THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Indaba Is is a compilation of current South African improvised music and jazz. The project is a collaboration between two luminaries of the South African music scene: Pianist / songwriter Thandi Nthuli and The Brother Moves On’s Siyabonga Mthembu, who act as curators / musical directors on the project.
South African townships were historically cosmopolitan places. Apartheid confined all classes in the same impoverished locations. Migration from across the country and the region meant kasi residents commanded many musical languages. Church music, European classical music, the latest U.S. jazz LPs and Liverpool pop tunes from offshore radio stations fed the mix. The same woman could sing Handel in church on Sunday, traditional lyrics by the evening fireside, local and overseas standards on a community hall bandstand and songs of resistance on a march. There never was just one sound. And it’s the flowers from all those roots, and more, that Indaba Is has harvested. Questions about lineage, community and spirit thread through the tracks — not just communities of descent or language, but the communities being built now through collective creation.
Bokani Dyer’s Ke Nako (Now’s The Time) opens with an irony, because that was a slogan used to get voters to the polls in the first post-apartheid election. Now, Dyer’s using it to remind us to think again about who we are and where we’re going.
That’s always been the question for The Brother Moves On (TBMO: a genre-refusing, personnel-revolving performance collective named, with a twist, for The Wire’s assassin Brother Mouzone). Here, it’s embodied in a meditation on relationships refracted through the distorting-glass of their context.
It’s the singing voices on both those tracks that reference roots even as they engage with contemporary spoken flows and instrumental improvisations. Explicitly, trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana bookends his track with the idioms of the Eastern Cape — galloping rhythms, harmonies from bow music and split-tone singing, a spluttering trumpet reminiscent of Mongezi Feza — and grows from them a chill contemporary meditation: no spatial or temporal barriers here.
Chill, though, is the last term you’d use for Wretched, vocalist Gabisile Motuba’s Fanon-inspired project with drummer Tumi Mogorosi, sound artist Andrei van Wyk and the voices of Black Panther Kwame Toure and liberation leader Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: What Is History?, Motuba demands. Mandela describes how imprisonment on Robben Island actually sheltered those who became post-liberation leaders from the visceral realities of the struggle. Her presence poses the same question; her history is still weighed down with calumnies even after an apartheid police boss admitted not a shred of evidence linked her to the killing she was accused of: the whole farrago was deliberate fake news.
That, like Ke Nako and The Brother Moves On’s bitter allusion to “black yellow and green” (the colours of the ruling ANC) is the thread of another kind of tradition — the reminders and remainders of South Africa’s struggle not yet won — weaving through the album.
Balm is offered by what guitarist Sibusile Xaba has described as his “modal, groove-oriented roots music.” It is, he says, inspired by dreams; he sees himself as a diviner not a performer and his music as functional for healing. That echoes one of his musical masters, the late Dr. Philip Nchipi Tabane. Umdali is a reference to the Creator, inspirer of such service.
The Ancestors weave Siyabonga Mthembu’s voice into a web of musical references forward-looking and historical, including bluesy instrumentals that hark back to what South Africa’s jazz bandleaders of the ’70s and ’80s conjured up — another aspect of South Africa’s musical tradition.
Then pianist/composer/vocalist Thandi Ntuli returns to the theme of identity in Dikeledi (Tears). “Who are you?’ she asks. “What do you call yourself? … the illusion [of who you are] emerges from you.” Ultimately, the song concludes, rootedness in community trumps image.
But community isn’t unproblematic. The persistent fractures in South African society were deliberately engineered by apartheid, results of an attempt to impose unitary, racially constructed identities on all. All the tracks in this collection challenge that: they demonstrate the unifying power of collective hard music work.
In that context, iPhupho L’ka Biko’s Abaphezulu (“They are coming, those who are above” — an invocation to ancestors, including the spirit of Steve Bantu Biko) is a fitting conclusion. Opening with the notes of Kinsmen Druv Sodha’s sitar, it smashes another of the walls apartheid tried to build against Black unity: between South Africans of African and South Asian heritage. The classically-inflected gospel voices of Mthembu’s dialogue with Indian and modern jazz rhythms and free horn improvisations in joyous heterophony.
Like we said, there never was just one sound.”