UK Vibe enter the Matsuli story with the release of ‘Witchdoctor’s Son’, by Okay Temiz and Johnny Dyani back in September of 2017. There had been much talk of the reissue finding its way into the shops once more, and more so on vinyl. The line had been cast and the record buying public were soon to be hooked, if not already ahead with the previous ten releases – perhaps it was just us who came late to the fishing trip!
So to the label… There had been three reissues from South Africa’s As-Shams/The Sun label – which gave us numerous works by Dollar Brand, sought after Tete Mbambisa albums and The Beaters etc. during the mid-70s. Matsuli carefully selecting and adding to their catalogue the wonderful Bea Benjamin (with Dollar Brand) album ‘African Songbird’, ‘Night Express’ by Black Disco and Dick Khoza‘s ‘Chapita’, all focus being on music of unquestionable importance. Add then to the impressive list music by Ndikho Xaba, Batsumi, Derek Gripper and The Soul Jazzmen and you are starting to build a wonderful collection of South African jazz and acknowledging the direction and quality of the label’s growth.
And so to 2018… Matsuli Music reach their eleventh, since 2010, with the release of ‘Genes and Spirits’ by Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, in a glorious double vinyl gatefold edition. The very same album that brought the attention of the world to the incredible freshness and originality of Molelekwa, with home-grown artists Rowland Sutherland, Dennis Rollins and Byron Wallen helping to stamp his name into UK music history. Throw into the mix luminaries Chucho Valdés, Flora Purim and Jose Neto and it’s not too difficult to imagine the impact the album had when first released back in 1998 via MELT2000.
“The whole experience was really exciting and challenging for me. And having Flora Purim in the studio, being in the studio with her and having to tell her what I want felt a bit uncomfortable.” – Moses Molelekwa (1998)
“Of all the songs on the album, Molelekwa feels most passionately about Rapela. He compares it to a meal with different ingredients that are put together in a “killer recipe”. The tune is actually in 4/4, but “if you count it with sixteens it becomes something else, some odd time like 16/9, or something like that. Then it goes into a 7/4 groove. So it’s just me playing around with time and making it enjoyable and exciting at the same time. […] The thinking behind the notion of genes and spirits begins to make sense when he provides an interesting anecdote about his family. I am discovering almost every day that in my family there have been artists in general. There have been actors, particularly an uncle of my father’s who went to Britain with King Kong … My grandmother was a tap dancer, my grandfather was a pianist, even my great-grandmother knew how to tinkle a bit on the piano.” – Adam Haupt talking to Moses Molelekwa (1998)
It was a great loss to music when he passed away in 2001 aged only 27. South Africa and its love of jazz has suffered greatly in recent times, losing not only Moses but Bheki Mseleku in 2008, Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi in 2009 and Zim Ngqawana in 2011. Milisuthando Bongela reminisces on ‘Genes and Spirits’: “Something about those songs, old Johannesburg and a yearning to be old enough to have been in Jo’burg when the jazz legend was at his prime.” But still he was taken, possibly by his own hand – “Whatever demons might have worked on him…” wrote John Fordham, “…it was never evident in his music, which was open and deeply heartfelt. Molelekwa could sound as hymnally swinging as Abdullah Ibrahim, but he was excited by all kinds of contemporary music (a touring duo with Joanna MacGregor was one of his last projects).”
“Around 94, Andrew Missingham invited me to Johannesburg to make a record with Shaluza Max Mntambo, Mxholise Mayekana and Moses. Barungwa was born, and for a few years we played in SA and Europe.
Moses was an intelligent quiet man, an exceptional musician and composer who had played with Hugh Masekela. He had a light touch and used notes sparingly. He was generous with his time when I was in SA and visited my home when he was in London. His musicality was second to none, and I have fond memories of his friendship.” – Chris Bowden (May 2018)
There is a lot of love for Moses; his music and his being. Perhaps then, in such circumstances we should be grateful to Chris Albertyn and Matthew Temple over at Matsuli for their work. We can all benefit from their focus and attention to details in bringing such key releases back into the fingertips of the music loving community. What with the current wave of South African musicians and singers currently building momentum. Artists like Sibusile Xaba, Nduduzo Makhathini, Linda Sikhakhane and Siya Makuzeni attracting our attentions in the UK, and perhaps having a significant effect on some of our home-grown artists. “There seems to be something about the resilience of jazz in trying times…” Says Matthew “…be it in South Africa right now (and historically under Apartheid rule), or in the UK right now with the resurgence and interest in the ‘new wave’ of British jazz. The presence of SA jazz has obviously been enhanced by the likes of Shabaka Hutchings and his work with some of the newer generation in South Africa.”
As a label, we wondered where the future might take them, whether maintaining the stream of rare South African reissues, or a sideways expansion taking in some of this new vibrant South African jazz. Matthew clarifies: “As a label we are always open to exploring both historical and newer recordings. A few years back we were astounded by Derek Gripper’s ‘One Night on Earth’ – acoustic guitar renditions of complex kora compositions – and we decided to issue it on vinyl. An increasing number of South African artists are taking charge in getting themselves recorded, with digital distribution being the first and least costly means of getting their music out there. Issuing on vinyl for new or emerging artists is an upfront cost risk. The numbers of vinyl buyers in South Africa alone are not enough. It definitely becomes more possible once artists have developed an international audience.”
So what of their process? The challenge sourcing master tapes and the stages through to record shops joyful displaying the finished article. We are often reminded by the press of the increasing difficulties by smaller labels to secure pressing plant time and if there was a label that could answer these questions we felt it was Matsuli. “With most of our releases”, says Matthew, “we have managed to source the original analogue masters. In a few cases we have transferred and restored the original recording from a clean original vinyl copy. Our typical production process is to transfer the analogue master to high-resolution digital files which are then mastered for vinyl and cut to lacquers for the pressing plant. The long lead times are unfortunately one of the consequences of the resurgence of vinyl and as a consequence we find that the major labels tend to get priority. It’s something we simply have to work around. We have been fortunate in working with Master Rights holders who ran (or still run) smaller independent labels in South Africa – Rashid Vally’s Ash-Shams label, Paddy Thorpe’s Mountain Music, Robert Trunz’s Melt2000 and David Mark’s 3rd Ear Music. Our reputation, quality and approach to licensing has built trust and respect and we have come to agreements where both parties feel that an equitable position has been reached. Our track record speaks for itself and if you were to speak to Johnny Mothopeng of Batsumi or Pops Mohamed of Black Disco or any of the other artists whose material we have released, I’m certain you will find a lot of positive words for the work and way in which we do things.”
Looking ahead into the Matsuli future, the label has lined up a series of albums for issue. Overwhelming beauties in Hugh Masekela’s ‘Live in Lesotho’ and Busi Mhlongo’s ‘Urban Zulu’ and the much sought after ‘African Spaces’ by Spirits Rejoice. But there is one other release heading to vinyl in 2018, the incredible ‘Celebration’ by Bheki Mseleku recorded during 1991 and 1992 with Michael Bowie, Eddie Parker, Thebe Lipere, Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Jean Toussaint and none other than Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. It was the latter that shared his love for Bheki with us, and who’s heart was truly touched making ‘Celebration’…
“Man, let me tell you about Bheki Mseleku”, Marvin begins. “In the walk of life, there’s that handful of people who touch you in a way. That’s like okay; this just ain’t a regular cat here. This is a deep brother; this is someone on a different level of humanity. Now this is round like maybe 1989. I had come over here to London; I had played here in London several times before, and this one time, which I believe was about the fall of ’89, I was working with Dave Holland back when we had the quartet with Steve Coleman and Kevin Eubanks and we played like a week or maybe two weeks at Ronnie Scott’s, back then when you could work like a week or two at the club, and so we were playing and after the gig they had music upstairs in a bar room so one of the nights, it was like Friday night I guess, after the gig, Steve called to say that he has some piano player up there and he’s like ‘He’s actually killing it, check it out’. So Steve and I go upstairs and we see this trio. This brother on piano and two white cats on bass and drums respectively and the drummer was actually the brother of the pianist Joey Colorado, and I knew him, from back in New York, and I guess he had relocated out here at the time, and so he’s playing drums and there was a bass player, and then this brother playing piano and he definitely had captured a lot of the spirit of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, and he was blazing, right. It really stood out to me because here’s this cat that’s just playing and his spirit, I mean really, he just carried the band, he was a strong spirit and he was cool. So on the break, Bheki said, ‘Oh man oh man, it’s such an honour, I want to play with you. Will you please play with me? Please play a couple of songs with me.’ And I was like okay brother, because I dug his vibe, so the next set came around and we sit down and play a couple of tunes vibing off each other, it’s just a real good vibe, hit the pocket and everything felt nice, it was just really great.
So after the set, he said ‘Oh this was just beautiful, an honour and the privilege just to play, and I really want to play like a gig with you, have our own gig, really do something and…’. That’s when he introduced me to Russell Herman. Russell said ‘We’re trying to get a record deal and we’re trying to put this project together to record in the studio. So we got to have you. So just give me your information and we’ll definitely contact you and let when we get this deal. I mean we’re really working serious.’ So I thought, if it happens it happens. I wasn’t putting too much stock in it at that time. But sure enough, maybe about six/eight months later I get a call from Russell, he says, ‘We got the record deal, we’ve got the record, the event is happening. So we’re going to put it together and we’ll let you know when it’s going to happen. We got to have Michael Bowie, the bass player who lives in Washington D.C.,’ who I worked with alongside Michel Camilo. ‘So we are going to have you and Michael Bowie, we’re going to fly you out to London. We’re going to have you out there for a whole week. I have like four days in the studio, going to have a rehearsal before and then go to record.’
That was the record ‘Celebration’ on World Circuit records. I mean I’ve done a lot of records, maybe 350 recordings in my career and I’m telling you there’s only really a handful that, personally for me, where I felt like there was a real spirit in the room, and that was one of them. I’m telling you, that record, talk about the spirit in the room. The essence of that, in that recording, and the music that Bheki wrote, it was just special, real special man, just the tunes, I mean I really felt a personal kinship with it, I just felt a vibe. I just wanted to support the music and do the right thing man. I wanted to give everything, the best that I could give and I’m proud of that recording. That’s why I feel like that’s one of my best recordings I’ve ever participated on. And just to the spirit and that music.
But being around Bheki, experiencing his vibe, his spirit, and his aura man. He’s just such a positive cat and just how he struggled living in London because he said he was telling me for years he didn’t have a piano man. He would have to go to a club. A cat would let them in and practice man; it was deep, how he got to the music. And all that music was still in here [pointing to his chest], it’s just like pure vibe, pure spirit. Every time we played he was coming from a real deep sincere place and you couldn’t help but get with that, just vibe and just sharing the music, it was just beautiful man. So I just love being around him man.
So Bheki holds a special place. I was heartbroken when I found out he passed away. That was a shock, because I remember when Russell came to L.A. and only maybe two years before he passed away. That was deep, Russell passed and then Bheki passed. I said damn, it was heart-breaking because people really needed to hear this brother and just when he was about to burst out worldwide, especially in The States, to get that kind of recognition, because we did ‘Timelessness’ and Joe Henderson heard him, Joe was knocked out. That’s how Joe pulled him in to playing with him. Like I said, he was just about to blossom, and then they pass. That was hard. It’s heart breaking.”
We thank Marvin Smith for his time, his words, and his memories. Many have been touched by Bheki and it is for this reason we must keep the flame burning bright. Matsuli are very much a part of that now and we thank them for revitalising this incredible album as we approach the 10th anniversary of Bheki passing. His spirit is all around us and evident in much of the music now emerging from South Africa. We must both embrace his heritage and the creativity of artists there today. Matsuli Music are to be congratulated at every stage of their development.
Matsuli Music Discography:
MM101: Dick Khoza’s 1976 afro-jazz classic “Chapita”, recorded with Soweto’s Pelican Club house band
MM102: Batsumi’s 1974 self titled debut, a spiritual journey from Soweto to Strata East.
MM103: Sathima Bea Benjamin’s “African Songbird”, seminal sounds and song stepping out from the shadows of Abdullah Ibrahim.
MM104: Batsumi’s 1976 second album, “Moving Along”, continuing the spiritual afro-jazz journey started in 1974
MM105: Ndikho Xaba’s landmark 1971 “Ndikho Xaba and the Natives” recorded in San Francisco featuring the first appearance of James “Plunky” Branch (Oneness of Juju).
MM106: Derek Gripper’s “One Night on Earth”, acoustic guitar performances of Toumani Diabate kora compositions
MM107: Tete Mbambisa with the Soul Jazzmen and their long forgotten ode to Coltrane “Inhlupeko/Distress”
MM108: Pops Mohamed’s hammond-based fusion “Night Express” with the group Black Disco
MM109: Pacific Express and “Black Fire”, Cape Town’s answer to Earth Wind and Fire with their debut from 1976
MM110: Johnny Dyani and Okay Temiz with “Witchdoctor’s Son”, fusing deep roots and new routes, from Istanbul in 1976
MM111: Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s genre busting opus “Genes and Spirits”