The history of jazz, like the movement of cows as wealth, is often dodgily told as the story of gifted men making monumental moves. As a counterpoint to this narrative, Thembi Mtshali and Miriam Makeba respectively took hold of and shaped some memorable moments where the music intersected with the African cattle complex to help further democratise our culture of song and story.
Mtshali, a colossal creative actress and musician, is easily the reason a whole generation of born-frees got to discover that most spectacular of bovine-themed jazz classics, Yakhal’inkomo. The anthemic tune was written by the late great saxophonist and composer, Winston Mankunku Ngozi. First released in the winter of 1968, Yakhal’inkomo is arguably the most iconic South African jazz record of all time. It has had an effect beyond music. It emerges in visual arts through a suite of drawings by Dumile Feni responding to its power; it rises in literature through a book of poems by Wally Serote who published an anthology of the same name in 1974; it is present in the way choreographer Gregory Maqoma has also moved to its call.
There has since been a glorious horde of incredible interpretations of the composition by an international roll-call of jazz instrumentalists, too. To date, however, none has been as consequential as Mtshali’s take. Going beyond simply registering her interpretation of a loved classic, Mtshali gave new meaning to a monumental artwork. Her inspired encounter with Ngozi’s bellowing bull has connected generations of jazz musicians, from the late Ndabo Mhlongo all the way to Zoë Modiga. Mtshali also expanded the reach of Ngozi’s bovine metaphor.
A song that stays
About her earliest encounter with Yakhal’inkomo, Mtshali remembered: “One day in 1973 or 74 I got invited to the Pinaculo jazz festival in Amanzimtoti, Durban, where Ndaba Mhlongo was singing with a group called the Coronets … I heard them improvising and singing Yakhal’inkomo in lyrics. That was the first and last time I ever heard that song being sung and the group didn’t stay together for long, but the song stayed with me.”
Almost two decades later, in 1989, Mtshali would work on her debut record, Today Tomorrow, produced by guitarist Condry Ziqubu for Tusk Music. She remembered Yakhal’inkomo. However, by then, Mhlongo was in the United States touring with Sarafina and no one remembered the lyrics. So, she devised her own vocalese version of Mankunku’s masterpiece. In jazz, vocalese refers to a poetic technique of writing lyrics by setting the flow of phrases to established melodic contours of an existing instrumental song.
Though taking licence with the loved jazz anthem, Mtshali’s version retained all the power of the original. She kept much of the chord changes and the main melodic theme. Importantly, she kept to Mankunku’s metaphoric centre within the cattle complex. Mankunku had marshalled cattle as a symbol of the massacre and pathos of high apartheid. Mtshali’s genius is in how she stretched the motif of the cow beyond their symbolic slaughter. Part of the evocative lyrics she wrote went as follows:
Zabuy’inkomo (Cows are coming back home)
Emathunzin’ etshekula amathole, eqibitheka (In the shade, calves excitedly scampering…)
Wathin’umama (what says mother?)
Yakhal’inkomo (the cows are bellowing)
Zisan’umcaba, (bring in umphokoqo)
Zisan’imitshekulo (bring in the milk pail)
Simple and far reaching. Mtshali had actualised the hope, in literary fashion, that many listeners heard in the original but had not quite named. Suddenly an image of “calves are running happily and scampering” opened Mankunku’s metaphor to other possibilities. Jazz’s urban bias of reading urban realities into the music was complicated by images of a carefree rural life.
Talking about the creative licence she took with imagery of the song, Mtshali remembered: “When I finally met with Mankunku again [later] … he did tell me, though, that he had a different interpretation of the song when he recorded it … You see, I grew up in the village in Zululand where I used to look after my grandparents’ cows … For me, the song represented that carefree life I grew up in, bringing the cows back home from the fields for milking and women cleaning amagula (calabashes) to prepare amasi (high fat cream milk)”.
Mtshali gifted the power of defiant joy to a tune that is often called up for its celebration of black resilience and its darker than blue political themes. In 1997, Sibongile Khumalo seized those lyrics to sing Yakhal’inkomo in her collectible Live at The Market Theatre record. It’s this version that young Nomfundo Xaluva heard before later recording her own take. Singer-songwriter Wendy Mseleku owned it for the kwaito generation, too, establishing a growing league of glorious vocalists.
Jol’inkomo, Makeba’s war chant
In 1966, while Mankunku was still workshopping what would become his most recognised record, Miriam Makeba recorded and released her own wrestle with modernity, jazz and the African cattle complex. Makeba’s song, Jol’inkomo, appeared on All About Miriam Makeba.
In an introductory nugget she shared during a recorded live performance of the song, Makeba says that Jol’inkomo is a song traditionally sung by young women and girls to cheer young men on as they prepared to head out to battle. In other words, it’s a war chant.
Makeba brought it into the world of jazz in the service of the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. This, just four years after she spoke before the United Nations General Assembly. Jol’inkomo appears in Makeba’s repertoire as she was entering what was arguably the most militant phase of her life. In 1968 she married Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture, a prominent figure in the Black Panther Party. Their shared advocacy work in the service of anti-imperialist movements across Africa and in the US are a subject of historical legend.
Makeba opens her performance of Jol’inkomo with a throaty rhythmic hiss and heave. She then belts out the first lilting lines: Jol’inkomo Jola, aJamile aMadoda… The singer calls for the cows to be driven back into the safety of the kraal, for the men are standing ready to depart for battle. The grace and power of her delivery moved the poet Mafika Gwala to write a poem of the same name in response to her. Asked in an interview by Thengani Ngwenya about the significance of Jol’inkomo, Gwala answered: “Firstly, I’m a jazz digger. And I’m in love with that song: Jol’inkomo. I think Miriam Makeba was brought up in the ghetto, but she also kept her African roots. Hence her deep expression in that song.”
This capacity to simultaneously exist in their traditional African roots and in the context of their urban realities is part of the shared power that connects Makeba and Mtshali, too. Their merger of the ancient with the modern, and traversing the predominantly masculine with feminine flair and rejection of marginality is monumental. They befuddle degenerate patriarchy while retaining the integrity of shared communal heritages. This is at the heart of jazz’s lofty vision, to demand strict selfless commitment to the collective while also rewarding great individuality.
In this series of features, Percy Mabandu explores landmarks of South African jazz on the road to the 2020 Unesco International Jazz Day. South Africa is the global host country.