Spirits Rejoice: 10 seriously heavy deep jazz gems from apartheid-era South Africa

Spirits Rejoice: 10 seriously heavy deep jazz gems from apartheid-era South Africa

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South African afro-jazz expert and Matsuli Music boss Matt Temple digs deep on this stunning selection of spiritual jazz from 1968-1979.

Nowhere has jazz been as prominent a vehicle for protest and self-determination as in South Africa. From small township clubs to the nationwide touring of anti-apartheid musical King Kong, its potency for delivering messages about the plight of young black South Africans ensured jazz and its musicians were at constant odds with a regime desperate to silence them. Prominent figures like Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand) and Hugh Masekela gave South Africa’s established be-bop sound a political edge that resonated with the fledgling Civil Rights movement in the United States, forging a national scene that spoke directly to the people.

However, events following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where police opened fire on several thousand black African protestors, led to increased censorship and a crack down on venues, crippling the scene and forcing many jazz musicians to leave the country.

South African percussion ensemble Amampondo

South African percussion ensemble Amampondo


As a result, South African jazz developed along split lines, with a large ‘scene in exile’ operating in Europe and the United States, where established names like Dollar Brand, Masekela and Miriam Makeba were free to forge international careers, and underground artists like Ndikho Xaba made music that drew explicit links between anti-apartheid struggle and the Black Power movement.

The records in this list trace this phenomenon loosely termed deep jazz or spiritual jazz, which draws on traditional African rhythms and influences within an expanded hard-bop framework. Often built around modal progressions and hypnotic, slow burning forms, it’s a sub-genre that blossomed among independent black record labels in the late ’60s and ’70s, thrilled by the spiritual, expansive qualities of John and Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Don Cherry.

Specialising in reissues of South African afro-jazz, Matt Temple’s Matsuli Music is the authority on South African deep jazz. With reissues for Bea Benjamin, Batsumi and most recently Ndikho Xaba and The Natives’ holy grail LP (which we’ve been trailing ever since the superb ‘Nomusa’ made it onto Jazzman’s Spiritual Jazz compilation series a few years back), we asked Matt to give us an introduction to one of the most important and diverse underground music scenes of the last fifty years.

You can listen to the whole selection in this Youtube playlist or individually as you scroll.


Words: Matt Temple


Heshoo

Heshoo Beshoo
Armitage Road
(JPL 4021, 1971)

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With a visual reference to Abbey Road this group was put together by saxophonist Henry Sithole together with Ernest Mothle on bass, Nelson Magwaza on drums, Cyril Magubane on guitar and his brother Stanley on tenor. Heshoo Beshoo means moving forward with force. On so many levels this recording is a strong statement of self-determination, creativity and freedom in the midst of the brutal subjugation of black South Africans by the Apartheid government. The LP had a limited release in South Africa as well as a subsequent release in France. In 1971 Henry and Stanley were approached by guitarist Adolphus “Bunny” Luthuli to get a band together to compete in the Alco Best Band Competition at Jabulani Stadium in April 1971. Bunny had played with Henry in Almon’s Jazz 8. This approach was the genesis of South Africa’s greatest soul jazz band The Drive comprising the Sithole brothers Henry, Danny and Stanley, Bunny Luthuli, Mike Makhalemele, Lucky Mbatha, Nelson Magwaza and Anthony Saoli.


Inhlupeko - front

Soul Jazzmen
Inhlupeko
(CYL1000, 1969)

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Featuring pianist Tete Mbambisa this album presents a modern vision of South African jazz with renditions of US standards alongside homegrown compositions. Inhlupeko was the first commercial recording for Tete Mbambisa despite the fact that he was one of the most gifted pianists and composers of the 1950s. He has kept the original and unique ’50s sound alive, and has nurtured many of today’s best young jazz talents. With his inventive piano playing, Tete Mbambisa helped to preserve South Africa’s acoustic jazz tradition during the genre’s decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Following Inhlupeko Tete recorded Tete’s Big Sound (1976), Did You Tell Your Mother (1979), Xhosa Nostra (1990) and Black Heroes (2012).


Gideon Plays

Gideon Nxumalo
Gideon Plays
(JLP 02, 1968)

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Nxumalo is an absolutely central figure in the development of modernist jazz sounds in South Africa. As ‘uMgibe’ he hosted the This is Bantu Jazz radio show on the Rediffusion service from the early 1950s onwards, until his dismissal for playing politically charged music in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre. A university trained pianist, he taught piano and theory at Dorkay House, and he composed the music for the Sponono musical, the first South African production to play on Broadway.


Ibrahim Journey

Abdullah Ibrahim
The Journey
(CR 187, 1977)

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South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim joined forces with several well-known figures in avant-garde jazz, including trumpeter Don Cherry and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett for this session. Recorded with a full ensembles of players in September of 1977 at New York’s Downtown Sound Studio this album blends of Abdullah’s famous Cape jazz alongside the avant-garde and soul of the assembled players. The Journey begins with the sublime ‘Sister Rosie’ and then takes a journey into two sublime and lengthy work outs.


Batsumi

Batsumi
Batsumi
(RTL 4041, 1974) reissued by Matsuli Music 2011

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This album was lost for many years but it remains a masterpiece of spiritualised afro-jazz. There is nothing else on record from the period that has the deep, resonant urgency of the Batsumi sound, a reverb-drenched, formidably focussed pulse, underpinned by the tight-locked interplay of traditional and trap drums and pushed along by the throb of Zulu Bidi’s mesmeric bass.


Sathima

Sathima Bea Benjamin
African Songbird
(GL 1839, 1976) reissued by Matsuli Music 2013

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Sathima convinced Duke Ellington to listen to her husband Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) play in a small club in Switzerland and since then her musical career was overshadowed. This stunning album was recorded at a time when both her and her husband were living back in South Africa before the events of the Soweto riots in 1976 forced them into permanent exile.


Xaba

Ndikho Xaba and the Natives
Ndikho Xaba and the Natives
(LR-7001, 1971) reissued by Matsuli Music 2015

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South African exile Ndikho Xaba’s 1971 album linking South African jazz to the Black Power struggles in the USA. Ndikho played alongside Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra supporting anti-Vietnam rallies. Its rarity has until now served to obscure both its beauty and historical significance, making profound links between the struggle against apartheid and the Black Power movement in the USA. Ndikho Xaba and the Natives is arguably the most complete and complex South African jazz LP recorded in the USA. It stands out as a critical document in the history of transatlantic black solidarity and in the jazz culture of South African exiles.


Chris Schilder

Chris Schilder Quartet featuring Mankunku
Spring
(AYL 1001, 1969)

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This LP is in essence the second Winston Mankunku album, following his 1968 Yakhal’Inkomo – which is the best selling South African jazz LP of all time. Due to a fire at EMI factory in Johannesburg in 1973 the master tapes were destroyed and it was only preserved on the existing vinyl pressings.


Dyani Biko

Johnny Dyani Quartet
Song for Biko
(SCS 1109, 1979)

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Johnny Dyani was a member of the legendary Blue Notes group that left South Africa for exile in 1964. In this 1979 recording he plays with Don Cherry and fellow Blues Notes Dudu Pukwana and Makaya Ntshoko. The relaxed and authoritative style of Dyani underpins music that is haunting, emotional, adventurous and melodic. It marries the South African folk heritage with that of Ornette Coleman’s free-bop and elements of avant-garde jazz.


Moholo

Louis Moholo Octet
Spirits Rejoice!
(OG 520, 1978)

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Featuring Harry Miller, Johnny Dyani, Keith Tippett, Evan Parker, Nick Evans, Radu Malfatti and Kenny Wheeler. This is former Blue Note artist Louis Moholo’s first album under his own name and is a classic example of the cross-pollination between South African and British players. The highlight is certainly Mongezi Feza’s ‘You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me’.


Ndikho Xaba & The Natives’ self-titled LP is out now as a limited edition deluxe vinyl gatefold. Click here for more info.