Ntshuks Bonga and Dave Draper / Ntshuks Bonga, Andy Champion and Cory Mwamba
Snow in November / Paperstone Suite (FMR CD 308) / (FMR CD 422)
NTSHUKS BONGA from Johannesburg arrived with his family in London in 1970, a sevenyear-old refugee from apartheid South Africa. He speaks warmly of the International Defence and Aid Fund and its activist Allen Cook, who supported his family on their arrival and first month living in Highbury and Stamford Hill.
His prime musical inspiration was another South African alto-saxophonist, the incendiary Dudu Pukwana of the Blue Notes, although Bonga’s sound is absolutely his own: acerbic, free and unbounded, as I discovered some years ago when I heard him play with the great Cape Town drummer and another Blue Note pioneer, Louis Moholo.
So when I found a second-hand copy of his 1997 album on the rare Nota Bene label Abo Bhayi, I felt that it was my lucky day — as it proved to be, particularly when I heard his sextet play the beautifully moving lament Samora, Samora for their first president of independent Mozambique, Samora Machel.
Abo Bhayi — with its tracks like Amashwa (dedicated to Frantz Fanon), The Journey (a sonic essay on displacement and exile) and Kulenyaka ’silimanga (This year there is no crop) is a powerful evocation of Bonga’s homeland. It may be a difficult record to find, but fortunately he has recorded two albums for the FMR label, which are much more easily available.
Snow in November is homegrown from Clapton, East London, in the basement studio of the free guitarist Dave Draper, with two of the tracks cut during a heavy downfall of snow. It is a duo recording, with Bonga and his alto and soprano horns and Draper playing a home-made guitar with loops, a piano and Yamaha synthesiser.
The two Snow in November tracks are over 21 and 28 minutes long respectively. The astonishing interactive union of Bonga’s skittering, adenoidal notes and the subliminal tinkling, clanging, ringing and unnerving vibrato of Draper’s guitar make a colloquy which is sometimes chilling, other times harrowingly beautiful. It arrests the senses and carries them into a frozen outside world with a strange timbral warmth. Superbly recorded, you imagine these sounds arising from the depths of a snowbound house.
In April in Clapton recorded in 2005, Draper’s ruminative piano feeds Bonga’s gurgling notes which race away as if they are seeking the very source of freedom, and Loops in June, cut in 2006, with its perverse unity of musical senses, provoked me to imagine what was happening in the rooms above.
Were people talking, cooking, reading, exercising? For this music is reflective, social and entirely human. The basement of sounds becomes the world.
In November 2013, Bonga joined with Corey Mwamba on vibes and bassist Andy Champion to record the album Paperstone Suite, called so because it was recorded at the Paperstone Studios in Nottingham. The suite is composed of seven trio improvisations explored in an ideal acoustic setting which gives every note and whisper of sound a living sense of truth.
The opening track, Satori (Awakening), is exactly that, as if the world within these three musicians is roused to consider a new life. Bonga’s soprano flies over Champion’s bowed bass while Mwamba’s mallets search out a fresh land. In Zanshin (Awareness) the tribulations of Bonga’s horn are vulnerable yet instilled with invention and discovery while Mwamba’s emboldened notes stir powerfully beside him.
The trio’s intimacy breaks out to express a serene worldliness in the miracle of free and recorded sound throughout this record. Bonga blows with a breathless urgency on Shintai (Movement) as Champion’s bass digs deep into the muddy banks of the River Trent. Bonga’s horn howls in Jinsei no Rizmu (Rhythm of Life) and Mwamba’s notes resonate.
Paperstone Suite is a jewel of free jazz artistry, conceived and created in the moment, doing what Pukwana, Moholo and their confreres did five decades ago, bringing the love and brilliance of Africa to the very heart of England.