Jazz: South African Shane Cooper and his group Mabuta abolish borders

Even the UK’s annual BBC Proms will dedicate an evening to the South African Songbook this year, with trumpeter Marcus Wyatt leading the international Metropole Orkest and the vocals of South African singer Siyabonga Mthembu and the Zimbabwe-born British singer/songwriter ESKA.

Of course, such exposure is not without precedent. South African painter Gerard Sekoto was playing jazz in Parisian bars in the late 1940s. The international careers of Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela are just the best known of a group of musicians who sought apartheid exile. The South African group Blue Notes had a massive influence on European jazz scenes from the 1960s.

There are risks in being ‘in’ – not least that straitjackets of international public perception can be created about what ‘South African jazz’ is. Many international storefronts today have a nostalgic focus on great names from the past such as Makeba and Masekela. However, multiple legacies inform the sound of South African jazz and contribute to the rich lexicon from which it can draw. But none of them define it.

Today, South African jazz is expressed through multiple and diverse voices. Its internationalism, thankfully, is no longer driven by hideous repression at home and, in the digital age, does not always even require physical travel. An example (and there are many) is the new album Gone is the sun of Mabuta, led by bassist Shane Cooper.

Gone is the sun is just the latest demonstration of how South African jazz simultaneously looks inwards and outwards and communicates with listeners and other players around the world.

Gone is the sun

Mabuta takes its name from the Japanese word meaning “eyelid”, opening a door between the conscious and the unconscious. Liminality – the crossing of borders and the questioning of borders – was on Mabuta’s agenda from his first release Welcome to this World (2018). Cooper himself is a bass player who also jumps the boundary into electronic club music; the 2018 staff were all South African, with the addition of British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings.

On this 2022 release, South Africans Cooper (on guitars and synths as well as bass), keyboardist Bokani Dyer, trumpeter Robin Fassie and reeds Buddy Wells and Sisonke Xonti work with guest drummers from Switzerland (Julian Sartorius, Arthur Hnatek and Mario Hänni); Sweden (Christopher Castillo); the Netherlands (Jamie Peet); Lungile Maduna (South Africa); and André Toungamani (Senegal), some recorded remotely.

Like its predecessor, Gone is the sun is “a bassist album but not a bass album”. Cooper created all the compositions but the instrumental solos come from everyone else – although the track “Spirit Animal” is the epitome of Cooper. It’s never clear if he’s the bass’ spirit animal or his own. His concept sounds as much through his guitar as through his use of effects and washes. These shape the mood of the eight tracks, sometimes creating a feeling that irresistibly invokes a time or place.

The album employs markers of national identity in surprising and often subtle ways, so that it speaks fluently across all musical boundaries. Nonetheless, it taps deep into our lexicon.

The first two numbers, the title track and “Where the Heart Is”, are where South Africa speaks most explicitly. The title words can’t help but recall the classic song ‘Lakutshon ‘Ilanga’ (When the sun goes down, I’ll remember you). Here, the album notes say, he’s alluding to “the energy (which) was felt by all the musicians in a way that made it feel like we were in the same room after finishing a bit of sun together”. It is a fast, cyclical and galloping sound from the Eastern Cape, but which combines modernity and tradition in its juxtapositions of electronic and instrumental voices. “Where the Heart Is” keeps the beat going, with a classic South African bassline, call and response, and choruses behind the solos; he can’t wait to get home.

In contrast, ‘Umshana’ carries a South African afro-soul era vibe, with Xonti’s solo channeling the spirit of saxophonist Basil Manenberg Coetzee, while ‘Kucheza’ has Dyer’s organ reminding us of Black Moses and the Soul Brothers, and Cooper’s bass reminiscent of bassist Bakithi Khumalo. None of these quotes are obvious. Rather, the musicians use a pinch of this and a pinch of that to take a trip back in time where South Africans will recognize the landscape.

But if you’re in a club in Basel, you can simply savor the magnificent rhythmic complexity of ‘Umshana or the chime, guitar and cheerful touches of ‘Kucheza: you don’t have to have been where we’ve been . You don’t need to know Johannesburg to recognize Joburg Poem’s brooding urban vibe either; Cantillo’s Swedish percussion captures his feelings perfectly.

Rather than retreating behind idiomatic musical boundaries or expending energy explicitly combating them, Mabuta simply renders them irrelevant.

In many ways, this is the essential legacy of South African jazz on its international travels from the 1940s. And that, rather than any external definition, whatever the prestigious platform, is what continues to make the music breathe and grow in a vibrant way.

Gwen Ansell is an associate at the Gordon Institute for Business Science at the University of Pretoria. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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