Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Blue Notes Legacy


In the recently published Ogun Collection of Blue Notes music boxed set of five CDs is one entitled Blue Notes – Legacy , which is a re-issue of a 1995 album of a 1964 gig by the band in Durban, South Africa.
When the album first came out I was asked by Hazel Miller of Ogun Records to write the liner notes. Now that the album is out again as part of the boxed set released by Ogun (and these notes are included in the booklet accompanying the set) I think I would like to share my 1995, because of the insight it gives into some of the history of South Africa in those now far-off seeming days, and how the implementation of apartheid hampered music making, and indeed almost all artistic endeavours. This is what I wrote back then (and remember, it was just a year after our first democratic elections, Nelson Mandela was president and apartheid was, officially at least, a thing of the past):

The liner notes

Looking back to the early 1960s from the vantage of a liberated, democratic South Africa, it is somehow difficult to remember those dark days. This is what makes the 1964 tracks on Legacy, recorded in Durban during the Blue Notes' farewell tour of South Africa, so poignant, so evocative of a bygone time. A time which, in the man, evokes not nostalgia but rather a sense of disbelief, of incredulity. Were things really like that back then?
The music on these tracks is so vibrant, so full of a zest for life and expression. Why did the Blue Notes have to leave South Africa? The audiences clearly loved them (just listen to the audience response!) and the music is swinging, tight and inventive. With those lovely rhythmic and harmonic surprises that seemed to be so natural to these six highly talented guys.
But this was a scant three years after Sharpeville, the State of Emergency and the banning of the democratic formations. The tempo of the enactment of laws hindering interaction between people of different “racial groups” was increasing. Looking at the legislation which impacted on musicians,one is struck by the sheer fantasy of it all, by the Alice-in-Wonderland unreality of it, while knowing that, for all its incredible foolishness, the ludicrousness of it, it nevertheless had power to harm, to destroy people's lives.
Kippie by Hardie Stockmann
Legendary alto man Kippie Moeketsi (who features to such good effect on the 1963 big band album Jazz: The African Sound, which was Chris's first opportunity to record with a big band) was so unsettled by all the obstacles put in the way of musicians, he hung up his horn for seven years before being encouraged by fellow musicians to start blowing again. Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and his wife Bea Benjamin, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and literally hundreds of other musicians, writers and artists left the country.
I wonder if any country, with the possible exception of the erstwhile Soviet Union, has so systematically, so painstakingly thoroughly, made it so well-nigh impossible for creative people to live out their creativity.

The South African jazz diasopora

The list of laws and regulations which impacted on the lives, both personal and professional, of musicians (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) includes the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (No. 49 of 1953); the Native Laws Amendment Act (No. 36 of 1957); the Group Areas Amendment Act (No 57 of 1957) (this Act was used by some white musicians to prevent black musicians from competing with them); and the countless proclamations designed to reduce interaction between people of different races. For example, Proclamation No R26 of 1965 was to the effect that “no racially disqualified person may attend any place of public entertainment, or partake of any refreshments ordinarily involving the use of seating accommodation as a customer in a licensed restaurant or tea room or eating house, or as a member of or as a guest in any club.” As a somewhat cruel aside, bona fide domestic workers could be in such places as they were specifically excluded from the definition of “racially disqualified persons.” So the clubs and restaurants could be kept clean without whites having to get their hands dirty!
In the unbelievably complex world of racial legislation it became more and more difficult for people of different skin hues to work together as musicians. They did continue but at great personal risk to their own safety and, as Chris
recalled in a 1987 interview with a South African journalist, even the safety of those who came to listen.
In the South Africa of 1995 the horrors of the emerging statutory apartheid (de facto apartheid has existed since the 17th Century) sometimes seem quite far away, quite distant. But then one remembers the pain, the unbelievable dislocations, the confiscations, the disappearances, the mysterious deaths.
And out of all that came this wonderful flower, this amazingly robust thing of beauty at once so steeped in the horror, the day-to-day evil and yet so transcendent, so uplifting: the African, and, more particularly, the South African sound.
The Blue Notes were something of an exception in South African music – a band which stayed together and became a recognisable unit, playing consistently over a long period. Probably the only South African group to come close to this (at least in the field of improvised music) was Sakhile, and they disbanded soon after their tenth anniversary a few years back. They were also unique in being the only South African jazz group to leave as a group and stay together.
One of the greatest sadnesses of many about the South African jazz “diaspora” is that so much South African music was recorded in Europe dna never released into the South African market. So this great legacy of music is known to only a few. Between them the Blue Notes were involved in more than 90 albums released in Europe and the USA, very few of which have ever been on the shelves of South African music shops. Many of the musicians who stayed behind kept in touch, but the jazz listening public was denied the joy, the pride of hearing these 'homeboys' in so many wonderful recordings.

The inestimable legacy

Jazz and improvised music are, of their nature, ephemeral things. So hearing these tracks is a rare privilege for those of us who were not at the gigs. Of the many ambiguities in jazz, recording is one of the happiest, allowing the listener to hear the wonder, the joy of the otherwise fleeting moment of musical truth, the emotional “deep dark blue centre” of jazz of which Hoagy Carmichael spoke.
How extraordinary to savour, after 30 years, the excitement of the Durban concert. The “sound of Whitney Balliett's felicitous phrase, is captured for us to enjoy again and again.
surprise” in
So dig into this music, enjoy it, groove with it as the audience in Durban did, as the Blue Notes themselves certainly did. And spare a thought for those who missed the magical moments.
Spare a thought too for those who, refusing to let apartheid silence their creativity, left this miraculo09us, wonderful country and did not return. Among them were Dudu, Mongs, Mbizo and Chris.
Blue Notes, we salute you, we give thanks to you and the inestimable legacy you have left us.
We miss you.

A publicity shot of the Blue Notes on the beach in Durban, 1964. From "Drum" Magazine

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Trees of shame that bear “Strange Fruit”

“The Lord God made trees spring from the ground, all trees pleasant to look at and good for food; and in the middle of the garden he set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” - Genesis 2: 9 (New English Bible, 1970)

"Did you hear of the spree they had up Bulawayo way, hanging those three niggers for spies? I wasn't there myself, but a fellow who was told me they made the niggers jump down from the tree and hang themselves; one fellow wouldn't bally jump, till they gave him a charge of buckshot in the back: and then he caught hold of a branch with his hands and they had to shoot 'em loose. He didn't like hanging. I don't know if it's true, of course; I wasn't there myself, but a fellow who was told me. Another fellow who was at Bulawayo, but who wasn't there when they were hung, said they fired at them just after they jumped, to kill 'em. I—" - from Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland by Olive Schreiner (1897)
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” - from “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)
“We all live at the base of the Hanging Tree waiting for death?” - from The Hanging Tree by David Lambkin (Viking, 1995). A comment on the etching “The Hanging Tree” from the series “The Miseries of War” by Jacques Callot (1592 – 1635)

Tree of Life or Tree of Death?

How did the “Tree of Life” become the “hanging tree”? There can be no doubt that it has. Many thousands of bodies have hung from trees, twisting in the breeze, crawling with flies and maggots, spreading a hideous miasma of death around what should be “pleasant to look at and good for food.”
One reason has been religious intolerance: “As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: 'Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.'” (Europe, history of. (2012). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.)
In the name of the Teacher who in time became known as the “Prince of Peace” unspeakable horrors were visited on people who believed differently during the so-called Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). These horrors were graphically documented by the artist Jacques Callot in a series of prints entitled “The Miseries of War.”
One of these prints called “The Hanging Tree” eerily prefigures the lynching of mostly black men in the southern states of the United States (the term comes from Charles Lynch (1736–96), a Virginia planter and justice of the peace) by mobs who would hang people accused of some crime, real or imagined, from trees. These hangings often occurred in a kind of carnival atmosphere with men, women and children jeering at those being hanged. The hangings were often accompanied by mutilation of the victims.

Strange Fruit

Racial intolerance and hatred thus is another reason for the perversion of the tree of life into the tree of death.
In the period between 1882 and 1951 some 4730 people were lynched in the US, 1293 of them white and 3437 black. The perpetrators were seldom prosecuted although their identities were often known to law enforcement authorities.
Such lynchings were often justified by the perpetrators as being in the promotion of purity or morality. As one leader of the mob hanging Allen Brooks in Dallas TX on 3 March 1910 was heard to say: "You did the work of men today and your deeds will resound in every state, village, and hamlet where purity and innocence are cherished and bestiality and lechery condemned." (http://www.withoutsanctuary.org/main.html)
Abel Meeropol, a teacher in New York – coincidently at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx among whose alumni were James Baldwin, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon – saw a 1930 photograph by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The photo haunted him for days and inspired a poem initially called “Bitter Fruit” which was first published in the union journal The New York Teacher in 1937.
Being something of an amateur composer as well as poet (he also wrote, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, "The House I Live In" and "Apples, Peaches and Cherries" among many others), Meeropol also wrote music for his poem. It was sung as an anti-racism protest song by his wife Anne and Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.

How “Strange Fruit” became “Lady Day's” song

"...the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism." - Leonard Feather
"She really was happy only when she sang. The rest of the time she was a sort of living lyric to the song `Strange Fruit,' hanging, not on a poplar tree, but on the limbs of life itself." - jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason
"When you listen to her, it's almost like an audio tape of her autobiography," - Tony Bennett
In 1939 Billie Holiday was singing at the Café Society, the first integrated night club in New York. The musical director of her gig, Robert Gordon, reportedly heard the song sung at Madison Square Gardens and took it to Holiday, who was nervous about singing it in a club setting.
Barney Josephson, founder of Café Society, set up some strict rules for the song's performance. There would be no service during the song, which would end the gig, and a single spotlight would be on Holiday's face. During a longish introduction Holiday would stand in the spotlight in an attitude of prayer. Josephson also insisted that there would be no encore.
The band at the Café Society, which also backed Holiday when she recorded the song for Milt Gabler's Commodore label in 1939, was led by trumpeter Frankie Newton (1906 – 1954) with Tab Smith (1909 – 1971) on alto sax, Kenneth Hollon and Stanley Payne on tenors, Sonny White (1917 – 1971) on piano, Jimmy McLinn (1908 – 1983) on guitar, Johnny Williams (1908 - ?) on bass and Eddie Dougherty (1915 - ?) on drums.
Holiday recorded the song again for Norman Granz's “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in 1945. On this recording she is accompanied by Milt Raskin (1916 – 1977) on piano. She introduces this recording by saying it is a song “written specially for me.” If that was not literally true, she certainly made the song her own.

Bitter crop or sweet life?

“Jazz is not simply music. Jazz is about civil rights, human dignity and dialogue among cultures. Jazz emphasises the importance of creativity and freedom of expression.” - Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General
“The psychological harm inflicted by the era of terror lynching extends to the millions of white men, women, and children who instigated, attended, celebrated, and internalized these horrific spectacles of collective violence. Participation in collective violence leaves perpetrators with their own dangerous and persistent damage, including harmful defense mechanisms such as 'diminish[ed] empathy for victims' that can lead to intensified violent behaviors that target victims outside the original group. Lynching was a civic duty of white Southern men that brought them praise. Southern white children were taught to embrace traumatic violence and the racist narratives underlying it.” - from the Equal Justice Initiative report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (2015)
The ugly reality of lynching contrasts with the beauty of trees felt by most people who experience the wonderful presence of life represented by them:
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.”
No doubt Joyce Kilmer's poem “Trees” is full of overblown sentiment and yet it strikes a chord with many people because it captures something of the wonder felt by sensitive people seeing a tree:
“A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;”
For all its sentimentality and strange anthropomorphism:
“A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;”
the poem is a celebration of a wonder of creation. Trees are, in their amazing variety, essential to all life, even life that plays out where there are no trees.
“Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
From the great arboreal canopies of the equatorial rain forests to the sparse vegetation of the South African Karoo trees offer the promise of life, of shelter, of food.
If “only God can make a tree” it still is up to us humans to ensure that the tree is a tree of life and not of death by working constantly for tolerance and justice, for the overcoming of prejudice and the hatred that comes from it. We need trees to live but not trees that bear that “strange and bitter crop.”

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Man, go groove - with South Africa's great afro-jazz/pop/rock group

A new sound in South Africa

In 1984 a new sound rocked the souls of music lovers in South Africa - a sound that combined the horn-rich sounds of marabi and early Afro-jazz with the infectious foot-tapping rhythms of kwela, the popular penny-whistle music of the streets of South Africa from the mid 1950s.
The sound was that of a group of around 11 members called Mango Groove and it has kept party-goers, disco-dancers and music lovers generally happy to this day, with an impressive list of albums and singles, most of which had long stays on South African charts.
Formed by bassist John Leyden, who, among other achievements, has a masters in philosophy, and some older compatriots from the older Black music scene such as "Big Voice" Jack Lerole and Micky Vilakazi, both of whom were well-known and respected musicians in townships and clubs of Black South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s.
Added to these great musicians was the beautiful voice and face of the then very young Claire Johnston who left school early to tour with the newly-formed band.
The music put together by this eclectic group is difficult to pin down and categorise - it's best just to listen and enjoy!

Sounds of sadness and protest

An early supporter of the group was the late David Webster, killed by apartheid regime goons for his opposition to the ideology and his exposures of the many evil deeds of the regimes people. When Webster was killed in 1989 the group composed a song "Taken for a Moment" in his memory and honour. It was released on the 1990 album Home Talk.
The lyrics include the words "Rising through the silence / Pushing back the folds of the dark / Narrowing the distance / Smiling on a moment apart / Words are left unspoken / And the beating heart is still / But dreams live longer / Than a dreamer ever will."
The next song on that album was another protest song, "We Are Waiting", which started with the words, beautifully sung by Claire, "How do we hide / The pain inside / We'll see it through / If we can share it with you."
Another of their songs became something of an anthem for the internal opposition to apartheid in the era of the so-called "states of emergency" declared by the regime in the mid- to late-1980s, "Another Country" - the words "You will walk beside me / I'll tell you no lies / And then you'll see, another country / in my eyes/ If we could reach beyond the bounds of blame..." seemed to speak to many who were struggling to see a brighter future ion the midst of all the cruelty, violence, fear and uncertainty caused by the situation. "But let's begin, to look within / to where the future lies..."

Happy party sounds

Mango Groove made a point of reviving classic South African jazz numbers with an updated sound and vocals, but with strong echo of the original sound. The songs they play sound a lot like the old time swing of the townships with wailing horns and keening pennywhistles, but the beat is more like rock. It is a heady and eclectic mix which makes it ideal for thoughtful listening or bopping at a party.
One of the songs which they recorded was the famous "Tom Hark" which was written by Big Voice Jack in 1956 and became a big hit in the United Kingdom in 1958 after it had been used as a theme for a TV show called "The Killing Stones". Sweet justice for Lerole that he was associated with its revival so many years later.
A song typical of the happy sound of Mango Groove is "Dance Sum More" off their first album, simply entitled Mango Groove. The track is introduced by famous jazz man Micky Vilakazi declaiming "Dance again, man, what's the matter with you?' and if you don't dance to this number nothing will get you to dance! Go listen!

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012

Friday, 31 August 2012

1959: a miracle year in jazz

The winds of change

Revolution was in the air and the world seemed ripe for change. In Africa, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold MacMillan, would tell the South African Parliament in Cape Town in February 1960, the winds of change were blowing, and would soon reach gale force. Fidel Castro took over Cuba and in that bastion of conservatism, the Vatican, saintly Pope John XX111 announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council, which would open the windows of the Vatican to let some fresh air into its stuffy confines. Archbishop Makarios returned to Cyprus after the island state obtained independence from the UK, the Marx Brothers made their last TV appearance and the first US servicemen were killed in Viet Nam. Bob Dylan had not yet found the answer blowing in the wind, but the wind was freshening all over the world.
In the world of jazz the wind was also being felt. It blew away some of the greatest names in the history of the music: Billie Holiday and her soulmate Lester "Prez" Young; the great master of the soprano sax, Sidney Bechet; pianist Baby Dodds.
It also blew an amazing creativity into the practitioners of the music, who produced a succession of albums of groundbreaking quality. Among the most outstanding of these were the two Charles Mingus albums, Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um; the Dave Brubeck album Time Out; the two Miles Davis albums Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain; John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; Ornette Coleman's prophetically titled The Shape of Jazz to Come; Bill Evans's Portrait in Jazz; Duke Ellington's soundtrack album Anatomy of a Murder; and Art Pepper's Art Pepper + 11. As jazz writer Gary Alexander has noted, "You can make a case that all forms of jazz existed side by side, in relative peace, in that one year - everything from Dixieland to avant-garde was on the record shelves under one category, Jazz."

On the cusp of something new

Jazz is a music of the moment, a music with which its practitioners react to what is happening around them, and what was happening in 1959 was the proclamation of change, the introduction to the turbulent 1960s, the decade of revolution and the "summer of love." The year represented the cusp, the change moment from the relative quietism and conformity of the 1950s to the clamour of the 1960s, the decade of Carnaby Street, the Beatles and Woodstock, the anti-war movement and the uprisings of May and June 1968, not to mention the Moon landing of July 1969.
At the same time the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States. The people of the US had been made aware of a new phenomenon in their midst, the Nation of Islam, through the documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced” and the emergence of Malcolm X. This fostered as renewed interest and pride in African American culture, combined with a heightened awareness of the disadvantaged status of African Americans within predominantly white US society. Jazz musicians are, like most artists, extremely sensitive to issues of acceptance and rejection, and were certainly not immune to the currents and eddies blowing around them.
At about the same time the jazz style that had dominated since the 1940s, namely bebop, was being felt by many musicians to be restricting and limited in scope. The decline of bebop was in a sense signalled by the death of Charlie Parker in 1955. There was a feeling that bebop had come to the end of its tenure as a valid mode of expression, and musicians were becoming restless, looking for something new. The researches of musicians like George Russell into modal music was one direction taken, and Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue, is a prime example of where this exploration might go. The other response to the decline of bebop was the more free expression favoured and pioneered by Ornette Coleman, who used the springboard of the blues to find a new way of playing.
Somewhere in between these two was Charles Mingus, always different, both as person and as musician.
In 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley) author Fred Kaplan writes "There was a sense that we were on the verge of change, a sense of both hope and dread, and a critical mass of pretty radical changes in almost every walk of life." And the musicians were expressing their responses to the change, to the sense of hope and dread.

The producers

Another aspect of the creativity of jazz, its special time signature in 1959, was the readiness of two great producers to give the musicians relatively free rein in the studio, supporting new directions, new sounds and rhythms. These two were Teo Macero, himself a musician (both a composer and a sax player), and Nesuhi Ertegun.
Macero was responsible for singing Charles Mingus to Columbia records and his greatest achievement, according to the obituary written by John Fordham in The Guardian of 28 February 2008, "but his close association with the notoriously difficult Davis - in a period in which the trumpeter changed styles at least three times in moving from acoustic jazz to electric fusion - was the supreme achievement of his time at the company."
Macero's contribution to jazz, especially jazz recording, and to the creative outpourings of 1959, came from the fact that he "thought as a creative musician, not a record company technician." according to Fordham's Guardian piece.
In the magic year of 1959 Macero produced the stand-out albums by Brubeck (Time Out), Mingus (Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty), and Davis (Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain). All of these in addition to the other albums that he produced that year.
In 1959 Nesuhi Ertegun produced Mingus's Blues and Roots, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane's Giant Steps. Clearly he had an ear for the future of the music.

The "Miracle year"

Another factor in the creative explosion that was 1959 was that in 1948 Columbia Records had introduced the long playing record (LP), which gave musicians more scope than the previous 78 rpm records had allowed. The exploitation of the new format by musicians and producers made it possible to regard the album as a work of art in itself, and few were more attuned to this than Macero.
Of course, these were not the only jazz albums recorded in 1959. Many other jazz musicians made superb albums, Ellington in particular with the Queen's Suite for Queen Elizabeth and the soundtrack music for the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. The Queen's Suite, which was recorded at Ellington's own expense and of which only a single copy was made and sent to the Queen, included the wonderful number "Single Petal of a Rose." The recording was not publicly released until after the Duke's death in 1974.
Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Rogers, Ben Webster, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday (just before her death), Quincy Jones and Thelonius Monk were among other artists who recorded in 1959, though their albums were not quite as essential as the core repertoire of Time Out, Giant Steps, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um and The Shape of Jazz to Come, which are outstanding documents of the new directions jazz was exploring in that wonderful year described by Gary Alexander as "The miracle year 1959" which, he wrote, "was not only the year the music was reborn, but the year that jazz creativity reached its zenith."

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012

Four Boys and a Dash – the story of Mary Thobei

“The dash was me!”

“When I first came to Troubador (a South African record label) with my group, the Swingtime Trotters, under the leadership of Edwill Lenyene, we were just four boys and a dash – and the dash was me!” That’s Mary Thobei talking about the start of her career as a singer.
Mary who? She has sung with the top musicians in South Africa but her name isn’t exactly a household word. Nor, despite having played a significant part in countless recordings as composer and performer, is Mary the prosperously retired ex-recording artist one might expect. She has been for some years a domestic worker in a northern Johannesburg suburban home.
Mary started working at Troubador recording studios in 1952. She stayed there until 1963.
In that time she worked with probably hundreds of musicians, including some whose names are still well-remembered by music fans – Gideon Nxumalo, Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and, of course, Miriam Makeba.
Mary Thobei in 1993. Photo Denis Martin
Mary Thobei in 1993. Photo Denis Martin

“That was news in the records”

“In my days, you know, to be a singer was wonderful. You felt proud about it because whenever you walked in the street people would say, ‘You know such-and-such a song, there’s Mary Thobei who sings it.’ It was nice. I enjoyed it.”
“I like to sing music that I can feel and that’s what people like to hear – songs from the heart,” says Mary. “When I feel hurt, when something worries me, I will sing it. Music is my life.”
Mary reminisces about the start of her career when she was still a schoolgirl – singing in a concert at the Odin cinema in Sophiatown. With her in the show were such greats as Dolly Rathebe, Emily Kunene, Gideon Nxumalo, Willard Zuluboy Cele, “and me, the youngest.”
“I sang ‘Stormy Weather’ and when the people started applauding I was in shock and I started crying on the stage. After that Dolly came to me and said, ‘Keep it up, don’t be shy – sing! – you’ve got a nice voice.’”
Of her time at Troubador Mary says she and other musicians were paid very low fees “but we didn’t see anything wrong, because I could buy a few groceries for my mum nd get a skirt and a top for myself and still get some change.”
“I can say I was the mind of Troubador because at the end of the day, just when everyone wanted to go home some artist would come up with an idea for a song. I would say, ‘OK let’s sing it twice,’ and we would go home. Then the next day Cuthbert (Matumba – a producer at Troubador) would come to me and say, ‘Hey, Bamsanda, what is that tune you sang yesterday?’ and I would say, ‘it went like this and this.’”
“Then I would sing the tune and we would start putting some words to it and tell the recording manager we were ready. We used to do sometimes six side a day like that.”
Mary tells how she and Cuthbert would scan the newspapers and listen to the radio news broadcasts for stories they could write songs about. “Cuthbert would say he had heard over the radio that something was going to happen and ‘I want everybody now because by tonight 5 o’clock it must be out and I’m going to advertise it on the radio stations.”
“By the next morning, after the directors had listened to it, it was in the record stores. By the time the other studios woke up we were already on the shelves. That was news in the records.”
Mary attributes the great success of Troubador Records to this factor, that the songs they put out were often about contemporary issues that concerned the communities.
In an interview for Gwen Ansell’s wonderful book on South African jazz, Soweto Blues (Continuum, 2004), Mary identified some of the incidents that had given rise to best-selling sides: “Take, for instance, the big Azikhwelwa bus boycott in Alexandra Township and the death of ANC leader and Nobel prizewinner Chief Albert Luthuli. We cut best-selling records based on these incidents.”
Mary has a new role in the music world now – she provides invaluable information on the hundreds of recordings made by Troubador to Gallo Music Publisher‘s producer and archivist Rob Allingham, to help him in his research into recorded South African music of the 50s and 60s.
Mary has one great regret – she would have loved to play the tenor sax.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The bellowing horn is stilled – farewell Mankunku

An article I posted elsewhere on the Web on the day Mankunku died. I have moved it here as I think it more appropriate.

A colossus on the South African jazz scene is no more

The mighty bellowing horn is stilled, and we shall not hear its like again. Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi died in the early hours of this morning, 13 October 2009, and one of the greatest of South African jazzmen is no more.
Mankunku, as he was known to generations of jazz fans, was a colossus on the jazz scene, a relatively small, unassuming, even shy, man. But when he picked up and blew that tenor he was enormous!
He was born in 1943 in Retreat, Cape Town, the first born of a musical family, he started to play the piano at age seven, later taking up trumpet and clarinet.
Mankunku took up the tenor in his teens, under the influence of a renowned older generation Cape Town tenorman, “Bra Cups” (or “Cup-and-Saucers”) Nkanuka.
He went on to play with almost all the greats of South African jazz, along the way making some splendid albums, though none achieved the success of his deservedly famous Yakhal' inKomo, recorded in 1968. This album has remained one of the top-selling jazz albums in South Africa ever since.

The band of stalwarts

Mankunku was one of the band of stalwart musicians who did not go into exile during the lean apartheid years. He preferred to stay with his people and make music as best as he could, which sometimes meant performing behind a curtain with an assumed name so as to circumvent the apartheid laws which prohibited blacks from sharing the stage with white performers.
A major, and acknowledged, influence on Mankunku was John Coltrane. One of his songs is called “Dedication – to Daddy Trane and Brother Silver” - a beautiful tribute to the musical influences.
Mankunku told, in an interview with Gwen Ansell, how important the spiritual aspect of the Coltrane influence was (this is recounted in Gwen Ansell's great book Soweto Blues, Continuum, 2004): “I know you think I'm a naughty old man, but most of the time, when I'm playing, I'm really praying. I used to dream of Coltrane. And one time in the '60s he came to me, did I tell you that? I was practicing, and I felt something funny in the room. My senses were prickling. I knew he was there. I got scared and put the instrument away. Maybe I shouldn't have told other people – they were nervous around me for some time after that! But he never came again.”
I think that passage has several important aspects. Firstly the spiritual nature of African music generally, though this is being threatened by commercialisation. All African musicians see music as a deeply spiritual activity and experience. And secondly the aspect of respect for the forefathers. For Mankunku Coltrane was an ancestor, a forefather, and was therefore in a position to guide Mankunku, and also was deserving of the deepest respect As Mankunku said in the same interview, acknowledging Coltrane's position as spiritual guide, “Even today, when I want to play, I take him (Trane) and I put him inside of me.”
My earliest recollection of Mankunku is in the late '60s in Cape Town, when the Cape Town Art Centre, at which I was studying painting part time, had a regular Sunday evening jazz gig. My then girl-friend and I used to go every Sunday to listen to the great jazz being played there, and Mankunku, in his trademark cloth cap, was a regular. He was backed by other great musicians like Midge Pike on bass and Monty Weber on drums.
Mankunku at the Cape Town Art Centre. Photo by Tony McGregor
The 1970s were hard times for jazz musicians in South Africa, what with music styles changing and the heavy hand of apartheid hanging over all. The music scene was not conducive to musicians who were serious about their art, especially black jazz musicians. Mankunku, like the others, had it tough in those years. “If you had just got through the day and nothing too terrible had happened, that was the time to joke, to celebrate, and that was what the music was for...But we never stopped playing. Never! Never went far away from the music. We'd be at home. Some work, practising, listening. It's just that we weren't seen.”
The next time I saw Mankunku was a gig at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in the 1980s. That was when I heard him play "Yakhal' inKomo", and it nearly brought the house down with its energy and emotional power. Hearing that song live was just incredible – no recording I have heard, not even Mankunku's own, has managed to capture the raw power of that song adequately. The recording is just a pale reflection.
Mankunku at the Greenmarket Square gig. Photo by Tony McGregor
Mankunku recorded outside of South Africa for the first time in 1986, an album called Crossroads, after the informal settlement outside Cape Town. This album was made in London with a number of exiled South African musicians in the studio, like the late multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku, percussionist Russell Herman, guitarist Lucky Ranku and trumpeter Claude Deppa.
I saw him again in 1987 when he played with Chris McGregor in the Carling Circle of Jazz concert on Greenmarket Square in Cape Town.
An album made with old South African jazz stalwart Tete Mbambisa was laid down in 1997 and 1998 called Molo Africa. One of the tracks is entitled “A Song For Bra Des Tutu” which, of course I love!
I never saw Mankunku again. So I was greatly saddened when I got the phone call from my musician friend Ernest Mothle this morning telling me that “Winston has left us.”
In isiXhosa we say, when someone has left us, “Hamba Kahle (Go well)” and so that is my wish for Mankunku - “Hamba kahle, mfo' wethu (my brother)”, your bellowing horn will be sorely missed back home.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009

Monday, 20 August 2012

Love you madly – serendipitous beauty from tenorman Bob Rigter

Jazz from Holland

While doing some Internet research for my Hub on Jazz: “What is Jazz? Ain't no other music like it!” I came across an article by one Bob Rigter entitled “The etymology of the word JAZZ” and I discovered from the site that Bob was a retired Professor of English at the University of Leiden in Holland, a novelist, and, most intriguingly to me, a jazz musician.
I contacted him to learn more and he, very kindly, offered to send me a copy of his latest CD, called “Love You Madly” from the tune by Duke Ellington. This I have now received and am enjoying greatly.
The CD features, besides Bob on tenor, Simon Planting on bass, Han van der Rhee on piano and Rob Engels on drums.

Straight from the heart

All the numbers on the CD are standards, fitting the description of the CD as “in an intimate, after-hours mood,” recalling, in Bob's words, “the atmosphere of those nights when we played on into the late, late hours,” after the more formal part of the gig was over, when “drinks were handed round, the lights were dimmed and … we started to play tunes that were special, mostly ballads.”
So all 10 tracks of the CD feature Bob's singing, mellow and breathy tenor backed by sensitive and lyrical playing that gently swings, no haranguing, no wailing, just lovely, atmospheric and melodic improvisation on well-remembered tunes.
It is a programme of tunes played, in Bob's words, “straight from the heart,” with no gimmicks: “no cutting, no splicing, no dubbing.” In other words, a totally honest offering of heartfelt music.
“This is the kind of music the musicians in my quartet believe in, and it is the kind of jazz that our audiences believe in,” Bob writes.
The CD kicks off with the title track which starts with a great little piano and bass intro and then Bob picks up the melody, which after he has laid it down most elegantly, he starts to play with gently, with great swing. And there follow some great interpolations by the other musicians, notable Planting on bass.
Han van der Rhee introduces the next number which Bob plays with great feeling – that very British ballad “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. Bob explains the importance of lyrics in his style of music making with reference to this song: “I knew the lyrics before I had ever heard this beautiful (British) ballad, for I had read Nevil Shute's novel Pastoral, in which a war-pilot hums this song on his way home in a bullet-riddled plane after a raid on Germany. He has lost radio-contact and he has little chance of making it back. His girlfriend is the radio-operator at the airfield. He cannot hear her, but she can hear him! And, while his bomber is slowly going down, she hears hears him humming: 'The streets of town were paved with stars. It was such a romantic affair. And as we kissed and said goodnight, a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.'” I confess I will never hear this song again the way I did before. For that I thank you, Bob.
The whole programme of the CD has a smooth, mellow, rich tone somewhat how I would imagine a good whiskey (though not being a whiskey drinker this is pure conjecture on my part!), and it could have a similarly relaxing effect on the listener. The numbers which are the most up-tempo on the CD are Tad Dameron's “On a Misty Night”, Dexter Gordon's “The Rainbow People,” and Ruth Lowe's “I'll Never Smile Again, Until I Smile At You”, the other numbers all being very laid back

Ben Webster's ghost?

Photo of Ben Webster at his last gig. Photo taken by Bob's wife Jasperina
Listening to Bob's breathy tenor on this album one could almost see a ghostly Ben Webster playing, the
sound is so similar. And this is perhaps no accident, for on Bob's website is an account of Webster's last concert, which I'm sure Bob will not mind my copying here:
Towards the end of Ben Webster’s very last concert in 1973, Ben asked Bob Rigter to play the blues on his instrument. This happened in jazz café De Twee Spieghels , Nieuwstraat, Leiden, on 6 September. It appears that Ben felt his end approaching, and he wanted some time out. Irv Rochlin was the pianist, Henk Haverhoek played the bass and Peter Ypma the drums. With this rhythm section, Bob played the blues on Webster’s ‘Betsy’, a Selmer Balanced Action with a rather wide Otto Link mouthpiece and what felt like a 3 or 3½ reed. After his instrument was handed back to him, Ben played one more piece. Then he got to his feet and made a little speech. He wanted to pass on what an old man had said to him when he was young: ‘You are young and growing, and I am old and going. So have your fun while you can.’ He repeated this: ‘Son, you are young and growing, and I am old and going. So have your fun while you can.’ The next day Ben was taken to the St Lucas Hospital in Amsterdam, where he died on 20 September 1973.
Fittingly, the last number on the CD is Billie Holiday's beautiful ballad, “Don't Explain”, and maybe we shouldn't. We should just accept that beauty comes in sometimes strange, sometimes unexpected, always serendipitous ways, and be grateful.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009