Africa Plus Album Review
Africa Plus members are relatively young but have already earned their stripes at various music avenues. The band’s bass player Prince Bulo won the SAMRO overseas Scholarship for Jazz category and features in many award winning albums, Lungelo Ngcobo the pianist/ keyboard player was the finalist of a prestigious UNISA piano competition, the drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko immensely contributed to the album that probably won Benjamin Japhtha the Standard Bank Young Artist (Jazz) for 2017 award. So the music enthusiasts who have been following these young musicians have always had high expectations about their debut record.
The music paths of AfricaPlus members have always intertwined, they studied in the same music school and have worked in the same projects so it was inevitable that at some point they would eventually come together to form a music ensemble.
Observing the band’s name, the music, and this trio’s image, it appears that identity is at the centre of its being. This group is an afrocentric oufit that perceives music through a global lens, it expresses old wisdom through a fresh interpretation.
Despite their unquestionable accomplishments it was a daring decision on their part to release a live record as their debut album, this move could decide the fate of the future of this band, it could easily dismantle the future of the band if something went wrong. This record was recorded live at The Orbit (The home of jazz), it captures the raw real essence of their music.
Given the musical backgrounds of the members of this band it comes as no surprise that their debut album is a hybrid of a wide range of contemporary music influences infused into a pot of contemporary jazz.
On this record Lungelo plays with fluidity, lyricism and grace, he showcases both jazz piano elegance and soulful organ voice projection. Bulo is popularly known for his sheer flair, flamboyant and dominant bass playing style, but on this particular records he plays with caution, discipline and pays emphasis on bass fundamentals. Sphelelo provides multiplicity and balance in the music, he oozes with dynamism and versatility as he multi tasks keeping time, colouring the sound and dishing comping patterns that complement his peers.
This band also features a beautiful alto tenor saxophone player by the name of Tshepo Tsotetsi who brings an added texture, pitch and dimension to the music. Tsotetsi’s role also allows Lungelo to freely interchangeably move in between playing melodies and harmonies.
Their album opens with a piece titled “Brothers” which to me signifies the history and the bond that exists between these three gentlemen. This piece oozes with energy and a sense of resolve as Lungelo’s relentless piano stretches. These guys occasionally flip it over and swing vigorously, this tune happens to be most influenced by the traditional jazz. Bulo plays a beautiful bass solo with Sphelelo’s comping behind him.
The next track is titled “Drums in Orbit (Lelo’s Interlude)”. This album contains about 3 interludes which are sequenced beautifully blending tracks into a seamless incessant music composite, this happens to be one of the most creative ideas on this album.
The tune “Who am I” ‘is constructed in a way that reminds me of the “Fusion music” of the 80’s and 90’s popularly made by the likes of Bob James, Dan Siegal, Dave Grusin. “Mehlclate part 1” is such a soulful and expressive hymn featuring Tshotetsi on alto sax. The band is just in its element as they play this piece since they have played this kind of sound for years in church. Part two of the same song is given a slightly uptempo dimension while the reprise version is probably my favourite piece on the album, it gives a glimpse of Bulo breaking lose and his passion for funk, and it also reveals Lungelo’s organ voice that he is popularly known for in Gospel music circles, pity this piece is only two minutes and thirty five seconds long. The band’s cohesiveness is striking yet the band members maintain their individual musical personalities,
“African Roots” is preceded and developed from “Bass-ic Talk (Bulo’s Interlude) which gives it the root note. It opens with an a West African influenced bassline comped by Lelo’s djembe influenced drumming, then settles into a steady reggae rhythm that gradually evolves into a persistent “Struggle” rhythm and infectious chant that goes with it, interestingly this particular “ghetto” sound is treated with sophistication as Lungelo graciously glades piano runs on top of it.
“Pray for Africa” is a hauntingly beautiful “praise and worship” piece fusing the traditional spiritual and a contemporary element featuring Tsotetsi on vocoder. The album closes with “Sea side” which is probably the one of the catchy pieces on the album and has the makings of a radio hit.
The sound quality of the record is average given the limitations of a live recording as opposed to a studio recording, however the music quality totally makes the live recording decision worth it.
An inspiring thing about this project is that the band members wrote, produced, engineered and did the graphics of the album sleeve themselves, they totally took ownership of their work. One of the special things about this record is that it comes with an eight page colour album sleeve which gives the record collectors an added pleasure of text and visuals that enhances a holistic music listening experience.
– Njabulo Madlala