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Jazz: The African Sound – a unique South African

jazz album
By Tony McGregor
September 2008
“The African Sound … spells out clearly the character and direction of
South African jazz towards its own territorial identity – a vigorous, lively,
good-humoured swing which you will not find anywhere else on earth,
North America included.” So wrote the Johannesburg Star’s critic Richard
McNeill of the original release of this album.
This album of original South
African jazz is unique in
many ways – it was the first
album of South African jazz
composed, arranged and
played by an all-South
African big band. At the
time of its release in 1963 it
was unique also in that the
band members were both
white and Black. At the time
this was almost unthinkable
in South Africa.
The uniqueness also came
from the fact that the band
which made it had a very
1 The cover of the CD re-release of the album circumscribed life – the
band was together for a total of
three weeks, during which time they rehearsed, did a number of concerts
and the recording.
In September of 1963 there was a jazz festival at the Moroka-Jabavu
Stadium in Soweto. This festival was underwritten by the brewers of
Castle Lager Beer, South African Breweries (now SABMiller). All the best-
known names in South African jazz were there and, although the festival
itself was not a great success, some great music emerged from it.
Maxine McGregor, widow of Chris McGregor, who was responsible for the
arrangements on the album, writes in her book Chris McGregor and the
Brotherhood of Breath:
“Chris took advantage of the proximity of all the best
jazz musicians in the country to persuade the breweries
to back him in another venture – a big (17-piece) band
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with the musicians
of his choice. They
gave him a week
to arrange, teach
and rehearse with
the band, and
during that time
he did not sleep at
all. Chris was not
given to arranging
music very fast; he
gave a lot of
thought and time
to his work, but
once done he
rarely had to
amend anything.
2 The cover of Maxine McGregor's book He would sit up all
night writing the
arrangements and
during the days
set about teaching each musician his part and trying
them out together. Not all the musicians could read
music which was an added complication, but as they
were used to playing by ear they were astonishingly
quick to pick up the arrangements. Twenty-four hours
for each song, seven by the end of the first week; then
they played several concerts in the townships round
Johannesburg and in Benoni and Boksburg.”
The result was a band that, in spite of their different backgrounds and
experience, came together in an amazing way to make some truly original
and beautiful music, a classic in South African jazz.
It was a project that pianist, composer and arranger Chris McGregor had
been dreaming of for some time: “I have waited for years to hear a band
composed of the brightest stars in South African jazz and my note-books
are full of projected personnel and worthwhile compositions for such a
venture, the fruits of listening to and being involved with this lovely thing,
jazz music in South Africa,” he wrote in the liner notes to the album.
As McGregor said in an interview with Graham Lock (Chasing the
Vibration, Exeter: Stride Publications, 1994) some 20 years later: “I’m an
absolute nut for big bands. I love the colours and the energy flow of big
groups. I’ve always been ultra-attracted by that organisation and putting-

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together capacity that was so uniquely
Duke’s. I love playing, arranging,
composing – the lot!”
McGregor’s love for “playing, arranging,
composing” certainly comes through on
this album: two of the six numbers are
his own compositions, all the
arrangements and of course he is
leading the whole enterprise from the
piano. The other four compositions on
the album are two each from Kippie
Morolong Moeketsi and Dollar Brand
(Abdullah Ibrahim).
The album opens with Kippie’s song
“Switch” which McGregor arranged “to
showcase his alto playing.” It’s a medium-tempo number which McGregor
writes “has no real key but has a feeling of departure
3 Kippie in a photo by Hardy Stockman
and return through the riff used as introduction and
coda.”At just more than six minutes it is the longest track on the album.
Next up is Dollar Brand’s “Kippie” which, as McGregor writes, “was
composed by Dollar to express the way he feels about Kippie and I have
arranged to express the way I feel about both of them.” After a short
ensemble opening, there follows a long passage of piano, bass and drums,
setting the generally reflective tone of the piece. The bridge before Kippie
enters on clarinet is carried by two tenors and another alto (Nikele
Moyake, Ronnie Beer and Dudu Pukwana). Kippie’s clarinet solo is simply
stunning, and at its end I keep wishing for more. The somewhat
Ellingtonian climax with all the horns leads into Kippie’s soulful ending.
The mood
changes abruptly
with the
opening bars of
Brand’s “Eclipse
at Dawn”, in
which the theme
is laid down by
Kippie on
accompanied by
Dudu Pukwana
on alto and
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4 Chris at the piano with the Castle Lager Big Band. Photo by Basil BreakeyMongezi
Feza on
muted trumpet, before an understated but swinging piano solo by
McGregor before Kippie gets down with his clarinet again, swinging like
crazy! Kippie’s solo is followed by a great tenor solo by Nikele Moyake.
Some great trombone sounds in the bridge and then it’s back to the
theme with Kippie, Dudu and Mongezi.
Eight years later McGregor would again record ‘Eclipse at Dawn’, this time
with the Brotherhood of Breath at the 1971 Berliner Jazztage festival. This
time the song becomes the springboard for an exuberant free blow,
introduced by a long, slow introduction with a mostly bowed bass by Harry
Miller leading interpolations from various instruments. In this version of
the tune McGregor’s piano is hardly heard at all and the solos are taken by
Nick Evans on trombone and Mike Osborne on alto. Altogether a very
different take on the song showing what a difference exposure to the freer
jazz atmosphere of Europe had made to both McGregor and Pukwana, who
were in fact the only two musicians on this album who had also been part
of The African Sound.
But back to The African Sound. The next track is the swinging, up-tempo
“Early Bird” by McGregor, a tribute to drummer “Early Bird” Mabusa. It is
marked by energetic ensemble playing by all the horns in dynamic
exchanges with Mabusa’s drums, plus some great solo work by, among
others, a young and up-coming alto player Barney Rachabane whose
passion and exciting playing are already noticeable. An elegant solo by
McGregor is also a feature of the track.
After all the energy of “Early Bird” comes Kippie’s reflective, beautiful
ballad “I Remember Billy”, his clarinet leading into some wonderfully
sonorous phrases from the whole band, with muted trumpets adding
gentle highlights to the sonic landscape. The brass section really
dominates for a few minutes before Kippie comes back with some soulful
clarinet responses, before he signs off the whole thing.
Next up is another McGregor tune listed on the album as “Now” but more
usually called “Manje” which is the Xhosa word for “now”. This is the only
tune on this album apart from “Eclipse at Dawn” that McGregor recorded
elsewhere. It was recorded twice by McGregor’s group The Blue Notes in
the following year, 1964, on albums released many years later called
respectively Township Bop and The Blue Notes Legacy. It was recorded
twice again in 1971, this time by McGregor’s later big band the
Brotherhood of Breath, on albums also released many years later: Bremen
to Bridgwater and Eclipse at Dawn. Another version of the song was
recorded in 1975 and also released on the Bremen to Bridgewater album.

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The Blue Notes came back to the song in 1977 on an album called The
Blue Notes in Concert Volume 1 released by Ogun in 1978.
As McGregor wrote in the liner notes this song was “about” Nikele Moyake,
the great tenor player who does most of the soloing during this big band
showcase number, with the rest of the horns roaring enthusiastically
behind him. A fitting end to a great album of classic South African jazz.
The masters of this album were lost from the Gallo tape vaults and could
not be found when the company wanted to re-release it as part of their
“African Heritage” series. The re-release was made possible by a South
African jazz who used to buy two copies of any South African jazz album
he liked, and typically kept one of the copies sealed and unplayed. Luckily
he had such a copy of this album and the CD was mastered from the
sealed, unplayed vinyl. Fortunately the sound of the original album was so
good that the re-mastering from vinyl was very successful and the CD
sounds amazingly fresh and full.

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