Dudu Pukwana ‘Dudu Phukwana and the Spears’ 2x180g Vinyl (Matsuli Music) 5/5

Setting this set to play is like opening a box from the attic and finding a long-forgotten gem. By turns this is lively and life-affirming music, historical document and a memento to treasure of a tipping point in South African and British jazz. I had the utter life-changing pleasure of hearing Dudu Pukwana in the early 70s live and on record, in Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and later in his band Spear, so this new recording is a very emotional experience.

To set the scene here is a review I wrote of Dudu’s first proper UK release written for Grapevine Magazine in Birmingham – 46 years ago in 1974.

Dudu Pukwana and Spear
In the Townships
Caroline C1504

If anyone thinks that no jazz these days can make you feel good and want to get up and dance then they had better listen to this record.

The principal musician is Dudu Pukwana, that amazing alto saxophonist, who surprises here by playing some fine percussive piano. With him are Spear, that is Mongezi Feza (trumpet, congas, percussion, vocals), Bizo Mngqikana (tenor, percussion, vocals), Louis Moholo (drums, percussion) and Harry Miller (bass). All but Mngqikana have played in the various Chris McGregor groups, and the music is similar to the output of those groups. It’s based on African rhythms with plenty of percussive effects and with the horns blowing wild either in riffs or free. It really is a Pukwana show with his piano playing driving everything along, while his immensely enjoyable, leaping, alto takes most of the solo space. Since he is the leader I suppose this is to be expected, but it does mean that the other fine musicians are rather restricted. Only Feza of the others solos more than briefly and he is very effective.

All the music is impressive, insistent and infectious. There are vocals but, if like me, you’re wary of jazz singing, don’t worry – it’s all very much part of the music. In fact, if I knew the language I’d sing along!

Now Matsuli Music have unearthed this virtually unknown set recorded in 1968 and 1969 which is in many ways a key bridge between the music of The Blue Notes as they migrated from SA to the UK in the mid-60s and the later fusion of SA grooves with Free Jazz in the Brotherhood. In some ways, it’s a companion piece to Mbaqanga Songs (initially titled Kwela) by Gwigwi Mrwebi recorded in London in 1967 which also featured Dudu.

The music is a kind of re-statement of South African mbaqanga/mgqashiyo style tunes in the main and serves to emphasise the SA roots that the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood brought to the UK and wider jazz scenes. And key musicians on these tracks are also many of those that came to the UK because of apartheid at home.

In addition, the story contained in the recordings include links to the wider music scene with the involvement of Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention and the US producer Joe Boyd who produced Pink Floyd’s first single and oversaw Bob Dylan controversially playing electric for the first time. He also produced for Nick Drake and it turns out Chris McGregor played a solo on Drake’s track Poor Boy on the Bryter Layter LP which Dudu was involved in.

The story is quite complex but in short Joe Boyd heard Dudu with Bob Stuckey’s Organ Trio at Ronnie’s Old Place in the mid-60s. This was early days in the UK for Dudu and before McGregor was able to establish the Brotherhood and record their first LP in 1971. Boyd signed up some of the SA musicians to his Witchseason company and recorded the Chris McGregor Band’s (mainly The Blue Notes) LP Very Urgent.

The first two sides of this Dudu re-release were recorded under Boyd’s aegis in1968 in London but it’s more SA rooted sound made Boyd think that there was little market for it in the UK – despite what would become a solid interest in SA jazz quite soon after. So, it was eventually released in 1969 as Dudu Phukwana and the “Spears” in SA by Trutone/Quality and since been under the radar.

The other two sides in this edition are even more of a mystery as they only surfaced recently as an acetate from the Atlantic studios in NYC via an American collector. The sleeve notes have fuller and fascinating detail and also feature a couple of lovely shots of Dudu by Val Wilmer. The sleeve notes don’t go into detail about the recording of the second set of music which apart from one alternative take and one extended take of Pezulu and a repeat of Half Moon came from later sessions in 1969 according to a small note on the liner.

The exact personnel on all the recordings are an educated guess as notes from the sessions are missing. As well as Thompson and Nicol they feature Bob Stuckey (still active on the London scene), Phil Lee, Chris McGregor, Harry Miller, Dudu, Louis Moholo, Teddy Osei, Mongezi Feza, Jonas Gwangwa, Remi Kabaka, Jimmy Scott, Tunji Oyelana, Joe Mogotsi, and Mamsie Gwangwa.

The music is a veritable feast, the first two sides of the vinyl contain the ten tracks that were issued on the original SA release and there are nine more on the remaining two sides from the discovered acetates – all recorded at various London sessions. There is a slight confusion as the original issued title included the “Spears” but the music has no vocals except for a male voice on Qonqoza (uncredited). The second two sides do have vocals and the sleeve notes refer to these being by the “spears.”

For me this is a recording where trying to keep a critical distance is tough. This music and these musicians – particularly the South African ones are so important to me and my understanding and appreciation of jazz. They profoundly changed British jazz for the better.

Together with the Gwigwi Mrwebi recording, this music is an insight into the roots of SA jazz and the shebeen and black club culture. Chris McGregor may have been the leader of the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood but his musical roots as a white player were substantially the same as the black musicians as against the prevailing racist apartheid system he was able to learn from and play with them. Until, of course, the system made it increasingly difficult and the Blue Notes left SA so they could continue to play together.

Matsuli have kept the integrity of the original SA release and the found acetate so this does create some slight oddness to the programming. Pezulu on Side A is repeated with an extra 30 seconds or so on side C and there is also an alternate take of it. Half Moon is repeated as it appears on the original issue and on the acetate although the acetate version has a slightly different stereo mix. Then to my ears, Pho La the last track on Side B sounds almost like another version of Pezulu – but I may be wrong – it certainly has very similar rhythm.

It’s Pezulu (Way Up) that kicks the set off and you are immediately transported into a classic SA feel with a bass and piano intro with the drums kicking in before the call and response theme from the front line and percussion (from Nigerian musicians). The sleeve notes speculate that Dudu plays tenor sax as well as alto and also contributes piano but McGregor is also credited as being very likely to be playing and the main intro does sound like him.

On Thulula (Fill it Up) we hear Bob Stuckey on organ for the first time laying down a funky backing with Dudu foregrounded before Stuckey plays a short solo. The sound is warmer and closer and it sounds more like an organ trio with drums and bass pedals from Stuckey plus percussion and Dudu.

The piano is back for Kuthwasi Hlobo (Spring) and so are the other horns so it’s again more of that SA feel. Moholo is more prominent on this with the percussion a bit more down in the mix. Half Moon follows with the guitar a bit more prominent and Stuckey back with his trademark groovy organ and again Dudu leads with a sharp and lengthy theme statement with the pace being upped from Thulula.

Side A of the vinyl ends with Yima Mjalo (Stick Around) with the horn section back. Phil Lee (likely) on guitar does a reasonable facsimile of ringing African guitar. The Side B starts with Kwa Thula (Thula’s Place) which is actually the same tune as Half Moon – this was clear on the original tape box as it was marked to be replaced, but in the SA release this was overlooked.

Next is Joe’s Jika (Joe’s Groove) an uptempo number with the horn section and very danceable and a stand out with a hot Dudu solo. We stick with the horn ensemble for Nobomvu (Red Head) with more of a slow drag theme – the notes say Jonas Gwangwa was on the session and you can definitely hear trombone on this one. Qonqoza (Knock) with Lee leading it out on guitar and we are back with the organ ensemble and some background calling. Sounds like the call and response is between alto and tenor – Dudu on alto but it’s not clear if he also does the tenor or if that is Teddy Osei.

The original SA release tracks conclude with Pho La (Cool It) which as mentioned has a similar feel to Pezulu. Then we are into the newly discovered tracks off the Atlantic acetates found in the US. They are presented as found so there are cross-overs with the first set. First up are two versions of Pezulu – one appears to be simply a repeat of the Sde A track but with about 30 seconds more music and the other is an alternate take. Then there is a short almost white noise out-take followed by the repeat of Hal Moon with the different mix.

That concludes Side C and it’s Side D where we get into the later 1969 recordings starting with Izulu Liyaduduma which introduces the “Spears” with Joe Mogotsi of the Manhattan Brothers on vocals with (unconfirmed) Mamsie Gwangwa. There are probably more female voices but they have not been identified. This and Sibuyile recreate that SA vocal group style from the 50s and 60s very effectively with Richard Thompson doing a kind of copy of Marks Mankwane on guitar – and pretty well considering.

Then we conclude with two McGregor tunes with no vocals and, although still in the style of the horn ensemble tracks from earlier, very distinctively McGregorian. Church Mouse is first which perhaps references his father being a minister and then an untitled track which is a bit of a ringer or pre-cursor of the famous tune Andromeda which appeared on the first Brotherhood LP on Neon. Church Mouse is a tune that appears on the Trio album by McGregor which got overtaken by that first BoB recording. It was issued on Fledg’ling in 2008 and I’ve only just caught up with it – it’s style is much more of a pre-cursor to the freer elements of the first BoB line-up but that’s another story.

It’s all fascinating and involving stuff. And what of the extra H in Phukwana? It seems like a mistake at the SA end when the first 10 tracks were issued there as the master tape boxes have the correct spelling. It made its way into the original artwork and so is now enshrined in this release as Matsuli like to keep as close as possible to the original look and feel of the records. And who is to argue as this is such a historical artefact.

Finally, I’ve given it 5/5 for the music alone, but it is worth an additional star for its compelling historical and cultural value. It’s worthy of being a museum piece except that the music is too alive and vital for that. Just buy it.

The original tape box from the session that produced the SA release.

Brian Homer