Indaba Is (Brownswood)

Various Artists

Released January 2021

JazzTimes Top 30 Jazz Albums of 2021




Brownswood are proud to present ‘Indaba Is’ – a compilation of current South African improvised music and jazz – released January 29th 2021. The project is a collaboration with 2 luminaries of the South African Music scene pianist / songwriter Thandi Nthuli and The Brother Moves On’s Siyabonga Mthembu who act as curators / musical directors on the project.
South African townships were historically cosmopolitan places. Apartheid confined all classes in the same impoverished locations. Migration from across the country and the region meant kasi residents commanded many musical languages. Church music, European classical music, the latest US jazz LPs and Liverpool pop tunes from offshore radio stations fed the mix. The same woman could sing Handel in church on Sunday, traditional lyrics by the evening fireside, local and overseas standards on a community hall bandstand and songs of resistance on a march. There never was just one sound. And it’s the flowers from all those roots, and more, that Indaba Is has harvested. Questions about lineage, community and spirit thread through the tracks – not just communities of descent or language, but the communities being built now through collective creation.
Bokani Dyer’s ‘Ke Nako’ (now’s the time) opens with an irony, because that was a slogan used to get voters to the polls in the first post-apartheid election. Now, Dyer’s using it to remind us to think again about who we are and where we’re going.
That’s always been the question for The Brother Moves On (TBMO: a genre-refusing, personnel-revolving performance collective named, with a twist, for The Wire’s assassin: Brother Mouzone). Here, it’s embodied in a meditation on relationships refracted through the distorting-glass of their context.

It’s the singing voices on both those tracks that reference roots even as they engage with contemporary spoken flows and instrumental improvisations. Explicitly, trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana bookends his track with the idioms of the Eastern Cape – galloping rhythms, harmonies from bow music and split-tone singing, a spluttering trumpet reminiscent of Mongezi Feza – and grows from them a chill contemporary meditation: no spatial or temporal barriers here.
Chill, though, is the last term you’d use for Wretched, vocalist Gabisile Motuba’s Fanon-inspired project with drummer Tumi Mogorosi and sound artist Andrei van Wyk and the voices of Black Panther Kwame Toure and liberation leader Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: “What is history?..” Motuba demands. Mandela
describes how imprisonment on Robben Island actually sheltered those who became post-liberation leaders from the visceral realities of the struggle. Her presence poses the same question; her history is still weighed down with calumnies even after an apartheid police boss admitted not a shred of evidence linked her to the killing she was accused of: the whole farrago was deliberate fake news.
That, like ‘Ke Nako’ and The Brother Moves On’s bitter allusion to “black yellow and green” (the colours of the ruling ANC) is the thread of another kind of tradition – the reminders and remainders of South Africa’s struggle not yet won – weaving through the album.
Balm is offered by what guitarist Sibusile Xaba has described as his “modal, groove-oriented roots music”. It is, he says, inspired by dreams; he sees himself as a diviner not a performer and his music as functional for healing. That echoes one of his musical masters, the late Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane. ‘Umdali’ is a reference to the Creator, inspirer of such service.
The Ancestors weave Siyabonga Mthembu’s voice into a web of musical references forward-looking and historical, including bluesy instrumentals that hark back to what South Africa’s jazz bandleaders of the ‘70s and ‘80s conjured up – another aspect of South Africa’s musical tradition.
Then pianist/composer/vocalist Thandi Ntuli returns to the theme of identity in ‘Dikeledi’ (‘Tears’). “Who are you?’ she asks. “What do you call yourself?.. the illusion [of who you are] emerges from you.” Ultimately, the song concludes, rootedness in community trumps image.
But community isn’t unproblematic. The persistent fractures in South African society were deliberately engineered by apartheid, results of an attempt to impose unitary, racially-constructed identities on all. All the tracks in this collection challenge that: they demonstrate the unifying power of collective hard music work.
In that context, iPhupho L’ka Biko’s ‘Abaphezulu’ (“They are coming, those who are above” – an invocation to ancestors, including the spirit of Steve Bantu Biko) is a fitting conclusion. Opening with the notes of Kinsmen’s Druv Sodha’s sitar, it smashes another of the walls apartheid tried to build against Black unity: between South Africans of African and South Asian heritage. The classically-inflected gospel voices of Mthembu’s dialogue with Indian and modern jazz rhythms and free horn improvisations in joyous heterophony.
Like we said, there never was just one sound.

Gwen Ansell (November 2020)

Track Listing:

1. Ke Nako (Bokani Dyer) featuring Bokani Dyer

Amaeshi Ikechi: bass

Simphiwe Tshabalala: drums

Bokani Dyer: piano, vocals

Sisonke Xonti: tenor saxophone 

Ndabo Zulu: trumpet

Siyabonga Mthembu, Thandi Ntuli: vocals

2. Umthandazo Wamagenge (Thandi Ntuli) feat. The Brother Moves On

Ayanda Zalekile: bass, vocals

Simphiwe Tshabalala: drums, vocals

Zelizwe Mthembu: guitar, vocals

Thandi Ntuli: keyboards, vocals

Siyabonga Mthembu: vocals

3. All Ok (Lwanda Gogwana) feat. Lwanda Gogwana

Lungile Kunene: drums

Sipho Mabena: electric bass

Lwanda Gogwana: flugelhorn, trumpet, piano, spoken word

Luyanda Madope: piano, keyboards, voice chants

Sonwabile Ramcwani: trombone

Candice Martin: violin

Sakhile Moleshe: vocals

4. What Is History (The Wretched) feat. The Wretched

Tumi Mogorosi: drums

Andrei Van Wyk (Healer Oran): soundscaping

Gabi Motuba: vocals

5. Umdali (Sibusile Xaba) feat. Sibusile Xaba with Naftali, Fakazile Nkosi and AshK

Sibusile Xaba: guitar, vocals

Fakazile Nkosi, Naftali: vocals

6. Prelude to Writing Together (Ariel Zamonsky / Mthunzi Mvubu) feat. The Ancestors

Mthunzi Mvubu: alto saxophone, flute

Ariel Zamonsky: bass

Tumi Mogorosi: drums

Nduduzo Makhathini: Fender Rhodes

Gontse Makhene: percussion

Mandla Mlangeni: trumpet

Siyabonga Mthembu: vocals

7. Dikeledi (Thandi Ntuli) feat. Thandi Ntuli

Mthunzi Mvubu: alto saxophone 

Shane Cooper: bass

Sphelelo Mazibuko: drums

Keenan Ahrends: guitar

Nompumelelo Nhlapo: percussion

Sthembiso Bhengu: trumpet

Thandi Ntuli: vocals, keyboards, synth

8. Abaphezulu (Nhlanhla Ngqaqu) feat. iPhupho L’ka Biko ft Siyabonga Mthembu & Kinsmen

Khutjo Nkwana: alto saxophone 

Moeketsi Kgotle, Pulane Mafatshe, Sibusiso Mkhize: backing vocals

Nhlanhla Ngqaqu: bass

Lebohang Moleleki: cymbals, drums

Siyabonga Mthembu: lead and backing vocals

Zoe Molelekwa: piano

Dhruv Sodha: sitar

Miseka Gaqa: soprano and backing vocals

Shailesh Pillar: tabla, Bayaan 

Muhammad Dawjee: tenor saxophone 

Athamacwera Ngcaba: trombone


Bokani Dyer; The Brother Moves On; Lwanda Gogwana; The Wretched; Sibusile Xaba with Naftali, Fakazile Nkosi and AshK; The Ancestors; Thandi Ntuli; iPhupho L’ka Biko featuring Siyabonga Mthembu & Kinsmen.

Artwork by Rendani Nemakhavhani
Design by Mark James 


South Africa is home to some brilliant, burgeoning jazz and improvised-music scenes, so it’s no surprise to see tastemaker Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood imprint forwarding the message. On Indaba Is, a compilation curated by pianist/songwriter Thandi Ntuli and vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu (of performance-art ensemble the Brother Moves On), bonds of community, marks of history, and the spirit of the moment merge.

Pianist Bokani Dyer’s “Ke Nako” opens the album with an immediate juxtaposition of times and tensions: The title nods to a phrase meant to encourage voting in the country’s first election after apartheid fell, but ripe rhythmic language and firm vocalization speak to an exploration of identity in the present (and where it might lead). The glazed glories of the Brother Moves On’s “Umthandazo Wamagenge” follow, dealing with connection and division through varied stresses and fractures. Trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana’s “All Ok” leans on mellowed-out modernism and echoes from the Eastern Cape. And the Wretched’s “What Is History” hits hard with the inclusion of thought-provoking vocal samples directly addressing racial strife, weaponized politics, and the stains of South Africa’s past.

Cooler climates beckon on guitarist Sibusile Xaba’s soothing and spacey “Umdali.” A stirring stroll in seven sets the Ancestors’ “Prelude to Writing Together” in motion. Ntuli’s “Dikeledi” delivers a shimmering R&B and neo-soul slant while touching on the rub between individuality’s ideals and the realities of collective strength. And iPhupho L’ka Biko’s “Abaphezulu,” featuring Mthembu and Indo-jazz band Kinsmen, offers a clear merger between native African and South Asian strains.

If you’re looking for the sound of South Africa, you won’t find it here—or anywhere, for that matter, since a sole signature doesn’t exist. But for a taste of the many flavors therein, and a hint of the deep historical and cultural references informing the music, Indaba Is has you covered.

Dan Bilawsky (JazzTimes)