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.

KD: Yes. If you listen to Coltrane playing on the Live at Birdland album, he does cyclical repetition of a phrase beyond any point where you feel that he can actually still get away with repeating that phrase. And Winston had the same sort of situation. I just remember when I was playing with him that sometimes he'd find a phrase that he liked, and that would be it for the next five minutes in his solo. There would be a masterful manipulation of that phrase. I feel that a lot of that was a derived maybe from his huge love for John Coltrane. Coltrane was tapping into the oral traditional storytelling from Africa and India as well.

I love seeing this cyclical loop between the South African musicians. As I say, I was very lucky in the 1980s to be with Robbie Jansen, Ezra Ngcukana, Duke Makasi, and Winston. Some great players. But Coltrane was always kind of hovering around. Even with my buddies in the Soul Jazzmen from PE [Port Elizabeth], there were these two towering figures: one was Coltrane and one was Winston Mankunku. Our universe went by those rules in a way. So the imprint is huge.

AAJ: Let's discuss the name "Yakhal' Inkomo" itself. Percy, on the album's liner notes, producer Ray Nkwe states that it's a tribute to John Coltrane, and that the title of "Bellowing Bull" directly references that. In your book on the album, you discuss the title as open to broader meanings and interpretations of the imagery. Can you talk a bit about that?

Percy Mabandu: For me, I thought a lot about the song as an artwork that marks time, and 1968 becomes very important in a lot of ways. Here, you have a couple of young guys. I mean, Winston is only 25 at the time. So this was a young man at the beginning of his career, though he's already in charge of his powers as saxophonist and a musical thinker. We referenced earlier on, thanks to Nduduzo, the Sharpeville Massacre. But if you think about the terror at large in 1968 is that—as I mentioned in the book—the 1964 Rivonia Trial was still a very real psychological presence in how you thought about your prospects as a black person in South Africa at the time. There was very little organized resistance against apartheid, and therefore the chance for organized ideas of change were very small at that time. So the pathos that is in the song is a very real thing, as far as we think about the song as an artwork that marks time.

There's always this interesting interplay between traditional culture and notions of modernity in the way in which blackness expresses itself in this part the world. So, the idea of traditional belief systems, or even traditional cosmology, in the way in which the cow is a feature in black life is referenced in the song. The idea of slaughter as sacrifice or slaughter as a kind of ritual is something that you think about when you think about African traditions. Therefore, that might take you to a place where you think about rural life. But here, you have it invoked in the urban experience, in the way in which you think of yourself in the modern experience, yet you still are referencing a kind of motif that is traditional.

All of these things for me point to the complexity of identity as far as modern African life is concerned—or the politics or even the ideas of spirituality—and how it functions for a young person still looking to find meaning for an unfolding life. He's 25, you know, so he probably thinks "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" When he's 25 and living at what we call High Apartheid, the beast is large. In 1968, the beast is very self-assured. It just put away Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, and Steve Biko is not yet fully formed at a level of organization. Only at the end of 1968 does SASO [South African Students' Organization] elect Steve Biko. So at the time, even the Black Consciousness Movement is not fully formed. It's still something of a murmur, or a quickening, that is taking place on the university campuses, and not with the same kind of force that today's Fees Must Fall is doing. So there's very little hope in 1968, and to be 25 and to be Winston Mankunku Ngozi or any of his peers is a very terrifying proposition when I think about it.
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