www.africanjazz.info invites you to look at a new feature on African Jazz in 2011 and wishes you all the best for 2012.
rican jazz in 2011: a peoples art featuring tradi-modern banjo
Live recordings made in Africa with full on audience participation predominate among the best releases of 2011. The best release of the year slot goes to Hugh Masekela. Seventy two year old Bra Hugh doesn't bow quite as hard as he once did nor is his voice quite so smooth but on his DVD/CD set "Live at Carnival City" he makes up for this in spades, performing his heart out fronting a tight stripped down four piece band consisting of new young musicians together with veteran stalwart Fana Zulu on bass. There's no vocal chorus, no horn section, no percussionists and yet this release features more performers than any other new African jazz release this year. How come? Bra Hugh's young audience sing along from the first the few bars until the last note. Whether this ecstatic audience fired up Bra Hug and his band or whether they did the same to their audience isn't clear- most probably it was symbiotic process but the results are recorded for us all and this is one ofMasekela's best ever creations.
Mbilia Bel's CD/DVD set"Bakolo Mindule" is a flawed release. The sound drops out at times, the editing is problematic and about a third of the tracks don't feature Bel at all. Butthe performance at the core of this issue, consisting of Bel singing and dancing to the Tabu Ley Rochereau compositions for which se is best known, in front of a small rumba band is as close as we mortals can get to perfection. Her audience are on their feet from first to last and the brightly lit Kinshasa TV studio enables the viewer to see and read the expressions on their faces. Bel's audience, much of which is middle aged by now, is in love. When you seethe grace with which she moves and hear her magnificent voice you will start to understand and when with repeated listening you grasp just how subtle and supremely sophisticated her sense of timing is you will fall in love with hereto.
Lágbájá's ideo CD "E Gbà Mi O!" consists partly of promo clips for songs previously released on his recent studio CDs and partly of new live material. The combination hangs together well and this release is a coherent work of art which marks a strong return to form.I f contemporary African jazz has a figure as important as Franco, Fela or Kippie Moeketsi it is surely Lágbájá. Lágbájá is an anonymous masked artist whose name means somebody or anybody and t the most memorable parts of this release are about what Lágbájá's identity means. At one point the camera pans across an empty stage in front of as huge crowd loudly chanting one of Lágbájá's unmistakable choruses. A sax solo starts and the audience explodes with delight while the camera frantically searches for the elusive. Lágbájá who slowly emerges in the middle of the crowd wearing is mask and playing his sax like a god.
Lágbájá `s creative blurring of the distinction between himself and his audience would please the late avant-garde multi instrumentalist, composer and author Francis Bebey whose landmark 1969 book "African Music: A People's Art" is a meditation on this verysubject. The towering authority with which Bebey wrote derived largely from the fact that he was an African and a great musician. It is fitting that a year which has brought us so many great releases illustrating the creative relationship between African jazz and it's audience should also bring us a monumental 4 disc retrospective of Bebey's own work. His "Belle Epoque" isn'tan easy listening experience. It might have been better to group the pieces together by style or period because this music is very diverse. The documentation leaves much to be desired too the set would be enormously enhanced by song translations and personnel detail. But the music itself is,for the most part, charming, challenging and utterly unique. An essential release which will grow on you with repeated listening.
The reissue of the year however is Sathima Bea Benjamin's "Sathima sings Ellington" produced by herhusb and d and fellow Ellington devotee Abdullah Ibrahim. Benjamin is best known as an interpreter of Ellington's songs and it's not difficult to hear why on this glorious 1979 set augmented by several non Ellington bonus tracks of an equally high standard. An essential purchase with immediate appeal and lasting charms.
An an equally great release from the same era but which has never seen the light of day before is"Elton Dean's Ninesense Suite Becket/Miller/Moholo " featuring fellow South African exiles drummer Louis Moholo Moholo and double bassist Harry Miller. This release is a supreme example of what used to be called Free Jazz when it was recorded live in Germany in 1981 and 1982 but which is more frequently referred to as improvised music these days. It demonstrates what happens when great African musicians are forcibly prevented from interacting creatively with their African audience in the way Bebey describes. The freedom and passion in these great performances is as much political as musical. The exiled South Africans had fire in their bellies and the best of the music they made will probably never be matched. Indeed rather like First World War poetry it continues to inspire in such a way that one hopes no one will ever again have to experience what its creators endured. At the same time one can't help but acknowledge the extraordinary power and magnetism of what the South African exiles did. Certainly they galvanised the generation of Free Jazz musicians they encountered. The power of their music and politics was contagious which explains in large part the quality of performance and commitment they elicited in their musical collaborators and from Western audiences. That is why their every recording is so sought after and is what fuels a veritable industry unearthing and releasing more and more recordings. Not all such issues and reissues are all tat good but the best of these musicians performances are like the Holy Grail and this is certainly one such recording: featuring what is perhaps Miller's finest ever recorded performance and Moholo in exceptional form.
Freedom in contemporarily South Africa is a more complex and elusive concept. The firstbBlu-ray release in African jazz ,Thandiswa's "Dance of the Forgotten Free"bexplores this theme intelligently and is highly recommended. Unforgettably, she marks the start of her strong live set by kneeling down to light an offering to evoke the spirits of the ancestors. The standard of musicianship is high with contributions from Malombo drummer Tabang Tabane, gifted young guitarist Sunnyboy together with a superlative horn section (Bez Roberts and Adam Howard) all topped off with Thandiswa's powerful, unmistakable voice and her hit songs.
The best new jazz from South Africa this year however comes in the form of trumpeter Brian Thusi's second CD "Future Talk". The sleeve notes describe his outfit as a "collective" and it does sound like a genuinely collaborative effort featuring a host ofyounger and new musicians listening to one another and giving their all in a manner that would please Messrs Moholo and Miller. This surely, is what freedom is really all about.
Sadder news from South Africa concerns the death oft saxophonist and composer Zim Ngqwana, the post apartheid musician most closely allied with free jazz. Zim's recordings sometimes erred n the side of pretension but I was lucky enough to hear him ive in his prime performing for of a large audience at the open air Heidelburg Kloof jazz festival outside Johannesburg in 1998 and his set, consisting mostly of material from "Zimology" was a revelation. The entire audience seemed to know every note oft his recording and danced throughout. He was a free jazz giant in a genuinely African manner of which Francis Bebey would have thoroughly approved.
Happily the promising new arrivals on the African jazz scene far outnumber the musicians who passed away or retired in 2011. Best of the lot are the Addis Acoustic Project who have breathed life into a set of Ethiopian jazz standards from the 1950s and60s. Theirs is a beautiful CD which even gives veteran Mulatu Aststatke's fabulously good new CD "Mulatu Astatke Steps Ahead" a serious run for its money. Another stunning debut comes from baritone saxophonist Abidemi Adebiyi Adekunle who stole the show at live performances to promote the latest Egypt 80/ Seun Anipulako Kuti CD "Fom Africa with Fury: Rise." His showing on the recording is equally strong. Kevin Mfinka from Cogo Brazzaville makes a strong debut too on "Congo Bolingo" especially in the style and quality of his percussion playing. From South Africa come a first solo CD from Thandiswa's promising young guitarist Sunnyboy; Bernice Boikanyo, a strong and distinctive sounding new kit drummer and best of all the pianist, female vocalist and composer Nikiyase whose irst CD "Mudar É Bom" has everything one could ask of a newcomer: abundant talent, originality, ambition, optimism and exuberance. Another promising new pianist is Sbusiso Dlamini whose CD with Ological Studies suggests he has the potential to develop into a star.
Apart from the plethora of release lit up by creative interaction between performers and their audiences the other striking thing about 2011's release is that the most keenly contested category, perhaps surprisingly, is that of arranger. Releases from Mulatu Astatke, Lekan Animaushen, Manu Dibango, Abdullah Ibrahum, Hugh Masekela, Nyboma and Caiphus Semenya feature some of the best arrangements of their illustrious careers. It seems therefore that the reason for this trend is simple: arranging is what African jazz musicians like to do when they get old. everal less well established stars pitch in too: notably Simphiwe Dana and especially Lawrence Matshikiza for his work with Siphokhazi. Choosing just one of these as the best of the year has been a delightful dilemma. In the end Caiphus Semenya gets the nod for being such a noteworthy arranger throughout his entire career: the crispness, clarity and art with which he marshals is musicians on his "Live at Carnival City" is the unique, unmistakable hallmark of this grandee of African jazz.
The biggest disappointment of the year has been the lack of new recordings from the gifted Kenyan saxophonist/singer/composer Joseph Hellon who was arrested last year.The good news earlier in the year was that he was out performing again. A newlive DVD with pianist Aaron "Krucial" Keys was announced and presumably recorded too but, as far as I can tell, hasn't actually materialised. The track listing included many of his best compositions plus a cover version of Mafíkizlo's "Hamba Nawe." Let's hope Hellon and his DVD surface in 2012.
There hasn't been much jazz from DR Congo eater in 2011 aside from Mbilia Bels' live set described above and her strong studio CD "The Queen." The impression gleaned from talking to Congolese friends and watching the inspiring documentary "Benda Bilili" about a group of disabled musicians from Kinshasa, the capital city of African music, is that the economy in Cogo is more difficult than ever for musicians. Koffi Olomide's' "Chante Lutumba" and Ferre Gola's exquisitet "50 ans de laMusiqe Congolaise" remind us of what we're missing. Listen for example to Ferre's singing on "Mi Amor" (track 11 on the CD) which is one of the highpoints of African jazz in 2011.
And the banjo? Those willing to branch out and experiment with different aspects of Congolese music are pointed in the direction of "The Karindula Sessions: Tradi-modern Sounds from South East Congo," a CD/DVD set featuring an outdoor acoustic performance on traditional instruments played in a contemporary style with Bebeyesque blurring between performers and audience throughout. Lovers of OK Jazz basslines will bethrilled tote bone by the giant banjo playing. In similar vein the movie BendaBilili is strongly recommended. The sight of Staff Benda Billili's musicians jumping out of their wheel chairs to dance will live on in the mind forever and proves that the musicians who make African music and the people who listen to it are completely and utterly irrepressible - just like Francis Bebey said and just as South African jazz musicians proved at home and abroad during apartheid. The jazz establishment underrates this music at its peril. In thet wentieth century music was dominated by echoes and imitations of African sounds from all over the African Diaspora but slavery and colonialism are now history. Who's going to stop the real thing from taking over, now that we can hear the giant tradi-modern banjo and see what it does to people?