The Magic of Mankunku

2009-10-13 13:30
Winston Mankunku R.I.P.

Initially it wasn't actually any concern about my own jazz credentials that hooked my interest in Winston Mankunku Ngozi. It was simply my friend's choice of that one signifier. Mankunku. Like Monk, Trane or Mingus – all jazz icons that transcended the need for any qualifying 1st name. Man-kun-ku. Three syllables lingering in the air as they roll off the tongue and tease out a rhythmic promise of the shape of sound to come (go on, just say it).

But then there was Mankunku's "bellow": bruised, but with a sublime beauty I had never encountered before. My entry point into jazz had been via fire-spewing cats like Shepp, Brotzmann, Zorn and Ornette who seemed hell bent on dispensing with melodic structure for 'free' improvisation. But here was a saxophonist whose tone spoke of a search for freedom inside the melodic form of the music itself: I finally started to hear what jazz scribes meant when they trotted out that old cliché of jazz being improvisation over structure.

Mankunku's music taught me that tuning into jazz is all about finding liberation through sound. It was Mankunku's bellow beneath pianist Lionel Pillay's funky groove, and Early Mabuza and Agrippa Magwaza’s subterranean drum ‘n bass blues that opened my ears to the cry for freedom fuelling his classic Afro-jazz masterpiece, Yakal’Nkomo. It was Mankunku’s horn that sculpted the uplifting spiritual folk soars and stirred up a passion for Afro-jazz on the cooking cool collaborations with exiles Bheki Mseleku (piano) and Lucky Ranku (guitar) on Jika. And it was Mankunku's timbre that opened up fresh new avenues in so-called "smooth jazz" with longtime friend and collaborator Mike Perry on Dudula, and his panoramic African jazz resurrections, the SAMA-winning Molo Afrika and Abantwana Afrika.

Winston Mankunku died from a heart condition at the age of 66 at Victoria Hospital, Wynberg, Cape Town on October 13. 

The Magic of Mankunku: Recommended Listening

Yakhal' Nkomo (1968)
What's the best selling South African jazz album of all time: Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg or maybe Jimmy Dludlu's Corners of My Soul? Neither. It's Yakhal’ Inkomo. Originally released in 1968 when the saxophonist was a mere 24-years old, Yakhal' Inkomo is a breathtaking snapshot of the moment a distinctly South African jazz vernacular synched up with the idiomatic innovations of Afro-American jazz giants like John Coltrane. The title track - literally translated as "the bellow of the bull before slaughter" - finds the young saxophonist channelling the spiritual quest embedded in Coltrane’s sheets of sound (cf. Giant Steps) to map a bittersweet beauty that critic Nils Jacobson best summed up as "a cry of joy wrapped in a package of protest". 

Mankunku also maps alternate lines of flight by invoking Trane's "Love Supreme" and Horace Silver’s bop on sublime spiritual, "Dedication". Elsewhere, earthy traditional African jazz call and response conversations with Lionel Pillay (piano), Agrippa Magwaza (bass) and Early Mabuza (drums) uncoving the blissful swing at the bop core of both Silver's "Doddlin'" and Trane's "Bessie's Blues". The long lost, bonus album, included in the CD reissue is equally revelatory. Recorded with pianist Chris Schilder's quintet four months after the Inkomo sessions, Spring captures the saxophonist’s more emotive side, swinging between playful hard bop romps ("Look Up"), spiritual tone poems ("The Birds") and bewitching ballad standards ("You Don’t Know What Love Is"). Listen to Yakhal’ Inkomo.

 Jika (with Mike Perry, 1987)
The yearning lyrical beauty of Perry's easy going piano styling provides the perfect counterfoil for the sax master "Mankunku" Ngozi’s evocative African-soaked sounds. Recorded both in Cape Town and London, Jika hosted several key exiled South African musicians, including pianist Bheki Mseleku and guitarist Lucky Ranku, both of whom add a potent political protest subtext to key tracks like "Wajikeleza" and "Asiyapo". Although the general tone of the album is smooth and melodic, as a Cape Argus reviewer put it: " [it's] like chilli sauce on an ice cube."

Dudula (with Mike Perry, 1996)
Early Rainbow Nation optimism pervades this cool, but cooking jazz set of breezily laid back anthems ("Masihambe" Let's Go), urgent township jazz jive invocations ("Khawuleza") and introspective meditations ("Dudula (Forward)", "Shirley") that celebrate, but also interrogare the birth of the new South Africa ("Green and Gold").
Essential listening: "Khawuleza (Hurry Up!)"

Molo Africa (2002) 
Destination out? Almost. It's a dynamic set with the sax master segueing from Afro-cuban conversations ("Khanya") and evaneglical, almost hymnal marches ("A Song for Bra Des Tutu") to groove blown townhip funk ("Lagunya Khayelitsha (Zonke)"), piano-kissed African big band reimgainings ("Tembela Enkosini"), epic solo horn 'duels' ("Let Go") and beyond. Trumpeter Feya Faku, pianist Tete Mbambisa, guitarist Errol Dyers, bassist Basil Moses, guitarist Lionel Beukes and drummer Vusi Khumalo guest star on this South African Music Award winning "Best Traditional Jazz" gem.
Essential listening: "A Song for Bra Des Tutu".

 Abantwana Be Afrika (Sheer, 2004)
Tapping into the fertile musical legacies of homegrown jazz heroes such as Duke Makasi and Mackay Davashe alongside giants like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, the 60-something saxophone legend paints a profoundly lyrical Afro-jazz flavoured palette. It's a fantastic African jazz showcase, boosted by a stellar cast of collaborators including Andile Yenana (piano), Herbie Tsoaeli (bass), Prince Lengoasa (trumpet, flugel horn) and Lulu Gontsana (drums).
Watch: "Give Peace a Chance" video

The Best Of (2007)
A superb overview of Mankunk mapping the beat routes between South African jazz and its Afro-American sibling on this heartfelt showcase of African hued originals of classic albums such as Yakhal' Inkomo and Abantwana Be Afrika, as well as tributes to John Coltrane, Duke Makasi, Mackay Davashe and more.

Quote Unquote
"I once saw Mankunku Ngozi blowing his saxophone. Yakhal' inkomo. His face was inflated like a balloon, it was wet with sweat, his eyes huge and red. He grew tall, shrank, coiled into himself, uncoiled and the cry came out of his horn. "That is the meaning of Yakhal' inkomo." - Mongane Wally Serote, introduction to hisYakhal' inKomo poetry collection, Renoster Books , 1972.

"Mankunku. If you call yourself a 'horn' man, then you had better check out Yakhal' Nkomo " a friend of mine challenged. It was 1994 and yes, I was trying to call myself a "jazz fan". But as a 20-something raised on grunge rock I realised I had to take a leap of faith before I could justify the tag. So I took my mate's advice and plunged headlong into "the bellow of the bull"....
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