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Matsuli Music: The Fight Against Forgetting

Seton Hawkins By

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What they were looking for was a sense of transcendence, from the categories, and from a musical perspective. —Matthew Temple
Now approaching a decade of operations, Matsuli Music has placed itself at the frontline of reissuing some of South Africa's most influential, important, and yet nevertheless now difficult-to-find albums in pursuit of its stated mission: "The Fight Against Forgetting." Indeed, to that end, founder Matthew Temple has done extraordinary work, as thanks to his efforts, classic 1970s fare like Dick Khoza's Chapita, Ndikho Xaba's Ndikho Xaba and the Natives, Sathima Bea Benjamin's African Songbird, Pacific Express' Black Fire, and others have finally returned to ready public consumption as high-quality vinyl reissues.

As the company matured, its scope and operations have expanded somewhat, as Temple enlisted Durban-based Chris Albertyn to serve as a partner in the label's efforts. Concurrently, Matsuli Music's artistic scope has also expanded beyond the earlier range of the 1970s: in 2015 Cape Town-based guitarist Derek Gripper collaborated with the label for a vinyl reissue of his 2012 album One Night on Earth, while this year saw the reissue of Genes and Spirits by the 1990s South African Jazz icon Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Originally released through the London-based M.E.L.T. 2000 label, Genes and Spirits proved to be one of the 1990s most consequential albums for the nation, representing a tidal wave of genre-defying creative energy in South Africa's Jazz at the time, and cementing Molelekwa as one of the country's most singular musical visionaries.

All About Jazz: What prompted you to reissue Genes and Spirits?

Matthew Temple: I suppose it comes back to what our mission is as a label. I run it now with Chris Albertyn, who's based in South Africa. We had been focused on reissuing classic South African Jazz onto vinyl, and to date I suppose we had largely done stuff spanning from 1969 with Ndikho Xaba to the end of the 1970s.

But we had been looking at rare albums with historical weight for the tradition. And we specifically began looking at records that had been done in the 1990s, some of the work by guys like Bheki Mseleku and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. We were also aware that [M.E.L.T. 2000 Records' founder] Robert Trunz is now based in Durban. So I had a conversation with Chris and said, "Why don't we speak with Robert Trunz? He's got a whole catalogue of stuff from when he invested so heavily in South African music." That brought about our licensing the Moses Molelekwa album, with a possibility of a few more from his back catalogue.

AAJ: There was something striking going on in South African music during the 1990s. Previously, you had reissued many albums from the 1970s that were associated with independent labels like As-Shams. In the 1990s, it seems there's a second surge of independent labels: M.E.L.T. 2000 and Sheer Sound spring to mind. What was prompting this surge of music during that time?

MT: When you hear the album Genes and Spirits, I see it as imbued with a post-freedom sense of possibility. If you take that, and you listen to Moses speaking about that time, he's talking about his music being beyond Jazz. And I do think there's also the influence of M.E.L.T. 2000 and Robert Trunz, of opening up possibilities of working with other musicians around the world, which also enabled the achieving of that vision, of crossing boundaries. That sense of all things being possible, of not having to stick to the script, I think is what makes 1990s work like Bheki's or Moses' so special.

AAJ: When one listens to Genes and Spirits, it is astonishing to hear the range it covers. To go from a piano duet between Moses and Chucho Valdes on "Ntate Moholo" to club-driven drum programming on "Spirits of Tembisa" is a staggering range. The album also seems to represent an artistic leap of lights years from Moses' debut album Finding One's Self.

MT: Gwen Ansell, in writing the notes for Genes and Spirits, pointed out that Moses in the 1990s was working in the space that Robert Glasper works in today. Some people have said this is proto-Glasper, which is one way of putting it. But also, if you go back to Guru and his Jazzmatazz albums where he's mixing Jazz and Hip Hop, you hear the same fusing of elements.

The reception to Genes and Spirits' reissue in South Africa has been quick and enthusiastic, because it hit a current. Internationally it's been slower because people don't really know the album. So we've been pushing quite hard.

AAJ: As you listen to the album, you can't help but be struck by "what could have been," given that Moses died so young. However, there does seem to be some back catalogue material that has come out since: some live albums were released, a solo piano record came out, and the Wa Mpona compilation was prepared. Is there more material coming out?

MT: I think M.E.L.T. 2000 has most of his material available digitally, via their website and other platforms. Obviously, we're curating for vinyl, so the inclusion of the one additional track from Wa Mpona, which was originally designated for Genes and Spirits, we were able to get it onto the reissue.

We are looking at an album from another artist from the M.E.L.T. 2000 roster, and from a vinyl perspective, for tracks that are not available digitally. But I think if you search on iTunes and on M.E.L.T. 2000, you'll find a lot of Moses' material.

AAJ: You reference that this album stands out in the Matsuli catalogue as one of the few post-apartheid albums. Let's look at the other albums in the catalogue. They're largely from the 1970s, which seems to be another decade of incredible South African Jazz. And yet, much of it has been all-but-impossible to find until now! Can you talk about that era of the music?

MT: There are a couple of layers to the narrative. One the one hand, you have record labels seeking to capitalize on urban black consumers, specifically with pop music. If you look at the period from 1970 through 1975 or '76, there is an incredible volume of recorded music conceived primarily by white record labels, be they Gallo, Atlantic, Record & Tape. And obviously, the Jazz musicians, who were in the minority, were lucky if they could get their stuff recorded, the likes of Batsumi, for instance. From an archival perspective, we must recognize that what was preserved on the physical artifacts is the tip of the iceberg.

As you go to the late 1970s, the number of public spaces where this music could be played decreases quite dramatically, as P.W. Botha's regime took over from Vorster. It moved into a very militarized form of apartheid, and so avenues and places for Jazz musicians to play got smaller. It fell to independent labels like As-Shams, Mountain Records, or Shifty Records to record artists. Those labels did a great job in maintaining avenues for artists to record. Without those independents, goodness knows what we would have found.

AAJ: Your first reissue for Matsuli was Dick Khoza's album. Thinking on that album, so many concepts seem to be at play: the global-thinking sounds of rock and soul juxtaposed with traditional imagery. It seems artists during that time had to walk a tightrope between modernist musical impulses and some of the restrictive leanings of the SABC and Bantu Radio.

MT: If you look at a record cover of the [vocal group] Mahotella Queens from the late 1960s, they presented themselves in modern, Western clothing. Five or six years later, you'd see the record companies presenting them in completely traditional garb. So there was this shift happening, where clearly what was perceived as right in the 1960s gets impacted by this apartheid narrative that said there was no one group in South Africa, but rather nine different tribes.

You see this with someone like Babsy Mlangeni, who was not allowed to record an album that has three languages on it. Instead, he's got to put out one in Zulu, one in Sotho, and one in Pedi. So you take some of these recordings, something like Pops Mohamed's Black Disco. You're not "supposed" to have a mixed-race guy working with a Coloured [racial designation under apartheid] musician in Cape Town and a Zulu bassist from Durban, when your heritage is partially Khoisan descent.

Same way with Dick Khoza on Chapita. He's from Malawi, and he's only "supposed" to be in South Africa as a mine worker. And yet he managed to find a way to get a South African passport, and he's obsessed with music. He introduced Johnny Dyani to Louis Moholo-Moholo, he was a teacher of those guys, and then he was also the stage manager at probably the most famous club in Soweto, The Pelican. He pulled together what he thought of at the time as a modern version of what he was doing. This sits outside the narrative of the apartheid government, in terms of how they were saying you should be presenting yourself. It's brilliant.

AAJ: With another of your reissues, Pacific Express' Black Fire, you find another example of an album that openly defies categorization. The title alone gets into very defiant territory.

MT: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes we see the narrative of South African Jazz as being music that was fighting apartheid, and pigeonholing it like that. It's not that simple, though.

Yes, just by being musicians they were sitting outside of the apartheid narrative, but their resistance was about choosing a music that didn't fit with the narrative. What they were looking for was a sense of transcendence, from the categories, and from a musical perspective. The decision to play Jazz could be seen as a political act, to say "I'm choosing to play the high art of Black people in the United States."

AAJ: With regard to your label's approach, it seems different from other labels' strategies. Many other reissue-focused labels release compilations, while you have opted to release entire records. Can you talk about this decision to avoid compilations?

MT: If you build a compilation, you're becoming a curator, and you're making an artistic choice as to what you put on the compilation, what you leave off, and how you contextualize it. The only contextualization that we tend to do is to get a writer to prepare new liner notes and give an historical perspective. But otherwise, we want to leave the original album as is. Sometimes that restricts what we can release, but my feeling is this is the only way to do it.

If we did compilations, it probably wouldn't be Jazz. It'd be music for DJs. But it feels less weighty in terms of our missions, which is about restoring key pieces of South Africa's Jazz legacy.

AAJ: What prompted you personally to do all of this in the first place?

MT: Music has always been a part of my interests, even from when I was young. I've always had music in my life, and it's always been special to me. When I got to university in the early 1980s, I was seeking out local South African music, be it Juluka, Malopoets, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and then ultimately I saw this whole world of a South African Jazz tradition. I was fortunate to be at the Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana in 1982, and got to see Abdullah, Hugh, Kingforce Silgee, lots of people. I came into exile in 1986 to avoid military service, and remained interested in music. I had a journey in Australia in the early 2000s, and at that time, a guy called Russ Dewbury had put an album called Afro Funk, something like that. We also had the Nigeria 70 compilation out from Strut Records, there was also Analog Africa reissuing music. In the back of my mind, I thought "here's an idea waiting to happen: reissuing South African Jazz."

I was first prompted to put out the Chapita album because it had the most appeal to that dancefloor Afro-Funk territory. But after making contact with [As-Shams founder] Rashid Vally, and going through the tapes and archives he had, I realized there was a lot more to look at: Batsumi, Sathima Bea Benjamin, and more.

I suppose it's also prompted by the fact that I do a corporate job in the daytime, which is severely boring, so I needed something to keep my spirit alive.
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