South African albums overshadowed by the lockdown

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Imvuselelo by Mandla Mlangeni's Birdsong Ensemble was released on As-Shams Records earlier this year. (Photo: As-Shams/ Supplied)
Imvuselelo by Mandla Mlangeni's Birdsong Ensemble was released on As-Shams Records earlier this year. (Photo: As-Shams/ Supplied)

During the course of this year, many artists were robbed from moments of celebration and the usual fanfare that accompanies a new album release due to the current pandemic. Album launches were impossible. Whole tours have been cancelled and finances have been lost in all directions, without live platforms. The support from the government has been close to non-existent for the broader artistic community. Notwithstanding, the following artists persevered and continued to create and release music throughout the year thus far.

Nduduzo Makhathini: Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld (April 2020)

One of the most anticipated releases of the year was pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds which was released in April. The album is the first South African record released through the prestigious US jazz label Blue Note Records.

The band line-up features Ayanda Sikade (drums), Logan Richardson (saxophone), Linda Sikhakhane (saxophone), Ndabo Zulu (trumpet), Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere (bass) and percussionist Gontse Makhene.

Through this record, Makathini channels messages from his ancestors through sonic outlets and explores Zulu spirituality in depth. As a result of the pandemic, Makhathini lost several performances scheduled in the US and Europe. He instead spent many months of lockdown performing at home via live-streaming and regularly conducting sonic lectures via Instagram.

Shabaka and the Ancestors: We Were Sent Here by History (March 2020)

Another highly deserving and much-anticipated release of the year was the follow-up album by Shabaka and the Ancestors released on the Impulse! label in March. Consisting of vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene, drummer Tumi Mogorosi, alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu and saxophonist and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings. The band lost two European and two U.S tours, and up to six months of performances scheduled due to the pandemic.

The album is an urgent call to rise up and resist oppression enacted through poetry, storytelling and free improvisation. It is one that deserves a revisit and it’s message will stay relevant for time to come.

Bird Song Ensemble – Imvuselelo (March 2020)

Composer and trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s latest project Birdsong Ensemble were meant to have the launch of Imvuselelo at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival at the end of March. The country had gone into national lockdown a day before the festival.

The album is a follow up from Mlangeni’s collaborative project Bird Song in 2017 with artist Kemang Wa Luherere. The album is a collaboration with Swiss musicians Max Treutner (tenor saxophone), Benedikt Reising (alto saxophone), Josephine Nagorsik (trombone), Oz Yehiely (bass) and Felix Wolf (drums).

The group also had a national tour planned which was cancelled. The album’s release was also a celebratory moment as a new release on the revived As-Shams (The Sun) label – one of the most important for South African jazz releases.

Shane Cooper - Small Songs for Big Times Vol. 2  (May 2020)

Versatile composer, bassist, arranger and electronic beatmaker Shane Cooper took to making the most out of a difficult situation by releasing short compositions that could be made quickly.

In one day, he created and compiled 13 songs for Small Songs for Big Times Vol.1 in time to be released for Bandcamp Fridays which waived commissions on album releases. The album was made at the end of March as many were entering self-isolation, “to try to raise some money to combat the harsh effects of COVID-19 (cancelled tours, shows and festivals) as a performing musician,” Cooper said.

The follow-up in May featured remote collaborations made with a stellar line-up of musicians and friends including some of the best in the country, amongst them Thandi Ntuli, Bokani Dyer, Guy Buttery, Sisonke Xonti, Keenan Ahrends, Mikhaela Faye, Ronan Skillen, Jonno Sweetman and RFK and Daev Martian.

Fernando – Pockets of Intentions EP (April 2020)

Young Cape Town-based drummer, DJ and electronic beatmaker Fernando Damon has been steady at it, working furiously at releasing a series of EPs and singles over the past few months under lockdown. In April, he dropped his Pockets of Intentions EP, an audio-visual collaboration with Cape Town-based visual artist and designer Fok. The pair connected late in 2019 and brainstormed ideas that could work through sound and stop-motion animation.

The project was wrapped up and finished under lockdown. The result is an innovative outlet justifying the power behind collaboration and the entire project can be viewed via Youtube. The record was released independently by Damon via Bandcamp. The track I’ve Been Thinking was recently rotated on radio shows hosted by UK drummer Moses Boyd and DJ Gilles Petersen for his weekly mix of new music on BBC.

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