A Guide to As-Shams, South Africa’s Pioneering Jazz Imprint

A selection of searing and uplifting highlights from the jazz imprint responsible for gems from Abdullah Ibrahim, Sathima Bea Benjamin and more

At the moment the sombre mood that pervades the country leaves the mind little time for other memories but for the ones of Madiba. Nelson Mandela’s law offices with Oliver Tambo was situated near the Magistrate Court in Johannesburg; and my dad’s restaurant was Nelson’s favourite lunch pad. His first date with Winnie was there. I was a teenager in the late ’50s and waited on the patrons, hoping for tips from the patrons. There was a Wurlitzer jukebox in the restaurant and really that was my grounding for my love of jazz. I reminded Madiba about this when I had to receive Abdullah Ibrahim’s award at the Union Buildings while Nelson was President. His pearly whites are still etched in my soul.” - Rashid Vally, December 2013

Abdullah Ibrahim - Mannenberg

Following the crushing brutality of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, jazz musicians in South Africa were faced with ever-harsher conditions. The ruling Nationalist Party who promoted the image of a tribal and compliant African to the outside world feared the hip, urban aesthetic of jazz. Musicians were regularly arrested, and radio stations and clubs closed down. Against a background of restriction, separation and intimidation, the bravery and ingenuity of jazz musicians became vital to the struggle. However, faced with increasing danger, many artists fled the country.

Dollar Brand, for instance, moved to Zurich with his wife Sathima Bea Benjamin in 1962, spending the mid-’60s in New York before converting to Islam and changing his name to Abdullah Ibrahim. Helped by influential musician friends overseas, Hugh Masekela also went to New York, enrolling at Manhattan School of Music after studying at London’s Guildhall in the early ’60s. Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes left for a jazz festival in Antibes in 1964 and didn’t return, going on to become the Brotherhood of Breath, a major influence on the ’60s London jazz scene. All of these artists played a role in promoting South African jazz, as well as spreading the anti-apartheid message. But some of the most important music during this turbulent period came from those that stayed behind.

“One day Abdullah says, ‘I hear you doing great work in the recording trade. Why don’t you record me?’ My jaw dropped at what this giant saying to me. So I stuttered, ‘I can’t afford you.’”

Rashid Vally

Despite the clampdowns, venues like The Pelican in Johannesburg and Club Galaxy in Cape Town became vital hubs where covert politics mixed with jazz. Rashid Vally’s Kohinoor record store was another important meeting point for the jazz community in Johannesburg. “Kohinoor had begun as a predominantly general store with a little corner my dad allocated for me to ply my album trade,” explains Vally from his home in Johannesburg. One of those to frequent the store was Abdullah Ibrahim who had recently returned from New York. Rashid Vally recalls his first encounter with this legend of Cape Jazz. “Tall and slender in blue denims, black boots and a satchel strapped across a broad shoulder almost reverently and inaudibly giving his right hand held by the wrist with his left greeting the Muslim As-Salam Alaikum with huge smiling eyes; this etched in my memory was my first encounter with Abdullah Ibrahim.”

By this point Vally had already released music from South African dance bands like El Ricas and the High Notes on his small Soultown label. On his return to South Africa, Ibrahim heard of Rashid’s success. “One day Abdullah says, ‘I hear you doing great work in the recording trade. Why don’t you record me?’” Vally remembers. “My jaw dropped at what this giant saying to me. So I stuttered, ‘I can’t afford you.’ Atlantic Records had just released Midnight Walk led by Elvin Jones featuring Hank Mobley and Dollar Brand; and this man wants me to record him. Sensing my discomfort he gave his infectious laugh and I was immediately relaxed.”

The pair quickly developed a close bond and began discussing potential releases on Soultown. “I mentioned how I enjoyed his composition ‘Tintinyana’ on Midnight Walk, and Abdullah replied that he will do me a better version,” Vally says. “Abdullah contacted drummer Nelson Maqwaza and bassist Victor Ntoni and that was the birth of Peace by Dollar Brand +2. That was the first album Abdullah recorded for me.” Another two Dollar Brand LPs were released on Soultown, but the label needed a new name that suited the times. Echoing both their shared faith and positive spirit under the dark cloud of apartheid, As-Shams, Arabic for “The Sun,” was the name proposed by Abdullah Ibrahim.

Over the next two decades, this small independent label (with its distinctive logo designed by Vally’s brother-in-law) released a raft of heavyweight LPs from the many corners of South African jazz. “This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship,” explains Rashid. “We did many recordings, some never issued, mellowing in archives. However Abdullah and I are discussing reissuing the back catalogue of his recordings.” Matsuli Records has already re-issued two As-Shams albums and, with more hopefully on the horizon, we worked with Rashid Vally to pick out a few key releases in the weeks leading up to the sad passing of Nelson Mandela.

Dollar Brand - Mannenberg, “Is Where It’s Happening”

In the late ’60s Cape Town officials cleared out the culturally vibrant District Six, dumping thousands of people into townships, split up along divisive “tribal” lines. This LP served as a tribute to the people of one of them. “Roundabout the second half of 1974 I was in Cape Town to record Abdullah Ibrahim,” says Vally. “I think it was on the third day of recording during a short break that Abdullah’s attention was diverted to an upright piano that had drawing pins attached to the hammer heads. This piano was used to record commercial jingles; hence the almost harpsichord sound. He started playing around and called the horn players to join in and the first strains of ‘Mannenberg’ began to emerge. Almost infectiously the mood became joyous.”

When people rushed into the shop demanding to know what it was, he went away and pressed 5,000 copies.

Produced by Vally, the two track LP was recorded in a studio on Bloem Street and was the first of a series of albums from Ibrahim on As-Shams in the mid-’70s. Fresh from the studio sessions, Vally played an acetate of “Mannenberg” from speakers outside Kohinoor. When people rushed into the shop demanding to know what it was, he went away and pressed 5,000 copies. “I convinced a customer to buy a copy of Mannenberg and he brought it back after week saying his wife doesn’t like it; sounds too much like Chinese music,” laughs Vally. “The cat most probably never heard this jingles piano before. I changed it but came back after a month to get a copy. It was the township rage by then.”

Such was the demand in the townships, Vally made a distribution deal with Gallo Records and eventually sold over 40,000 copies in South Africa alone. Featuring a soaring saxophone solo from Basil Coetzee, “Mannenberg” was a classic piece of Cape jazz that would take on even more significance in the next decade when it became a rallying anthem for the anti-apartheid movement. As Rashid explains, “The youth in the township used to put words to the tune and it soon became a struggle song. Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen played it at almost all the UDF [United Democratic Front] rallies around the country.”

The Beaters - Harari

Back in the late ’60s, the music, style and politics of black America was helping create a modernist pan-African identity for township youth. As Beaters drummer Sipho Mabuse once told Gwen Ansell, “Soweto soul music came from the American soul... because we could not relate to mbaqanga.” The Soweto Soul movement continued to thrive in the ’70s through groups like The Movers and The Beaters, who would record this LP for Rashid Vally in 1974. The LP was the group’s fourth in the original line up of Selby Ntuli, Sipho Mabuse, Alec “Om” Khaoli and Monty “Saitana” Ndimande.

The title track is about as heavy as the label gets, a deep brooding slab of Afro jazz funk that sets the tone. From the organ soul of “Push It On” to the jazz fusion licks of “Thiba Kamo,” the LP was every bit as hip as the threads the band wore. Through this LP, which went double gold, the group were renamed Harari by their fans in the townships.

Harari recorded one more LP for As-Shams, the much sought after Afro rock LP Rufaro before moving to the Gallo label. “They had first approached Gallo and some white A&R men rejected their offering,” explains Vally. “After the success of their albums with me they went back to Gallo, as I was too small to offer them what Gallo could. You see the bigger companies were looking for hits... hence smaller independents filled the gap.” The Beaters went on to become huge stars in South Africa with a more disco-rooted sound, and even entered the American Disco Hot 100 with their Afro boogie tune “Party.”

Movement in the City - Lament

Movement In The City - Black Teardrops

Towards the end of the ’70s, another As-Shams group, Movement In The City, became massive stars in the townships. “In 1979 when the political situation got worse I decided to go underground and fight the system in my own way,” recalls founding member Pops Mohamed. “One of the things I did was to form a concept and that was Movement In The City, which meant ‘let’s fight the regime.’” This understandably caused the group some problems. “We were not allowed to perform before a white audience using that name,” Pops says. “One had to get written permission from a police station closest to the white club to perform.”

Movement In The City’s eponymous debut album was released on As-Shams in 1979 and featured Sipho Gumede on bass, Gilbert Mathews on drums alongside Basil Coetzee on sax and Pops on Rhodes and acoustic piano. The group followed this release with their deep jazz classic Black Teardrops, recorded for the loved ones lost in the Soweto Uprising. “We had problems with the censor board over that name,” Pops remembers. As well as the title of the LP, the Board would surely have heard the message in a track like “Lament,” a soaring piece written by Pops as a healing song for his people.

Dick Khoza - Chapita

Born in Malawi, drummer Dick Khoza learned his trade in the ’50s with future jazz greats Tete Mbambisa, Dudu Pukwana, and Johnny Dyani, in an East London group that would eventually become the Four Yanks. A constant traveller across the country, he played drums for Christopher “Columbus” Ngcukana while in Cape Town. Once in Johannesburg he was a regular both at the famous jazz institution Dorkay House and The Pelican, becoming something of a talent scout there in addition to his duties as a stage manager.

Two months after the Soweto Uprising, Khoza took a band of musicians from the Pelican house band (including members of the Jazz Pedlars) into the studio to record the almighty Afro-jazz album Chapita. The title track was a storming slab of Afro funk that often closed sessions at The Pelican. Thanks to Matsuli, this and other killer tracks like “Zumbwe” and “African Jive” have reached beyond the ears of the collectors.

Mike Makhalemele - Blue Mike

Co-founder of the soul jazz group Drive with Henry Sithole in 1971, Mike Makhalemele became a stalwart of The Pelican throughout the 1970s, where he was remembered by owner Lucky Michael as one of the most important musicians in helping to rally other players to meet at the club’s jam sessions. In 1975 he released his debut solo LP, Peacemaker, which would eventually be re-issued by As-Shams in 1981.

A year later he recorded Blue Mike on As-Shams alongside heavyweight players Pops Mohamed, Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen. The standout track, “I Remember You,” was dedicated to his old partner Henry Sithole, and stands as a glorious piece of Latin-flavoured jazz fusion. (There was a thriving fusion scene in South Africa, particularly in Cape Town with bands like Pacific Express.) The polished sound of the LP is testament to the refinement of the South African jazz scene during the darkest days of apartheid.

Tete Mbambisa - Did You Tell Your Mother

In the midst of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, veteran South African pianist Tete Mbambisa took an octet into a studio to record Tete’s Big Sound. It included his dedication to his nation’s “Black Heroes” (Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo), and would become his signature recording.

As a pianist with the Jazz Giants, Mbambisa had been part of the band that took a prize at the famous 1963 Cold Castle Jazz Festival in Johannesburg alongside Dudu Pukwana. By the late ’60s Mbambisa was working alongside another legendary saxophonist Winston Mankunku whose albums Yakhal’ Inkomo and The Bull and The Lion would feature two other As-Shams artists, Lionel Pillay and Mike Makhalemele respectively. But by the mid-’70s Mbambisa felt South Africa’s acoustic jazz tradition was in decline. Released in 1979 with a front cover designed by Hargreaves Ntukwana – whose art featured on other As-Shams releases and adorns the walls of the Kohinoor record store – this was the pinnacle of Mbambisa’s mission to preserve that tradition. Featuring a stellar line up including Basil Coetzee on tenor sax, tracks like “Past Time” and “Trane Ride” are pieces of modernist jazz that reverberate with the urgency of the times.

Black Disco - Night Express

Black Disco - Night Express

During the ’60s it was commonplace in South Africa for messages to be hidden in both music and song titles. Censorship tightened further during the ’70s: Between 1976 and 1986, 60% of recordings were banned. So it was somewhat surprising that, in the same year as the Soweto Uprising, this radical piece of music slipped past the censors. “If one title sounded politically inclined, they wouldn’t play it,” says Pops Mohamed, who assembled a line-up of Basil Coetzee, Sipho Gumede and Peter Morake for three albums as Black Disco.

Of the three, Night Express was the heaviest. The title track is an incredible piece of Strata-East-style black jazz every bit as powerful as anything released by their US counterparts. Deep, modal and funky, the track was originally titled “Black Discovery” before the censors made them change it. One listen to the scorching radical tune though, and the townships would have been in no doubt where the train was heading.

Sathima Bea Benjamin - African Songbird

When Sathima Bea Benjamin passed away in August of 2013, we lost one of the finest voices in jazz. Her spiritual music reached a new audience in the months leading up to her death, though, thanks to a timely reissue of African Songbird on Matsuli. Released in 1976, the album was Sathima’s long awaited debut after two previous LPs were shelved, including a 1963 outing with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. “I’ve been gone much too long, and I’m glad to say that I’m home to stay,” Sathima sings on “Africa,” a spine-tingling dedication to her people. This monumental piece of spiritual jazz is almost topped by “Music,” its sparse percussion matching the stripped back beauty of Sathima’s voice, which eventually reaches a pinnacle on the closing a cappella “African Songbird.”

By Andy Thomas on December 12, 2013

On a different note