Friday 22 January 2016

The Air Light Swingsters: Air Light (1980)

Besides the Elite Swingsters I cannot think of another South African band that recorded over a period of five decades. Put together by talent scout Lebenya Matlotlo in 1956 for a session recording, the original band was led by Johannes “Chooks” Tshukudu. Since then “the Swingsters'” were able to attract and groom a succession of highly polished musicians. Dumie Ndlovu, thanks for your request. Another album to follow next week, stay tuned.

Steve Gordon’s site has an informative biography of “The Swingsters” and describes their music  as “a blend of African melodies and harmonies with American swing, together with an added dose of New Orleans rhythm and even some rock ‘n roll thrown in for good measure.” Siemon Allen’s Flat International site pieces together further details on their first LP, and also the illustrious roll-call of band members.

Alto saxophonist Peter Makonotela joined the band in 1962 and took on the leadership role through into the 1970s. Writing the liner notes for this 1980 album shared here today, Mokonatela references what must have been a name ownership dispute: “The cats come and go, but their sound goes on and on. Personally, I think this is very important, I believe every good artist or band should and must be identified with its sound. If the sound of the Elite Swingsters can change, then there is no need to call them by that same name”.

Mokonatela was perhaps referring to the departure in the “sound” of a 1980 Elite Swingsters recording “Watch Your Step” with less brass and more key-board influence. He goes on, “If you are accustomed to the history of bands, you will know that there are good and bad times for each band. The Elite Swingsters are no exception. The bad times caught up with us, we closed shop. After an absence of 15 years from the music scene we met Hamilton Nzimande, Director of Isabaya Esikhulu, he re-launched the band.” adds to the picture: “Eventually, the musical tastes of the townships and particularly that of its youth, changed to the point that the Elites were forced into virtual retirement. During the disco era and still later when Bubblegum supplanted disco, the regular roster dwindled down to the three saxes of Paul Rametsi, Peter Mokonotela and Tami Madi. Violence and political instability precluded playing in the township halls which had formerly provided the bands stomping ground, so live performance opportunities were limited to an occasional wedding or beauty contest. Recording opportunities also dwindled and the resulting albums, none of which were particularly successful, were often issued under various sound-alike names such as the Elite Swing Stars or the Airlight Swingsters.” 

This very polished 1980 album shared today – with a second 1981 recording to come next week – harks back to that sixties swing-influenced African Jazz sound.  The reported lack of success was certainly not due to poor musicianship, but more due to changing tastes of their original target audience. Have a listen to this 1962 recording on the Drum 78rpm label:

The brass section of the Air Light Swingsters is made up of Mokonatela (1st alto) founding Swingsters alto saxophonist Thami Madi, and Shumi Ntuli on tenor sax. Further reinforcing challenges around identity and ownership, Mokonatela writes: “The cats on the rhythm section, guitar, bass, organ and drums prefer not to be mentioned”. He does say that he met these additional musicians “for the first time working on this album”.

When the “Elite Swingsters” very successfully reconstituted themselves in 1989, the brass section was made up of Albert Rululumi, Mokonotela and Madi – with Dolly Rathebe on voice.

You find other Swingsters recordings here, and here
Produced by Hamilton Nzimande.
Masterpiece LMS 563
Download link here

1 comment:

  1. Just found your blog. Fantastic.

    This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing it.


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