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Indaba Is (Album Review)

29 January 2021

Album Rating 5/5

Live Potential 4.5/5

Solo Performances 5/5

Diversity in Songs 5/5

Favourite Songs Ke Nako, What is History, Umdali, Dikeledi, Abaphezulu

Brownswood Recordings have marked off the first month of 2021 with a pulsating showcase of contemporary South African jazz. The music is explosive and hypnotic with a great variety in songs.

Indaba Is is indebted to the work and collaboration of pianist and songwriter Thandi Ntuli and The Brother Moves On’s Siyabonga Mthembu.

The record opens with 'Ke Nako' from Bokani Dyer, a South African pianist and composer in his 30s. Seeing Dyer’s name on the list immediately got my attention after having repeatedly played his 2015 album World Music and the track ‘Vuvuzela’ in particular.

Bokani Dyer and the band (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)

‘Ke Nako’ means ‘Now’s the Time’, a slogan used in South Africa’s first post-apartheid election. It feels similar to ‘Vuvuzela’ in all the right ways: a relentless groove in the pianist’s left-hand acts as an anchor while the other musicians sail away in thrilling solos.

Bokani Dyer lets loose in a solo of his own towards the end of the track. It bounces off the horns and the singing vocals that weave in and out of the music. ‘Ke Nako’ was the perfect opener to an album celebrating the tradition and future-vision of South African music.

"There never was just one sound", is the message of the album as South Africa’s music has always been a melting pot and always will be.

The early generations of musicians, who were often exiles, like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, Abdullah Ibrahim and Louis Moholo, took inspirations from their homes of Soweto and Cape Town and fused them with bebop and the jazz scene at the time. The rooted chord progressions around I, IV, V gave the music a firm melodic underscore, as the music of 1960s pop songs from the USA to Liverpool fed into the mix.

The Brother Moves On (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)

Indaba Is proves that South African music hasn’t lost this eclectic nature. You can hear traces of the UK’s contemporary jazz scene in the music, and likewise, you can hear the sounds of South Africa in UK jazz. No more is this cultural interplay prevalent than The Ancestors and their project with Shabaka Hutchings.

The first two tracks of the album have a very different feel to each other. Where ‘Ke Nako’ was a thrilling opener, ‘Umthandazo Wamagenge’ is a slow, meditative piece of music but with the electric edge of keys and a distorted guitar. There’s more of a neo-soul element to this tune under Siyabonga Mthembu’s poetic vocals. The Brother Moves On wrote this track, who are an exciting ensemble from Johannesburg named after The Wire’s Brother Mouzone.

Trumpeter, Lwanda Gogwana, shines on ‘All Ok’. The track is mesmerising and spiritual with the trumpet playing reminiscent of the way of playing in the Eastern Cape. A robotic vocal voice comes into the track and poses the futuristic aesthetic onto the traditional vocals of South Africa.

Lwanda Gogwana and band (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)

‘What is History’ is a politically-loaded, bone-chilling tune by The Wretched. Tumi Mogorosi’s drums enter into a dialogue with Black Panther Kwame Toure’s speeches, and distorted guitars bounce off Gabisile Motuba’s vocals.

A soft response follows ‘What is History’ with ‘Umdali’ by Sibusile Xaba, Naftali, Fakazile Nkosi and AshK. Xaba’s acoustic guitar sits nestled beneath soft vocals, flutes and warping effects. Sibusile Xaba calls it “modal, groove-oriented roots music”, inspired by dreams and made for healing.

The Wretched: Tumi Mogorosi (back), Andrei van Wyk (left), Gabisile Motuba (right) (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)
The Ancestors (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)

'Prelude to Writing Together’ meanwhile shifts the tone back to grooving, multifaceted jazz with sax and vocal dialogues. Fans of the UK jazz scene will be familiar with the music of The Ancestors who released a magnificent album last year with Shabaka Hutchings.

Thandi Ntuli’s ‘Dikeledi’ was one of my personal favourites. The vocals, which reminded me of Thandiswa, are incredibly captivating amid the trance-inducing music. Horn stabs break in too between vocal lines and solos. It is a song that poses questions around the identities of individuals and of communities.

Thandi Ntuli and band (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)

The album concludes with ‘Abaphezulu’ from iPhupho L’ka Biko ft. Hymnself & Kinsmen. The track opens with Druv Sodha’s sitar and fuses traditional Indian music with South African jazz; a musical rekindling of the South African-South Asian dialogues around anti-colonialism and apartheid of the early twentieth century. The track is in part dedicated to Steve Biko and harbours a vision of hope. A perfect, uplifting finale to a quite beautiful album.

iPhupho L’ka Biko ft. Hymnself & Kinsmen (photo: Tseliso Monaheng)

Indaba Is has put 2021 to a good start. It is an album that celebrates the old and new, and brings them together in musical harmony. Spiritual in some parts and political in others, Indaba Is proves that in South Africa, and in the world, there’s never just one sound.


Indaba Is is available on vinyl, CD and digital formats on Brownswood Recordings.

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