Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rediscovery: Johannesburg Street Band "Dancin' Through The Streets"

A Hugh Masekela album in everything but name, Dancin' Through The Streets (UNI, 1968), credited to the non-existent "Johannesburg Street Band," is an extremely obscure album of hi-lite jive, or African jazz, that's unlikely to ever appear on CD.

Masekela recorded the majority of the album in Los Angeles in January 1968, a couple of months before laying down his number one hit "Grazing in the Grass," with several members of his band at the time (Bruce Langhorne, Al Abreau and Henry Franklin) and Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders.

Like Africa '68, another Masekela album not credited to Masekela, recorded and released on UNI around the same time as this album, Dancin' Through The Streets catches a side of Masekela's personality - or his past - that wasn't exactly to be heard on the more commercial albums released at the time under his own name.

Oddly, this record gives no musician credits whatsoever other than what Masekela hints at on his sleeve notes, leading one to suspect that the musicians performing the music are very much in Johannesburg, prisoners of Apartheid's terrifying régime:

"Almost all the gentleman who play this music will never be able to leave South Africa even if they were ready and able. These sounds are to be heard only in the municple "native" townships. The music is recorded for "native" consumption on breakable 78 rpm discs or played at the all-night-till-daybreak dances that come with gang stabbings, shootings and frantic dancing. Most of the music is centered around the same three chords repeated over and over and memorized by ear because of the remoteness of musical education possibilities. Everyone has to learn in these 'MARABI' or 'MBAQANGA' bands. Many of these gentlemen will leave this world through frustration, sclerosis, insanity or some homicidal accident as they did when I was learning to play, but the love with which they play their music is immortal. We dedicate these their sounds to their beautiful souls and to the hope that their beautiful music will finally be heard everywhere." -HUGH MASEKELA

This apt description of the music and the musicians who make it also reflects well upon the album under scrutiny. The ever well-spoken Masekela has endeavored to share this exciting music with people outside of the terrifying confines of South African townships.

The ten songs heard here, which amount to a measly 24 and a half minutes (skimpy even by LP standards of the time), are all repetitive, up-tempo dance tunes that recall some of those great shebeen and hi-lite (hi-life) bands of South Africa, of which the African Jazz Pioneers are probably best known. Masekela came up in these sorts of groups while still a teen in Johannesburg.

Side one opens with trumpeter Elijah Nkwanyana's beautiful "Thimlela," the album's single best number. This was also the sole single released from the album (UNI SS-73022), but probably didn't garner the radio play it richly deserved. In 1956, Nkwanyana named Masekela as his replacement in the African Jazz & Variety Show, which Masekela credits as his gateway to what he went on to achieve. Masekela later dedicated "Elijah" to Nkwanyana on his 1989 album Uptownship and revisited the composer's "Thimlela" most wonderfully on his excellent 2002 album Time.

South African chanteuse and songwriter Dorothy Masuka's "What's the Matter Zulu?" follows. Rising to fame in the African Ink Spots for her talent as a singer as well as her striking beauty, Masuka (b. 1935) has always been a most accomplished songwriter, though her political concerns got her exiled from South Africa for 30 years. Miriam Makeba performed many of Masuka's songs, including "Cameroon," "Khawuyani-Khanyange," "Khawuleza" (which Masekela later performed on Black To The Future and Live At The Market Theatre), "Ha Po Zamani" and others probably incorrectly credited by record labels to Ms. Makeba, bringing the singer/songwriter the international attention and acclaim she finally enjoys today.

Then comes South African ex-patriot Ben Mrwebi's (d. 1973) party anthem "Gwigwi," the song which gave Mrwebi his adopted first name. Saxophonist Mrwebi was in a band called The Jazz Dazzlers with Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi that recorded three tracks for the Gallo label in 1960 (which were issued on a 1991 CD titled Township Swing Jazz! Vol. 2 ) that swing just as madly as "Gwigwi" does here. Masekela also recorded Mrwebi's "Sipho" on his 1965 album Grrr.

Masekela contributes three of his own numbers to the program, the rather familiar sounding "Special Branch" (named for the feared, lawless police in Apartheid-era South Africa), "No Passport" (also known as "Awe Mfana," the title it appears under on the 2006 CD compilation Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years 1965-1975 (Rare And Unreleased)), and "Foyi-Foyi." Each of these is instantly recognizable as coming from the pen of Hugh Masekela and if he's done them elsewhere, then I just haven't figured it out yet.

Masekela's former wife, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), is credited with two songs here, the well-known "Pata Pata," her huge hit from the year before, which is actually said to have been written by Dorothy Masuka, and the uplifting "Letter To Prospect Township," which doesn't seem to have been covered anywhere else. Masekela gives "Pata Pata" a most rousing arrangement here, as he would years later to another song from this Makeba album, "Ring Bell," on his 1977 album with Herb Alpert.

Makeba's daughter, Bongi (1950-85), who was sort of adopted by Masekela during his brief marriage to her mother, had already proven to be a remarkable songwriter by the time of her teens and contributed "Isangoma" to this disc. By the early 1970s, Bongi was not only featured in her mother's band but contributed the majority of the songs to the repertoire. Her mother even turned the stage over to the miraculously talented daughter for features of her own. Sadly, Bongi died during childbirth in 1985 and rests forever in Guinea, where she and her mother were living at the time. Miriam Makeba would later cover this song as "Witch Doctor" on her 1978 album Country Girl, which was arranged and produced by Hugh Masekela.

The album wraps up with what is, perhaps its best known piece, Alan Silinga's poetic "Ntyilo, Ntyilo" (also known as "Ntjilo, Ntjilo"). Silinga (1921-2007) had quickly become a very popular songwriter in South Africa during the 1950s and it was he who was responsible for getting Miriam Makeba some of her first recording opportunities. He wrote this song, which is also known as "The Love Bird" and "The Bird Song," especially for Miss Makeba, who first recorded it while still in South Africa. The song became a huge hit, but Silinga's writing talents did not equal his business sense (or whatever agreements he was forced into) and he never got the proceeds this song and many of his others truly earned for him. "I always have difficulty in explaining 'Ntyilo Ntyilo'," Silinga once claimed. "All things must be in the imagination. I heard a bird singing in the bush and as I came close to it, it was singing very sweetly. It was heard to sing a thrilling song, Ntyilo Ntyilo. The song is supposed to be beautiful, and if I achieved that, I achieved what I set out to do." Masekela has covered this pretty song throughout his career, starting with The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba (1962), as "Unohilo (The Bird)" on The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela (1965), the celebratory video Homecoming Concert (1991), Hope (1993) and with pianist Bheki Mseleku for the video promo for Timelessness (1993).

While Masekela pays sincere and sympathetic tribute to his past and his country's musical heroes here, what's missing on Dancin' Through The Streets is some of the joy and fun this music must have possessed and inspired among its township patrons. Perhaps it's the surprising lack of improvisation present on the album. It almost seems as if there was no joy in it whatsoever for the musicians.

Unfortunately, all of the words I've devoted to the music here confounds the rather boring presentation. It all deserved something a bit more memorable. Maybe that's why no one paid attention to it in the first place. It's certainly not going to help revive this music on CD. Still, any Hugh Masekela fan will want to hear this music and, I hope, this summary can aid in either its importance or the significance it should have.

Despite the album's relative obscurity, it is worth noting that a long-standing band called the Sun Sounds Orchestra, based in Detroit, Michigan, covered five of the tunes heard on Dancin' Through The Street ("Ntyilo-Ntyilo," "Special Branch," "Letter To Prospect Township," "Foyi-Foyi" and "Isangoma") on their 1990 Eastlawn CD Open The Doors.


Mhlanganisi said...

how can I get hold of this recording, is it available for downloading on some site, prefferably emusic as it is available for South africa

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I think I may have purchased a test pressing of this LP in Los Angeles recently. White label, almost no markings other than the band credited and song titles as typed out on the label which does have the Chisa logo in it. Really incredible music. I'm happy to have learned a little more about it's origin.