Various Artists

Bulawayo Jazz
SWP Records SWP 032/HT 021

No one disputes that Jazz has rhythmic African roots. But like cinema or computers it took a certain set of American-created circumstances to birth the music, That said, by the end of World War Two, a simplified form of Swing and so-called Hot Dance themes and instrumentation had so penetrated the world, that some variations had even reached back to what was then unapologetically called the Dark Continent. But just as African descendents had participated in creating a new musical form so too did the continent’s locals when the new American music became popular. Ethiopian adaptations of the sound are already well known, but that music was not the only African variant of Jazz

As unknown to most as the names and customs of various groups in southern Africa is Bulawayo Jazz, 23 examples of which are presented on this fascinating document, recorded between 1950 and 1952 by pioneering ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey (1903-1977) in what is now Zimbabwe. Like the earliest New Orleans players, many of the band members had other jobs, but put together groups to entertain fellow workers during their off times in the booming industrial city of Bulawayo in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Interpreting native melodies, European pop and military themes they had picked up working in police bands and the like, coupled with variants of pseudo-Swing beats, these colorfully named groups were like the territory band that populated the US during the Swing era. Dressed as nattily as equivalent dance-band players of the era, as existing photos show, the combos were often named for the companies where they originated such as The Cold Storage Band. Strictly utilitarian, this was music for dancing and relaxing, which accounts for the 78 rpm-like length of the selections here, some of which were released commercially and one of which, “Skokiaan”, composed by saxophonist/band leader August Musaruwa (1920-1968) became a US hit when English lyrics were added.

That’s another characteristic of Bulawayo Jazz. Except for a few vocal choruses and tunes sung by players of more localized instruments, this is strictly an instrumental music. Additionally despite the name, which is probably as fancifully descriptive of the sound as so-called Acid-Jazz is to its’ origins, the links to the American art form are mostly in instrumentation. But even here there’s a unique African variant prevailing. No Euro-American Jazz band of any stripe in the 1950s would, as The Cold Storage Band did, by made up of alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, two [!] tenor banjos, double bass and percussion. Improvisation is at a minimum, full-kit drum rhythms are minimal, and while the dual – not dueling – banjos clank away in a style not far from British Trad Jazz, the lead is invariably taken by Musaruwa’s alto saxophone. His vibrato is wide enough to ferry across and his tone makes equivalent solos from his Jump Band progenitors like Pete Brown sound as if their solos are as cerebral and forbidding as Anthony Braxton’s work sounds to the uninitiated.

Historically interesting, this is a collection of party music that every much reflects its time and place. With flashy monikers such as The Umtali Chipisa Band, The Chaminuka Band, The Los Angeles Orchestra [!] and De Dark Brownies [!!], and comprised of mostly unknown players more used to plodding marches than swing in any form, only a few licks stand out. Besides Musaruwa’s textures on “Tsvuku Kunema” (really “The Lady in Red”) and throughout, which when given his head come across like a southern hemisphere amalgam of Brown, Johnny Hodges and Louis Jordan; The Chaminuka Band’s drummer on “Chaminuka’s Magic Jive” adds some Baby Dodds-style clicks; The Umtali Chipisa Band’s “Kuenda Namwendo” approximates New Orleans’ marching bands; the harmonized vocalizing on “Hlabelani Ke Bafana” by De Dark Brownies sound like it could come from The Mills Brothers – or maybe The Andrews Brothers (sic); while The Los Angeles Orchestra and the The Cold Storage Band indulge in some basic call-and-response and polyphony among the rumbas and jump tunes they play.

Most noteworthy are “Ngangile Ntombi Yam” by the Dick Ncube Trio, which unlike the more sophisticated outings, with its cat-gut fiddle strokes, clanking guitar and tambourine, sounds as if it could have been recorded by a 1930s country string band in the American Appalachia, with of course lyrics in a different language. Plus The Los Angeles Orchestra’s “ICharlie Jive” with its double sax lead approximates big band Swing.

Overall though like similar collections of Reggae or Arabic dance musics this is a collection to be dipped into, not listened to at one sitting. The clamorous banjo beat gets as monotonous as a jack hammer on a construction project after the first few tracks. Plus trying to elevate the bands’ musicianship to anything approaching their North American or even continental models does the players a disservice.

Many hot dance orchestras that never attained the level of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Bulawayo Jazz can be listened to with the same interest. Somewhere among the marches, rumbas and hokum are the seeds that produced major Jazz players like The Blue Notes a decade or so later. Enjoy Bulawayo Jazz, but don’t overvalue it.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ndakurakura Ma*; 2. Mafambiro E Hwai*, by the Cold Storage Band*; 3. Hamba Hamba Madala+; 4. Chaminuka’s Magic Jive#; 5. Skokiaan*; 6. Ngangile Ntombi Yami^; 7. Ududuzela *; 8. Ndipe Dza Kwangu*; 9. Misiwezi*; 0. ICharlie Jive+; 11. Ungityel’ Amanga+; 12. Rhumba*; 13. Hondo Chivutsi*; 14. Hlabelani Ke Bafana~; 15. Klara Tsotsi Umba*;16. Tsvuku Kunema*; 17. Siqonda Emaquswini*;18. Zuva Rashona%; 19. Kuenda Namwendo%; 20. MaChipisa Watere MuChikunda,% 21. Johnny’s Getting Married#; 22. I May Jump#; 23. Tipemba Fodya#

Personnel: August Musarurwa (alto saxophone, vocal) and The Cold Storage Band*; The Los Angeles Orchestra+; The Chaminuka Band#; The Dick Ncube Trio^; De Dark Brownies~; The Umtali Chipisa Band,%