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Yakhal'Inkomo is a cry of joy wrapped in a package of protest. Tenor saxophonist Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi did not choose the title by accident: it refers to the bellow of the bull as it is taken to slaughter. Did the censors in Pretoria grasp the title's meaning? Doubtful. In 1968, life as a creative African musician in South Africa was a serious challenge, to put it mildly. But Mankunku manages to convey such an urgently joyful and revelatory sound that he transforms the message of this record to one of yearning and freedom. (Ironic in a deep way, that this massive hit record earned the artist almost nothing, since he was denied substantial rights to publishing. Mankunku eventually chose Nkomo as the name for his own label when he decided to rectify that situation.)
This CD reissue includes two records Mankunku recorded within four months: one with his own quartet (Yakhal'Inkomo) and one with pianist Chris Schilder's quintet (Spring). But his voice is unmistably imprinted everywhere. Mankunku occupies the higher realms of sound carved out by Coltrane in his later records, from Africa Brass through A Love Supreme and beyond. His style relies on deliberate exposition and development of themes, always keeping an eye on structure while stretching it to extremes. The one Trane tune ("Bessie's Blues") pays explicit homage, while the rest (mostly original by Mankunku and Schilder) drive home a similarly urgent message. "The Birds," for example, opens with an explicitly spiritual introduction. The saxophonist swings, blows, and blisters his way through these tunes, spurring his compatriots ever forward.
One gets an unmistakable sense of urgency from Yakhal'Inkomo from start to finish: part yearning, part celebration, part raw emotion, all wrapped together in one. The two groups on this record provide cogent, articulate support at a high level. Early Mabuza's drumming explores a wide range of colors without once losing the bliss of swing; pianist Chris Schilder adds an understated glow and a fine compositional sense.
Very few South African jazz records have come close to this level of creativity and emotive expression. One can point to the Jazz Epistles for an early antecedent or Zim Ngqawana for a modern update, but Mankunku has a rare talent for emotive expression. It's hard to give Yakhal'Inkomo the praise it deserves. Christ, the man was only 24 when he made this record!
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.