A Brief History of Johannesburg Jazz

For me, Johannesburg Jazz is home. It is one of the most distinct jazz sounds in the world partly, in my opinion, because it is kind of where it came from: Africa. Just ask Coltrane… Add to that the fact that our Jazz greats played such an important role in the New York, Paris and London hey day booms of the genre. It is that root(s) sound that makes it distinct.

Over the years, there have been many records that have left a big impression but, for me, it’s Malombo by Malombo — for a number of reasons. It came down like a bolt of lightning from the ancestors to re-awaken people’s connection to the land and their cultures which they were dispossessed of by the oppressors.

I’ve included a Malombo track in the mix below; it was definitely one of the hardest mixes I’ve ever had to make — Johannesburg Jazz is such a deep part of my DNA that it was almost impossible to decide what to put in and what to leave out. In fact I feel like it’s all still there, inseparable, everything, all the time. Even in this small selection of tunes lies an infinite and beautifully chaotic love – so for some order I felt I had to find a theme, the starting point of which was one of my favourite musical questions: What is jazz?

In the end it was about family, struggle, trauma, joy and freedom. It was about joining the dots in the stars that light up the night sky and all those perfect concentric cultural circles of a timeless boundless revolutionary friendship – in short, the human spirit: Ubuntu.

Johannesburg foursome BLK JKS are a seminal force in the South African underground who specialise in groove-laden, brass-driven afro-rock, tinged with spiritual jazz, post-apocalyptic funk, renegade dub and kwaito. Their first album in a decade, Abantu / Before Humans, is out now on Glitterbeat Records.

Spaza – Ice Squinchies

This project by record label Mushroom Hour was formed in 2012 by a group of young music lovers in Johannesburg. South Africa has really become one of the new leading lights and torch bearers, lighting the way for the future paths that the ever exploratory and innovative music of South Africa’s “alternative” scenes might take. Beginning as a vinyl-only radio show on a pirate radio station we ran with some friends, it has organically morphed into something quite incredible: a new completely and radically free alternate beginning.

Beating Heart – Dukathole

This is, or would be, the actual natural beginning: the big bang, the first breath. I just love this piece because it is the simple embodiment and quasi manifestation of spirit. It’s almost tangible, we hear and feel the air passing through a traditional wind instrument recorded by Hugh Tracey. It is at once problematic, considering the times in which this recording will have been captured, and yet it is also cooly transcendent. 

TKZee – Phalafala

Track four in this mix is named after a wind instrument, namely the trumpet. It signifies and encapsulates so well another rebirth of a country; in 1994 South Africa had their first “free and fair” elections, officially doing away with the white supremacist minority rule Apartheid government system.

TKZee was a big part of the kwaito movement — that was the soundtrack of the new generation and this track was, in a way, a big nod to the past. They often collaborated with SA Jazz giants like the prodigal Moses Taiwa Molelekwa – track three in the mix.

Letta Mbulu + Hugh Masekela – What Is Wrong With Grooving?

Two great artists, one song, VERY different versions. Almost beyond the idea of a cover version – this is something that has always excited me about jazz. This song speaks to a time when South African people, regular civilians, artists and freedom fighters alike were under heavy surveillance, constantly being jailed and brutalised by the fascist Apartheid era government, simply for wanting to live their lives freely. Many had to escape into exile and you can feel that pain and defiant spirit right under the humour of this piece.

King Kong – The Musical

This was massive, a completely star studded watershed moment. A musical by the legendary talent that is the late great Todd Matshikiza, whose cast was essentially the supergroup of all South African supergroups ever. The group included Letta Mbulu and her musician producer extraordinaire husband Caiphus Semenya, Miriam Makeba with her ex-husband to be Bra Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, who was in the seminal band Jazz Episteles with Masekela, and the jazz giant often referred to as the father of South African Jazz Bra Kippie Moeketsi, who also worked with pioneers of the avant-garde The Blue Notes.

The play was a thorn in the Apartheid states side that toured outside of SA and some of these artists went on to build successful careers in exile, playing an important role as voices for liberation overseas. A constant beacon and reminder of who we were, where we were, who we are and where we can go.

Spaza – Ice Squinchies (Waiting For You)
Beating Heart – Dukathole
Moses Molelekwa – Rapela
TKZee – Phalafala
Letta Mbulu – What Is Wrong With Grooving
Hugh Masekela – What Is Wrong With Grooving
Miriam Makeba – Talking & Dialoguing
The Jazz Epistles – Uka Jonga Phambili
Tete Mbambisa – Stay Cool
Vuma Levine – Hashtag
Mabuta – The Tunnel
Zim Ngqawana – Kubi
Kwani Experience – Mahlalela
King Kong – The Musical
Malombo – Sangoma
Pharoah Sanders – Thembi
Dudu Pukwana – Hidden Spirits
Louis Moholo – You Ain’t Gonna Know Me Cos You Think You Know Me
Tumi Mogorosi – Gift Of Three
Witchdoctors Son – Ntyilo Ntyilo
Busi Mhlongo – Oxamu
Miriam Makeba – Oxamu
Brenda Fassie – Oxamu
BLK JKS – iQ(w)ira Machine Learning Vol 1

BLK JKS’s first album in a decade, Abantu / Before Humans, is out now on Glitterbeat Records. Watch the music video for the singles, ‘Harare‘ and ‘uMzabalazo! (Live @ NAC)‘.

Photo Credit: James Thompson as Slim, Nathan Mdledle as King Kong and Miriam Makeba as Joyce in the 1959 “King Kong.” Via Irene Menell.

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