South Africa has done little to acknowledge the passing of a jazz great and titan of drums, Gilbert Matthews. For Bra Gil, who brought credit to South Africa from a host of international jazz stages, the official silence remains deafening.
Matthews was a visionary of the South African jazz scene. Although his beginnings were on the conventional Cape Town club jazz circuit, his talent took him across the world – he was, for a time, Ray Charles’ regular drummer – and the music he was exposed to sparked innovation when he returned home.
South African musicians working in the 1970s credit him as inspiring the country’s jazz fusion explorations of that era through the band Spirits Rejoice, which he founded and which was, in turn, the forerunner of groundbreaking ensembles such as Sakhile.
Matthews was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape in 1943. Veteran trumpeter John Ntshibilikwana, his relative, recalled: “Because of the poverty there, it was virtually impossible for people to acquire instruments. If you wished to play guitar, you had to take an oil tin and make a guitar out of it. That is how Gilbert started – with a paraffin-tin guitar!”
Despite these straitened circumstances, his guitar-playing was good enough for him to begin gigging professionally, eventually securing work at the first (there have been several successors) Tiffany’s Club in Cape Town. There he taught himself to play drums and switched instruments. His playing caught the ear of the city’s jazz elite and in the late 1960s he featured on Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (Chris Schilder’s) Spring.
After those sessions, Matthews travelled to the United States via London, England. He was mentored by both Max Roach and Elvin Jones, secured an 18-month engagement as Ray Charles’ regular drummer and worked with Sarah Vaughan.
A return home
But home called. By the mid-1970s he was back in Johannesburg, gigging with the then Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi and more. He worked in the house band of The Black Mikado musical staged at Diepkloof Hall and as a session musician on various tours, including what he found to be a particularly dispiriting series of hotel gigs in eSwatini.
On his return, he began making South African jazz history, calling his Black Mikado bandmates and others together to form Spirits Rejoice, named in honour of an Albert Ayler recording. Spirits aimed to create the kind of imaginative, exploratory jazz and fusion music that Earth Wind and Fire, Weather Report and others were pioneering in the US.
Spirits Rejoice was not only a band but also a symposium and university for a whole generation of South African modern jazz players. Its first incarnation included Bheki Mseleku, Robbie Jansen, Duku Makasi, George Tjefumani, Thabo Mashishi, Sipho Gumede and Russell Herman; later incarnations included Mervyn Afrika, Khaya Mahlangu, Paul Petersen, Themba Mehlomakhulu, singer Felicia Marion and later the whole vocal line-up of Joy.
For the much younger Mahlangu, it was the innovative approach of Spirits that inspired him – “It was a beautiful learning experience” – with Gumede, to want “to do stuff like that, but in a more African context”.
The band released two albums, African Spaces in 1977 and the self-titled Spirits Rejoice in 1978 and won, according to pianist Mervyn Africa, nine Sarie Awards, the highest honours open to South African popular musicians. According to the late Ezra Ngcukana, “They were a very high-powered band. They made history.”
But despite these accolades and some residencies – including at Cape Town’s Sherwood Hotel, Beverly Lounge and Landdrost Hotel, as well as legendary jazz spot, Manenberg’s Club Montreal – respect and the freedom to innovate further were scarce as the 1970s came to a close.
Back to foreign shores
In 1979, Matthews left for Sweden. There, he married and established an extremely distinguished career that let him stretch his innovative vision out further. He worked regularly with the group of saxophonist Christer Boustedt and, after the reedman’s death, re-established it as The Contemporary Bebop Quintet.
He also worked with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, regularly with Archie Shepp, and with Misha Mengelberg, Roscoe Mitchell, John Tchicai, Albert Mangelsdorff and Charlie Mariano among others. He was the drummer on The South African Exiles’ Thunderbolt recording and on bassist Johnny Dyani’s revolutionary Born Under the Heat. He did get to see the hopes of that music being realised when he visited South Africa in 1991, at the dawn of change.
Matthews was playing and recording in Europe, always in distinguished company, well into the 21st century. But in recent years, ill health gradually imprisoned him away from the stage.
There can be no better way to end than with Matthews’ description of the soaring improvisatory fusions that Spirits Rejoice pioneered. “It’s like a game… We play anything that is in our heads and later rearrange it into a meaningful tune. At first, it sounds like some mad musicians just making noise with their instruments. Then, later, we remove the noise, and all we are left with is music.”
For the South African cultural landscape, Matthews and Spirits Rejoice did indeed make history. Now, indeed, all we are left with is the music.
This article was first published in The Conversation.