Mail & Guardian

Sheer talent, real music

02 Oct 1998 00:00 | Staff Reporter

Peter Makurube

There is no better way to suss out where a country is at than through its music. There has never been any doubt about the quality of music this country can produce, the problem has been a chronic case of arrested development. Now that the old is out and the new is in the music is getting better and better.

This Friday's gig at the Mega Music Warehouse in Johannesburg is a case in point. Sheer Music is launching four new albums.

It took a small independent company like Sheer to see the talents of these exciting musicians, and to record and market their music. The artists billed for this gig are the band Mahube, veteran guitarist Allen Kwela, bassist Sipho Gumede and ace guitarist Errol Dyers. These are all talented musicians who have been around a long time - except the industry never cared before now.

This gutsy move by Sheer is a move towards righting the wrongs perpetrated by the local record industry over the years. It shows faith in a product that has no competition - real South African music.

The return of Allen Kwela to the studio is cause for celebration. The legendary guitarist has been working up a sweat honing his craft and passing on skills to the younger generation. Kwela was not always at home. At times he'd take a spin to Europe, Canada and New York "just to check the scene and the homeboys who were in exile", as he puts it.

Kwela is a revered figure in jazz circles and the release of this album , The Broken Strings of Allen Kwela, should generate a lot of excitement. On it he features singer Sibongile Khumalo, drummer Vusi Khumalo, Glen Mafoko on bass, longtime colleague, saxophonist Barney Rachabane, and Denzil Weale on piano.

It hasn't been easy for Sipho Gumede to shake off the Sakhile tag - not that he's been trying too hard. The famed bassist and band leader has come up with his second Sheer release, Blues for my Mother. "I'm continuing in the same style that people know me for," Gumede says about his upcoming offering. Artists featured on this one are his usual band, including sax player Mandla Masuku and stablemate, pianist Paul Hanmer.

Not too many people outside Cape Town have ever heard of the magical guitarist Errol Dyers. However jazz connoisseurs have come across his name on many albums in illustrious company. He's been around, but living in Cape Town never did much for anyone's music career. Dyers's is a classic ghetto musician's story - boy picks up oil can turns it into a guitar and voila! The highlight of his career was a tour with his heroes, the late Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and band leader Abdullah Ibrahim. That's a long way from strumming on the pavements of die Kaap and backing child star Jonathan Butler.

Dyers's debut album, Sonesta, is a rich mix of all the sounds that make up that strange animal called "Cape jazz". The solo tune, Cape Song, is a fine piece of guitar work. It shows why greats like Mankunku Ngozi, Robbie Jansen and Hilton Schilder are on the album. That's respect!

The band Mahube is a potpourri of sounds and personalities that could only have been put together by a big-hearted character like saxophonist Steve Dyer. It's been a long-cherished dream of his to set up a band like this.

Dyer left the country in the Eighties and settled in Botswana and Zimbabwe. He immersed himself in the sounds of the subcontinent and finally founded Southern Freeway, a brilliant band that set Johannesburg alight in the early Nineties. A few months ago Dyer meticulously put the band together. He first assembled instrumentalists of the finest pedigree, then added vocalists. The entire band numbers 11 musicians hailing from central to southern Africa.

If you thought all Malawians could do was plant the best 'erb in the world, you obviously haven't heard of George Phiri. When Dyer was in self-imposed exile, he met the Malawian guitarist- cum-singer who also lived in Zimbabwe for a while. Their friendship has lasted over the years.

Phiri is a highly rated musician whose name is associated with excellence in Malawian music. In his native land he played with Kalimba Makasu, one of the best to emerge from that country. He has also played with Stimela at some point in his career. The latest collaboration on record was with his proteg, guitarist Tony Cox on his Looking for Zim CD.

There are two names on the Zimbabwean music scene that have totally captured the imagination of that country: Thomas Mapfumo, the king of chimurenga music and Oliver Mtukudzi. The latter is a proud member of Mahube. Mtukudzi, like Phiri, met Dyer while the latter lived in Zimbabwe. Their collaborations are many and span the entire subcontinent.

The two female vocalists are Suthukazi Arosi and Phinda Mtya. Arosi is a former winner of the Kora Award, which she won with the band Sabela. Before then she had been a struggling musician simply because she insisted on African music which record companies scorned. Her powerful voice and feel for indigenous music is an asset to this band.

Mtya has been working her way up to stardom as a backing singer for top artists like Hugh Masekela, Tshepo Tshola and Rebecca Malope. She is from jazz city Port Elizabeth which has produced showbiz stars aplenty.

Dyer has really gone to town on his selection of the instrumentalists. On keyboards he roped in wizard Sean Fourie of Short Attention Span fame. Fourie is one of the most innovative and daring pianists around. Also on keys and piano is Andile Yenana who is better known as a member of saxophonist Zim Ngqawana's trio.

Yenana is a fine player whose time has just about arrived to make his voice heard. His constant companion, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli is probably the hottest bass talent in his age group. On percussion Dyer chose new talent Tlale Makhene who featured on Mose Taiwa Molelekwa's Genes and Spirits.

The other timekeeper is drummer Barry van Zyl, who recently featured in Paul Hanmer's daring experimental ensemble work on the CD Window to Elsewhere. Hornman Scorpion Madondo is a veteran of South African music. It is Scorpion's flute solo that set the tone to the Juluka hit tune, Scatterlings of Africa. The last member of the band is Feya Faku, regarded as one of the finest trumpet talents to emerge in ages.

The recording of this band is a boost to creative music in general. If a small company like Sheer can take bold steps with this kind of sound, we hope it will be a matter of time before the biggies buy into it as well. The gig promises to be a feast of sound fit for the musically liberated.

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