Mourning, lament and magic in UPRIZE! soundtrack

SPAZA’s musical improvisation to Sifiso Khanyile’s 2017 documentary, which depicts the history of the 1976 uprisings in Soweto, creates songs for the past and present.

Two minutes into Sizwile, the eight-and-a-half minute single from UPRIZE!, Malcolm Jiyane’s voice emerges, joining vocalist Nonku Phiri in a gentle duet. Hearing the two voices dancing over a sparse, sombre rhythm provided by percussionist Gontse Makene and bassist Ariel Zamonsky alongside Jiyane on piano is a magical moment, drawn from an album filled with alchemy.

When multi-instrumentalist Jiyane moves from piano to trombone for the last two minutes of the single, the duet switches to Phiri’s voice and Jiyane’s horn, the former a phantom buried in the mix – the trombone is now taking the lead. Sizwile literally translates as “we have heard”, but in this context it means “we have endured”, which makes sense when one considers the subject matter.

UPRIZE!, recorded in 2016 and available in October this year, is a completely improvised soundtrack to Sifiso Khanyile’s 2017 documentary of the same name, which depicts the history of the 1976 uprisings in Soweto. Reflecting on the sessions that resulted in UPRIZE!, co-producer Andrew Curnow says Jiayne and Phiri’s duet on Sizwile was a moment that took his breath away. He says there was “magic in the air” when UPRIZE! was recorded over three days in a Yeoville apartment. Jiyane says it was pure inspiration. “It just happened,” he says. “It was lovely.” 

The song feels like it has many musical ancestors: the magnificent duets of Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya are one, the two albums recorded by Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani, 1973’s Good News from Africa and 1979’s Echoes from Africa, are another.

An evolving band

SPAZA is a band with no permanent members. Each lineup is assembled to record once-off improvised or workshopped material. The project’s self-titled debut offering dropped in June 2019 (but was recorded in 2015) and featured Ariel Zamonsky, Gontse Makhene, João Orecchia, Nosisi Ngakane, Siya Makuzeni and Waldo Alexander.

For the project’s second album UPRIZE!, SPAZA was a four-piece, with Makene and Zamonsky joined by Jiyane and Phiri. Phiri recalls that in 2016 – when the album was recorded – she was new to Johannesburg and a novice working with her “machines”. Phiri was then in the beginning stages of learning how to affect and play with her voice through technologies such as a loop pedal and a first-generation voice processor. “I hadn’t met any of my collaborators on the album before,” she says. “I met them on the day.”

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Zamonsky, an Argentinian who now calls South Africa home, says he had played a number of times with Makhene as they were both part of the band Amandla Freedom Ensemble and they had recorded together in Shabaka Hutchings’ band The Ancestors, which at that point had not started gigging. He had only jammed informally with Jiyane at the African Freedom Station, a venue where Makhene was also a regular. “We had mutual respect for each other,” says Makhene. “That respect was based on the musicianship and musicality we all have.”

Writing back to history

Zamonsky recalls the recording of UPRIZE! as being “draining”. While he was familiar with the history of what happened in the 1976 Soweto uprising from school history, back then it was dates and events. For Zamonsky, seeing the faces of people in the film and hearing their testimony was a more intimate reckoning. “They would play us a section of the film with sound and then they would play it again without sound and we would play in response to the visuals,” he says. 

Zamonsky explains that the record was about capturing a process. “It’s not just us playing songs. It is us trying to discover,” he explains. “We were trying to do something different. No one said, ‘I have an idea for a tune.’ One person would take the lead and the others would follow and we played very subtly.”

Undated: The digital cover of UPRIZE! (Music from the original motion picture). This new SPAZA album was originally recorded for a documentary about the 1976 uprising in Soweto. (Photograph courtesy of The African News Agency)

Makhene says the album’s improvisational approach to composition is part of its charm. “We knew nothing about what was in the film until the day of recording,” recalls Makhene. “There was no certain ground. We didn’t know where we were going or how we were going to get there and that spontaneity brings the magic. We were riding the emotions that the film triggered in us.”

“The documentary really took you there,” recalls Zamonsky. “Everyone was feeling it.”

Compositions like Bantu Education and Mangaliso Sobukwe see Zamonsky’s bowed bass work and Phiri’s echoing vocal chants create a tension-ridden soundtrack, over which edits of the documentary’s interviews are layered. The unease that the documentary footage engendered in the musicians is clearly evident on these shorter pieces, which work the listener the same way a film score triggers the viewer’s emotional response. Curnow says this was the intention of these shorter pieces, which are edits of larger jams from the three-day recording sessions.

Lamenting the past

Listening to a song like Solomon, Tsietsi & Khotso, the genius in this sparse and subtle approach to improvised composition is clear. Jiyane captures the listener with his solemn, mournful piano, which is beautiful in its simplicity, while Phiri scats across the rhythm, her voice a ray of hope in an otherwise sombre musical world.

On Banna Ba Batsumi, the interplay between Makehene and Jiyane is spellbinding, with Phiri’s voice sounding like an apparition from the past. When New Frame suggested to Makhene that the way Phiri’s voice fades in and out of the mix on the soundtrack conjures up the feelings of ghosts, he agrees. “It’s the subject matter of the film,” he says. “Telling stories of ghosts, living in the minds of those who were there in the physical, these are haunting ghosts and Nonku’s voice does vocalise that enchantment.”

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Jiyane says the documentary felt like it needed something “really solid, something that could hold the film” and he felt that it was up to him, Makhene and Zamonsky to lay a foundation for Phiri’s “amazing voice”. Jiyane explains that the music is sombre because that is how they felt when recording. He recalls the “very harsh and painful emotions” in the film translating into the unease that is in so much of the music the quartet recorded. “We were trying to create a sound that would address those feelings,” says Jiyane.

Lamenting the future

Makhene continually uses the word “lament” during the interview. He says the one feeling that consumed him during the recording was why he was only seeing this story told in this way in 2016, why it had taken so long.

“This prompted lots of questions in my mind about the kind of society we live in,” he says. “I could see the parallels with the times we live in now and then you have to ask, are these parallels or just the continuation of the same system with a different face?”

Makhene’s comment suggests that the subject of both film and soundtrack still have great resonance in contemporary South Africa. 

Almost as if turning Makhene’s thought into musical form, the album closes with the song We Got a Lot a Work To Do. With interviewees talking about how little has really changed in post-apartheid South Africa layered over the music, the point is made that while UPRIZE! may have one eye on our troubled past, its other eye is on our troubled future.

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