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Various Artists: Indaba Is (Brownswood)

Review of South African jazz compilation bearing the imprimatur of British maven Gilles Peterson

Cover of the Indaba Is compilation
Cover of the Indaba Is compilation

South Africa is home to some brilliant, burgeoning jazz and improvised-music scenes, so it’s no surprise to see tastemaker Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood imprint forwarding the message. On Indaba Is, a compilation curated by pianist/songwriter Thandi Ntuli and vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu (of performance-art ensemble the Brother Moves On), bonds of community, marks of history, and the spirit of the moment merge.

Pianist Bokani Dyer’s “Ke Nako” opens the album with an immediate juxtaposition of times and tensions: The title nods to a phrase meant to encourage voting in the country’s first election after apartheid fell, but ripe rhythmic language and firm vocalization speak to an exploration of identity in the present (and where it might lead). The glazed glories of the Brother Moves On’s “Umthandazo Wamagenge” follow, dealing with connection and division through varied stresses and fractures. Trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana’s “All Ok” leans on mellowed-out modernism and echoes from the Eastern Cape. And the Wretched’s “What Is History” hits hard with the inclusion of thought-provoking vocal samples directly addressing racial strife, weaponized politics, and the stains of South Africa’s past.

Cooler climates beckon on guitarist Sibusile Xaba’s soothing and spacey “Umdali.” A stirring stroll in seven sets the Ancestors’ “Prelude to Writing Together” in motion. Ntuli’s “Dikeledi” delivers a shimmering R&B and neo-soul slant while touching on the rub between individuality’s ideals and the realities of collective strength. And iPhupho L’ka Biko’s “Abaphezulu,” featuring Mthembu and Indo-jazz band Kinsmen, offers a clear merger between native African and South Asian strains.

If you’re looking for the sound of South Africa, you won’t find it here—or anywhere, for that matter, since a sole signature doesn’t exist. But for a taste of the many flavors therein, and a hint of the deep historical and cultural references informing the music, Indaba Is has you covered.

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.