Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Friday, 23 September 2011


Sometimes you manage to track down a rare record - capture one of your white whales as it were - only to be grossly disappointed.
The music just isn't as good as you had told yourself it was. That 'killer' track is an anomaly. Or worse after playing it a few times you get board of it and it goes on the shelves to be pulled out now and again to remind  yourself you still have it.

Usually there's a reason that some albums are little known except by collectors - they are just not as good as the well known ubiquitous ones!
But sometime a rare record is so good that you wonder why it isn't a well known classic. Batsumi's first album is one of those.
I wish I could say I found this record in some death-defying record dig but in reality I tracked it down on-line. My copy is slightly crackly in places but the music is so amazingly good that I just don't care!
There doesn't seem to be a lot of information about Batsumi. The ever reliable flatinternational has little to say. Read it here.
Released in 1974 the band comprised Thabang Masemola - Flute, Themba Koyana - Tenor Sax, Buta-Buta Zwane - Vocal and Bongos, Maswaswe Mothopeng - Vocal and Guitar, Sello Mothopeng - Organ, Lekgabe Maleka - Drums, Zulu Bidi - Double Bass.
Their music is a unique blend of African rhythms, European and African jazz and vocals. They don't really sound like anyone else. The closest sound is perhaps another South African jazz band, the Heshoo Beshoo Band, although they are much more jazzy that Batsumi or Malombo, although they are less jazzy!
What always strikes me about this record is how uplifting it is. There is something positive and spiritual about each of the five tracks, something that focusing on the good side of human nature rather than on the terrible things that we can all do.
Each track is described as a different kind of jazz - Zulu African Jazz, Xhosa African Jazz, Sotho African Jazz, Shangaan African Jazz. In South Afica under apharteid your 'tribe' was an important matter and appeared on your identity papers. I was an axiom of apharteid that black South Africans were tribal and that they should be grouped together by tribe and returnto their rural tribal existence when they had stopped working in the cities. Of course the reality of urban life was that it was a mix of all 'tribes'. Indeed most people in the cities had never lived in a rual tribal environment. To mix these supposedly tribal kinds of jazz together could be seen as a refusal to be categoried by the white government and to acknowledge that the mix of people in urban areas such as Soweto was breaking down 'traditional' definitions and creating something new. Batsumi - hunters of "ideas, music, sounds, art, creativity" as the sleeve notes say.

The record opens with Lishonile, which is a statement of intent. The track starts with a small duet between the guitar and the bass, the guitar sounding almost bossa like in places, the bass going down and deep. Then, with some maracas, the bass starts the line which will underpin the rest of this beautiful song and a keening, wailing, sometime over blown flute comes in over the top. At times this is replaced by the cries of a voice, the band using every sources of music at their disposal. The rhythm is unrelenting, but gentle and when the flute, this time with some form of echo on it, comes back you can't help feel that you are taking off into a journey of discovery, flying high over Soweto. Now the sax starts and you continue your journey,flying like a bird over the homes of the musicians, perhaps even flying out of Soweto and away over the mine dumps and factories of Johannesburg, away out towards the fields and forests and mountains. Finally the music fades leaving you slightly stunned to be back in reality.

But just then the 'jewharp' as the sleeves notes describe it, fades in and introduces a drum solo prefiguring a more up-beat driving section of the song with fantastic vocals that seem to be crying out into the night. The flute is again prominent but it is the interplay between the guitar and the drums that gives this section its force.

I wish I knew what they were singing about, seemingly so joyously in Emampondweni. However, it is when the singing stops and the music seems to take a dramatic turn that the true beauty comes out. Again bass and guitar underpin a wonderful sax solo that is uplifting and spiritual. The echo laden flute adds the dream-like quality.

Mamshanyana is, perhaps my favourite song on the album - which is saying something! Opening with the Maswaswe Mothopeng's guitar and Zulu Bidi's bass once more they are joined by Lekgabe Maleka's drums and then a great vocal from Buta-Buta Zwane. His voice is supported by Thabang Masemola's flute and then Themba Koyane's sax. Together they create a wonderfully laid back and relaxed vibe. I cannot fail to feel happy, my head nods, my feet taps and a smile comes over my face. Mamshanyana (or Moshanyana) is a mythical hero who killed a monster thereby releasing the people it had eaten.

Flip the record over and Side 2 opens with the jaw dropping Itumeleng. This sixteen minute track is a thing of rare beauty. It starts with a protracted piano solo from, I assume, Sello Mothopeng who is credited with playing Organ on the sleeve. It is a virtuoso performance in which he switches from jazz to classical and back again. I cannot help but feel he is trying to say "I can play as well as any concert hall pianist". Of course in South Africa in the early seventies black musicians were not accorded the same status as white musicians and jazz was not considered to be a 'reputable' music. In this amazing solo Mothopeng undermines this bias and at the same time shows that something new and fresh is being created.
At the end of the solo Zulu Bidi plays the bass line which will underpin the rest of the track, giving it a lithe, supple feel. Thabang Masemola's flute once again soars high adding a spiritual dimension. Is it intended to have an echo? The piano comes in once more in a piece of restrained, lovely playing and is then replaced by the sax which is, as ever, uplifting.
By the time that they start to sing Itumeleng I'm starting to feel high from the music. They chant Itumeleng as the song starts to shift up a gear, the flute is more instant, the piano a little harsh, but still Zulu Bidi's bass keeps the rhythm and the swing. Itumeleng means joy, which is how I feel when I hear this song.
Finally the song ends as it began, with a lone piano.
Its all just too beautiful!
This YouTube clip is from the Next Stop Soweto Volume 3 compilation which you should go out and buy. It full of amazing music that I doubt any of us will ever see in their original vinyl versions.

The record closes with Anishilabi. Buta-Buta dominates with his vocals and is ably supported by another rock solid bass line from Zulu Bidi. I particularly like the drum break about half way through.

Luckily for lovers of beautiful music Batsumi is going to be reissued by Matsuli Music who did such a great job with the Chapita LP. You can find out about it here. I cannot recommend strongly enough that people should buy this when it becomes available.

Finally, here is a short film about Zulu Bidi. I can't decide whether to feel heart warmed by his ability to overcome adversity, or heartbroken that such great musicians should have been forced to give up music. Watch it and decide for yourselves.

1 comment:

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