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.