WA MPONA (BWSA2281)
Followers of jazz and world music in South Africa were stunned by the news that Moses Taiwa Molelekwa had been found dead in his Johannesburg offices. Aged just 29, Molelekwa had already carved out for himself a place in the country's musical pantheon as a uniquely gifted keyboard man and composer who had started to blossom from his jazz roots to a richer and more eclectic style which drew on the music of Cameroon, Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba and London's clubland.
Melt 2000's release of previously unrecorded material by Molelekwa is, therefore, an artistic event of the first magnitude. It begins with the release of Wa Mpona ("I can see you"), an extraordinary 11-track compilation of material which is almost unknown to the listening public. This was followed by the unveiling of a double CD of solo piano works recorded over a three-year period, the release of a CD and DVD of live recordings with Molelekwa in full flight with Khaya Mahlangu, Fana Zulu and Sello Montwedi in Nantes, France, in 1997.
Wa Mpona underscores why Kevin Legendre, writing in Britain's Observer newspaper, could rank Molelekwa with Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim as "a potential global icon". Rooted in African tradition and the South African jazz masters of the 1950s and 1960s, his music was tinged with the melancholy, vitality and rebelliousness of township life under apartheid. But it would take new and experimental directions as he soaked up musical idioms which emerged abroad and at home during the mid-1990s. A key influence was the drum 'n bass and house music of the club scene in London, to which he was a exposed as a member of the band Barungwa.
In 1999 he first combined with South African kwaito act TKZee at a concert in Denmark and at the awards ceremony of the South African Music Association. From this flowed a series of collaborations with local kwaito men and the birth of jazz-influenced "progressive kwaito".
A moving document of Molelekwa's artistic progress, Wa Mpona includes two live tracks recorded in 1994 at a rare session at Cape Town's Baxter Theatre , where he worked with international musicians for the first time. His genius as a jazz improviser shines through the album's closing track, a live version of "Ntate Moholo", of Genes and Spirits fame, performed at the North Sea jazz festival in the Hague with his youthful band, including Moses Khumalo.
The title track of the new album, "Wa Mpono", has been described as the granddaddy of progressive kwaito. Produced during the recording of his seminal second album, Genes and Spirits, this entirely new composition was considered too advanced and too remote from mainstream jazz tastes to be included on that album. It features the additional rarety of Molelekwa on lead vocal, backed by Lungiswa Plaatjies. Several of the other compositions on Wa Mpona will be familiar to those who know Genes and Spirits and the other album released during Molelekwa's lifetime, Finding One Self. But, with one exception, they appear in startlingly new guises. The cool keyboard and programmed drumming of "Spirits of Tembisa" surfaces, transformed, in two remixes, one a tasteful arrangement with additional saxophone parts by Buddy Wells and his combo, Tribe. The latino rhythms of "Ntate Mohole" are amplified by the addition of congas and timbales to the piano support of Chucho Valdez. "Sing Along", previously released only on the limited South African edition of Barungwa's album, The Messenger, will be fresh to all but a tiny band of Molelekwa aficionados. A galaxy of local jazz stars feed their talents into these works, including Jimmy Dludlu, Vusi Khumalo, Fana Zulu, McCoy Mrubatha and Sipho Gumede.
The fact that Molelekwa's voice and fingers have been stilled forever gives special poignancy to these performances. The quality of the musicial inspiration, and the sense of so much promise waiting to be tapped, underline how much has been lost to South African music. Lyrical and powerfully energetic by turns, they are both distinctively South African and part of larger world idiom. Perhaps more than any other South African musician of the modern period, Molelekwa looked back into the country's past while pointing to its future.
Recommended track: #8 Wa Mpona
For jazz lovers track: #11 Ntate Moholo Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival Ù99, The Hague
Track Listing (30 Second Samples)
1. NTATE MOHOLO (5:02)
2. SING ALONG (4:40)
3. SIYA MODUMISA (2:52)
4. SPIRIT OF TEMBISA - MAMA CITY REMIX (4:54)
5. MOUNTAIN SHADE (8:35)
6. BOMOLELEKWA (LIVE) (6:00)
7. NOBOHLE (LIVE) (9:50)
8. WA MPONA (4:58)
9. SPIRITS OF TEMBISA - DEEP SPACE BREEZE REMIX (7:05)
10. GENES AND SPIRITS (7:54)
11. NTATE MOHOLO (LIVE) (11:45)