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Gwigwi Mrwebi Mbaqanga Songs

Gwigwi Mrwebi
Mbaqanga Songs


'What's that machine Gwigwi Mrwebi is carrying? That's his silver alto sax which he plays like gold!'

Gwigwi's Band did several broadcasts for BBC World Service To Africa in the late 1960s: Gwigwi Mrwebi and Dudu Pukwana on alto saxophones, Ronnie Beer on tenor saxophone, Chris McGregor on piano, Coleridge Goode on double bass, and Laurie Allan on drums. Though McGregor's exclamatory introductions to each number gave the impression that the band was right there in the studio, clearly some of the music was taken straight from their LP on Doug Dobell's 77 Records Kwela by Gwigwi's Band. This CD is a reissue of that album, pretty well impossible to find for the last thirty-plus years.

Doug Dobell started his label in the mid-1950s, naming it after the street number of the shop, and concentrating on blues, folk and traditional jazz. One of Bob Dylan's first UK releases was on 77 on an anthology back when he called himself Blind Boy Grunt. My guess is that the only 77 release on its 'Afro' imprint (catalogue number 101) was Kwela By Gwigwi's Band.

It was recorded in January 1967, at Dennis Duerden's Transcription Centre, nearby in Covent Garden. Introduced by Dollar Brand, Maxine McGregor was working there at the time. 'Dennis was a passionate champion of African art of all kinds,' she recalls. 'The Centre was the only place in London where African writers, artists and students could meet to work, for a chat, a cup of tea. It really was a melting pot for black Africans from the different countries as there was simply nowhere else like it at the time. Writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, James Ngugi, Christopher Okigbo, the sculptor Dumile, to name just a few.'

Each piece here is either by Mrwebi or Pukwana, and one or the other altoist solos on most of them. Occasionally there's a piano or tenor sax solo. They're very short versions, as though recorded for a series of 7-inch singles, and the tunes are wonderful, all in the dance style that was then captivating South Africa.

Interestingly, there is no mention of Kwela in the broadcasts: the music is always referred to as Mbaqanga. Strictly speaking, Kwela ('get moving', in Xhosa) applied to the penny whistle bands of the 1950s, like that of Spokes Mashiyane. I am guessing 77 Records chose the word Kwela for the LP title because it's a lot easier for Londoners to say than Mbaqanga. In any case, the styles are closely related, especially harmonically, with a C-F-C-G7 chord sequence showing up a lot.

Google 'Gwigwi Mrwebi' and you'll find a lot of sites promising 'safe parking on the corner of Miriam Makeba and Gwigwi Mrwebi Streets'. That's in Newtown in Johannesburg, where numerous streets have been re-named after famous South African musicians. What you will not find is much information about his life.

His first name was Ben, he was sometimes known as Bra Gwigwi. He played alto and clarinet with trumpeter Hugh Masekela and saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi in The Jazz Dazzlers, who recorded three tracks for Gallo in 1960. He spent a while in the army; he worked as a journalist for Drum magazine. He played in The Jazz Maniacs and The Harlem Swingsters. He came to the UK from Johannesburg as an actor and clarinettist in King Kong a musical about a Zulu boxer which opened in London in February 1961. He played Old Dan Kuswayo, the narrator, and he appears on the Gallotone LP of the original cast recording of this 'All African Jazz Opera'. He died in the USA in late 1973.

The Blue Notes Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, Chris McGregor, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo came from South Africa to London in 1965: composers McGregor and Pukwana were equally outstanding in the big band setting of The Brotherhood of Breath, and a couple of the Pukwana tunes featured on Kwela were opened out by the Brotherhood notably, Mra (bra, mate), which became an intricate set of overlapping riffs, and appears here as a great, atmospheric dance tune, with a piano vamp that evokes sixties Ethiopian music.

At home in Cape Town, tenor saxophonist Ronnie Beer had played alongside Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo in The Swingin' City Six, and later with The Jazz Disciples. Also moving to London in 1965, he was reunited with Louis and Mongezi in The Blue Notes. Later he worked with the great free jazz drummer Sunny Murray.

Coleridge Goode took a ship from Kingston Harbour to Britain in 1934. He has lived in Ladbroke Grove since the nineteen forties. The first person to play amplified double bass on BBC Radio, he was with the (pre-Goons) Ray Ellington Quartet for a while, but is celebrated most for his work with various Joe Harriott ensembles.

Londoner Laurie Allan was a regular drummer with The Blue Notes. He vividly remembers having his left ankle in plaster for this session, but his playing here is perfect. Fans of 1970s music may recognise his name from Gong albums.

Beautiful, fabulously danceable tunes. Listen to Nyusamkhaya, and try to get it out of your head. Impossible.

Steve Beresford

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