May 15, 2012

South African Jazz: Batsumi

Matsuli Music continues its reissue program of rare indigenous afro-jazz sounds from South Africa with the release of Sowetan group Batsumi's self-titled debut from 1974. The reissue has been lovingly re-mastered from the original tapes and features material compiled on the recent Next Stop Soweto series from Strut.

The album arrived amidst a period of intense political, intellectual and artistic ferment stimulated in large part by the teachings of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement. ‘“Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud”. This is fast becoming our modern culture,’ wrote Biko in 1971, ‘a culture of defiance, self assertion and group pride and solidarity.’ Drawing partly on the insights of Frantz Fanon and the poets of Négritude, and partly on the contemporary US Black Power politics of figures such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, Biko forged a visionary and potent message of South African redemption, pride and defiance. It took culture to its heart, and in the wake of Biko’s message a burgeoning arts scene rooted in the black and African experience began to flourish.

Batsumi is a masterpiece of spiritualised afro-jazz, and a prodigious singularity in the South African jazz canon. There is nothing else on record from the period that has the deep, resonant urgency of the Batsumi sound, a reverb-drenched, formidably focused pulse, underpinned by the tight-locked interplay of traditional and trap drums, and pushed on by the throb of Zulu Bidi’s mesmeric bass figures. The warm notes of Johnny Mothopeng’s guitar complete a soundscape that is at once closely packed with sonic texture and simultaneously vibrating with open space, and in whose shimmer and haze Themba Koyana and Tom Masemola soar. A sonorous echo emanating from an ancient well, reverberant with jazz ghosts and warmed by the heat of soul and pop, Batsumi is nothing short of revelatory.

Many groups from this period did not issue recordings at all, and Batsumi are unusual in even having left an official recorded legacy. Out of print since the 1970s, and never issued outside of South African in its entirety, Batsumi is a landmark South African jazz recording, and a key musical document of its time. Out of sight for far too long, Matsuli Music is proud to be able to bring this back into view, and award it the prominence it so richly deserves.

matsuli.blogspot.de

---

Recorded in 1974 in Soweto, this is an intriguing, rousing reminder of the inventive styles that flourished in apartheid-era South Africa, but never came to the notice of the outside world. Batsumi were an Afro-jazz outfit led by a blind guitarist, Johnny Mothopeng, along with his keyboard-playing brother Lancelot and bassist Zulu Bidi. They worked in the sprawling Johannesburg township in the early 70s, and their debut album has been unobtainable for decades. Remastered from the original tapes, and best played very loud, it's a vibrant, energetic workout in which slinky, repeated riffs are matched against wailing, sometimes psychedelic effects, with saxophone and flute solos added. There are five lengthy tracks here, and they range from the opening Lishonile, in which hypnotic, repeated phrases and solos give way after nine minutes to equally furious chanting, and the cool Anishilabi, in which a classy keyboard workout and bass solo ease into a cool, loping riff. An obscure African recording, maybe, but this is still great dance music.

guardian.co.uk

---

South African jazz is quite well known throughout the world. Indeed, I have listened to an immense quantity of it over the past three decades. I was introduced to South African jazz through the collection of a friend I lived with in Britain, a South African exile who revered the music of Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). It was Dollar Brand and the other supremely talented South African expatriates, Myriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, who effectively defined South African jazz for the international audience.

Of course jazz that germinated in the townships continued to grow and evolve after its luminaries emigrated, because most musicians could not flee the apartheid reality. I've explored as much of that music as I could, and have even posted some on this site. ElectricJive has provided a wonderful resource through which I have learned a great deal more during the past couple of years.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the 1974 Sowetan blast from Batsumi.Listen to this first awesome track as you read on.



Beginning with a minute of gentle, soulful acoustic bass and guitar, the rhythm suddenly accelerates. The strings are joined by drums and piano to create a dynamic, throbbing foundation for sax and, wait for it. . . flute improvisations. Two-thirds through this monster cut, all but the drums drop out, trap and traditional drums snaking around each other to create a different rhythm that drives the band for the final three minutes. This last movement and its vocals remind me strongly of Philip Tabane and Malombo.

The second track, "Emampondweni," is an urgent song lifted by Thomas Thabang Masemola's soaring flute, which fills all the empty spaces with reverb. Pianist Lancelot Sello Mothopeng begins "Itumeleng" in a classical vein with a couple of jazz chords, but then the other Batsumi musicians drop in one by one to stretch out for fifteen minutes of grooving introspection: Really, really nice. The whole album has traces of U$ soul music, which blend seamlessly with the traditional drums.

This rerelease was produced by Matt Temple over at Matsuli Music, the second loving restoration of a crucial recording made available by that tiny label. On Matt's site you can read a great deal more about Batsumi, the band, and the social context under apartheid in which this recording was made. I do not think I need to provide more details here. I'm a little behind the curve with this review, as it is, for the premier LP pressing of it is already virtually sold out! Nevertheless I think this classic reissue is important to consider, since it still is available as a lossless download here. Besides, writing the review gave me the great pleasure of listening, again and again, to this wonderful music.

rhythmconnection.blogspot.de

---

The Indigenous Afro Jazz Sounds of Batsumi
Almost as if it was unexplored territory, the extraordinary landscape of South African jazz is frequently mapped out by reference to a few well known landmarks: the glorious township swing and hot jive of the 1950s; the fame and misfortune of the modern jazz exiles of the 1960s, and their energising presence in Europe; the towering trans-national figures of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. For the jazz music and musicians of South Africa that did not by chance or choice fall into one of these categories, the long silence of history has only intermittently been broken, and the legacy of past iniquities has served to consign many names on South Africa's long roster of jazz giants to an undeserved obscurity. A wealth of music does not yet appear on the map, but when the contours of the jazz scene under apartheid begin to be surveyed in more detail, it is clear that a space must be marked out for the Soweto-based group Batsumi.

Formed in 1972 by bassist Zulu Bidi and pianist Lancelot Sello Mothopeng, and led by the blind guitarist Johnny Masweswe Mothopeng, Batsumi issued just two full length LPs, 1974's self-titled Batsumi, and the 1976 follow-up Moving Along. Though the line-ups differed slightly between the two releases, the core of the group was constant, and was comprised of Bidi and the two Mothopeng brothers, Thomas Thabang Masemola on flute and traditional drums, Themba Koyana on tenor sax, Abel Lekgabe Maleka on drums, and Buta-Buta Zwane on bongos.

Though details are scarce, some members of the group were certainly established musicians well before Batsumi hit the scene. Zulu Bidi had been a member of The Klooks, a Soweto sextet who cut two sides of driving, organ-lead jazz for Rashid Vally's independent Soultown label and enjoyed some success on the jazz festival circuit in the late 1960s. Abel Maleka had served as a regular drummer for the great pianist, composer and broadcaster Gideon Nxumalo throughout the 1960s, and was also part of a late 1950s group that had featured both Nxumalo and Malombo founder Philip Tabane. Flautist Thomas Thabang Masemola had played in a variety of Johannesburg jazz bands, including the Jazz Zionists and the Jazz Clan, and graced the show band of the successful 1972 Phiri musical under the direction of Mackay Davashe. And around the time Batsumi itself was in motion, tenorist Themba Koyana, who had taken up baritone duties in the Phiri band, was playing regularly to packed crowds at Lucky Michaels' famous Pelican jazz club, where he would appear alongside figures such as Allen Kwela and Dick Khoza - a 1973 article in Drum magazine profiling the celebrated Soweto nightspot describes the deafening applause that began as soon as Koyana stepped forward to take a solo. In 1974 these musicians and their colleagues stepped into the Audio Arts recording studio to record one of the great South African LPs of the decade.

Batsumi (R&T, 1974) is a masterpiece of spiritualised afro-jazz, and a prodigious singularity in the South African jazz canon. There is nothing else on record from the period that has the deep, resonant urgency of the Batsumi sound, a reverb-drenched, formidably focused pulse, underpinned by the tight-locked interplay of traditional and trap drums, and pushed on by the throb of Bidi's mesmeric bass figures. The warm notes of Johnny Mothopeng's guitar complete a soundscape that is at once closely packed with sonic texture and simultaneously vibrating with open space, and in whose shimmer and haze Koyana and Masemola soar. A sonorous echo emanating from an ancient well, reverberant with jazz ghosts and warmed by the heat of soul and pop, Batsumi is nothing short of revelatory.

The development of this powerfully original indigenous afro jazz sound had been set in train over a decade earlier by the Malombo Jazz Men of guitarist Philip Tabane, drummer Julian Bahula and flutist Abe Cindi. The Malombo sound was wholly original, and marked a dramatic departure from prevailing trends in South African jazz. A stripped back trio of flute, guitar and drums, it was separated from the jazz crowd by a pioneering twist: Bahula's kit was composed of the upright, mallet-struck wooden drums of the Venda spiritual tradition. In a field dominated by groups who had chosen the American modernist jazz language of Monk and Parker to convey their message, this was a bold and symbolically loaded innovation, and it brought them instant success on their debut in 1964. Despite this, the group soon fractured into two different outfits, Bahula and Cindi forming the Malombo Jazz Makers, Tabane joining with drummer Gabriel Thobejane in Malombo.

Batsumi did not cleave to the almost ascetically sparse instrumentation of the Malombo-style groups, nor were they new messengers of a specific tradition. Instead they presented their vision of modern afro-jazz within a wider instrumental setting, allowing its African roots to spread out and find new spaces. The influence of the Malombo sound is present, carried within the drums and flute of Thabang Masemola, but it is padded, supported and borne aloft by the other instruments in the warm currents that characterise the unique Batsumi musical synthesis.

The group's debut album arrived amidst a period of intense political, intellectual and artistic ferment stimulated in large part by the teachings of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement. `"Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud". This is fast becoming our modern culture,' wrote Biko in 1971, `a culture of defiance, self assertion and group pride and solidarity.' Drawing partly on the insights of Frantz Fanon and the poets of Négritude, and partly on the contemporary US Black Power politics of figures such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, Biko forged a visionary and potent message of South African redemption, pride and defiance. It took culture to its heart, and in the wake of Biko's messagea burgeoning arts scene rooted in the black and African experience began to flourish.

The Batsumi sessions were completed on a limited budget at Audio Arts, a facility normally used for recording advertising jingles. The newly established Record and Tape Company (R&T) agreed to issue the album. A subsidiary of Satbel, R&T and associated record labels King, Soweto and Joburg sought to exploit indigenous black music and market it aggressively into the increasingly affluent and articulate urban black populations of the major metropoles of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. To fit with R&T's marketing plan and to conform with Apartheid radio-play restrictions the band were obliged to classify the songs on the cover according to language used. Stories of a seSotho hero (`Moshanyana'), the ancestral home of the Pondo people (`Empondoweni'), the setting of the sun on the rural past (`Lishonile'), joy and pride (`Itumeleng') and other themes inform the lyrics. The cover features an original painting by bassist Zulu Bidi.

By 1977 the briefly outspoken theatre groups, bands and poets of Black Consciousness faced a new wave of official interference and surveillance, and many bright stars from another generation of artists and musicians were driven underground or into exile; as David Coplan has written, bands such as Dashiki and Batsumi, who had briefly made their mark at festivals, small clubs and theatres, `vanished under repression's waves.'

Many groups from this period did not issue recordings at all, and Batsumi are unusual in even having left an official recorded legacy. Out of print since the 1970s, and never issued outside of South African in its entirety, Batsumi is a landmark South African jazz recording, and a key musical document of its time. Out of sight for far too long, Matsuli Music is proud to be able to bring this back into view, and award it the prominence it so richly deserves.

MATSULI@amazon.com







Tracklist

A1. Lishonile
A2. Emampondweni
A3. Mamshanyana
B1. Itumeleng
B2. Anishilabi

1 comment:

  1. If you want your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (no matter why you broke up) you need to watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Why your ex will NEVER come back...

    ReplyDelete