“It became a realisation for me when we played Le Poisson Rouge in New York for our opening North American tour,” says Mthembu, who performs with The Brother Moves On, Shabaka and the Ancestors and as Hymnself. “The next morning a journalist wrote me a long Facebook message about how, 30 years prior, he had been in the same room watching Hugh Masekela play his first gig in New York. And he had gone full circle into realising what a global powerhouse South Africa is with regards to the jazz idiom, in essence.
“For years I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes our jazz what it is. And it’s the fact that it’s an indigenous knowledge system. It is passed on by players who have travelled into exile and those who have never ever left the country. It’s something that is in the music that I love from South Africa that speaks to my soul. A lot of it would be seen as jazz, but it’s a certain sense of soul music that’s really tied to our consciousness as the indigenous people of this land.”
The album was recorded at Dyertribe Studio, which is on the outskirts of Centurion and run by father-son musician duo Steve and Bokani Dyer. Mthembu describes the recording process as like going to “school camp”, with two bands recording each day and artists floating in and out of the studio continuously. Over four days in June, the collaborators brought together 52 musicians — a notable feat as South Africa was still in a heavy Covid-19 lockdown and musicians across the country had lost most, if not all, forms of work. The videos shared online of the sessions, depicting a room full of musicians, appeared like a dream to the outside world.
Planting the seeds
The idea for the compilation arose over dinner with representatives from the Brownswood label in London, while Mthembu was on tour with Shabaka and the Ancestors in 2017. The label had just released their Wisdom of the Elders record.
“My interest was sparked by the Kokoroko track Abusey Junction,” Mthembu says, referring to the London-based Afrobeat band’s contribution on We Out Here. “And then I asked them, well, why haven’t you guys pitched a South African one yet?”
When the Brownswood people wondered who would curate it, Mthembu jumped at the opportunity, and received word from the label confirming their interest at the end of 2019.
In seeking a collaborator, he explains that he wanted to work with “someone who brought a totally different sensibility and skill set”. “I’ve always wanted to work with Thandi. So, it was just a shoo-in that she is the person I would ask.”