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Batsumi - Batsumi (LP, Matsuli Music, 2013)

First released in 1974, this long lost South African afro-jazz classic was reissued on Matsuli Music, with a superb remastering from the original master tapes. The pressing was very limited on vinyl, with only 500 hand-numbered copies in circulation. This new edition, the first one since its original 1970s release, quickly sold out, and was followed late 2013 with a 500 copies repress on clear vinyl. A few copies are still to be found in stores: 16 left on the labels' Moving Along, we finally had a chance to listen to this gem thanks to Matsuli Music who kindly sent us one of the last copies they had in stock… Described by critics as great fusion of Afro & Jazz from Soweto, this mid-1970s set of South African spiritual jazz had never been issued outside of South African in its entirety before and we can't recommend Batsumi enough to all lover of deep African soul and psychedelic jazz musings. The b-side is particularly exceptional, with the extraordinary voyage that is 'Itumeleng'. 16 glorious minutes going from classical piano to folk with beautiful guitar & flute, evolving into a syncopated rare groove dance, then comes the sax solo, chants… The song builds and builds with layers of melodies before ending in a big band free jazz fashion. The kind you want to play again and play loud!

Batsumi - Batsumi
(180g Clear Vinyl LP) Matsuli Music MM102, 2013-11

Tracklisting :
A1. Lishonile 11:20
A2. Emampondweni 5:05
A3. Mamshanyana 4:40
B1. Itumeleng 16:00
B2. Anishilabi 3:25

Credits :
Bass, Artwork - Zulu Bidi
Drums - Lekgabe Maleka
Flute - Thabang Masemola
Organ - Sello Mothopeng
Tenor Saxophone - Themba Koyana
Vocals, Bongos - Buta Buta Zwane
Vocals, Guitar - Maswaswe Mothopeng
Producer - Baba Matiwane

Links :
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Press Release :
The Indigenous Afro Jazz Sounds of Batsumi
Almost as if it was unexplored territory, the extraordinary landscape of South African jazz is frequently mapped out by reference to a few well known landmarks: the glorious township swing and hot jive of the 1950s; the fame and misfortune of the modern jazz exiles of the 1960s, and their energising presence in Europe; the towering trans-national figures of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. For the jazz music and musicians of South Africa that did not by chance or choice fall into one of these categories, the long silence of history has only intermittently been broken, and the legacy of past iniquities has served to consign many names on South Africa's long roster of jazz giants to an undeserved obscurity. A wealth of music does not yet appear on the map, but when the contours of the jazz scene under apartheid begin to be surveyed in more detail, it is clear that a space must be marked out for the Soweto-based group Batsumi.

Formed in 1972 by bassist Zulu Bidi and pianist Lancelot Sello Mothopeng, and led by the blind guitarist Johnny Masweswe Mothopeng, Batsumi issued just two full length LPs, 1974's self-titled Batsumi, and the 1976 follow-up Moving Along. Though the line-ups differed slightly between the two releases, the core of the group was constant, and was comprised of Bidi and the two Mothopeng brothers, Thomas Thabang Masemola on flute and traditional drums, Themba Koyana on tenor sax, Abel Lekgabe Maleka on drums, and Buta-Buta Zwane on bongos.

Though details are scarce, some members of the group were certainly established musicians well before Batsumi hit the scene. Zulu Bidi had been a member of The Klooks, a Soweto sextet who cut two sides of driving, organ-lead jazz for Rashid Vally's independent Soultown label and enjoyed some success on the jazz festival circuit in the late 1960s. Abel Maleka had served as a regular drummer for the great pianist, composer and broadcaster Gideon Nxumalo throughout the 1960s, and was also part of a late 1950s group that had featured both Nxumalo and Malombo founder Philip Tabane. Flautist Thomas Thabang Masemola had played in a variety of Johannesburg jazz bands, including the Jazz Zionists and the Jazz Clan, and graced the show band of the successful 1972 Phiri musical under the direction of Mackay Davashe. And around the time Batsumi itself was in motion, tenorist Themba Koyana, who had taken up baritone duties in the Phiri band, was playing regularly to packed crowds at Lucky Michaels' famous Pelican jazz club, where he would appear alongside figures such as Allen Kwela and Dick Khoza - a 1973 article in Drum magazine profiling the celebrated Soweto nightspot describes the deafening applause that began as soon as Koyana stepped forward to take a solo. In 1974 these musicians and their colleagues stepped into the Audio Arts recording studio to record one of the great South African LPs of the decade.

Batsumi (R&T, 1974) is a masterpiece of spiritualised afro-jazz, and a prodigious singularity in the South African jazz canon. There is nothing else on record from the period that has the deep, resonant urgency of the Batsumi sound, a reverb-drenched, formidably focused pulse, underpinned by the tight-locked interplay of traditional and trap drums, and pushed on by the throb of Bidi's mesmeric bass figures. The warm notes of Johnny Mothopeng's guitar complete a soundscape that is at once closely packed with sonic texture and simultaneously vibrating with open space, and in whose shimmer and haze Koyana and Masemola soar. A sonorous echo emanating from an ancient well, reverberant with jazz ghosts and warmed by the heat of soul and pop, Batsumi is nothing short of revelatory.

The development of this powerfully original indigenous afro jazz sound had been set in train over a decade earlier by the Malombo Jazz Men of guitarist Philip Tabane, drummer Julian Bahula and flutist Abe Cindi. The Malombo sound was wholly original, and marked a dramatic departure from prevailing trends in South African jazz. A stripped back trio of flute, guitar and drums, it was separated from the jazz crowd by a pioneering twist: Bahula's kit was composed of the upright, mallet-struck wooden drums of the Venda spiritual tradition. In a field dominated by groups who had chosen the American modernist jazz language of Monk and Parker to convey their message, this was a bold and symbolically loaded innovation, and it brought them instant success on their debut in 1964. Despite this, the group soon fractured into two different outfits, Bahula and Cindi forming the Malombo Jazz Makers, Tabane joining with drummer Gabriel Thobejane in Malombo.

Batsumi did not cleave to the almost ascetically sparse instrumentation of the Malombo-style groups, nor were they new messengers of a specific tradition. Instead they presented their vision of modern afro-jazz within a wider instrumental setting, allowing its African roots to spread out and find new spaces. The influence of the Malombo sound is present, carried within the drums and flute of Thabang Masemola, but it is padded, supported and borne aloft by the other instruments in the warm currents that characterise the unique Batsumi musical synthesis.

The group's debut album arrived amidst a period of intense political, intellectual and artistic ferment stimulated in large part by the teachings of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement. '"Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud". This is fast becoming our modern culture,' wrote Biko in 1971, 'a culture of defiance, self assertion and group pride and solidarity.' Drawing partly on the insights of Frantz Fanon and the poets of Négritude, and partly on the contemporary US Black Power politics of figures such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, Biko forged a visionary and potent message of South African redemption, pride and defiance. It took culture to its heart, and in the wake of Biko's messagea burgeoning arts scene rooted in the black and African experience began to flourish.

The Batsumi sessions were completed on a limited budget at Audio Arts, a facility normally used for recording advertising jingles. The newly established Record and Tape Company (R&T) agreed to issue the album. A subsidiary of Satbel, R&T and associated record labels King, Soweto and Joburg sought to exploit indigenous black music and market it aggressively into the increasingly affluent and articulate urban black populations of the major metropoles of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. To fit with R&T's marketing plan and to conform with Apartheid radio-play restrictions the band were obliged to classify the songs on the cover according to language used. Stories of a seSotho hero ('Moshanyana'), the ancestral home of the Pondo people ('Empondoweni'), the setting of the sun on the rural past ('Lishonile'), joy and pride ('Itumeleng') and other themes inform the lyrics. The cover features an original painting by bassist Zulu Bidi.

By 1977 the briefly outspoken theatre groups, bands and poets of Black Consciousness faced a new wave of official interference and surveillance, and many bright stars from another generation of artists and musicians were driven underground or into exile; as David Coplan has written, bands such as Dashiki and Batsumi, who had briefly made their mark at festivals, small clubs and theatres, 'vanished under repression's waves.'

Many groups from this period did not issue recordings at all, and Batsumi are unusual in even having left an official recorded legacy. Out of print since the 1970s, and never issued outside of South African in its entirety, Batsumi is a landmark South African jazz recording, and a key musical document of its time. Out of sight for far too long, Matsuli Music is proud to be able to bring this back into view, and award it the prominence it so richly deserves.


Liner notes: Francis Gooding
Audio re-mastering: Frank at The Carvery, London
Artwork and design: Susanne Ballhausen at Buro Lumin
Produced for reissue by Matt Temple.
Not possible without Chris Albertyn and Rashid Vally. Special thanks to Eugene Skeef, Pops Mohamed and Siemon Allen.

This album has been lovingly restored and remastered for vinyl from the original master-tapes. In presenting this new version one of the challenges was that the original recording is swamped with natural noise from the use of reverb, live adjustments of recording levels, open mikes and little noise gating. While the original ambiance is preserved this new enhanced version is a significant improvement on previous attempts.


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