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Gwigwi Mrwebi: Mbaqanga Songs

Chris May By

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Recorded in 1967, during the bloody heyday of apartheid South Africa, the joyful, defiant, easy-swinging jazz-jive heard on Mbaqanga Songs was then the recreational soundtrack of the country's black and coloured urban poor. After almost forty years off the shelves—and with impeccable synchronicity—the album was reissued late last month, just days before the death of P.W. Botha, the last hardline racist president of the country.

Made in London by a sextet which included four of the leading South African musicians in exile, the album was originally released as Kwela By Gwigwi's Band. Mbaqanga was considered too taxing a word for native British record buyers to master, so kwela—which, strictly speaking, applies to the pennywhistle jive of the 1950s—was used instead. But in Xhosa, kwela means "get moving," and that's appropriate enough.

Whatever it's called, the music is irresistible—still vibrant and alive forty years on. It's a mixture of Earl Bostic, Charlie Parker, the Skatalites, calypso, Louis Jordan, Horace Silver and a shed load of dagga. Each of the sixteen tracks lasts about three minutes, built around a simple, riff-based—and often very pretty—theme played by the three saxophones in close harmony. Each track includes one or two brief solos, more thematic variations than full-out improvisations. Most are by alto saxophonists Gwigwi Mrwebi and Dudu Pukwana, a handful are by pianist Chris McGregor, and one is by tenor saxophonist Ronnie Beer.

Mrwebi exiled himself in London in 1961, jumping ship (and so forfeiting his South African "citizenship") from the cast of the township musical King Kong. Pukwana, McGregor and Beer arrived in 1965. Collectively, the musicians were the core of the more jazz-oriented Blue Notes and, later, Brotherhood of Breath bands, and mbaqanga was something they played to remind themselves of home. Mrwebi died in 1973, but Pukwana went on to lead the fabulous township jazz band Spear, keeping the mbaqanga flame alive in London until his own passing in 1990.

Mbaqanga saxophone jive is essentially group music—one band under a groove, never deviating far from the beat or the topline. Because it was instrumental, it was considered non-subversive by the apartheid regime, and was allowed to flourish on black radio—further proof of the stupidity of racists. It's simple and unadorned, speaking equally to the heart and the feet. It makes you feel good to be alive, which is why apartheid's victims loved it so much. And if you've read this far, it's practically guaranteed to float your boat.


Track Listing: Good News; Nyusamkhaya; Lily Express; Rough Deal; Kwazakhele; Mini Mthembo; Hayini Bo; Nick Thethe; Mra; Kweleentonga; Botyana; Ndaqmbayo; Zangomva; Zonbongo; Keleketle; Ezindongeni.

Personnel: Gwigwi Mrwebi, Dudu Pukwana: alto saxophone; Ronnie Beer: tenor saxophone; Chris McGregor: piano; Coleridge Goode: bass; Laurie Allan: drums.

Title: Mbaqanga Songs | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Honest Jons Records

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