It's a little after six in the morning and despite the madness of waiting taxi drivers having to be cooled out in the Paris dawn, people having to figure out which or whose instruments would go back to the hotel rooms or wait in the studio to be picked up to be delivered where, who would ride with who to which airport to leap onto which nearly-ready to-depart plane heading for whatever capital for whichever concert, the engineers are working away at the console, the singers swaying back and forth, doing a few steps, smiling, and the musicians listening intently. Satisfied. David's got every reason to be happy.
The last take he squeezed in -the one they did after everyone should have already been out of there- is the more spontaneous, more spirited of the two. Perhaps one day someone will be able to explain how after seven or eight hours of hanging around, sipping coffee, making phone calls, frantically searching after midnight for an available drum kit somewhere in Paris, making more phone calls, waiting for the drum kit to arrive, coaching singers, finally getting down to playing music, listening to takes, working out what parts can be patched in where ... how sometimes the music manages to come out with more energy on the second take. Maybe because at the head of this session is the World Saxophone Quartet, that over the years they've learned to work their individual voices off each other and to form a unique chorus when playing together. There's the delicate balance of tension and blending between John's saxello and Oliver's alto or David and Hamiett on their solos and that power of four men together on the ensemble playing, rolling along like some smooth machine glistening in the sunshine. And with as much ease as they play together, they fit in with this expanded formation, supporting the singers like a rock.
This is a WSQ record, but it's undoubtedly David Murray's project, one that's followed a long road. David has been interested in doing a record based on South African music. The opportunity presented itself in the form of the Carnavalcade that Banlieues Bleues was producing at the request of the Seine-Saint-Denis administrative council to celebrate the 1998 World Cup. Banlieues Bleues had been organizing a festival in the northern Paris region for the last fifteen years, in which the WSQ and David's other bands, as well as a number of
South African bands had frequently performed. With this long association behind them, Valérie Malot came up with the idea of producing a Parade Jazz Zulu within the body of the Carnavalcade. She developed the idea and presented it to David. The original idea was to have four marching bands, totaling some 140 musicians in all, playing four different scores composed by David, centered around the WSQ. Valérie suggested they produce a recording of the music written for the parade, from which was born "The M'bizo Suite."
David traveled to a festival in Names and met the group of South African dancers who would be coaching the French dancers for the Carnavalacade. They struck up a good rapport, and David considered the possibility of using them as singers, so he invited them to come along to the studio when it came time to put together some rehearsal tapes for the Carnavalcade. "All South Africa people are somewhat musical because they all sing. I don't really know any South African people who aren't musical. I haven't met them yet. They all sing, some." Being musical and being a professional singer is not, of course, the same thing.
Getting the voices to work well with a whole gang of different instruments and complicated charts demanded patient and careful coaching, but the results are rewarding and impressive. The vitality in the singing has the kind of presence that comes off the street corner. And the gum boot rhythms on the M'bizo Suite are sort of an added bonus that dancers can offer.
The CD begins with those voices singing a cautionary tale for children, based on the story of a boy who meets his death in the forest at the hands of a cannibal tribe and the subsequent transmigration of his bones. The heart of the CD, the suite in three movements, is basically structured around the theme of the South African diaspora, the creativity of the artists roaming around the world, their dissatisfaction and their nostalgia for their homeland. Mashidiso is a woman's name, and the title of the last song on the disc. David compared this love song to the nature of apartheid and forced exile. "Imagine a man in exile who longs to see his girlfriend. Perhaps he had to leave without even saying good-bye. The only thing that keeps him going is the love he has for her, his memories and the chance to see her again."
The work that went into developing the third section of the suite was probably the most intense. In the rehearsal David asked the musicians to write something in their own language about "an ex-patriot who had left South Africa and was longing for his country and how he wanted to see the green grass of his country. And this is what's expressed in 'M'bizo.' I told them what I wanted and I gave them the phrase in music Ba dee dab dab, dab dah-dah ...'One day I want to see my mother's face...' Blab blah blah blah ...But I didn't necessarily phrase it with words on the actual notes. I gave them the melody and said 'I want you guys to write some lyrics for this.' So we worked with it phrase by phrase until we finally came up with it. And what they came up with in their native language was: 'I want to see my mother's face on the hills of my native land. And I long for the hills and the rivers of South Africa and ... to speak in my Zulu tongue...' You know, it's very simple. The lyrics are simple. Which I wanted them to be. It's a refrain that echoes through this recording."
M'bizo is, of course, the legendary original and inspirational bass player, wise and always humorous Johnny Dyani. "I'd be on the road with Johnny, and people who'd be twenty years his junior, South Africans, would come up and say, 'Oh, I finally met Johnny Dyani, the famous ex-patriot.' This was before the end of apartheid. He was here years before that shit changed." Johnny left South Africa with Chris McGregor's Blue Notes in 1964. After he settled in London and started to record, the rest of the world became acquainted with his power, velocity and originality on the bass as well as his singing. For more than twenty years Johnny would live in Europe, playing with great musicians from the States and Europe, like Joseph Jarman, Don Cherry and Steve Lacy. He led his own groups and often worked with players from South Africa, but he never got to go back home, dying on the road in Berlin in 1986, before the end of apartheid.
David is quick to say that this album is not just an ode to Johnny, but to Mangezi Feza, Dudu Pukwaana, Chris McGregor and Louis Moholo, who is the last living member of the Blue Notes. The album is for all those great musicians who had to leave their homeland, for those who were able to return and for those who never saw it again.
- David Aronson