If saxophonist Winston Mankunku's 1968 masterpiece Yakhal'Inkomo was a high point for modern jazz, then 1998's Molo Africa represents an unabashed retreat to his South African roots. In case you're wondering, those roots run deep. (Think mbaqanga if you're familiar with South African styles.)
Molo Africa is a celebration of melody in uncomplicated harmonic settings, pulling its energy from the voices sailing on top (in many cases, Mankunku on tenor). The third tune, "Lagunya Khayelitsha," offers a very straightforward progression through four-unit harmonies. But it's fresh because the saxophonist and trumpeter Feya Faku lay out some clear, soulful lines on top. Mankunku takes these tunes (embellished with voice, synth, and the occasional trappings of smooth jazz) and raises them to a higher level by making melody number one. And that's something a lot of listeners tend to miss in South African music.
That's not to say that the other members of the band don't get in there. In fact, no two of these tunes feature the same band. That's part of the charm of Molo Africa : there may be a common denominator, but the rest of the group is always different. In groups from the opener's quintet to the closer's octet, Mankunku wanders from piano to saxophones to synth and voice. Dig the horns on the fourth tunethey swing wildly!
Certain parts of this record bear signs of studio production, but they never lose the spontaneity that comes from raw improvisation. If you listen carefully to what Mankunku has to say, he lingers on melody in the same way Albert Ayler used to, deeply aware and celebrating each note. (The comparison ends there.) Mankunku may have broken a lot of new ground in his career, but with Molo Africa he's quite content to germinate seeds from the soil. Fertility makes for a celebration of life, and that's something that obsesses this artist. By the way, "Molo Africa" means "Hello Africa." Hello there too.