Dudu Pukwana Zila ’86 – Here’s one I saved from my dad’s shed. No, really, my dad keeps Anglo-African jazz LPs in his garden shed. True story. There were six, or seven LPs in his shed ready to be taken to a local charity shop when in my, quite frankly, disturbing fashion* I smelt them out on my way to the car, slipped in and liberated a couple; charity beginning at home and all that.
I knew the name Dudu Pukwana and I’m pretty sure I got taken to see him play when I was a kid, I remembered the cover of Zila ’86 anyway, with its curious mix of Zulu art and almost spider web design. Dudu Pukwana was born in Walter Township, Port Elizabeth, South Africa and joined Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes as an alto player in the early 60’s. Inevitably, the hassle the Blue Notes got from the South African authorities as a mixed-race group caused them to leave for Europe, ending up in London. The Blue Notes became McGregor’s legendary outfit The Brotherhood of Breath, which featured and showcased Pukwana’s soloing. Taking full advantage of all London and its ex-pat South African jazz scene had to offer, Pukwana was involved in the pioneering afro-rock group Assegai, who released 2 LPs on Vertigo and afro-jazzers Spear, as well as playing with 1537-fave Hugh Masekela. By 1978 he formed his own group Zila and his own label, Jika Records, to release them on.
All of which brings us on to Zila ’86, you can guess the year it was released. Alongside Pukwana’s considerable talents, Zila featured amongst others, a brilliant guitarist called Lucky Ranku^ and singer Pinise Saul** as well as using Django Bates on synth and piano. Zila were a jazz outfit for sure, but they also blended elements of township jive, kwela^^ and incorporated latin-sounding rhythms at times into their music too, in other words just the type of big melting pot music I go for.
The first two tracks on Zila ’86 are the standouts. First up ‘Madodana (The Young Ones)’, has all the upbeat hustle and jive you could possibly want, Pukwana blowing strong over a tumultuous rhythm. In contrast ‘Hamba (Go away)’, despite the title has a slightly muggy, swampy seductive feel about it, the vocals of Pinise Saul are particularly potent on this one. Unfortunately, for my money, that’s all that hits home for me and I think that the problem lies in the production. The band, as you’d expect are never less than excellent but they end up sounding a bit stifled over the course of the whole LP, despite being co-produced by Pukwana and his wife, there are certain 80’s tropes and sounds that come through – lack of a good deep bass sound being a criminal one of those; it neuters the sound.
Ultimately, I quite accept that the fault for my slight disappointment of Zila ’86 may well just rest with me, I always prize rawness in music and I am more of a fan of African music, in all its myriad forms and guises, than of jazz, in all its myriad forms and (dis)guises. It may well just be the case that I want this LP to be something it is not, a deeper more dangerous creature perhaps, a hybrid of Fela Kuti’s dangerous funk and Dollar Brand’s earthy abstraction, would be perfection.
But I don’t want to leave you thinking that Zila ’86 is no good and, Crom forbid, that Dudu and his band aren’t either by extension. That’s definitely not the case. Just listen up to the excellent playing throughout, I can just tell that they would have cooked live. In fact, although it isn’t from this LP, check out the live clip below from ’87 with the brilliant guitar opening from Lucky Ranku, that’s why I wanted more from Zila ’86.
PS – I think I should get their live LP Life In Bracknell & Willisau by way of closure.
*think the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but for vinyl.
^who played African drums on Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn, trivia fans.
**no laughing at the back there, class!
^^South African street music, very rhythmic, good to dance to, jazz-influenced, often features pennywhistle as lead instrument.