In their bid to continually celebrate the music of South Africa’s mbaqanga music, the comparatively young UK label are steadily developing quite the catalogue of releases that comprise of reissued recordings as well as the unveiling of new projects. Umsakazo’s flagship artist, Irene Mawela – an artist with a recording career of over 60 years – still blesses the label with new music (‘Woza Durban July’, ‘Ari Pembele: Let’s Rejoice’) as well as access to records charting her past glories (‘The Best of the SABC Years’). Earlier this year saw Lucas Nwananga and His Band unveil their debut album ‘Back to Soweto’, and then there’s last year’s reissue of the debut recording by the Mahotella Queens, ‘Meet The Mahotella Queens’, initially released through the Motella label in 1966.
With Umsakazo’s affection for the township sounds of South Africa’s mbaqanga music, it’s wonderfully fitting that their latest project turns its attention to a collective dubbed as pioneers of the genre – The Makgona Tsohle Band. Again, it’s also very fitting that the band’s name translated to “The Band That Can Do Anything” as they really could and did. Assembled by the revered producer Rupert Bopape who had started his work with the Gallo label, the house band were recruited to perform for countless releases under Bopape’s watch which even included performing as the backing band for the aforementioned Umsakazo inductees, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens when they conducting their extensive tours of South Africa.
‘Makgona Tsohle Reggi’ originally saw release in 1970 and is indicative of a band that can – as the name suggests – do anything. With the core line-up of musicians comprising of West Nkosi (alto sax), Marks Mankwane (lead guitar), Vivian Ngubane (rhythm guitar), Joseph Makwela (bass), Lucky Monama (drums) and Lazarus “Kid” Moncho (organ), songs are credited to varying names aside from Makgona Tsohle Band, with tracks also credited to Sha-Sha Boy, Big Bag Boys and King Force & His Forces which boast subtle line-up changes in songs with guests including saxophonists Wilson Silgee and Elias “Shamba” Lerole.
Over the course of the project’s twelve tracks, the collective across their varied ensembles typify the dynamic sound attributed to their talents as Gallo’s house band. Their ability to shift between these varying styles wowed audiences upon initial release as audiences connecting with them for the first time in 2020 and beyond would surely marvel at the skill on display. ‘Marks Reggi’ sounds like an intersection of inspiration pairing a ska-inspired riff with a 1950’s rock & roll guitar that sits comfortably within both worlds while the infectious swinging jive of Marks Mankwane & His Alto Sax for ‘Marks Special No. 2’ and the Stax-esque ‘Soul Track’ deliver as further highlights.
It’ll be fun to see Umsakazo continue to wave the flag for South African heritage and culture through the subsequent treasures they’ll either continue unearthing or be a part of creating anew. However, ‘Makgona Tsohle Reggi’ must surely sit high as a project that will set the standard for their future releases.