The background of the African Jazz Pioneers stretches back to the 1950s when jazz was the fashion and big bands were the name of the game. The Band from the Republic of South Africa, founded in the '80s, plays '50s and '60s South African jazz, attempting to recreate the fun of that era's live performances. It was in those days when Dorkay House (at the end of Eloff Street, Johannesburg) provided a haven for South Africa's music legends. On any single day it was the place that you could bump into Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi, Miriam Makeba, Ntemi Piliso, Dudu Pukwana, Hugh Masekela, Wilson Silgee, Zakes Nkosi, Jonas Gwangwane… the list goes on forever. But all that ended in the sixties when big bands went out of fashion. Things remained that way until June 1981 when several members of the band decied it was time to get many of those great musicians back into Dorkay House and back on stage. Led by sax player Ntemi Piliso, a seasoned marabi star, the group comprises both veteran marabi players and younger musicians who have picked up the style.
It's always fascinating to hear how musicians from other countries have taken “America's music” - Jazz - and adapted it to suit their ethnic and cultural heritage. This is especially true when one considers the music of Africa, one of the primary wellsprings of Jazz's syncopated rhythmic patterns. Rhythm is what African ensembles are about, an observation that is emphatically underscored by the African Jazz Pioneers on this collection of some of their best work released by Gallo Records. The music, we are told in the liner notes, “fuses kwela, mbaqanga, marabi and Jazz to form a sound that is unique and trademark by nature.” No argument here. Marabi, one of the earliest uniquely South African musical forms, arose in the black townships in the '20s. It features a sort of distilled blues harmony - three chords (like the ones in the standard American 12-bar form) repeated in short units. From marabi came kwela, also a music of the urban ghettoes, which incorporates elements of swing and expanded instrumentation (most often including a pennywhistle). Mbaqanga, which evolved in the '60s, took these concepts to a higher level by introducing more sophisticated textures and several of the newer innovations of the evolving Afro-American Jazz tradition, such as electric instruments. The outcome of this amalgamation is music that is not only rhythmically strong but also quite conventional, never departing from established melodic or harmonic motifs and using snippets of swing, ragtime, trad Jazz, dance music and a trace of bop as its essential building blocks. Once the rhythmic groundwork has been laid and the cadence established, it remains unalterably in place to provide a sturdy backdrop for vocals and improvised passages, which flow naturally from the dominant theme. This doesn't mean that the music lacks variety; far from it. Each of these numbers is a unique composition that may bear a superficial relationship to the others but imparts its own measure of freshness and charm.
Instrumentation varies too with the Jazz Pioneers using brass, reeds, guitars, a marimba, vocalists (alone or in tandem) and assorted African instruments to amplify the music's percussive substructure. The Pioneers, more than four decades old in one form or another, have breached almost insuperable racial barricades to entertain audiences all over the world with their energetic brand of “township music,” calling to mind a more contemporary version of America's venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I am unable to affirm that this album represents “the best” of what the ensemble has to offer, but can say that it is overflowing with bright, good-natured music that is a pleasure to hear.
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