/ 15 June 2024

Winter heats up with new South African Jazz releases

15 Thembidunjana 9 Ciangeraghty 2
Thembi Dunjana’s econd album God Bless Ikapa, God Bless Mzantsi is about to come out.

Winter may be cold for venturing outdoors, but it’s a hot season for South African jazz releases, perfect for staying home and listening. 

On 12 July, reedman Linda Sikhakhane will launch his sophomore album, Iladi, with musical direction from Nduduzo Makhathini. Before then, on 16 June, trombonist Malcolm Jiyane has his second album outing with his group Tree-O, True Story and, two weeks later on 28 June, pianist, composer and vocalist Thembi Dunjana issues hers — the New York-recorded God Bless Ikapa, God Bless Mzantsi

Second albums are more significant for establishing an artist’s voice and identity than debuts. Debuts — if they’re any good — showcase as much as possible of what an artist can do. A year or several on, and that artist has found their musical home in terms of sound, genre and direction.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Jiyane’s debut, the 2021 Umdali, deservedly was the UK Guardian’s Global Album of the Month as well as scoring a Mzansi Jazz Award for Best Traditional Album. 

Reviewing Umdali at the time, I described it as “walking an edgy line between tradition and innovation”. Jiyane’s ’bone had clearly listened to all the masters of African jazz but built on that inspiration with a modernist’s relish for experiment, free sounds and dissonance.

Anybody who has experienced the musician, though, would have known better than to expect his second album would simply settle for one of the directions from his first. 

Tribute titles feature again but this time from a far broader palette of South African culture: Ma Brrr; Dr Philip Tabane; Don Mattera (Memory is the Weapon); Steve Biko (I Play What I Like). 

Tree-O is still underpinned by Nkosinathi Mathunjwa on keys, Ayanda Zalekile on bass, Gontse Makhene on percussion and Lungile Kunene on drums. There are fewer horns — just the ’bone — and a chorus of guest voices, plus another of multi-tracked trombone.

This isn’t another collection of edgy-meets-African-jazz, though both those guiding spirits are present. 

The frame of reference is different. True Story is a collection of often riff-led, hummable, damn good tunes. 

We always knew Jiyane was an inspired composer, just not necessarily this kind. But if he writes more tunes with the luscious, infectious swing of Baby Ngimanzi Wuthando, he might even find himself on a few pop radio playlists. 

Yet despite occasionally tapping into sensibilities more often associated with pop, it’s never a lightweight album. 

Andile Buka True Story Pr Photos 12 (landscape) 2 (1)
: Malcolm Jiyanereleases True Story with his Tree-O this week. (Andile Buka)

The sensitively filmed True Story on YouTube is a searingly honest biographical reflection on the life that made the music. That sadness foregrounds itself in the slow, melancholy chant of Memory is the Weapon and in the centrepiece, Global Warning, with its Gwangwa-style ’bone bellowing and protesting: “What exactly is the problem with your World System?/There is no water/There are no toilets/There is no education/But we’re eating sushi, yes?” The upbeat elements (like the 1980s music of Ma Brrr herself) celebrate resilience and survival in the face of all this, not empty jol.

And, lest we forget, Jiyane is a very fine trombone player. The slide trombone is not an easy instrument. It demands both intellectual and physical skill to hit precisely the right note on time. 

The solo and perfectly steady stretched-out closing note on I Play What I Like show us a musician who has put in the hard yards so he can play exactly what he likes. Where will he take us next?

Equally fine musicianship is on display on Thembi Dunjana’s second album, God Bless … Her debut, the 2020 Intyatyambo (also a Mzansi Jazz Award winner) offered everything from ghoema to nu-soul, with a swinging-jazz title song. 

It was creatively envisioned and beautifully formed, and the artist gave herself a dozen potential directions to choose from in future work. 

This subsequent outing is far less eclectic. Its heart is rooted in heritage jazz, church and Xhosa tradition; its eyes look forward to all kinds of contemporary improvisation.

And what a piano improviser Dunjana is on this outing. 

The second track, Indlela Ikhona, offers dazzling keyboard work before making space for a thoughtful, cleverly crafted solo from another of our new generation of trombonists, Siya Charles. (Charles has her own debut as leader scheduled this year.) 

They’ve Got the Map! (a decisive answer to Andile Yenana’s 2007 question) is one of 10 inventive original compositions.

Dunjana’s voice as a composer is clearly in the tradition — the tradition of Moses Molelekwa, Bheki Mseleku and Yenana, who, in turn, drew from that much older tradition of marabi and mbaqanga. Echoes of Gugulethu isn’t the retro mbaqanga jive you might expect from the title — it’s a melody of reflection, reminiscence and community, taken back to the Sunday morning jazz of family and friends by Charles’ moody trombone.

But it was Dunjana’s soloing that drew me back repeatedly to this album, sensitively framed by Charles, Zoe Obadia on tenor, Timothy Norton on bass and alternative drummers Darrien Douglas and Jerome Jennings. 

She has the crisp focus of the veteran South Africans (A City Dream has all the vibe of a tuny by The Drive), what feels like effortless technique — it never is: the trick is making it sound like that — and a hatful of fresh ideas.

Both these releases represent partnerships: Jiyane’s between South African label Mushroom Hour Half Hour and UK-based New Soil; Dunjana’s the same Africarise-Ropeadope team that brought us those Steve Dyer and McCoy Mrubata albums in April. 

That is both a sad story and a happy one. Sad, because independent South African labels alone often lack the resources to promote work like this worldwide; happy, because young artists like these now command the kind of respect that can win international partners. 

Perhaps the new minister of arts and culture, rather than (as in the past) treating their job like a mere political stepping-stone, will have the vision to help in ways that count.