The British-South African label Matsuli Music unveils a compilation retracing the incredible story of Club Pelican, a 70s underground Soweto club that brought jazz, funk and soul to new heights.
A night-time haunt in the backstreets of Soweto run by a well-known bootlegger should have been a prime zone for nefarious activities. Instead, it nurtured an underground music hub of a different kind, leaving a remarkable legacy. Soon after its opening in 1973, located in Orlando East, Soweto, Club Pelican became a spot where South African jazz musicians began to cook up experimental sounds inspired by the movements in funk and soul from the West. This was Soweto’s first night club.
“All the great guys came there”, says one-time house band member, saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu. “From tenor saxophonist Mankunku, to The Drive horn player Mike Makhalemele, saxophonist Barney Rachabene […] – all the big guys used to come here”.
While the house bands changed names and formations, it seems like the Afro Pedlars held court for much of the Pelican’s existence, from the mid to late 70s. “Friday and Saturday the band played their own material”, says Afro Pedlars veteran Mahlangu. “We’d play jazz standards […] for like two hours. After that, we’d mix it up with groovy stuff because it’s a nightclub. […] We had to learn the material from Tuesdays. You can imagine, in a week, memorising an average of 30 songs!”.
Lorded over by a charismatic figure known as Lucky Michaels, the club boasted a diverse pool of talent in its succession of house bands, singers and cabaret stars. One Night in Pelican captures the halcyon seventies period with a single nightclub embodying an indomitable spirit of its troubadour players. While schooled and rooted in “standards” and local forms, the music could take any direction at a moment’s notice. This compilation features all the key groups and players of the time: Abacothozi, Almon Memela’s Soweto, The Black Pages, Dick Khoza and the Afro Pedlars, The Drive, Ensemble of Rhythm and Art, The Headquarters, Makhona Zonke Band, the Shyannes and Spirits Rejoice.