Monday 17 June 2013

Voice of the Ancestors (mbira dzavadzimu)

And now for another sojourn just north of South Africa to Zimbabwe. In Shona music, the mbira dzavadzimu ("voice of the ancestors") and national instrument of Zimbabwe, is a musical instrument that has been played for thousands of years. The mbira dzavadzimu is frequently played at religious ceremonies and social gatherings called mabira.

In the seventies it took Thomas Mapfumo and guitarist Jonah Sithole to transcribe the sounds of the mbira to electric guitar and sing in Shona, as opposed to playing American rock covers. This was a breakthrough moment for Mapfumo and set the platform for his rise to popularity.

A typical mbira dzavadzimu consists of between 22 and 28 keys constructed from hot- or cold-forged metal affixed to a hardwood soundboard (gwariva) in three different registers—two on the left, one on the right. While playing, the little finger of the right hand is placed through a hole in the bottom right corner of the soundboard, stabilizing the instrument and leaving thumb and index finger of the right hand open to stroke the keys in the right register from above and below. The fingers of the left hand stabilize the left side of the instrument, with most fingers reaching behind the instrument. Both registers on the left side of the instrument are played with the left thumb and sometimes the left forefinger. Bottle caps, shells, or other objects ("machachara") are often affixed to the soundboard to create a buzzing sound when the instrument is played. In a traditional setting, this sound is considered extremely important, as it is believed to attract the ancestral spirits.

During a public performance, an mbira dzavadzimu is frequently placed in a deze (calabash resonator) to amplify its sound. The mbira dza vadzimu is very significant in Shona religion and culture, and considered a sacred instrument. It is usually played to facilitate communication with ancestral spirits. Within the Shona tradition, the mbira may be played with paired performers in which the kushaura, the caller, leads the performed piece as the kutsinhira, the responder, "interlocks" a subsequent part. The Ritual is known as the Bira. During these all night ceremonies, people call upon the spirits to answer questions, the variations of notes in an Mbira piece aid the participants by going into a trance in which it is said in shona culture aid the spirits in taking over the participants body.
(most of the above taken from Wiki)

Many friends of mine in Zimbabwe have hired Mbira groups to play all night when moving into a new essence to settle the spirits. And so without further ado three lovely albums of Mbira music.

Two rare albums from the Mazai Mbira Group.
Enjoy via Rapidshare

And re-loaded from Matsuli, the classic Music of the Spirit album from Ephat Mujuru. This legendary album single handedly popularised mbira music in Southern Africa. This project was specially commissioned by Gramma Records on the first anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence. Ephat Mujuru's band Mudzimu waVanhu (Spirit of the People) included the late Thomas Wadharwa (sekuru) Gora, Forbes Gushungo, Martha Mujuru, Martha Tembo, Lovemore Chiripanyanga and Patrick Mberi. File next to Paul Berliner's field recording of Mhuri yekwa Rwizi's Soul of Mbira. 
Enjoy via Rapidshare

Monday 10 June 2013

Lemmy Mabaso - Lemmy Hit Parade No.1 (1962)

This post will be my last for a while at Electric Jive. I am taking some time to concentrate on a number of other creative projects. I want to thank the team here at EJ for inviting me two-and-half years ago to be a part of this amazing resource. Much of South African music history remains undocumented and significant information is rapidly fading away. Electric Jive continues to provide a critical window onto that history and I am honored to have played a small part in this valuable archiving project. Chris, Matt, Nick and Francis thank you so much!

For this final post I though it might be appropriate to feature two LPs from Gallo’s New Sound label: Lemmy Hit Parade No. 1 (NSL 1008) and Top Hits of the Big Three (NSL 1006). Both are exceptionally hard to find and seldom, if ever, come up on the various auction sites.

Gallo introduced the New Sound label in 1958 as a marketing strategy to brand their more popular jive and kwela releases. It set those recordings apart from their own more “traditional” ones and became a visually catchy product that could rival the competition. The familiar vermillion and yellow label was a bright, modern shift away from the more conventional black, gold and silver label designs of the preceding decades. (For more on the New Sound label check out my provisional discography at flatint.)

The label showcased some of Gallo’s most popular jive and kwela artists of the late 1950s and early 1960s including Lemmy 'Special' Mabaso, Spokes Mashiyane, Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks, Reggie Msomi to name but a few. Significantly this label was introduced just as Gallo was signing Mashiyane away from Trutone and it also arrived as the popularity of kwela was peaking internationally. The timing in my opinion cannot be coincidental.

The label, like the music, was bright and easily identifiable. Early issues carried the name Gallotone in a modern san-serif font (the previous logos were all in cursive) but this too was dropped in favor of the clean simplicity of just “New Sound” next to the Gallo rooster logo.

At first the design was used only on 78 rpms, which at that time were chiefly marketed to black consumers. In 1959, some discs were issued as 45 rpms, and in 1960 the company began a series of LPs and EPs featuring some of their best artists. It is likely that these formats were to be marketed to white consumers. New Sounds of Africa, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were the first two LPs issued and included primarily tracks by Spokes Mashiyane but also significant hits by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks. Coincidentally these came out just as Makeba was becoming popular in the United States — she had left South Africa in August of 1959.

The label continued with a string of LP releases featuring Mashiyane, Mabaso and Msomi and then in 1962 issued the classic live recording of the 1962 Cold Castle National Jazz Festival. Generally Gallo issued jazz recordings on their Continental label, but this LP marked an important departure. This was soon followed by an even more significant classic in Jazz - The African Sound featuring Chris McGregor’s Castle Lager Big Band - one of the most collectable South African records.

New Sound maintained issues until around 1965 when it was replaced by Mavuthela's iconic Motella label under the stewardship of Rupert Bopape. Introduced in 1964 soon after Bopape joined Gallo, Motella became home to the leading South African musical styles of the late 1960s. Mavuthela followed up with other new labels including Gumba Gumba, CTC Star, Smanje Manje and so on.

The two LPs featured today both include tracks by Lemmy 'Special' Mabaso who, in the late fifties along with Spokes Mashiyane, was South Africa’s biggest kwela star. As with all New Sound issues till this point both LPs are compilations of recordings previously issue on 78 rpm.

Mabaso was born in Alexandra Township in 1946 and along with his brothers Jerry and Meshack and three friends formed the Alexandra Junior Bright Boys, a four penny-whistle group accompanied by string-bass and guitar. They would busk the streets of Johannesburg for tips before making their first recordings probably around 1956 or 1957. Mabaso must have been ten or eleven at the time. (Huskisson)

The Alexandra Junior Bright Boys with Mabaso became some of the first black artists in South Africa to be featured on a long playing vinyl record in the 1958 compilation Something New in Africa (GALP 1015) and then again that year on the 10” LP Lemmy Special (GLP 119), both on the Gallotone label. By this point Mabaso must have been twelve.

Lemmy Special, as he is known on many of the recordings, became an overnight sensation and soon found himself performing in some of the biggest stage shows of the day, including African Jazz (1957) and both local and international stage productions of King Kong. After the decline in popularity of kwela he shifted to saxophone in 1963 and joined Reggie Msomi’s Hollywood Jazz Band before forming his own group, the Down-Beats. (Huskisson)

Mabaso continued recording for Gallo well into the 1970s and can be heard playing saxophone on many albums, including Ntemi Piliso’s classic 1975 sessions with the Members. Do yourself a favor and search for Lemmy here at Electric Jive to see the many other LPs he is featured on.

See you later!

Lemmy Hit Parade No. 1
Lemmy Special
New Sound
NSL 1008

Top Hits of the Big Three
Spokes Mashiyane, Lemmy Mabaso, Reggie Msomi
New Sound
NSL 1006

Monday 3 June 2013

Thomas Phale and Others - Sporo No. 4 (1979)

Today, we focus on one of my favorite early finds, Sporo No. 4, a fresh, zippy, late-mbaqanga project produced by Teal’s David Thekwane and featuring Thomas Phale with Lulu Masilela, Johnson Mkhalali and others. I included a track from this excellent album on my first FlatInternational mix hosted at Matsuli in 2008 and then later at flatint.

Recorded in 1979, this LP arrived at a time when South African interest in mbaqanga was beginning to wane in favor of disco influenced soul jive which happened to be peaking that same year. But the decline of mbaqanga in South Africa ironically came at the very moment it was to become an international phenomenon, launching South African music globally during the height of the apartheid years.

Of course, Thomas Phale, Lulu Masilela Johnson Mkhali, David Thekwane are all names that were, at various times in the preceding decade, associated with the very successful group the Boyoyo Boys. It was the Boyoyo Boys’ hit Puleng that in 1983 was appropriated by Malcolm McClaren in his dance hit Double Dutch and resulted in an extended legal battle. More significantly it was their track Gumboota featured on a compilation Accordion Jive Hits No.2 that in 1984 caught the ear of Paul Simon. Simon liked the tune so much he wanted to re-record it with the same musicians and controversially chose to break the cultural boycott by coming to Johannesburg to make the recordings. Other than Simon’s lyrics and two added saxophones, the resultant tune Gumboots was identical to the Boyoyo original and subsequently was featured on the classic album Graceland.

In Beyond Memory, Max Mojapelo mentions that Thomas Phale hailed from Benoni (now Ekurhuleni) and was inspired by the likes of Kid Margo, Sammy Boy and Boy Masaka. He began playing pennywhistle at the age of 17 but later was convinced to shift to saxophone by Bra Sello Mmutung. In 1968 he joined the Mabhoko Sisters and formed a group called the Gold Diggers before moving to RPM in 1969.

According to the liner notes of the Boyoyo Boys’ second Rounder LP, TJ Today, the Mabhoko Band was a four-piece, instrumental, mbaqanga group founded in 1969 by Vusi Xhosa (on guitar), with Vusi Nkosi (on bass), Lucas Pelo (on sax) and Phillippe Mziza (on rhythm guitar). Pelo also performed in another group (I am assuming the Gold Diggers) with Thomas Phale from whom he learnt to play saxophone. The nickname of the group’s first drummer happened to be "Boyoyo", but after some financial troubles he left and was replaced by Archie Mohalla. The group subsequently changed their name to the T-Bones.

Whether the Mabkoko Sisters is the same group as the Mabhoko Band, is unclear to me. Nevertheless Mojapelo’s account suggests Phale’s first major hit with the group was “Boyoyo”. The track was recorded in 1972 by the T-Bones and was so successful the group decided to change their name to the Boyoyo Boys. 

Mojapelo goes on to give a rather humorous account of how many classic mbaqanga tunes from this period got their names: "If a track was a huge hit, it would become a series, for example Rock Pata, Jackpot, Taxi Jive, Percy Jive, Jive Smoden Jive, Lekope Special, Mabone, etc. Other tracks were named after places or roads like Marabastad, Dube, Soweto, Durban Road, Platform 1, Mamelodi, Maokeng, etc. Events also got their share as in Apollo 11. Some instrumental hits gave birth to their vocal versions as in 12-0-12, which was titled Ingwe Idla Ngamabala. But the most interesting part was that there could be a track titled Taxi Jive No.1 followed by Taxi Jive 500 without having numbers 2 or 20." (Mojapelo)

Between 1969 and 1981 Phale recorded over twenty LPs including many with the Boyoyo Boys as well as a number of solo projects. He with his Teal colleague Lulu Masilela, also recorded with The Movers and can be heard on the classic, genre-defining album, Bump Jive (1974) and the best-selling, if not incredulous interpretation of Dollar Brands’ Manneburg, Repeat After Me (1976).

In 1985 Phale joined the very successful Soul Brothers and with their 13-piece band toured the globe. He also continued recording with the Boyoyo Boys and can be heard with Noise Khanyile on the 1988 LP, TJ Today (Boots, Rounder). Phale recorded his last solo LP, Phale Special, in 1991 and subsequently died in 2002.

Thomas Phale and Others
Sporo No. 4
Star Black
SKL 3010