There has not been a more poignant situation in jazz history than that of South Africa, where the pathetic and deplorable conditions of apartheid made "jazz style music" illegal amongst the native people. This of course made jazz musicians outlaws and heroes, and drove the music underground into the townships, where it thrived despite desperate attempts to eradicate it as some form of cultural virus.
Vocalist Nonhlanhla Kheswa and Her Martians have revived and expanded the classic South African sounds of the township of Soweto, on Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz. Born and raised in Soweto, Kheswa knows this music inherently and sings with all the nuances and feeling that only a local can do. This is a live recording, where she demonstrates her dynamic stage presence and powerful delivery, sharpened by years performing on Broadway and world stages, exuding confidence and showmanship, while cleverly appreciating the audience and her band mates.
The record opens with the instrumental "Tshona" with its unmistakable undulating pulse and "crying saxophones" so associated with South African jazz and its laid back approach. Kheswa then takes over the vocal duties in her native African language, proudly displaying where she came from. The highlight number is a medley of the perennial Miriam Makeba favorite "Pata Pata," melding with "Meadowlands/ Nidink Imali Yami." This is a first rate tour through the township jazz enclaves which comes to a rousing and swinging finale. The area of Meadowlands, outside of Johannesburg, was a revered center of forbidden jazz jams or "Stolen Jazz," which Kheswa now commemorates in song.
Kheswa and Her Martians do justice to the pioneers of South African jazz as Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, and of course Miriam Makeba, an inevitable influence. Kheswa tempers this music and appears relaxed in her role as a performer not burdened by the political messages and repercussions of her predecessors. The Martians as a band apart, can hold their own with the best of them, led by the golden voice of Kheswa, they are a musical force to be reckoned with.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.