SPAZA - UPRIZE! Music Album Reviews

SPAZA - UPRIZE! Music Album Reviews
The South African jazz ensemble’s improvised soundtrack to a 2017 documentary about the 1976 Soweto Uprising captures a mixture of outrage, injustice, and hope that resonates powerfully today.

“I ran away from the scene,” photographer Sam Nzima recalled to Time magazine. Then, after recovering himself, he doubled back to capture one of the most powerful photographs of the 20th century. It was June 16, 1976, and several thousand Soweto students had begun protesting the imposition of mandatory Afrikaans-language instruction in township schools. When a student protest turned violent, Nzima captured the still-shocking image of 13-year-old student Hector Pieterson, gunned down by police. South African apartheid wasn’t well known outside of the country up until that point, but its brutality was undeniable after that.
Director Sifiso Khanyile’s 2017 documentary UPRIZE! focused on these student protests and foregrounded their struggle against the Bantu Education Act, a repressive policy aimed at disenfranchising Black South Africans. Enacted in 1953, the law set up mandatory government-run schools where Black children were trained for lives of manual labor and menial work, creating an uneducated, unskilled underclass, and indoctrinated to believe that they were subservient to the country’s white minority. “They were putting our minds in a box,” playwright Fatima Dike says in the film. Accompanying the film is an improvised soundtrack by the South African group SPAZA, created as they watched a rough cut of the film projected on a living-room wall in 2016.

On last year’s heady debut album, which captured a one-off live performance from 2015, the group—an open-ended collective with rotating members—created a decidedly loose and spacey iteration of South African jazz, favoring slowly unspooling improvisations and woozy electronics. Stripped back to a quartet (only bassist Ariel Zamonsky and percussionist Gontse Makhene are held over), the smaller ensemble tightens up its sound while keeping that expansive sense of space. Zamonsky, who also serves as bassist for Shabaka and the Ancestors, provides a scraping, growling figure at the start that suggests deep unease and serves as a recurring theme throughout. “Bantu Education,” named for the repressive law, joins Zamonsky’s visceral low end with the echoing ululations of newcomer Nonku Phiri to create eerie, hackle-raising atmospheres. Folded into the spacious music are voices from the film describing apartheid’s attempts to divorce children from their heritage. “The South African history would get thinner and thinner and thinner,” says one woman. “And all you were taught was that your ancestors sold their land to the white people for a mirror or a knife.”

Spontaneous though the album’s compositions may be, several tracks stun with a spare, disarming beauty. On “Sizwile,” led by pattering hand drums and the gently spaced piano chords of Malcolm Jiyane (whose style brings to mind Bill Evans and South African jazz legend Abdullah Ibrahim ), Phiri’s aching vocals take center stage, by turns mournful and soaring, electronically doubled at key junctures to create a weightless atmosphere. Unhurried and disarming across its eight gossamer minutes, it serves as the spiritual kin to another piece of hushed, reverent South African jazz from earlier this year, Asher Gamedze’s “siyabulela.” Built on a one-note pulse from Zamonsky, “Banna Ba Batsumi” is another highlight, moving ever so slowly from turmoil to transformative release.

But through most of the album, the dread and unease of the apartheid era infuse the music. Fear and darkness encroach on pieces like “Mangaliso Sobukwe” and “The Black Consciousness Movement.” On the latter, Phiri’s vocals are processed in such a way that they resemble a spirit roaming the earth, unable to rest. Restraint and reserve inform most of the music up to that point, as if conveying resilience in the face of oppression and injustice. Only on “Bayasiphazamisa” do SPAZA finally let their sound boil over. Agitated keys and shrieks emulate the tipping point of the film, wherein the student demonstrations begin to spread into widespread workers’ protests and strikes across South Africa.

On the closing “We Got a Lot of Work to Do,” the recurring bass motif returns, now in a higher register. The title is potent, suggesting that such protests are not the end, but the beginning of a much longer struggle. The Soweto student uprising and dissemination of Nzima’s photograph were but the first step; it would be another 14 years before Nelson Mandela, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, was released. It’s erroneous to say that SPAZA’s performance captures the energy of our present moment, given that they recorded four years before the current upheavals. Yet they expertly distill in sound a sense of outrage, injustice, and hope similar to the one felt throughout the world now. As singer/actor Abigail Kubeka says in the film, “The only way we could find of dealing with the trauma was to perform.”
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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SPAZA - UPRIZE! Music Album Reviews SPAZA - UPRIZE! Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, October 22, 2020 Rating: 5

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