South African jazz of the highest order.

Native Rebel Recordings

Siyabonga Mthembu: vocals; Zelizwe Mthembu: guitar; Simphiwe Tshabalala: drums; Ayanda Zelekili: bass; Mthunzi Mvubu: alto saxophone; Muhammad Dawjee: tenor saxophone; Malcolm Jiyane: trombone

Produced by Shabaka Hutchings

Well known from their work with Shabaka and the Ancestors, Siyabonga Mthembu’s stirring vocals and Mtunzi Mvubu’s alto saxophone appear in the setting of the band that Mthembu and his brother have built over the past decade or so. This is South African jazz of the highest order from a band that isn’t afraid to speak its mind verbally and musically.

Each of the tunes carries with it traditions of rhythms, textures and melodies that audiences from outside South Africa can immediately recognise as part of its hugely influential diaspora of jazz musicians. But this is music that is contemporary and reflects new sounds and musical directions that bring these traditions very much into the Twenty First Century.

‘Ta Tom’, the closing track, begins with a bass and drum like a heart beat and discordant single guitar notes over a muted horn backing and segueing into a circular riff that could easily slip into heavy rock unless the bass and drums push it to a jogging rhythm.

The lyrics are hard-hitting as you expect from the album’s title with, for example, disappointment at the current political state and corruption of government. In ‘Mazel’, Mthembu declaims that ‘we are suffering rainbow child / from apartheid and colonial and imperial babalas ’(hangovers) and ‘No one expected freedom / Freedom is daunting / you have the freedom to do what you want to do / And after twenty or so years / I can’t say I’m happy about what we’ve done’.

But while the band have built a reputation as protect singers, theirs is a protest which can mingle anger with optimism and which can switch moods to reflect the song titles like Bayakhala (they cry), Sphila (live), puleng (in the rain), Itumeleng (happy), Hamba (servant). Each mood, perhaps, a different reflection on the problems of freedom as much as the need to continue building a new country from such an oppressive history and the shake off the babalas of its past.

The optimism needed to do this and the realism to confront and deal with the problems that this presents are superbly captured by the strength, power and beauty of this music.

Reviewed by Chris Baber