Togetherness: Post-colonial appropriation or welcome celebration of South African jazz?

CD Review

Cultures around the world provide a rich heritage to draw from for practicing contemporary artists, but it’s always a thorny issue when a non-native draws on stylistic features of the practices of another culture, as care needs to be taken to avoid cultural appropriation and ensure respectful treatment of that source culture and its artists.

In this CD by the Montréal group known as Togetherness, the music of South Africa is the stylistic core, featuring tunes by composers Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Fez. The CD also includes tunes by non-African musicians inspired by the South African musical style – a joyous choral sound that is rhythmically infectious and melodically sweet and celebratory – as well as featuring some outside-the-box playing by the seminal musicians mentioned above.

In this release, five of the six musicians involved are Montrealers (Ellwood Epps, trumpet; Erik Hove, alto sax; Scott Thomson, trombone; Stéphane Diamantakiou, double bass; Louis-Vincent Hamel, drums), and they are joined on three tracks by South African saxophonist Rus Nerwich, a native Capetonian who appears to have been a catalyst in this band’s genesis. Nerwich’s presence provides an obvious authentic link to the source, but the authenticity also comes via the musicians’ approach. Their pleasure in exploring and sharing the music comes through loud and clear and is what makes this set worth listening to repeatedly.

Music aficionados are no strangers to the South African idiom. The recent death of South African flugelhornist Hugh Masekela was widely noted in the mainstream press, evidence of the esteem people had for his musicianship worldwide. Paul Simon’s use of township players and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in his Graceland album, while controversial, nonetheless played a role in raising the profile of South African music.

Celebrated jazz artist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) is here represented by two tracks: “Salaam” and “Blues for a Hip King. The CD features two other South African composers: Mongezi Feza, a fascinating trumpet player with the fabled South African jazz group The Blue Notes (which included Louis Moholo, Nikele Moyake, Johnny Dyani), and Dudu Pukwana, saxophonist and chief composer with The Blue Notes (“Angel Nemali”). The non-South African composers include Misha Mengelberg  (“Kwela P’Kwana”), William Parker (“Looking for Gilchrist”), Roswell Rudd (“Bamako”) and Togetherness’s trumpet player Ellwood Epps (“Homescoolin’” and “Clay”), seamlessly weaving their pieces into the whole.  All share the celebratory qualities mentioned earlier.

The first track sets the cheerful tone of the album. It is “Kwela P’Kwana” by Misha Mengelberg, New Dutch swing master, a tune that appears on the Vancouver label Songlines, in a CD with contemporary jazz artists Dave Douglas, Brad Jones and Mengelberg’s Dutch compatriot, drummer Han Bennink.  It is a parade-like anthem announcing the upbeat music to come. This buoyant tone is also a feature of Pukwana’s “Angel Nemali,” Feza’s “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me (‘Cause You Think You Know Me)” and Epp’s own “Clay.” The other two composers, William Parker (“Looking for Gilchrist”) and Roswell Rudd (“Bamako”) are Americans who are squarely in the avant-garde camp. Rudd, a trombonist who passed away last year, was one of the pioneers of free jazz, and bassist Parker is currently one of its most prominent and respected artists. The pieces reflect the free spiritedness of South African jazz.

The eight tracks taken together share characteristics of early New Orleans jazz, for the three-horn front line (a fourth horn appears on three tracks) and the perky drumming and bass lines and the feel-good effect that seems to be the ultimate redeeming and endearing quality of this release, which is thankfully respectful of the musical sources. But the band also seems devoted to the idea of celebrating the spirit of the South African musicians and their musical heritage. The arrangements are varied and the playing is inspired and polished.

Togetherness, formed in 2016, has since played more than a dozen performances, including the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Something Else! Festival and a tour of Ontario. The future looks promising for the group, judging from this CD, which is evidence that cultural borrowing can work if done respectfully, with proper recognition of the source artists and the wealth of their cultural heritage.

CD Details: Togetherness, on the Mr. E Records label (#5)

Recorded by Zach Scholes at Atobop Studio, Montréal, on October 1, 2017

Paul Serralheiro was born in 1956 in Riba Fria, Portugal, and came to Montréal in 1958. He is a journalist, guitarist and trumpeter and teaches in the English Department at Dawson College.