To Americans, the sound of South African jazz is both oddly familiar and wonderfully exotic. The familiar aspect is easy to explain: From Louis Armstrong onward, American artists have exerted a strong influence over South Africa's pop and jazz musicians. Genres as diverse as doo-wop, R&B and bebop have all been incorporated in South African jazz. This marriage of American influences with native melody patterns and tribal polyrhythms has made for some irresistible amalgams. I've been hooked on South African jazz since I first heard Hugh Masekela's joyous hit "Grazing in the Grass" on AM radio in 1968.
Though it's as highly sophisticated as any music, most South African jazz possesses a sunny optimism. This upbeat quality is remarkable when you consider that most of its practitioners were forced to live in exile. In apartheid South Africa, any musician who showed multicultural tendencies could be branded a revolutionary by the white establishment. Consequently, many musicians were forced to leave the country.
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz is a terrific introduction to some of the nation's top jazz artists over the last 40 years, and a fine example of the diverse ethnic ingredients that exist in South Africa's music. Many of the nation's best-loved artists are represented on this single-CD collection: the popular trumpeter Masekela (with the Jazz Epistles); the great pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim (the Duke Ellington of Africa); pioneering white pianist Chris McGregor (who formed the first multiracial jazz band in South Africa); superstar singer Miriam Makeba (featured here with her "girl group" The Skylarks); and master pianist Bheki Mseleku.
Besides traditional styles mbaqanga, marabi and kwela, many musical forms are represented on the disc. "Nonto Samgoma"by the African Jazz Pioneers is a traditional South African number. Bop is showcased on "Twelve Time Twelve" by the seminal South African jazz band the Jazz Epistles (a group inspired by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers). The Sheer All Star's "Mabarane" offers a catchy melody and funky sax and piano. Flutist Deepak Ram plays a modern, atmospheric piece. Pioneering saxman and penny whistle player West Nkosi appears with guitarist Thelani Ajb on the unbelievably catchy tune "Marabi Kwela." And a couple of delightful pop-jazz tracks from the '50s round out a diverse collection: "Siyavuya" from the talented vocal group Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks and "See You Later" by popular penny whistle player Lemme Special.
If you haven't listened to much South African jazz, I guarantee this collection will inspire you to track down more. Every decade from the '50s onward is represented on the 16-track CD.
If you dig this release, here are a few more recommended South African jazz releases to add to your collection: Township Jazz 'n Jive (another retrospective CD that concentrates mainly on the '50s), Hugh Masekela's Stimela, and Abdullah Ibrahim's Water from an Ancient Well.