Spaza is a South African collective with neither permanent members nor prewritten songs. Yet the seven improvised tracks on their eponymous album, recorded in 2015, both rivet and bewitch with a bold mélange of mysterious, penetrating, overlapping sounds.
The six musicians heard converging on Spaza are part of several different Johannesburg scenes—Afro-funk, jazz, experimental electronic—and these stylistic elements synchronize through competition as much as compromise. Nevertheless, this is remarkably accessible music. The mix is fat, elastic and often multifaceted, yet the taste and quality of its varying grooves always holds sway. Two female vocalists deliver everything from squealing screams to sonorous moans, which are usually electronically altered, as are the synths, trombone, and electric violin, while the percussion of Gontse Makhene and the upright bass of Ariel Zamonsky pique the pace and forage for fruitful pathways.
There is a political underpinning here. A spaza is a small entrepreneurial business setup, of the type that kept the underclass alive during apartheid, and is still seen as a symbol of pluck and resistance. The song titles are named after consumer products. These collective improvisations pay homage to the resourceful ingenuity of the spaza. But that knowledge isn’t necessary to appreciate how the group interplay teems with life like a jungle after a rainfall. When you hear the pearled treble of something that sounds like a didgeridoo on “Magwinya, Mangola neWhite Liver,” it could be a processed violin, trombone, voice, or some combination of all of them. Jazz lovers will especially swoon for “Five Rand Airtime nama-eveready: 4000 degrees,” in which languid percussion yields to a locked-in groove between trombone and bass before the two singers scat individually and then in a mesh. And pop-soul fans will dig “Ice Squinchies (Waiting for You),” a playful love song with helium vocals in English, cantering percussion, and a toe-tapping bass part. It’s all one-of-a-kind music, a phenomenon to celebrate before you’re caught up in mourning that the prospect of there being a Spaza 2 is unlikely.
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