In my mind, I’m not really a V&A Waterfront person. I tend to think I don’t go to there much. But, for a while, Musica had a huge record store there – with a lot of South African content – and, back in the day, Gavin Minter programmed local musicians, mainly jazz musicians, at The Green Dolphin every night of the week. And then there’s the Jazzathon in January. So, truthfully, over the years, I have probably have spent a lot more time at the Waterfront than I think.
It was only ever CDs I bought at the Waterfront Musica – LPs I found at Mabu (when it used to be on Rheede, off Kloof) – and although my true CD buying loyality was to the African Music Store on Long, Musica just had so much stuff I never saw anywhere else, such as The Best of Tete Mbambisa on the Uhadi Music label.
Most of the time I used to sit at the bar of The Green Dolphin and listen to the music. Not a great view, actually no view at all, but I could hear the music without having to order food. What is it with jazz venues and food?
I was at the bar of The Green Dolphin one night – it was March or April 2010 I think – when Gregory Franz introduced me to Bra’ Tete Mbambisa. Gregory Franz is a very generous man; generous with his knowledge of South African jazz, with his photography, with introductions. We got to talking, and Bra’ Tete agreed to meet me to discuss his thinking on jazz music.
An improbable number of things had previously aligned and my original ticket to South Africa was a research project where I’d proposed to try and find out what the musical priorities were of jazz musicians in South Africa. Priorities are interesting things, when exercised freely, and I was keen to hear Bra Tete’s take on this. We arranged to meet in a café near the Central Public Library in Cape Town.
Question. How do you find out about a musician’s musical priorities? A direct question is one way, but it only permits a certain type of answer, a certain type of engagement. Having interviewed a lot of South African jazz musicians, I got to thinking about other, complimentary, ways:
– The music (musicians have long been archiving musical responses to this question in their recordings).
– The hang (specific conversations need specific environments, specific languages, and specific interlocutors).
– The moment (every now and then there is a moment that presents itself, a moment that transcends a lot of the usual barriers, where a point can be made and heard on its own terms).
In July 2010 I was asked (or did I ask?) to convene a Composers’ Panel for the annual SASRIM (South African Society for Research in Music) conference. That year it was held in the Konservatorium at Stellenbosch University. The speakers I asked to participate were all people I thought would have interesting things to say on the Xhosa influence in contemporary South African musics; Zim Ngqawana, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Tete Mbambisa, Thandiswa Mazwai, and Simphiwe Dana. In the end Mazwai and Dana couldn’t make it so, as we settled in to the rather formal environment of the Fismer Hall, the focus of the conversation turned much more to jazz and improvised music than it might otherwise have done.
I won’t pretend I was a good chair of the Composers’ Panel, but I am very pleased that we got it together. It was amazing to sit by musicians I’d long admired and have a chance to ask a few questions. Aryan Kaganof made a film from the panel conversation (The Legacy) and a full transcript is going to be published in the SAMUS journal shortly. Despite my shortcomings as a chair, I did at least have the sense to open the conversation to members of the audience fairly quickly and it was a question from Ncebakazi Mnukwana that really blew open the discussion in very valuable ways. That’s all documented in the film and transcript, thankfully. But the other thing that really stood out that day was that, after the panel was over, and the audience had left, Bra Tete walked over to a Steinway grand piano on the stage of the Fismer Hall and started to play.
This was one of those moments.
The hang had been all wrong (a composers’ panel, at Stellenbosch, in front of an audience of academics, with three musicians who for most of their lives wouldn’t have been allowed near Stellenbosch University – in retrospect I’m astonished, and overwhelmed, that they agreed). And Bra Tete’s solo piano music hadn’t been recorded, and so couldn’t be consulted.
But here came a moment.
I’d never heard anything like it. This was the contemporary jazz piano of Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and McCoy Tyner transposed to mbaqanga. In the process Bra Tete brought a lifetime of experiences and influences that few other pianists who’d imbibed Evans, Kelly and Tyner could access. I very much doubt that anything much like this music had been heard in the Fismer Hall before, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I didn’t want to get it out of my mind.
At the time I was a house guest of Prof. Stephanus Muller and Prof. Elmi Muller, and that evening I told Prof. Stephanus of my plan to borrow funds to record Bra’ Tete in solo piano mode. Assuming Bra’ Tete was up for it.
The thing you need to know about Prof. Stephanus Muller is that he is a remarkable person. His own research centres around the contemporary South African so-called ‘art music’ tradition – at the time he was writing a book on Arnold van Wyk, in Afrikaans! And yet as soon as I ran my plan past him (I was hoping he could get us back into the Fismer Hall to use that Steinway) he said he had some funds in his research account at the university and we could use this to finance Bra’ Tete’s recording. How many other academics would give up their own research funds for a project that was nothing to do with their own research interests? Amazing.
Bra’ Tete was up for it, and Prof. Muller came through, so we booked the Fismer Hall for two days, 14 and 15 August 2010. I couldn’t believe it. Haunted by the stories of Chris McGregor being upset with the condition of the piano on many of his recordings, we engaged Keith Goodwill to tune the piano and be on standby for the two days of recording for any necessary adjustments. Aryan Kaganof was on camera, and Gerhard Roux engineered the session with me as ProTools op.
The compositions Bra’ Tete recorded at Stellenbosch were all Mbambisa originals, with the exception of Mbombela which got listed as ‘traditional, arranged Mbambisa’ – and it definitely had the Mbambisa sound. Bra’ Tete asked me to edit the recording and I left for London. I sent my first attempt to Bra’ Tete by post, and we had a few phone conversations, but in the end Bra’ Tete wasn’t happy with the result. So here I was, really learning about Bra’ Tete’s musical priorities in ways that an interview in a café was never going to provide. That said, the phone thing wasn’t doing it for us and, quite some time later, when I was back in South Africa and visiting the Makhanda Festival, Bra’ Tete and I arranged to meet up to discuss the recording. Bra’ Tete was in Mdantsane rather than Cape Town and so I figured I’d drive along from Makhanda to meet him there.
It rained that day. Really rained. You don’t get to see that kind of rain much in the UK. And of course Bra’ Tete knew full well that I’d never find his place in Mdantsane without a lot of help, so he footed it down to Nando’s to meet me. I was soaked getting from the car to Nando’s. Bra’ Tete looked like he’d swum there. Nando’s is Nando’s, and not the best place to discuss recording edits, so we went back to Bra’ Tete’s place which he was just in the process of selling. He’d had the place for years, brought up his family there, and written much of the music for his iconic As-Shams recordings there. Not that you’d know that; the place was totally empty ready for the next owners. So we sat on the floor and went through the recording track by track on the laptop, those priorities becoming much clearer minute by minute. I made rough edits under Bra’ Tete’s instruction and, when we were done, the rain was also done. I couldn’t find my way back to that house now, but I’ll not forget it.
Back in the UK I took the files we’d edited in Mdantsane to the studios at the University of York where I was working. It was an ‘in the box’ studio at the time – no console, not much outboard – but it was designed and built by Arup and the acoustics have always been excellent for playback and editing. As are the Genelec 1037C monitors. All that we couldn’t hear in Mdantsane on headphones was tidied up; the edit points, the fades, the balance between mic pairs.
Annoyingly (actually terrifyingly) I’d picked up an ear infection somewhere between Makhanda and York and although the doctor in Makhanda did a great job fixing me up, I’d lost my confidence in what I was hearing, especially regarding phase issues between mics. I desperately wanted to see this through, but I knew I needed to bring some reliable people on board while I learned to trust my ears again. My first phone call was to Mam’uPinise Saul. I knew she’d known Bra’ Tete since singing with him back in the 1960s, and she knew his work better than anyone else I could think of in the UK. We sat in our kitchen in Whitechapel (the other East London) listening, talking, sharing food, and Mam’uPinise couldn’t contain her joy at hearing these compositions of Bra Tete’s in solo piano arrangements. So I knew I hadn’t fucked up the edit, at least from her perspective. I burnt a CD and sent it to Bra’ Tete.
My next phone call with Bra Tete was truly concerning. He approved the edits, but told me he’d had a health scare and was booked in for an operation. Some things take time, this recording was taking it’s time, but here was a reminder that time wouldn’t always be on our side. I called Denis Blackham of Skye Mastering (yup, based on the Isle of Skye) in a bit of a rush. I was also still worried about what I was hearing; although I was no longer hearing stuff that sounded like phase problems, I told him why I didn’t want to master the recording myself and asked him to look out for anything awry. Not that he’d miss anything; I knew Blackham’s career was almost as long Bra’ Tete’s as he started mastering in the IBC studios in 1969 – straight to vinyl with only a Pultec equaliser and a Fairchild limiter (only!!!). But more to the point he had mastered one of Chris McGregor’s solo piano recordings, the Up To Earth septet (featuring McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Mongezi Feza) and the CD accompanying Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles book that featured a Brotherhood of Breath track. Seemed like the right guy for the job.
A testament to the depth of feeling people have for Bra Tete’s music came from five wonderful image makers – Aryan Kaganof, Gregory Franz, John Edwin Mason, Jürgen Schadeberg, and Tony McGregor – who all agreed that we could use their images for the CD cover, tray, and liner notes. One thing I hadn’t thought through though was what happens when you order 1000 CDs. They come on a pallet, that the truck driver unloads with a forklift, and leaves on the pavement outside your house. And then when you get them off the pavement, into the house (where to put them… they take up a lot of room in a small house) how do you get them to Cape Town?
Another thing I won’t forget, is turning up at Bra Tete’s place in Gugs with the first copies of Black Heroes. It’s one thing to listen to the edits in the studio, and sign off the master from another great critical listening room (the Arthur Sykes Rymer Auditorium also, also designed by Arup, also at the University of York). But how does it sound in the artist’s front room, on the stereo that he listens to all his musical heroes on? That’s another type of critical listening environment and, in this case, the one that gives the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the finished product. I’m not sure what Bra’ Tete had been listening to previously on his stereo when I showed up, but the three descending chords setting up the first head of Mbombela pretty much took our heads off. But it sounded right. People who drink Guinness, and know about these things, say that you have to drink it in Ireland to really get it. I’m going to say there’s a parallel here for listening to jazz drenched mbaqanga recordings – to me it still sounds better in Bra’ Tete’s front room, than it does on my stereo in London. Maybe it’s just the company…