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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.

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