There’s a South African jazz album that’s easily as important as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but hardly anybody in North America knows about it. And if not for a white, 37-year-old Canadian man, it might have stayed that way for years.
One day, Seton Hawkins, the director of public programs and education resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center, scrolled through Facebook and stumbled upon something monumental. “Out of the blue, I see a post that the Heshoo Beshoo Group is getting reissued,” Hawkins tells Discogs of a scarce artifact from 1970. The world of South African jazz reissuing is small, and the few who participate in it would usually keep him abreast of such a development. But Hawkins didn’t recognize this label. “So, I type in ‘We Are Busy Bodies.’ Who? It was this moment of ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”
Hawkins reached out to Eric Warner, who owns and operates the We Are Busy Bodies label out of his Toronto home. “We’re going to be doing a vinyl reissue of [tenor saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s] Yakhal’ Inkomo later this year,” he replied. “And keep it close to your chest, but we’re going to reissue the Drive later.” Yakhal’ Inkomo may be virtually unknown stateside, but South Africans canonize it as a classic. “In a way, it still feels surreal,” Hawkins says. “[Three] insanely rare, long-out-of-print albums that often go for low thousands or high hundreds on eBay are suddenly all getting reissued within six months? That’s mindboggling! And a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable.”
What seemed like science fiction to Hawkins is becoming a reality. We Are Busy Bodies re-released the Heshoo Beshoo Group’s only release, 1970’s Armitage Road, on October 30, followed by Yakhal’ Inkomo on November 27. Can You Feel It?, a 1975 album by Heshoo Beshoo’s funky offshoot, The Drive, will arrive on March 5, 2021.
Each of these albums is hard to find, which means these reissues are a boon to collectors. Before Warner came along, you’d need to drop $100 or more for a copy of Yakhal’ Inkomo. And original pressings of Armitage Road and Can You Feel It? will set you back $250 or more — even in poor condition.
But now, we can do more than collect these albums; we can commune with them. What do all three of them have in common? The artists recorded them during apartheid in South Africa. While these albums don’t come close to telling the complete story, they each reveal subtle threads of it.
If you pick up these reissues, listen carefully, examine the album sleeves, and do a little background reading, you’ll learn about this repressive, dehumanizing time in human history — and how these three artists overcame it.
Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, refers to systemic racial discrimination and segregation in South Africa in the latter half of the 20th century. The seeds were sown as far back as 1652 with the arrival of the slavers of the Dutch East India Company. In 1913, the Native Land Act consolidated the lion’s share of the land for white development, further laying the foundation for institutional segregation. In 1948, on a platform to assert Afrikaaner hegemony, the far-right Afrikaner National Party won the general election and physically separated South Africa’s white minority from its non-white majority.
“Colonialism did an awful lot of things that apartheid did, but did it in a much patchier and more haphazard and consistent way,” Gwen Ansell, the author of 2004’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa, explains to Discogs. “In 1948, suddenly, these people who had this master-plan for their master race consolidated everything and came to power.”
However, “It wasn’t like the election happened and then, apartheid,” Hawkins clarifies. “There was this series of laws that were enacted, and it was almost like death by a billion cuts. They started adding more and more and more laws in the late 1940s, into the ‘50s, into the ‘60s, and it got increasingly more crushing. It was a slow burn.”
Concurrently, “‘Round about the year 1948, the indigenous jazz idiom was born,” music critic Gideon Jay said in the 1950s magazine Zonk. “We looked around for a tag … a name which would describe this music adequately and yet avoid the confusion of overseas influence. We called it African Jazz.”
Like any genre and period of music, there’s a lot to take in. These three records are expertly performed and draw in the listener. I think that listening to these records offers the opportunity to choose a path to all sorts of other South African jazz records — current or reissues — that draw on a wide range of inspirations.
– Eric Warner
“There was a period where South African jazz artists took it as a great compliment if their playing was indistinguishable from an American recording,” Hawkins elaborates. “And in the late 1940s, it shifted to where they didn’t want to be mimicking. They wanted to build their particular sound, and they embraced that role.”
South African jazz was an expression of nontribal, urban Black identity, which flourished despite perpetual, humiliating antagonism from the government. “Twenty years after jazz formed in South Africa, you got a whole slew of even more repressive legislation to the patchwork that was there before,” Ansell says. “Apartheid didn’t come out of anywhere. South Africa was a colony of Britain. There were always restrictions on where the so-called natives could live, how they could socialize, or where they could travel.”
“When you go through apartheid history, it’s both evil and astonishingly incompetent and stupid at the same time,” Hawkins says. “A lot of things that often make no sense as we look back on it also didn’t make sense at the time.”
For example, take pass laws, the requirement that all men of color — then, subsequently, everybody of color — carry a pass to enter cities. “They could not go anywhere without that pass,” Ansell says. “They could be thrown in jail if they were caught. It was essentially a document from your white master saying, ‘This is John, and he’s allowed to be here,’ or ‘He’s employed, and therefore he has to go there.’”
“The most visible impact of this on South African jazz was that musicians didn’t fit into the system,” she continues. “They were in the gig economy then, just as they are now. They very often didn’t have a boss who would write them a pass. Moving around the city for casual work, musicians had two classifications under apartheid. They were day laborers; if some guy wanted you to play at his restaurant, he could write the pass, but it would only be for that day, and he had to remember to write it every day. The other classification for musicians was vagrants.”
The government forcibly relocated people of color from urban areas — where they had settled legitimately — into resource-starved townships on the peripheries of society. “People had no choice but to live there,” Ansell says. “They had to live in their part of the townships, which corresponded to their presumed tribal ancestry — however distant that was — and there was a curfew. Some of the Black writers of the time have described this as like putting a lid on a teakettle. The townships were unpleasant, violent places as much as they were also warm, supportive places.”
South African jazz evolved in symbiosis with the American jazz movement while simultaneously growing from the roots of marabi, a grooving urban genre steeped in simple, hypnotic I-IV-V structures. In the liner notes to the 1994 compilation From Marabi to Disco, Rob Allingham calls it “a raucous, distinctly African mixture of indigenous harmony and structure blended together with Afro-American ragtime and jazz.”
Marabi’s importance to African jazz is impossible to overstate. “When we started, we emulated the Americans, the big bands, but we played African jazz because we took the chord progressions from marabi,” saxophonist Ntemi Piliso explained in Soweto Blues. “You can do whatever you like, put in American phrases, but you’ll come back to that marabi trend. It’s a cultural thing; it won’t die.”
“This process was going on the whole time, which is why South African jazz sounds both so familiar and so unfamiliar, I think, to American ears,” Ansell says. “There’s stuff you can pick up where you can say, ‘Oh, that guy has listened to Jay McShann or something,’ and then there’s other stuff where you’re saying, ‘What the?’ because it’s coming from somewhere else that you don’t recognize.”
There was a period where South African jazz artists took it as a great compliment if their playing was indistinguishable from an American recording … And in the late 1940s, it shifted to where they didn’t want to be mimicking. They wanted to build their particular sound, and they embraced that role.
– Seton Hawkins
Apartheid musicologists — most notably, Yvonne Huskisson — attempted to fit Black composers into tribal boxes, placing them on a patronizing spectrum between “primitive” and “advanced.” While her and her ilk’s writings have a degree of documentary value, “It’s kind of like trying to read about mid-19th-century American history as written by a Confederate general,” Hawkins says, describing Huskisson’s writings as “evil, but in this banal, kind of academic way.”
Neither the ideologies nor the levers of apartheid could keep the collective consciousness at bay. “There were political parties, factions, and civil-rights organizations agitating for liberation and independence right from the earliest time,” Ansell says. “That was one of the things that kept people sane, but the other thing that kept people sane was extremely strong community structures.”
“If you look at the 1950s and read interviews with artists in Cape Town and Johannesburg, there’s a sense that apartheid will be overcome,” Hawkins says. “There’s a sense of optimism about that amid some horrifying stuff, like forced removals.”
In 1960, a crowd of some 7,000 demonstrators descended on the Sharpeville, Gauteng, police station, attempting to overwhelm the system by refusing to show their passes. The police responded by opening fire, killing 69 and injuring 180. “It’s often cited as a watershed moment where apartheid ramped up the oppression to a degree it had not done in the 1950s,” Hawkins explains of the Sharpeville massacre. “You see apartheid becoming increasingly violent and oppressive. We start to move into that period we call high apartheid.”
The Broadcasting Amendment Act of 1960 gave the South African Broadcasting Corporation (of which Huskisson was the music controller for years) increased power over the airwaves. This development led to the launch of Radio Bantu, which rigidly delineated programming by what they called “tribal stations.”
“These divisions existed informally before, but they weren’t rigidly forced,” Ansell explains. “If some white professors decided your music was very Zulu-influenced, you wouldn’t get airplay on the Xhosa station or the Tswana station, but only on the Zulu station. That’s how Radio Bantu worked, and it narrowed down work opportunities. Racially mixed bands were not allowed.”
“Once you have that, now you’ve got a situation where you now need a lot of music that fits specifically Zulu, but not Xhosa, Sutu, or Tswana,” Hawkins adds. “You start to see this need to have more ethnically transparent music that is not transgressive.” What did this mean for jazz, which transcends or flat-out ignores racial boundaries?
“Anything that was considered too revolutionary or controversial, censors would take a knife to records and slice through the grooves, or they simply wouldn’t play it,” Hawkins explains. “If jazz musicians wished to comment on the state of South Africa, they needed to be oblique enough to escape censorship yet be understandable to those in the know.”
And that’s precisely what Mankunku Quartet, the Heshoo Beshoo Group, and the Drive did on these three albums.
[Yakhal’ Inkomo] is cultural fusion, but it’s not just one thing bolted onto another … It’s an insight into how jazz and its African roots join up with other African roots. It’s something quite universal, and the whole Eastern Cape tradition is kind of an amalgam. All jazz is fusion with a small f. We’re always using bits and pieces of what we hear from other styles. The very traditional music of the Eastern Cape and the direct influence of Coltrane is what you hear in Winston’s music.
– Darius Brubeck
Winston Ngozi — later nicknamed “Mankunku” — was born in 1943 to a Xhosa-speaking family. “That’s quite important for his music and some of this other music,” Ansell says. “One of the interesting things about Xhosa music is that it had a strong improvisatory, polyphonic, and heterophonic tradition of its own. As the Xhosa say, people like to put salt in their tunes. In other words, there was a lot of improvisation.”
Ngozi came up in the 1960s jazz scene as apartheid throttled the jazz community of the Cape. “By 1968, apartheid was solidifying,” she continues. “Things were substantially worse than they had been in 1948. We’re now 20 years into apartheid. Cops are getting more efficient. The machineries of oppression were getting more efficient. The apartheid regime was beginning a process, which we call retribalization, which was part of an ideological drive to convince people of color that they belonged only to a tribe. They were simple people who had no business in sophisticated urban life.”
One venue even refused to put Ngozi’s name on the marquee. “By the end, in Cape Town, there was only one club that would accommodate us as [an] audience as well as musicians,” trumpeter Duke Ngcukana remembered in Soweto Blues. “And I remember, in one place, Winston Mankunku had to change his name to Winston Mann because, as a Black man, they wouldn’t allow him. You had to change your name and be somebody else. It was very sad.”
At one point, Ngozi claimed, the apparition of the recently deceased John Coltrane visited him. “One time in the ‘60s, he came to me,” he stated in Soweto Blues. “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.”
Whether or not Ngozi’s sixth sense was accurate, Trane greatly influenced Yakhal’ Inkomo. Featuring pianist Lionel Pillay, bassist Agrippa Magwaza, and drummer Early Mabuza, the album is swinging hard bop with magnificent tenor work by Ngozi. From a cursory glance at the album art and track titles, like “Dedication (To Daddy Trane & Brother Shorter),” one might conclude that’s all there is to it. But as with so many things about Yakhal’ Inkomo, there’s more than immediately meets the eyes and ears.
First, the presence of Pillay, who was of Indian descent, meant this was a mixed-race group, which itself flew in the face of apartheid restrictions. Second, a South African audience in 1968 would understand a tribute to Coltrane and Wayne Shorter as extending to all Black men — a provocative statement for its time and place. Third, the title of Yakhal’ Inkomo means “the bellow of the bull” or “the bellowing bull.”
“This sounded to the censors totally acceptable because these rural chaps were singing about cows,” Ansell says with a chuckle. What they didn’t realize was the role of cattle in Xhosa life and the significance of taking one to slaughter.
“The deal with the bull [relates to] the way traditional Zulu and Xhosa houses and properties were arranged,” Hawkins explains. “The cattle were central to a lot of aspects of traditional life. You have these situations where the bull is slaughtered for really significant community or family events. The ownership of cattle was a signifier of wealth.” For example, a groom who possessed the animal would broadcast to his in-laws that he was capable of financially supporting his bride.
“Some hold that if the bull cries out [in response to the slaughter], it means the ancestors abide. It was a good sign,” he continues. “That’s the whole thing with the coding of the bull. He harnesses it almost as a weapon, as a protest. The white government knew only the most baseline, surface-level pieces of information about Xhosa culture and also underestimated the intelligence of Black people, so they wouldn’t even necessarily think to look there.”
Darius Brubeck (keyboardist son of Dave Brubeck), who headed the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), describes Yakhal’ Inkomo as “very coded.” “It was sort of a protest, but it wasn’t so much ‘Down with apartheid,’ or ‘Down with boeurs,’ which was slang in those days for white farmers, the rednecks, the crackers,” he explains to Discogs. “It was kind of coded empathy, saying, ‘We’re all going through this together, and it’s frightening and violent, but somehow, there’s a lot of beauty here.’”
How does the music within Yakhal’ Inkomo reflect its place and time? “It’s cultural fusion, but it’s not just one thing bolted onto another,” Brubeck says. “It’s an insight into how jazz and its African roots join up with other African roots. It’s something quite universal, and the whole Eastern Cape tradition is kind of an amalgam. All jazz is fusion with a small f. We’re always using bits and pieces of what we hear from other styles. The very traditional music of the Eastern Cape and the direct influence of Coltrane is what you hear in Winston’s music.”
Brubeck knew and played with Ngozi for years; he contends that much of the record’s legend is rooted in his force as a live performer. About Yakhal’ Inkomo’s title track, “That was his ‘Take Five.’ That was his hit,” he says. “When he was on stage playing it, it was way longer. The fadeout could go for minutes. He would play a lot of wonderful effects, harmonics, and false fingerings, and do the bellowing-bull thing, move around, blow his saxophone against the wall. He had tears in his eyes as he was finishing his chorus. That was the magic of Winston. It was almost bad for him, almost like harming himself, in a way. He would go into such intensity, such committed emotional playing.”
“I once saw Mankunku Ngozi blowing his saxophone,” poet Mongane Wally Serote wrote in 1972’s Yakhal’inkomo. “His face was inflated like a balloon; it was wet with sweat, his eyes huge and red. He grew tall, shrank, coiled into himself, uncoiled, and the cry came out of his horn. This is the meaning of Yakhal’inkomo.”
“‘Yakhal’ Inkomo’ was an odd tune. Things were tough then, but don’t ask me about all that; I don’t want to discuss it,” Ngozi told Ansell in 2003. “You had to have a pass; you got thrown out; the police would stop you, you know? I was about 22. I threw my pass away — wouldn’t carry it. We had it tough. I was always being arrested, and a lot of my friends and I thought it was so tough for Black people and put that into the song. So it was ‘the bellowing bull,’ for the Black man’s pain. A lot of people would come up to me and say quietly: Don’t worry, bra’. We understand what you are playing about.”
“‘Cow to the slaughter’ actually says something a lot more: ‘This is us. This is our community observing what is being done to us and our brothers and the way we are being dragged to the slaughter,” Ansell says. “As you know, there were slaughters. There were army and police massacres. So Yakhal’ Inkomo was a political record, quite explicitly, in Mankunku’s mind. He didn’t have to talk about it because he was talking in a common language with his community.”
“Yakhal’ Inkomo was a very important album and the top-selling album of its year,” she continues, “but the white record company lost all the written records, so Mankunku never got any royalties for it.”
“I have never seen anything like it in South Africa,” Mothle later noted to the Electric Jive blog. “The musicians were actually crying on stage.” Wanting to keep the momentum going, Magubane and Mothle asked the Sithole brothers — alto saxophonist Henry and tenor saxophonist Stanley — to jam. Drummer Nelson Magwaza, the brother of Yakhal’ Inkomo’s bassist Agrippa, joined them as well.
“Particularly in Joburg, people hadn’t heard of somebody who played like Cyril before,” Ansell says. “The dude was 23, and he was playing like that and composing most of the material on the album with no formal music education. His university was the university of the shebeens, the drinking stops, the streets where younger musicians, as in many communities of color, would sit at the knees of older musicians and learn.”
“Cyril was a phenomenon,” Brubeck notes of the guitarist, who composed four out of five songs on Armitage Road. (“Wait and See,” written by Henry Sithole, is the exception.) “He was self-taught, of course. His compositions were so good. To my ear, there was kind of a combination of Art Blakey and 1970s fusion that really worked. As well as the African thing, which, of course, is just there in the performance.”
While gigging around Johannesburg, the Heshoo Beshoo Group ended up on the radar of John Norwell, whose father was on the EMI board. He landed them a recording deal with the EMI imprint Little Giant, which focused on “non-white” South African artists performing jazz, soul, and blues.
“It was certainly a one-off thing. [The band] probably had a day or two to do it, and that was it,” Rafs Mayet, who has photographed the South African scene since the 1980s, tells Discogs. “There couldn’t have been too many takes back then. There wasn’t the indulgence of going back and dubbing stuff or doing extra things. It was all probably live. They just hit ‘record.’”
The sound of Armitage Road reflects the burgeoning soul-jazz scene in America at the time. From the music itself, “I don’t know that we learn a lot about apartheid as such,” Brubeck opines. “I don’t think the music has set out to make theoretical statements.”
That said, the cover, which spoofs the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road, speaks volumes. Instead of the zebra crossing, you get an unpaved road in Orlando. While the Fab Four strides confidently toward the most advanced recording studio on the planet, the Heshoo Beshoo Group slouches; their heads hang low. (Magubane, who suffered a debilitating case of polio as a child, uses a wheelchair.)
Whereas Yakhal’ Inkomo addressed the effects of apartheid through community symbolism, Armitage Road’s cover does so by simply pointing and shooting the camera. “That’s a typical township in the 1960s and ‘70s. The unpaved streets and potholes and whatever,” Mayet says of the cover. “The facilities aren’t the greatest. There isn’t even light at night, or electricity, or potable water, or anything like that.”
“It doesn’t say, ‘Look how we live! Look at the holes and the unmade roads we have to contend with,’” Ansell adds. “For most of the apartheid censors, it was perfectly acceptable that people of color lived in those conditions because [the whites] had created those conditions.”
“Orlando was one of those townships that the system neglected because only Black people lived there,” Zaid Khumalo, a South African author-journalist, explains to Discogs. “It was a township where the houses were built by the owners, the people who started the township. If you look at one side of that photograph, you’ll see a house with a veranda. That there is my grandmother’s house. The street that these guys are walking up toward was called Oliver Avenue, and the street with the houses was Mvabaza Street. I was born there.”
“It represents conditions as they are,” Brubeck says. “That road is how people were living. And yet, you can hear in the music — whichever album we’re talking about — a level of sophistication, urbanization, modernization. You hear roots, but you also hear influences that are completely up-to-date in terms of the time when the records were made. What that directly teaches us about apartheid, I don’t know. It’s a question that can lead one into marvelous rhetoric denouncing this and that. I think it has more to do with the facts of life and letting them speak for themselves.”
Sadly, Armitage Road would be the Heshoo Beshoo Group’s only album. “The government of the Afrikaner had no time to allow people to develop in terms of their culture and their careers as artists, sculptors, and musicians,” Khumalo laments. “I wish they’d given Heshoo Beshoo and other progressive groups in South Africa the opportunity to grow, expand, and develop into musicians that could have released more than one album, you know? A wider platform would have known them.”
However, the Heshoo Beshoo Group’s determination and tenacity mean Beatles comparisons run deeper than iconography alone. “If you compare Heshoo Beshoo Group to the Beatles, with their great big, beautiful studio to make the great music they did — similarly, under different conditions, they also did some special stuff too,” Mayet says. “To hash something is to take it by force. That’s what it is: Heshoo Beshoo.”
Of the three We Are Busy Bodies reissues, Can You Feel It? is the most apparent outlier. While the story of the Heshoo Beshoo Group is brief, it blends neatly into the Drive; the two bands shared Magwaza and the Sitholes among its ranks. The latter band featured a third Sithole, Danny, on trumpet; Adolphus “Bunny” Luthuli on guitar; Tony Sauli on bass; and Bheki Mseleku, who played piano and synthesizer.
“That’s 1975, and all of those musical and economic pressures were very entrenched at that point,” Hawkins says. “You see a lot of interest from particular producers in creating a very accessible jive sound.” Compared to the rending Yakhal’ Inkomo and the pensive Armitage Road, Can You Feel It? sounds borderline chipper. But as Ansell and Hawkins stress, a lighter sound doesn’t mean any less sociopolitical import.
“Way Back Fifties” pays homage to when marabi and related sounds ruled the scene. “[That track] is trying to remind listeners of a style of music that, at the time, was viewed nostalgically, like Americans in my generation would view Glenn Miller or something like that,” Brubeck explains. “Together” and the title track fix their gaze on contemporaneous funk and R&B. The Drive often performed in dashikis, or traditional African shirts, as a statement of racial pride.
“There was a huge amount of admiration for musicians who seemed to be asserting Black power and Black pride in the States, and they very consciously picked that up,” Ansell says. “For Black South Africans, the music of African heritage from the States was a source of inspiration because of perceived affinity with Black power politics there and the growing Black consciousness movement led by Steve Bantu Biko here. It was, if you like, cultural and emotional resistance, and when well-played, an assertion of Black sophistication and excellence that spat in the face of apartheid’s racist stereotypes.”
“Remember, Can You Feel It? was 1975. What happened in 1976? The Soweto uprising,” she continues, referring to the demonstrations by Black schoolchildren and subsequent police attacks that left at least 176 dead and 4,000 injured. “It’s political without necessarily raising a slogan and saying, ‘Let’s storm the barricades.’ It’s about [the subtext of] ‘This is who we are. We are proud of who we are, and a change has got to come.’”
Setting aside the COVID-19 pandemic for a moment, is South African jazz thriving or merely surviving since apartheid ended in 1994? “I’m not sure that jazz is exactly thriving in post-apartheid South Africa,” Diane Rossi, the conference and festival organizer at the South African Association for Jazz Education (SAJE), tells Discogs. “However, it is alive and well and re-inventing itself in terms of how and where audiences can listen to jazz.
South Africa, very frequently, is forgotten on African reissues … If you look at the Analog Africa series, it’s amazing, and I love it, and I’ll always buy every single thing they ever put out because it’s extraordinary, but there’s nothing South African. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique are as far south as they get. They don’t bother with South Africa. You’ll see many folks where Zimbabwean music might get some love, but in general, it’s West and East Africa. South Africa gets kind of pushed aside.
– Seton Hawkins
“Unfortunately, mainstream jazz clubs seem to come and go, and the only constant seems to be the various annual South African jazz festivals that provide sporadic work,” she continues. “Jazz musicians and promoters have had to find alternate venues to survive or get their music heard. Many jazz musicians have second jobs as music teachers or technicians, sound engineers, et cetera.”
Despite all this, musicians continue to break new ground in South Africa. “Popular early forms of jazzy dance music — highlife in Ghana and marabi in Joburg — emerged to form, assert, and question identity against colonial oppression,” Ansell wrote in a 2020 concert review for New Frame. “New sounds remain part of that same discourse today, signifying elements from home music traditions and international sources, and sharing those sonic innovations with whomever — from wherever — has the ears for them.
Suppose Yakhal’ Inkomo, Armitage Road, and Can You Feel It? are the first South African jazz albums you’ve heard, and one or more of them grabs your ear and imagination. How can you nourish this interest and grow it into a passion? Many avenues are at the ready, primarily online. You can purchase South African jazz via Bandcamp, listen to Hawkins’ South African Jazz show every Sunday at 9:00 p.m. EST on SiriusXM, and scroll through the SAJE website while you listen to either.
Warner is readying a dizzying amount of reissues for 2021 — not just South African jazz, but soul, highlife, and funk as well. Tenor saxophonist Hal Singer’s and alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi’s 1977 album Blue Stompin’ is next on the docket.) “We Are Busy Bodies has never been genre-specific in terms of its release output,” he says, adding that he started the label at age 22 to release a split CD between the punk band Japanther and his noise-rock band Viking Club.
These three albums “offer a great access point to the music,” Warner continues. “Like any genre and period of music, there’s a lot to take in. These three records are expertly performed and draw in the listener. I think that listening to these records offers the opportunity to choose a path to all sorts of other South African jazz records — current or reissues — that draw on a wide range of inspirations.”
“South Africa, very frequently, is forgotten on African reissues,” Hawkins says. “If you look at the Analog Africa series, it’s amazing, and I love it, and I’ll always buy every single thing they ever put out because it’s extraordinary, but there’s nothing South African. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique are as far south as they get. They don’t bother with South Africa. You’ll see many folks where Zimbabwean music might get some love, but in general, it’s West and East Africa. South Africa gets kind of pushed aside.”
Today, Warner, an unlikely ally and facilitator, has given this potent yet marginalized music another chance at the American spotlight. And he’s doing it as above-board as possible, pledging to place 50% of the profits in an escrow fund for heirs of the band members, with mechanical royalties paid as required. “I am very conscious of who I am and my skin color, and am mindful of being very respectful of all of the music and the musicians the label releases,” he says.
“It’s an extraordinary moment,” Hawkins declares. “There are so many recordings from this era that never really saw the light of day outside of a very tiny release. It’s pretty amazing to me that this is happening. What it makes me hopeful for is maybe a lot more of this starts to come back to light.”
If you want to experience art made by brilliant, resilient human beings with a hell of a story to tell, don’t return South African jazz to the shelf as a curiosity, a novelty, a diversion. If you want them to, Yakhal’ Inkomo, Armitage Road, and Can You Feel It? can form a gateway to lifelong education and initiate profound communion with the music of South Africa. In other words, they can be the first three steps rather than the end of the road.
“It’s not music, not playing,” Ngozi told Ansell near the end of Soweto Blues. “It’s living. It’s how you say hallo’.”