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Mankunku : "The Bellowing Bull" bellows again

The label Mr Bongo has reissued a rare gem by the South African saxophonist Winston Monwabisi Ngozi aka Mankunku; a masterpiece of South African jazz recorded during Apartheid. 

1450 euros. That was the price for the sole copy of the record available on Discogs, recorded in 1968 for World Record. A nice round number. It’s an understatement to say that this album has long been sought-after by jazz lovers who know its quality, regardless of speculators. Thankfully Mr. Bongo has reissued this rarity which has already been reissued in the past, notably by Jazzman and Gallo four years ago. Each time, the album sells out and the price soars. Now, in 2021, people can finally buy it at a reasonable price.

How to explain such a phenomenon? The limited pressed copies of the original album produced during Apartheid, of course. The music on the album, certainly. Two sides of an LP and four compositions : the recording is one of the best examples of the jazz produced in South Africa at the time. The native of Retreat (born in 1943), a suburb of Cape Town, was not alone of course (from Dudu Pukwana to Abdullah Ibrahim, Mongezi Feza to Johnny Dyani, Pat Matshikiza to Phil Tabane, there were many highly-talented jazzmen to arrive on the scene in South Africa), but Winston Monwabisi Ngozi emerged as the leading disciple of John Coltrane, whose shadow looms over this album recorded almost exactly one year to the day after the death of the jazz messiah. A composition is dedicated to him (“Dedication to Daddy Trane and Brother Shorter”), which sounds like a good compromise between Coltrane’s Prestige and Impulse ! albums, and one tune, “Bessie’s Blues”, is borrowed from his repertoire (played with a more “basic” approach to the changes).

Mankunku Quartet – Yakhal’ Inkomo

More generally, this classic quartet album (bass, piano, drums) by the tenor saxophonist, who claimed as his other master Sonny Rollins, is in its most captivating moments a perfect synthesis of the open harmonies of American post-bop and traditional South African rhythms. This is particularly the case during the 9-minute title track that kicks off the album, “Yakhal’ Inkomo” (The Bellowing Bull). It is at once joyful and poignant, feverish and serene, traditional and modern. In a word, a classic, served by a superb trio of companions (special mention to the “Indian” pianist Lionel Pillay, another victim of segregation who should have become known to a much wider public) and the high quality of the recording itself. It sounds like a good old Blue Note album!

Winston Mankunku Ngozi at the Luxurama, Cape Town, South Africa © Basil Breakey 

The years go by, and the album sounds as fresh as ever, just as it is an eternal shame that the musician, known simply as Mankuku, was sometimes also called “Winston Man” in order to appear more white (once, while playing with a white band at a concert at Cape Town City Hall, he was obliged to play from behind the curtain). Having chosen to stay in his homeland, unlike most of his peers who chose to go into exile, the saxophonist, who was voted the best musician of 1968 after the release of this LP, never became famous, even if during the 1970’s he made his mark with the remarkable group The Cliffs, in a more funky version, and even shared the stage with Joe Henderson, another immense tenor saxophonist who the South African musician also clearly evokes.

It was not until the 1990’s that he became known outside his country. But his time had passed, even if the valiant man in his fifties continued to record under his name from time to time, up to his final album, Abantwana be Afrika, recorded in Johannesburg in 2003. That same year, another future forgotten figure, the immense pianist Bheki Mseleku, dedicated a composition to him, “Monwabisi”, on which Mankuku’s saxophone shines so brilliantly. An ultimate ballad, which resonates in retrospect like a requiem for the musician who died in 2009 after a long illness. 

Mankunku Quartet – Yakhal’ Inkomo, now available via Mr Bongo.