Playlist: Essential South African Jazz
Seton Hawkins, Director of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center, traces the unique musical lineages that have informed South African jazz from the 1940s to the 21st century.
"De Makeba" by the Jazz Dazzlers
As South African jazz began to develop in the 1940s and '50s, the local artists began to move away from copying American big bands, and instead forged a local style. Sometimes called majuba and sometimes called mbaqanga, this style of big band jazz fused American swing with a style from Johannesburg's townships, a syncopated sound called marabi. The resulting sound was a truly South African approach to jazz, and this 1958 recording by the Jazz Dazzlers demonstrates it beautifully. The alto saxophone soloist is also a crucial figure: His name was Kippie Moeketsi, and he was a forward-thinking visionary who inspired younger artists like Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand to take new risks in jazz.
"Baby Ntsoare" by the Manhattan Brothers, featuring Miriam Makeba
Close-harmony vocal singing became a massive craze in South African popular music, and many artists found unique ways to meld local vocal traditions with the jazz-pop vocal sounds of groups like the Mills Brothers or the Ink Spots. No group was more influential than the Manhattan Brothers, whose sound and style would dominate South African pop culture in the 1940s and '50s. In addition, the Manhattan Brothers had a keen eye for talent, picking up a guest singer to join them on several recordings and tours. That rising star vocalist was none other than Miriam Makeba! You can hear this amazing collaboration in this 1954 recording of "Baby Ntsoare."
"Ace Blues" by Spokes Mashiyane
In the 1950s, a unique approach to jazz emerges in the urban centers of South Africa. Combining the pipe traditions of certain Southern African people like the BaPedi with the tin pennywhistle that arrived in South Africa via Scottish immigrants, a swinging pennywhistle musical style called kwela became a pop phenomenon in South Africa during the 1950s. One of its most prominent practitioners, Spokes Mashiyane, can be heard on this 1958 track, and the remnants of pennywhistle styles can be heard to this day in South Africa and abroad (in fact, pop culture enthusiasts might remember a pennywhistle solo in the middle of Paul Simon's song "You Can Call Me Al"!)
"Scullery Department" by the Jazz Epistles
The 1960 LP Verse One by the Jazz Epistles is a landmark in South Africa for many reasons. As the first jazz LP to be released by South African artists, the album also features a veritable supergroup of South African jazz masters. Altoist Kippie Moeketsi stands out as the star soloist, but now-famous figures like Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa round out the frontline, while Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim) leads a rhythm section that includes bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Early Mabuza. The music on it shows the degree to which forward-thinking artists had absorbed the innovations of American hard bop into the South African jazz aesthetic. This particular track, written by Kippie Moeketsi, is an album highlight. Verse One also represents two decades of relentless innovation in South African music that will be hamstrung in the very same year following the Sharpeville Massacre and its fallout.
"Pata Pata" by Miriam Makeba
One of the first famous artists to leave, Miriam Makeba will quickly become the most prominent South African artist in exile. Coming under the tutelage of Harry Belafonte, Makeba will slowly alter her sound and aesthetic throughout the 1960s (compare this track to "Baby Ntsoare"), and she will utilize her pop culture position to protest both the apartheid government in South Africa, and the Civil Rights restrictions in America. For this, she will find herself in exile yet again, this time from America, settling in Guinea for several decades. The title of this song, which becomes one of Makeba's greatest hits, means "touch touch," and refers to a social dance in South Africa's shebeens (informal bars).
"U, Dwi" by Hugh Masekela
While "Grazin' in the Grass" is certainly Hugh Masekela's biggest hit, this 1966 track finds him in extraordinary form, playing a mixture of mbaqanga and hard bop in a fabulous mixed group of American artists (Eric Gale, Larry Willis, and Howard St. John), and fellow South African exiles (Morris Goldberg and Jonas Gwangwa). Masekela's trumpet playing here is some of his finest, and the piece highlights some of the paths his diverse and fascinating career will take in the ensuing decades.
"Mra" by The Brotherhood of Breath
While a great deal of emphasis on the South African artists in exile is placed on the musicians who come to America, those who settle in Europe deserve a tremendous amount of attention. Indeed, their contributions to the European jazz scene, particularly in free jazz, cannot be overstated. One crucial group that arrives in Europe in 1964 is called The Blue Notes, and is an integrated band led by pianist Chris McGregor and featuring trumpeter Mongezi Feza, altoist Dudu Pukwana, tenor Nikele Moyake, bassist Johnny Dyani, and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. The group disbands not long after their arrival, but partially reconstitutes in an incredible big band called The Brotherhood of Breath. In it, McGregor, Feza, Pukwana, and Moholo join forces with British jazz artists to create one of the most singularly thrilling ensembles to ever exist. This recording of the South African jazz classic "Mra" gives a good sense of the energy and vitality this band imbued into every performance.
"Kippi" by the Dollar Brand Trio
Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) left South Africa and initially settled in Europe with his trio and with his wife, the vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. Their fortunes rise in 1963 when Sathima convinces Duke Ellington, who was touring in Zurich at the time, to come and hear Abdullah Ibrahim's trio record. Duly impressed by what he heard, Duke Ellington engaged the trio to make a recording the next week, and also engaged Sathima to record at the same time. What resulted was Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, which would launch Ibrahim's international career and enable him to relocate to New York (Sathima's record would sadly remain unissued until 1997). Ibrahim's playing on this represents an incredible fusion of the Church-infused sounds of South Africa's Western Cape mixed with the pianist touch of Ellington and Monk.
"Yakhal' Inkomo" by Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi
Arguably the most important jazz piece recorded in South Africa, though bafflingly almost unknown outside of South Africa, "Yakhal' Inkomo" by tenor saxophonist Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi represents the genius of South African artists who remained in the country even in the worst times of apartheid. A coded anti-apartheid message in an instrumental piece, "Yakhal' Inkomo" means "bellowing bull," a reference to the cry of cattle being slaughtered. Mankunku's playing is often held as the gold standard of a South African tenor saxophone sound, and with good reason: intensely vocal and melodic, Mankunku's sound is utterly arresting and unforgettable.
"Stay Cool" by Tete Mbambisa
Pianist Tete Mbambisa led an extraordinary large ensemble of artists in this 1976 session. Drawing on the earlier marabi and majuba sounds of South Africa's history, this piece (and its corresponding album) offered up a resistance message even as it grooved. Recorded in the wake of the 1976 youth uprisings, the music offered a message of unity ("Unity" and "Black Heroes") and patience ("Stay Cool") without having to say a word. South African Broadcasting Corporation censors were thus bypassed, but the music's message still rang loud and clear.
"Isililo" by Sakhile
Sakhile means "we have built," and this group explored ways of bridging Zulu musical traditions with jazz and fusion styles of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In their efforts, they sought to find a way to explore their musical culture and heritage in a rich and meaningful way, avoiding the neo-traditional restrictions that South Africa's Bantu Radio tried to impose on artists. The result was something extraordinary. The title of this 1982 piece, "Isililo," means "fires," and it explores the pain, struggle, and fear felt by the artists during the 1976 youth uprisings.
"Cabo" by Tananas
Where apartheid sought to divide and separate (in fact, "apartheid" means "separateness"), musicians sought to collaborate. This incredible trio from the 1980s merged guitarist Steve Newman, bassist/vocalist Gito Baloi, and drummer Ian Herman in a genre-defying, multiracial ensemble that to this day remains one of the world's most incredible bands. This piece reflects a wide range of South Africa's influences, melding them into a fascinating fusion, and closing with a fun nod to Cape Town's kaapse klopse musical tradition.
"Closer to the Source" by Bheki Mseleku
Bheki Mseleku was one of the most visionary artists South Africa ever produced. Cutting his teeth in fusion ensembles in South Africa in the 1970s, Mseleku ultimately relocated to London, which served as his base of operations for many years. In the 1990s, though, his career began to launch with a string of brilliant albums for World Circuit and Verve Records, pairing him with icons like Joe Henderson, Abbey Lincoln, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, and more. On this piece from 1992, Mseleku trades melodic lines with saxophonist Courtney Pine in a thrilling duet.
"Meeting of the Women" by Paul Hanmer
With the democratic elections in 1994 and the beginning of the New South Africa, jazz artists began to explore the new role of the music in this society. How would a style so tied to the anti-apartheid movement realign in the post-apartheid world? For many artists, the solution they found was a new exploration of South Africa's pre-colonial traditions, an absorption of them, and an integration of those sounds into the music of the global landscape. One such artist who emerged in the 1990s is pianist Paul Hanmer, who would write some of the most beloved Jazz standards of South Africa. His seminal 1997 album Trains to Taung offered an incredible new vision for South African jazz.
"Face the Music" by McCoy Mrubata
An extraordinary Who's Who of South Africa's jazz scene at the turn of the 21st century assembled for this 2002 album, led by saxophonist McCoy Mrubata. Drawing on the rich mbaqanga musical traditions of South Africa, Mrubata found a fascinating and exciting new path for the music. Indeed, Mrubata's is one of the strongest voices to emerge post-1994 in forging and giving contour to the shape of jazz in the New South Africa.
Seton Hawkins is Director of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center.