Mzansi jaz z breaks free and flies in 2021

We’re at the Downtown Studios in Jozi at the tail end of a five-day rehearsal and recording run for Tumi Mogorosi’s forthcoming album, his first since 2014’s breakthrough, Project Elo. The drummer is relaxed — relieved, even — as he sits at the piano to figure out the chord progression for one final joint, a free-flowing sextet piece featuring the master teacher and ole skool emcee, Lesego Rampolokeng

“Group theory is black music,” is his response to a question posed by the Mushroom Hour’s Nhlanhla Masondo about different schools of jazz thought. He continues: “There’s no way to get black music without group theory. And group theory is this thing where there’s no centre — things come from different points. For me that’s always been the case [with] whatever we wanna call an un-owning of ideas. Of course there are guidelines, but I think [that] all those inputs destabilise the centre of the composer.”

This departure from different points was apparent from the onset of 2021, at least as far as Mzansi’s creative improvised music is concerned. Indaba Is, a compilation featuring more than 50 musicians playing in setups spread out over eight songs, was an “un-owning” of co-producers Siya Mthembu and Thandi Ntuli’s ideas, in a sense; and the best illustration of group theory. The compilation set the tone for what became a pivotal year in a movement.

There was an increase in releases that sought to challenge the unwritten rules of Mzansi jazz, what it’s supposed to “sound” like. This desire to label and distil has been an on-going point of contention, one that brings about great discomfort among self-styled straitjacket scholars. On Our Own Clock, a joint release by Jozi’s Mushroom Hour and London’s Total Refreshment Centre, incorporated folk, hip-hop and electronic music influences, and did so to the chagrin of some. The main recording happened over two sessions, with musicians in London, Dakar and Jozi presenting draft ideas for the whole to interpret. 

All rounder Siya Makuzeni was among the participants in the international collaborative album On Our Own Clock, a joint release by Mushroom Hour and the London-based Total Refreshment Centre

Says Masondo: “The brief was the process: you’re gonna record something that’s incomplete. Those guys on the other side are gonna complete it. It’s a different way of getting an ensemble together in that two-thirds of the ensemble isn’t here [in Jozi].”

With this, he echoes Mogorosi’s sentiments about the composer’s role in a song: “There’s no way to get black music outside of the group. I’m trying to … ho kopants’a. We’re all trying to make it work. I didn’t come here with note-to-note; although there are notes, there’s [also] space for taking away, space for putting in extra, space for enhancing. It’s not rigid, in that sense.”

The Covid-19 pandemic left wide open spaces for the improvised music community to fill. With limited avenues for live performances, travel restrictions, and the likelihood of risking the health and wellbeing of patrons, what other ways can the music be experienced? 

On the live performance front, PDX Festival and Berlin Jazz Festival’s Jozi-centric programming demonstrated the bounds of what was possible. Under the banner of the Indaba Is Weekender, Portland’s PDX hosted talks and performances featuring some of the Indaba Is compilation’s cast in February. Berlin Jazz, which took place early in November, featuring remote performances from Cairo, São Paulo and New York, had a section on their website that profiled the performers who’d been invited and the cities they were based in, in addition to live performances spread out over two days. Among the Jozi cast was Sibusile Xaba, whose latest outfit alongside producer Ash-K, IzangoMa, sees him eschewing the acoustic guitar in favour of an electronic-heavy approach. 

“[The] 15-piece ensemble is a continental collaboration kind of a thing. My band from Mozambique is coming down to collaborate with my band from here. It’s a beautiful glimpse of the future that lies ahead,” says Xaba. They have a single out, and an album forthcoming next year.

Malcolm Jiyane’s Umdali had been sitting in a vault for a few years before being discovered during a recording session

Malcolm Jiyane, whose album Umdali is one of the year’s standouts, curated a special line-up for the Dutch festival, Le Guess Who? He ponders on the meaning of music in a film produced exclusively for the festival. “We’re doing what matters. In fact, you should ask: what is music to human beings? What is sound? Why do people listen to music, in fact? I leave that to God. Or to scholars. Me, I just feel it.”

Siphiwe Mhlambi’s Expressions exhibition, held in conjunction with the FotoZA Gallery in Rosebank, entered its third year, and was book-ended by a live music event held in October at the National School of the Arts, featuring performances from musicians such as Ziza Muftic, Ayanda Sikade, Billy Monama and Themba Mokoena. McCoy Mrubata and Sikade took the opportunity to do soft launches of their albums Quiet Please and Umakhulu, respectively.

Sikade was also on hand to ensure that African Time didn’t dissolve into a trainwreck on well-worn tracks when bra Herbie Tsoaeli hit the lab to record the follow-up to 2012’s still-epic African Time album in March. The result, At This Point in Time, is a synthesis of bra Herbie’s musings about black life, emotion and creative output. 

Saxophonist McCoy Mrubata (left) did a soft launch of his album, Quiet Please, at Siphiwe Mhlambi’s Expressions exhibition

Speaking of great bandleaders, bra Feya Faku launched his book of compositions and two albums — Feya Faku Sextet’s Live at the Bird’s Eye and Impilo — at Sandton’s eDikeni in October. Flanked by Siphelelo Mazibuko on drums, Benjamin Jephta on bass, Bokani Dyer on piano, and bra Sydney Mnisi on flute, he reminded us of the mean machine/human he can transform into when the vibes flow tight and the music is right. His return to the stage is indeed a welcome one, following a debilitating illness which struck him down in mid-2019 and put him out of commission. 

In October, at the Joburg Theatre, pianist Keenan Meyer led a two-night encounter with the underworlds amid an audience that sang his songs such as Komani back to him with an enchanting verve. The launch of his debut, The Alchemy of Living, was life-giving. 

Two weeks earlier, down the road at the recently-opened Camagu Bar, renowned drummer Leagan Breda gathered the friends who’d helped him record his tightly-orchestrated Ekyoto album — one of the best sequenced records to have emerged out of Mzansi in recent memory — to present the music in front of an eager audience. 

The songs straddle gospel music, funk, hip-hop, and ethereal, supernova soundscapes which speak to his alias, Starchild.

We chatted about the meaning of the title, and also how he managed to build the richly-textured sonic universe within which the music exists. 

“Ekyoto means joining, combining what has come from the album, and finding a way of connecting us and them, in terms of generations,” says Leagan, who has played with everyone from Benjamin Dube, to Zamajobe, and Riky Rick to Khuli Chana. 

“That’s why you can’t really pinpoint what it is, because it’s not necessarily ‘jazz’. It’s more fusion, if anything. What I was trying to create was a listening experience. I pictured you sitting on the couch with a pair of good headphones, and just playing it from top to bottom. It was actually [conceived] as one long song, and the nuances of colour that were created were for you to travel through certain things,” Breda says.

In a daring move, the Brother Moves On reworked classics from the South African canon in Tolika Mtoliki

Many more albums and compilations have emerged this year, some of which, like Linda Tshabalala’s Convergence Bekezela Siyeza, and Yenana’s Live at the Market Theatre, had initially escaped the DSP radar and existed purely as hard copies. 

Afrosynth Records followed up 2020’s New Horizons: Young Stars of South African Jazz Volume 1 compilation with a tight-knit selection of tunes for Volume 2, from the likes of Spha Mdlalose, Tefo Mahola, Thembelihle Dunjana, and Siphelelo Ndlovu’s The SN Project. 

In a daring move, The Brother Moves On reworked old classics from Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, the Malopoets, Dr Phillip Tabane and Moses Molelekwa for the Matsuli Music label. The results are collected and presented on the six-track Tolika Mtoliki, a towering homage to the greats. 

As for next year, Linda Sikhakhane, Nduduzo Makhathini, Tumi Mogorosi, Shane Cooper’s Mabuta, and Jiyane have records locked and loaded. 

It’s about to be a mazza.

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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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