Album review

‘The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman’

The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman
(WABB-090. Album review by Adam Sieff)

This is yet another South African vinyl reissue of great interest from Canadian label We Are Busy Bodies that comes hot on the heels of their recent The Heshoo Beshoo Group and The Drive releases. The artist this time is Dr Philip Tabane, the guitar player, bandleader and master of Malombo – ‘the drum and dance performance rituals of traditional healers’ – that he learnt from his spiritual healer mother Matjele.

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Tabane became one of the most influential and respected musicians in South Africa. He toured with Malombo internationally and spent some time in the US during the ’70s where he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and played with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy and Music from the University of Venda and was the recipient of the South Africa Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Prize. He died aged 84 in 2018.

Originally performing as a guitar, flute and drums trio, Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman broke through to a major audience in 1964 at the third South Africa Jazz Festival at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. By the time this album was recorded five years later at Herrick Merrill’s Johannesburg studios, the lineup was just Tabane on guitar, penny whistle, drums and vocals and Gabriel ‘Sonnyboy’ Thobejane, a remarkable young drummer, percussionist and Dipala (thumb piano) player, playing cowhide drums instead of a standard kit.

This music is a revelation if you haven’t heard it before. ‘Afro-Jazz Sounds’ may be in the album’s title, but as Tabane said: ‘the jazz label – or any other label – has never worked in my case. Once, I went to play at a competition in Durban and in the end I was given a special prize because I could not be categorised. To this day, they still cannot categorise my music’.

Whatever the genre, this is warm, spiritual, healing music and has been constantly on my turntable over the last few weeks. The vinyl mastering by Noah Mintz sounds excellent, and the original album artwork from the 1969 Teal/Gallo Record Company release is nicely reproduced.

Tabane is a wonderfully expressive guitar player, who plays with great timing and feel and gets a delicious warm tone from his Gibson archtop electric. The strong melodies and musical conversation between him and Thobejane on Kathloganao is positively joyous, while Inhliziyo takes on a darker tone featuring some beautifully executed fast runs. Man Feeling is pure deep blues and on the only vocal track, Ke Utlwile (I’ve Had Enough), Tabane sings about his sister’s child.

On Tsela, a wonderful track (see video below), the guitar almost takes on a sitar voice as the two musicians trade fours throughout. The rest of the album’s repertoire is in a gentler vein, focusing on songs performed primarily with penny whistle and dipala. It sounds very beautiful and soulful, the effect is pastoral and calming. Tabane’s penny whistle playing is no less skilled than his guitar; he’s a masterful musician with great control.

I’m not convinced about the ‘Africa’s Sun-Ra’ tag Philip Tabane has been given by some critics, he surely deserves to be respected as an important and original talent in his own right. But if it helps to get the word out to a new audience, then why not? They’ll enjoy this.

Release date: 9 July 2021

LINKS: Purchase the vinyl on Bandcamp
Obituary from 2018

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