Originally released on CD in 1999 on the MELT2000 label, “Genes and Spirits” was the second, and final, solo album from South African pianist/composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, before his untimely death in 2001. He was to many a shining beacon of musical light in his homeland, with his infectious style of writing and performing crossing international boundaries with its multi-cultural influences.
Molelekwa was born in Tembia township outside Johannesburg, growing up among what he described as “the lost generation”. Both his father and grandfather were musicians, and the pianist was introduced to jazz through his father’s collection of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis records. Yet it was of course musicians closer to home that also influenced and encouraged the young musician, with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moketsi and Dudu Pukwana offering inspiration.
The rising star of a new generation of South African musicians, Molelekwa sought to further integrate the traditions of his forebears into a more contemporary Western jazz idiom, with exploration and diversity. And he certainly succeeded in this, integrating African harmonies, melodies and rhythms into modern jazz in a contemporary and harmonious way.
“Genes and Spirits”, whilst predominantly a jazz recording, incorporates many musical genres. Molelekwa seamlessly combines Cuba (with celebrated Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes as mentor), Brazil (Flora Plurim’s distinctive vocalisations), along with Brice Wassey’s funk from the Cameroon and even a touch of UK-style drum’n’bass, with his own inherent township rhythms. The resultant mix is a mesmerising stroll into the heart of joyful expression.
There are ten original compositions on the album, with this vinyl only release adding “Wa Mpona” as a bonus cut. From the glorious opener “Tsala”, with its beautiful vocals floating graciously over Molelekwa’s jazzy keys and a smooth bass and drums backdrop, into the funkier “Spirits of Thembisa”, with its Weather Report-like grooves and rhythms. “Down Rockey Street” is a reggae tune gone AWOL, African beats mixing with jazz horns and soprano saxophone. The gentle feel of “Itumeleng” takes a more classical path, allowing the composer’s grace and subtlety to softly shine. Whilst “Sogra” moves in more mainstream jazz circles, I defy anyone not to be completely wowed by the title track “Genes and Spirits”. Melody, harmony and lyricism all combine perfectly on this little piece of South African wonderment. “Kwaze Kwangcono” sets the African influences free, with intrigue and surprise dancing happily together. As with much of this recording, “Repela” rewards the listener with its intelligent mix of different styles, and “Dance to Africa” journeys successfully through the composer’s vision of interconnected musical genres. The closing track “Ntatemoholo” is a meditative piece and yet still sparkles with expressive joy. Characterful and celebratory, a wonderful tune to end a wonderful album.
For me, discovering this music for the first time, there is an earnestness and heart-warming naivety to Molelekwa’s music. A voice that sounds almost fragile, perhaps even vulnerable, that was still in the process of discovery when his journey was cut short. There is an undoubted ambition of trying to get somewhere else, somewhere new, and a willingness to take risks that put the feel of the music above any occasional shortcomings in technique. The pianist named his three biggest influences as Abdullah Ibrahim, Herbie Hancock and Bheki Mseleku. Ibrahim for his hard-won simplicity; Herbie for the way he treats the keyboard as a site of restless experimentation; Mseleku for his merging of jazz techniques and southern African melodic lines. To my mind, Molelekwa should be remembered for attaining a certain beauty in the music he made, and for taking South African jazz on to a new frontier.