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South Africa: Sheer Sound

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By far South Africa's biggest and most influential jazz record label, Sheer Sound has made a point of documenting both veterans and up-and-comers from all over the country and beyond. From traditional African sounds to modern folk music, from chill-out jazz to the avant-garde, the label has made its mark. Recent highlights from the label include Zim Ngqawana's uncompromising Vadzimu , a virtual tunnel through South African musical history; and Hotep Idris Galeta's Malay Tone Poem , a tight post-bop romp.

This year the label marked its ninth anniversary and its hundredth release, Sipho Gumede and Pops Mohamed's Kalamazoo 4. It's also licensed a generous heap of records, including two from Zimbabwean artists. This review will touch on six records culled from both catalogs—generally mellow in tone, but not without a few energetic moments.

Winston Mankunku Ngozi
Abantwana Be Afrika
Sheer Sound (SSCD 098)

While legions of South African jazz artists left the country in the '60s to escape apartheid, saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi stayed home, and he paid a heavy price for his choice. Expatriates like Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela circulated within American and European jazz communities, earning exposure and recognition. Mankunku labored under a regime which restricted his personal and musical freedom, sometimes performing under a psuedonym or behind a curtain. But his 1968 record Yakhal' Inkomo stands as one of the greatest masterpieces in South African musical history.

In contrast to that forward assertion of identity, Mankunku's music has become much more soft and meditative in recent years, with Molo Africa (1998) an optimistic highlight. The brand new, all-acoustic Abantwana Be Afrika ("Children of Africa") represents a return to roots, a middle ground for the saxophonist, with ten traditional jazz cuts in a (mostly) quintet setting.

His band brings together heavy hitters from the present day, most notably pianist Andile Yenana, whose firm but understated support recalls similar '60s efforts by McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. Drummer Lulu Gontsana has an unerring sense of swing that regularly adopts light shades of Latin and funk styles. And Mankunku himself sounds calm, self-assured, warm, and articulate. The title tune (with vocals and a melody that beckon "Children of Africa" to dance) has an irresistibly catchy groove; the other selections tend to be more serious and reflective.

Abantwana Be Afrika represents a dramatic return for Winston Mankunku Ngozi, a reminder that he hasn't forgotten his roots or lost the ability to express depths of emotion through deceptively simple words.

Sipho Gumede & Pops Mohamed
Kalamazoo 4: New Crossings
Sheer Shound (SSCD 100)

The fourth installment in the Kalamazoo series, launched in 1991, presents a collection of ten user-friendly jams that neither sizzle nor sink, huddling together on a spacious middle ground. Long-term collaborators Sipho Gumede and Pops Mohamed produced this record on their own (home studios and all), and the sheen of the record betrays their close attention to detail. Whatever conclusions you may draw from Kalamazoo 4, it's a definitive personal statement.

Pops Mohamed has released a string of records on B&W, MELT 2000, and Sheer Sound where he's employed traditional (what some might call "ethnic") instruments from around the world to introduce organic sonorities into an otherwise modern landscape. The combination is distinctive, and while his output has been uneven, its high points reveal a lot about the relationships between our past and our future. The acoustic collection How Far Have We Come? (MELT 2000, 1997) offered a memorable globetrotting vision of world music.

Unfortunately that vision is not really present on this recording. Instead, Mohamed mostly lurks in the background programming beats and introducing keyboard textures. His efforts in this regard (joined by Gumede throughout) are competent but hardly remarkable. In the end they're probably the main reason for the record's accessibility, since they serve as platform and guideposts for the instruments that float on top: Moses Khumalo's gliding sax, Xoli Nkosi's bluesy piano, and Thabo Mashishi's eager trumpet.

Kalamazoo 4 keeps the melodies perky and hummable, usually in some sort of call-and-reponse format, packaged in an easy groove. Solo space is quite limited because of the expanded arrangements, but Sipho Gumede comes through with some outstanding bass work. On the title track ("New Crossings") the reduced instrumentation gives him a chance to stretch out and sail free. Whatever his talents in the realm of production, his most dramatic presence on the record comes through when he picks up his axe.

This is not a jazz record in the traditional sense. It's a thoroughly produced package with catchy grooves, acoustic and electric instruments, and a whole lot of studio effects. Very, very friendly and an open invitation to dance.


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