/ 10 October 2023

A vital moment for SA jazz

On the beat: The late Julian Sebothane Bahula pioneered malombo

The death of malombo drummer, composer, music promoter and anti-apartheid campaigner Julian Sebothane Bahula on 1 October at the age of 85 puts the legacy of that genre back under the spotlight. 

In its time, malombo music was astoundingly fresh and profoundly influential — yet when important trends and moments in the history of South African jazz are discussed, it sometimes gets little more than a passing mention.

That’s partly about geography and politics. The ferment of radical cultural innovation in the working-class black communities around Pretoria didn’t have the same profile as the commercial music scenes of Joburg or Cape Town — even given the equal oppression all experienced under apartheid. 

Record labels and media covering music were based in the big conurbations. And much of that cultural ferment was birthed from revolutionary Africanist politics that received less attention from external historians and commentators fixated on the doings of Congress.

Two reissues that appeared earlier this year remind us how edgily disruptive malombo music was. In May, Germany-based Strut Records released Malombo Jazz Volume 2 

(the 1967 Malombo Jazz Makers Volume 2) and the 1966 album, Malombo Jazz

The first malombo group, the Malombo Jazzmen, was a trio of Philip Nchipi Tabane on guitar, Bahula on drums and Abbey Cindi on flute. It was Tabane’s original vision to fuse the malopo tradition passed down to him from family spiritual healers, including his mother, with a contemporary, bluesy, improvisatory style on a modern instrument — the guitar. For him, there was no hard distinction between performing and communicating with the spirits through music and herbs — often, the second was the priority. 

That created a sometimes-strained touring partnership with the more businesslike Bahula. By the mid-1960s, Bahula had stopped working with Tabane and recruited Madhumetja “Lucky” Ranku on guitar. These two albums are the work of that new partnership; the 1967 volume includes guest vocals from the Mahotella Queens’ Hilda Tloubatla.

Also this year, the UK-based Tapestry Works label reissued Down Lucky’s Way, a 1968 LP that appeared briefly in 1969 and then disappeared from public view until this year. It features a larger group, including legendary Malawian bandleader Dick Khoza on conventional drumkit, Zakes Mkumbule on bass and Andrew Mfundi on a rippling, energetic organ, as well as Cindi’s first recorded outing on soprano sax.

So why was malombo important for South African jazz? Like bandleader Eric Nomvete’s powerful nationalism at the 1962 Cold Castle Festival in Joburg, when he played Pondo Blues to a riotous standing ovation, it shows us how communities were mining their cultural roots to shape startling new sounds and approaches. 

Apartheid proposed “retribalisation” — a return to archaic forms requiring a stamp of approval from white ideologues. Malombo implicitly enacted de-tribalisation. This was the music of urbanised communities with multiple heritages — including the contemporary international cultures of records and movies — restlessly making new things that no white ethnology professor had heard before and asserting the existence of modern, conscious, creative black people.

That’s all context. What you’ll hear on these reissues is the bittersweet beauty of the melodies and the spacious, adventurous risk-taking of the improvisation. The skill of the musicians is breathtaking (look at the album photos to see just how young they all were then). 

The music travels between the subtle understanding of community idioms — the speed and complexity of Bahula’s drumming is dazzling — and those big musicians’ ears that were consuming every modern jazz album they could access. 

It sets radical minimalism against richly-detailed soloing. Tloubatla is a masterful vocalist in any genre, but here, her resonant voice gets much more freedom than within the disciplined choreography of the Queens’ mqashiyo. The standout track on Malombo Jazz Volume 2 is probably Abbey’s Mood. 

For me, Down Lucky’s Way is the revelation album. Ranku was a fine and conscientious collaborator. When it wasn’t his album, he’d discipline his solos and offer generous space to his co-players. Read tributes to him and they’re populated by words like “gentle” and “unassuming”.

But Down Lucky’s Way was his album. He composed much of the material on all these outings but here he stretches them out, shifting with ease from a straightforward traditional voice into the outer reaches of improvisation. 

Listen to the 10-minute Gae Mamelodi with its chanting introduction, its conversations with drums, bass and sax and its challenging, spiky guitar chords. Ranku’s sheer, audacious inventiveness has nothing retro about it — the album could have been made in the late 1960s but it’s sparkling fresh half a century later.

Let’s also remember that from this groundbreaking outfit Cindi is still with us, still active as a cultural organiser, teacher, writer and leader (his current band is the United States of Afrika). We should be grabbing any opportunity that comes along to listen to him and give him honour.