“The name ‘Azania’ has a dense history in Africa. The contemporary understanding of the word stems from the liberation movement of South Africa. Freedom fighters in the pan-Africanist tradition have repeatedly called for the country to be renamed Azania – the land of the blacks”. Them’s the words of Zimasa Mpemnyama, offering some context around Swiss drummer/composer Dominic Egli’s new project, with renowned South African trumpeter Feya Faku, ‘Azania in Mind’.
Following the good works of ‘Fufu Tryout’ and ‘More Fufu!’ Egli has again assembled the PLURISM collective. Here we have Ganesh Geymeier (sax), Raffaele Bossard (bass), Feya Faku (trumpet/flugelhorn), South African singer Siya Makuzeni, and Houry Dora Apartian-Friedli, Lisette Spinnler on vocals. Egli composes all.
‘Azania in Mind’ is a full hour of homage to African music and culture, and the opener, ‘Ewé Lulama’, dedicated to Mdantsane-forged guitarist Bra Lulama Gaulana, pretty much sets the tone for the rest of that hour. What works so wonderfully during this 3 minutes is then developed further throughout – the cohesive expression, the inner voices and personal contemplations being outwardly vocalised, the array of colour, the sensual flow. Egli’s busy dancing rhythms support Faku and Geymeier’s harmonising before they diverge into soloing that frolics around each other, then return to the motif.
‘Assiko’ is a showcase for the remarkable vocal expressions of Makuzeni. A visceral, guttural, didgeridoo-like grumble groans from deep, way beneath her feet, then rises joyfully into a nice bit of cat and mouse with the horns. She throws exciting shapes – alternately scatting, Leon Thomas spirit-yodelling and growling as she playfully bounces off the loosely paired horns and Egil /Bossard push it on at a right royal pace.
‘Begena Meditation’ is meditative – a call for reflection. It’s a gorgeous, potent lament with Faku and Geymeier mourning singular mourns but in deep communion.
‘An African Elegy’ is a heart-felt delivery of the words of Booker-winning Ben Okri’s 1997 poem of the same name. Firstly as spoken word then as a deep, swelling multi-voiced vocal song that delivers in an earnest but hopeful spiritual jazz mantra.
“And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.”
Faku and Bossard then take it in turns to continue the narrative with such gentle hands before the fullness of those voices return with the truth. Soothing. Uplifting. Plurism at its very best.
Bossard leads ‘For The Ones Left’ with a sensitive, contemplative walk around the neck as Egli shimmers around him before those voices wash over the head-bowed, mournful horns. An African blues gospel with a touch of New Orleans funeral, it pays a moving respect to the Herero and Nama people who, in the early 20th century, were subjected to genocide in German South West Africa.
‘The N’Nonmiton of Dahomey’ (an all-female fighting force serving Dahomey) has Egli Bossard driving ahead as Faku Geymeier dance an angular dance while ‘Lettre à Fatou Diome’ (a Senegalese writer) relatively rambles through its story as Geymeier drops a wonderful, energetic, lyrical 2 minutes of solo that, at times, reminds me of early 70s Joe Henderson.
‘Crossing the Sahara (for the women on the road)’ has a touch of trad. Geymeier and Faku again in communion. ‘Ulale Kakuhle’ ends things, naturally, because as I obviously already knew ‘Ula Kakuhle’ means sweet dreams in Xhosa..and that’s exactly the message it sends out – a harmonious slow lullaby leads to a swinging, heartwarming view of a brighter tomorrow.
‘Azania in Mind’ is fundamentally an album of story-telling. Stories sensually told. When joyous, they aren’t happy clappy, more of an inward-looking pragmatic hopefulness, a deeper trust in human spirit and resoluteness. When mournful, they aren’t hand-wringingly sentimental more of a sad, hurt but respectful appreciation of the characters involved.
This is an album of lifted energy, cause, earnest belief and love. Its motifs and stories will interrupt my day-to-day thoughts for some time to come.