Blowing Mankunku back to life – Reading Yakhal’inkomo: A Portrait of a Jazz Classic by Percy Mabandu
“It begins” – those are the opening words of fine artist and journalist Percy Mabandu’s musical portrait of Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s Yakhal’inkomo of 1968. Mabandu is a well-accomplished music journalist with an encyclopedic and steep knowledge of jazz and its traditions. He reflects this knowledge in his Yakhal’inkomo: A Portrait of a Jazz Classic with impeccable beauty and sincerity of a jazz prophet.
Yakhal’inkomo (1968) is Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s most important contribution to not just the body of jazz in SA, but in “black Atlantic”. “Black Atlantic” is that commonality of identity, representation and ideal, expression of black experience, music and culture that spread itself from Africa, to the US, Europe and Caribbean – that became fashionable from the 1950s.
Mabandu is a fierce young writer with a fiery pen that conjures up some of the finest scribes of the Drum era. Trained as a fine artist, Mabandu became a journalist in a slipstream of opportunity while at University where he was also a radio DJ.
Yakhal’inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic is a project of passion, tears, wisdom and love. It is also a psychedelic academic trip down the history lane. Mabandu worships at the feet of the great giant and he spills his guts defining the experience of Yakhal’inkomo. He writes with the anguished passion of a stalker-fan and the precision of a mad academic.
This is a reflective essay of a giant by a young man on his way to being a musical historian of great importance. At only 100-pages, I feel like Mabandu should have written more about this important album. He calls the effect of this album a “kind of trinity of witness and testimonium to terrible and tumultuous lives.” This trinity stems from the fact that Yakhal’inkomo inspired Mongane Wally Serote’s collection of poems of the same title and a whole body of work by the evergreen artist Dumile Feni. Mabandu makes a meal out of this – and he should. It is a rarity to have such important artists influenced by the same ideal and body of work. Dumile Feni produced a whole series of work in and around 1967 – just before Ngozi recorded and released his Yakhal’inkomo – around the metaphorical, cultural and metaphysical importance of “inkomo” (cow) to Africans. Mabandu recounts Feni’s pointed account of how a cow that was being slaughtered affected the other cows in a kraal in his home. Feni noted how the other cows bellowed as if out of sympathy with the cow being slaughtered. This was an important moment for the young artist. He shared this experience with Mankunku Ngozi and when fellow musicians heared his tenor sax, one of them said his sound bellowed like a cow. The legend and legacy of Yakhal’inkomo was born. Once the LP was pressed on acetate, Serote – an important poet of the time – was also spellbound by the sound of the “bellowing cow” of Mankunku’s horn.
Mabandu’s account is excellent not just for his words of endearment, but because there is no other such contemporary and honest text on Mankunku’s groundbreaking Yakhal’inkomo. Contemporaneity and relevance of Yakhal’inkomo today, is not the only reason Mabandu writes this account – he writes it because he is involved in the process of re-imagination and to a large extent – of recreation – of this great work. He implicates himself in the importance of Mankunku and he injects himself in the trajectory of adaptations and re-imagination of the jazz classic.
Percy Mabandu’s project of recreation of Yakhal’inkomo also serves as a historical enterprise. He lays out the musical trackways of 1968, the year that Mankunku Ngozi’s album was recorded and released. He outlines the influence of John Coltrane’s era on Ngozi to Dollar Brand’s protestation of South African artists mimicking the Americans. He outlines the brutality of apartheid and how it paralysed the genius of many artists but also how apartheid was the fuel and reason for the explosion of essential music and art in the 1960s.
Mabandu’s utility of language is lavish and indulgent, but not over-the-top. He writes with a sweet fluidity that is not pompous. He sufficiently uses very academic musical terms, but even this is not over-bearing.
He attempts to balance the music of Mankunku Ngozi with reason, circumstance and history – and he is successful. The book does not attempts to proffer a reason for the need to record Yakhal’inkomo – in fact Mabandu makes it very clear – through the words of the numerous theorists he employ – that words often fail to explain music; that often music exists for itself, to explain itself or get close to “metamusic; music confided to itself”. He is aware that finding language to describe music can sometimes be a fruitless exercise.
This is the only critique I have for this slim offering – words do fall short, but not to the extent that the author waffles. Yakhal’inkomo is a seminal work by one of the continent’s finest jazz musicians. How would you trap the bigness of Mankunku in one book? What choice of words to use? What figure of speech does one use to capture the expanse of Mankunku’s talent? What language to use to encapsulate such genius? Mabunda wrote a complete tribute not a critique. He wrote a personal reflection with hints of an academic text, not a eulogy. This affords Mabandu wide-open avenues for imagination and creative latitude. And he uses these to personalise the effect on Yakhal’inkomo on him while he simoultaneously extends this to capture the pain of collective blackness of the 1960s and today. What he also achieves is space to ask metaphysical questions and to engage with the music in an existential manner that jazz typically brings to life.
Portrait of a Jazz Classic is used by academic music schools in the country, to signify the importance of Mabandu’s contribution to the body of jazz and ethno-musicography. He listens and views the album as a perfect project. He offers not a single line of criticism – except when he interprets Thembi Mtshali’s important rendition and interpretation of the song. He says that Mankunku might have completely ignored the agency of women and the effect or importance that cows/cattle have in their lives too. Mabandu is clearly enthralled to the music of Winston Mankunku Ngozi to the point of idolising him. And this approach is correct because Mabandu was not writing a biography, but a contemporary reawakening of the gigantic album and musician. Portrait also allows Mabandu to explore the politics of blackness through the lens of jazz and he draws John Coltrane’s influence of Mankunku into the text with great utility.
Winston Mankunku Ngozi went the way of his ancestors in 2009. A titan had rested his bones and “shook off his mortal coil”. It was the end of an era and a prolific saxophone rested. It would be a very long time before South Africans would be so musically blessed – and that blessing came from the East of Johannesburg, in the form of a jazz tornado of Moses Molelekwa.