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Yakhal' Inkomo: A South African Masterpiece at Fifty

Seton Hawkins By

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We have to 'unlearn' how we think about these contributions of these great masters and try and link them more to our cultures, to develop a stronger Jazz culture in South Africa. —Nduduzo Makhathini
On July 23, 1968, a now-legendary recording session took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, one that would ultimately prove a defining moment in the country's Jazz history and development. Led by tenor saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi, a quartet that included pianist Lionel Pillay, bassist Agrippa Magwaza, and drummer Early Mabuza would record the album Yakhal' Inkomo. Comprising two originals of Mankunku's—the title track "Yakhal' Inkomo" and "Dedication (For Daddy Trane and Brother Shorter)"—as well as John Coltrane's "Bessie's Blues" and Horace Silver's "Doodlin,'" the album would become one of the most important Jazz albums of South Africa, arguably the most important.

As the album reaches the 50th anniversary of its release, we can look back on its creation, examine what it represented at the time, and explore its legacy today. Why is the title track—"Yakhal' Inkomo" translates to "the bellowing bull"—named this way? What was it about the album that resonated so deeply at the time in South Africa, and why has it continued to resonate in South Africa? Why is one of the most important and transformational albums of South African Jazz virtually unknown outside of South Africa? And what is the legacy of Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, who passed away in 2009?

Four figures of South African Jazz today convened to discuss the album and its impact: Writer Percy Mabandu, author of Yakhal' Inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic, prepared a book that explored the album's deeper themes and concepts. Saxophonist Kevin Davidson, a longtime friend and performance partner to Mankunku, also is responsible for a book that contains complete transcriptions of Mankunku's playing on Yakhal' Inkomo. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, a dedicated scholar on the music and its social ramifications, also represents a generation of South African Jazz artists who grew up and came of age musically while standing on the shoulders of this album. Finally, saxophonist Salim Washington, now a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has explored and studied the context of this album in the Black Atlantic—the diaspora of African musical expression.

All About Jazz: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of Yakhal' Inkomo. What does this album mean to you?

Nduduzo Makhathini: There are so many ways that we could read Yakhal' Inkomo, and what it symbolizes. It's often paired with and almost aligned to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. A lot of people that write about it would naturally think about that, but also about the cultural and spiritual significance. The whole idea of "Yakhal' Inkomo," as Percy Mabandu as well has noted in Yakhal'Inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic, is that there are so many ideas and stories around how the title came about.

But I'm not too sure if anyone has ever heard from Bra Winston himself in terms of what the title meant. So then we derive all of these meanings based on what we think, and what was happening in that particular moment. [NOTE: Mankunku is on record on one occasion speaking about the title, in conversation with writer Gwen Ansell, noted here.]

Lately, I've thought about the sixties, a lot of musicians were going into exile, and I thought about what that meant for the ones left behind. It's easy to imagine loneliness and pain in exile. But we often do not think the same about the musicians that get left behind, not having people to play with. And I was just thinking, and maybe this an idea that we can play with, "Yakhal' Inkomo" as this lonely bull in the kraal [cattle enclosure] that doesn't really have company, in the case of Mankunku in terms of musicianship.

When I went to study in Durban, I spent a lot of time with Bab' Mseleku [Bheki Mseleku], and he told me that one of the biggest reasons he left for exile was that everybody else had left, and he sort of felt that he had no one to play with. So, that was one of the things that I thought about. In terms of also thinking about the parallels, as a record, I was thinking what A Love Supreme is in the US, whatever that means today, is actually what Yakhal' Inkomo is to a lot of us as musicians in South Africa, in terms of how much it contributes towards what we call Jazz, or the actual aesthetic of the artform.

AAJ: Kevin, you recorded an album called Breathing Winston, Living John, which indeed pays tribute to Mankunku and to Trane, and on it you recorded "Yakhal' Inkomo." You recorded the piece again on your album Our Land, Our Music. To Nduduzo's comment of Yakhal' Inkomo's relevance to South African Jazz matching A Love Supreme's relevance to America's Jazz, can you talk about your perception on it?

Kevin Davidson: Well, the perception obviously for me between Winston and Coltrane is huge. Winston dedicated his album to "Daddy Trane and Brother Shorter." For me, the Coltrane imprint was really strong on Winston. I think I probably caught one of the last performed versions of "Yakhal' Inkomo"; Winston actually played it to me at the Jazz Workshop in Cape Town, which was then on Long Street. We stood in a room, and he played it to me a cappella, just the horn. At the end of it, he said, "I don't play this tune anymore, there's too much pain." He was stating that it was incredibly painful for him to relive this tune. I mean, the title ostensibly means the cry of the bellowing bull in the slaughterhouse. The analogy with the Sharpeville Massacre is very strong, and Yakhal' Inkomo was a beacon of light for many people. And it still is for me.

You know, it's quite interesting how Coltrane was looking towards Africa and India, while Winston and [South African saxophonists] Duke Makasi and Ezra Ngcukana were looking towards Coltrane. You can almost see a cycle starting to happen between these musicians. I really wish that Coltrane could have heard Winston. I can't describe Winston's live sound, you had to kind of be there to experience it, but Yakhal' Inkomo comes close to capturing that. When I think of Winston, I just think of warmth and love, but underneath that I sensed an incredible steel resilience. You know, just under the surface of the loving Winston that we all loved, there was a man of iron. I got the same feeling from Duke Makasi, as well.

AAJ: So this implies a large, interconnected network of saxophone sounds.
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