And then you become aware of the silence that must precede everything. You learn to see the emptiness; a dark space in a photograph, a shadow on the march of time, the deaf break between notes, the lapses and gabs of collective public recollections. This is the absence of musicians now too far gone to speak; men too dead to remember for themselves. Then there are the fading memories of friends and families too traumatised to be troubled with reminiscing.
Who will remember them now?
On piano? Lionel Pillay: dead!
On bass? Agrippa Magwaza: dead!
On drums? Early Mabuza: dead!
On tenor saxophone? Winston Mankunku Ngozi: dead!
How do we remember them now? We have only their living absences, a darkness stretching over memories like a pall. You wonder about the many nights and days they spent honing their skills to articulate a healing we all know was needed. What of the nights spent sleeping on cold floors in random homes or holes? What of the countrywide tours they went on to blow horns to keep us all from falling apart?
What of the cold iron bars and the bang of police van doors? The hand cuffs that were always so painfully tight and stiff, like chains meant to shackle the soul of man. What of the constant dodging of pass laws? Who remembers the gaping mouths of racist cops? The howling and hackling, the spit, the emasculation, the urge to flee and the refusal to leave, the exile of home, the neglect, the hysteria …The music is a reminder. After the silence, it comes on and it remains.
First, the crashing cymbal cracks its way onto the back of time. It is accompanied by a bass-and- piano duet and followed by the saxophone, an instrument making its edifying entrance as witness. Here now, each of the musicians becomes a repository for the stories of everyman; like lost loves and broken lives, bright dreams and impossible odds, new lovers and terrible sex, the black thug who kills to live and the murderous cops who maintain their social death; beautiful people and ugly lives.
The musician is the sound of smiling babies, birds chirping the chill of a new dawn. He is drunken romance and morning regrets. He is the sordid sound and memory of massacres, the pointlessness of martyrs, the mourning of mothers. The sound of his shimmering horn makes him a bull that bellows its sorrow.
Here, then, man and beast are one in metaphor. They are unified in a kind of witness to slaughter. The Sharpeville massacre opened the 1960s with blood. The Rivonia trial, which devastated organised resistance against apartheid; the slaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. by an assassin’s bullet; and the death of John Coltrane stand out as other dim events of the time, all while the whispering winds of independence were blowing across Africa. Out of this milieu Yakhal’inkomo, the historic record that calls this book to life, was conceived and recorded.
Such music empowers the mourning masses. It gives context to a ceremony whose most remarkable feature is the way sorrow is addressed, with hopeful resolve. The listeners, even the band members, encounter a prodigious performance and communion through which expressionistic outpouring of grief is disciplined and lifted above the simple art of mortuary music. The musical sacrament lifts all involved above the obvious object of its often-dreadful agenda.
Palestinian writer Edward Said puts it succinctly: “The rather strange partnership between sorrow and musical ingenuity heightens the deeper paradox that music is an art of expression without the capacity to say denotatively and concretely what is being expressed. In a sense, therefore, all music is only about music, and this is the inherent tragedy of musical eloquence; no wonder that when we think of Orpheus, the [Greek] mythical embodiment of music, we see him mourning the death of
Eurydice, which he causes by looking back at her. The sadder the music, then, the closer it gets to metamusic, music confined to itself, meditating on itself, mourning the loss of its object.” Perhaps to arrive at a more balanced sense of this phenomenon, we must follow up Said’s assertion with music academic Matthew Glaser’s famous remark that “music expresses human experience so specifically, in such specific ways, that when you attempt to find language to describe that, the words fall short. What’s falling short in that equation is language, not the music. The music expresses things about human experience that cannot be expressed any other way. That’s why it’s so important.”
Any efforts to come to terms with what these four departed men have left us, the songs they made, any account of their work and lives, must confront some discursive dangers. There exists a possibility that by constructing them solely as subject matter, we may deny them a voice. We run the risk of silencing them. There’s a chance we may force them back into the darkness; arrested places of blackness out of which this music is an escape, a will to presence, a reaching out for the ever-present now of their lives, a longing to live, a hunger that issues out of an intimate knowledge of real beauty, the largeness of the human heart, the insatiable compassion that makes creativity possible, a love supreme.
So how to remember them, then, when all that is left is memory and music, the scent of songs and the sound of absences they have left behind? Perhaps there’s a way. It consists in toying with our impressions of their passing lives – like comets in the sky. Perhaps there’s a semblance of salvation, a saving, a recovery of what cannot be remembered in those fleeting glances, the transience of their shadows barely appearing on the walls of disappearing caves. It colours our impressions when we hear the music and marvel at the records, the familiarity we feel when we glance at their photographs. Perhaps every time the needle drops and the vinyl turns, perhaps when a new soul hears them for the first time and their spirit is quickened, when they feel insatiable urge to share
what they’ve heard, perhaps then, the silence disappears and they are alive again, even if only for a moment, they can cry out. We’ve all been that new soul. To some, the quickening came with that simultaneous drop of the needle and the turn of the vinyl on a record player. These are the ones who remember the first time they heard Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s best-known recording: Yakhal’inkomo. They were bewitched from that first crash of the cymbal of Early Mabuza’s drum kit. They have not stopped listening since. Then there are those to whom its magic was like the slow but sure rise of an ocean’s tide. They may not remember exactly the first time they heard Mankunku’s bellowing bull, but they know it to have been part of their lives for the length of their immeasurable personal histories…
For many others, the first encounter with Yakhal’inkomo was not through Mankunku’s horn but through his echoes, the creative witness of the many gifted artists who revisited the masterpiece. Like actress and singer Thembi Mtshali, who heard the cry of the horn and gave it her own words. Mtshali’s lyrics have since become inseparable from the anthem. She took Mankunku’s abstract truths about the fact and meaning of being black in the world and spoke them plainly. Her poetic licence has also taken hold of the spirit of many other vocalists. It is through their voices that many more ears have found their way to Mankunku’s original.
Others came to it through its traces in literature and other creative forms. They may have first read a poem or seen a painting that summons Yakhal’inkomo and the bellow of bereaved bulls to articulate their message. These are witnesses through whom the life and portrait of this musical artwork can be located. It is in delineating their dance with its lilting wail that we are also able to locate the times through which they have passed, the times that have shaped the song and its meaning. It is in locating the times that we are also able to locate the man, the musician through whom Yakhal’inkomo was birthed as a song and a perennial presence in the lives of the people.
The first witnesses to Mankunku’s elegant cry may have been those whose souls were quickened to the sound of the bellowing bull in months leading up to the winter of 1968. These are people who formed the colourful world of sheebens and stokvels, snappy dressers and factory workers, casual listeners and record collectors who had been under one of the great anticipations of that time: when Mankunku would make his recording debut. They might have heard him play it on a chance radio broadcast accompanied by one of the most respected rhythm sections of the day. Some would have only been told of his prodigious talent and were eager to hear it for themselves.
The eagerness and charged expectation that surrounded Mankunku was perhaps best marked by record producer Ray Nkwe in the liner notes of the album after it had finally hit the press. He opens with manifest satisfaction: “Ah… at last it’s done. I mean the recording of South Africa’s number one tenor sax player, Winston ‘Mankunku’ Ngozi. This is the LP that every jazz fan has been waiting for,” he wrote.
It was just what people needed to hear at the time. They felt it deeply. The young player’s horn warmed its way into the hearts of all who heard it. Mankunku was just 25 years old that winter when he finally took his brilliant quartet into the Manley van Niekerk Studios in Johannesburg. But even the record’s positive reception belied the impact it would have in the years that followed. The four-track album, thanks to the song that gives it its name, has since become a kind of Mona Lisa of South African jazz records. It comprised two original compositions by Mankunku, Yakhal’Inkomo and Dedication (To Daddy Trane and Brother Shorter), an ode to the two African-American saxophonists he idolised and admired most, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The other two tunes are Bessie’s Blues, written by Coltrane, and Doodlin’, a composition by African-American pianist Horace Silver. Yakhal’inkomo, the anthemic title track around which the session was convened, is where much of the record’s alchemy and power are packed. The word, to begin with, is an Nguni expression that loosely translates as “the bull bellows” or “the cow is crying”. The song is a sonic metaphor for a cow that cries out as it witnesses the slaughter of its kind. Some have said it is a sonic motif for a cow crying at the slaughterhouse. The anthem can also be said to be an invitation to the listener to imagine, on one hand, the many natives singing struggle songs as they shuffle their feet towards the gallows to hang bythe neck until they die. On the other hand, it calls us all to meditate on those who come to witness the slaughter and massacre of their kind. These are the many who lived on to bury the dead of Sharpeville, Soweto, Katlehong, Bisho, Cradock, Mamelodi and many other places where dead black bodies scented the breeze of every street. The bellowing of the bull is their acknowledging cry, their ritual of witness, the affirmation of their singing breath, and potential to live and die another day.
All the musicians who worked on the classic album in 1968 have since died. The drummer, Mabuza, was the first to go, in 1969. The bassist, Magwaza, died in 2000, and the pianist, Pillay, in 2003. Mankunku was the last to go, in October 2009. Remarkably, in the course of their careers as musicians, they all seem to have managed to resist the urge to take the escape route and join their colleagues in exile even though they were all faced with the option at one point or another. Their decisions to remain in apartheid South Africa had untenable consequences, including structural limits curbing their potential career growth and the fate of a life lived as second-class citizens in the land of their birth.
Mankunku’s younger brother Thulisile Ngozi often talks about how Mankunku was invited to come to the United States, first by legendary pianist, composer and band leader Duke Ellington, and then by leading pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Mankunku invariably declined the offers. He felt he wanted to remain in apartheid South Africa with his people. This is where his music needed to be heard the most.
The limitations implied by his decision to stay are best exemplified by the controversy surrounding the financial proceeds of his band’s groundbreaking work. Although Yakhal’inkmo became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time in South Africa, the musicians who made it did not make much money from it. Mankunku, for instance, was denied substantial rights to publishing and died generally impoverished.
The barriers placed on the lives of these musicians by the coincidence of geography and racist politics was fundamental. Although Mabuza would play music until he died just months after co- creating the masterpiece, Mankunku and the rest of the band would find it more difficult to keep playing music. They would all, at different times, give it up and find their way back to it. This was partly because of the difficulties faced by black musicians and black people in general during apartheid. And many still feel the structural realities of those conditions have yet to change even after the legal abolition of racial discrimination.
This book is an attempt to come to terms with the work these musicians created together during the winter of 1968. It is an attempt to monumentalise a monumental artwork. As music is only as meaningful as how, where and when it is heard, this book cannot escape being about the memory of Yakhal’inkomo in the life of its listeners, especially this one. Yakhal’inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic uses everything from my childhood memories of living with the record, critical theory, philosophy, prose, poetry and photography to form a literary picture of the life and meaning of the historic recording.
This is not a scientific autopsy of a dead artefact. This is a creative portrait of a living, memorable musical cultural object. There might exist a criticism that suggests that analytic precision does not allow for such a flight of fancy, such romance. I offer Fred Moten’s answer to the same challenge, that “I [too] remain under the impression, and devoted to the impression, that analytic precision is, in fact, [itself] a function of such fancy”.
This portrait of a jazz classic is built around four main sections: Locating Revelation, which explores the facts, myths and elements that make up Mankunku’s classic record; Locating the Man, a contextual biographical sketch of the musician through whom the song was revealed; Locating Time, an attempt to account for that historic moment in 1968 as central to the forces that shaped Yakhal’inkmo; and Locating Witness, which tries to study the reaches of Mankunku’s masterpiece and its legacy as it inspired others to recreate it.
It may be important to emphasise that this is not a biography of Mankunku, although the details of his life are used to give context to the work he created. It is not a history of South African jazz either. It is an exploration of one record among many that constitute that history. This is my creative attempt to construct a literary picture of a classic jazz record. It is not unlike a painter’s efforts to capture his impressions of a colossal figure on canvas. The engagement is centrally subjective and deliberately commemorative. My process is guided by a conscious avoidance of being too technical in musical terms, or too highbrow in philosophical speak, or even too exacting in historical terms. I do, however, rely on all these techniques to form a usable picture of my subject.
The first step in the process has been learning to see and work with the silences that dog all attempts to memorialise the historic work. All the men who worked on the album are no longer available for comment, so the writing happens against the backdrop of their fundamental absence. Then there are the fading memories of friends and families, which produce a silence born of a kind of refusal to remember the pain they braved during the often troubled lives of the departed players. But it is also by mining this silence that we learn to appreciate the sound. Now and then, it offers up a usable echo, a cry. Yakhal’inkomo!
A Soweto launch of the book will take place at the Eyethu Gallery , corner Machaba Dr & Kinini St, Mofolo, at 630pm on 29 April 2016.