, closed it up.”

There are other integral members of the Auret’s Sumo team. There is his partner, the live music engineer Fred Wilsenach. There is assistant engineer Luyanda Molao, who kept a watchful eye over the two days that Msaki had decamped to Sumo, and who’s been involved in most of the projects recorded at Sumo over the past two years.

Once cannot escape the feeling of history in the making at Sumo. It’s being recorded here and shall doubtless receive multiple edits, making Sumo something of a library of the future.

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Tseliso Monaheng
Tseliso Monaheng
Photographer Tseliso Monaheng is currently writing and editing a series on South African hip hop.
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