Grassroots ensemble SPAZA – a Johannesburg-founded Afro-futurist improv collective of which there are no permanent members – are scheduled to release their debut album on June 21st. Featuring masterful jazz, alt-rock, punk and avant-garde musicians from Johannesburg and glimmering jazz scenes beyond, the record is indeed an all-organic, self-interred piece of musical action. Nosisi Ngakane (vocals and FX), Ariel Zamonsky (upright bass), Siya Makuzeni (vocals, FX and trombone), Gontse Makhene (percussion and vocals), Waldo Alexander (electric violin) and sonic architect Joao Orecchia (synthesizers and electronics) combine as definitely an eclectic and imaginative group. This being the case, the record does not fail to deliver a wild journey through indigenous exploration and global expansion. From the outset, the listener ought to be prepared for just about anything, as this record has a little bit of everything, including the paradoxical properties of both contraction and expansion.
“Magwinya, Mangola neWhite Liver” is the first track and features the whole menagerie of instrumental and vocal capacities of the ensemble. Most notable among them are the ever-present skeletal constructors of the song – the percussions and upright bass. Makhene plays a vibrant drum that floats downstream, articulating the current of the song so as to catalyse creative interplay among the various contributing sonic elements. Zamonsky is at least as impressive, playing with poetic feeling but with clinical execution and professional sensibility. Altogether, with the way the vocals, synthesizers and electric violin are woven in, the song has a pervasive haunting quality.
“Sunlight, Glycerine, 2 loose draws” is up next, opening with an intense, distorted synth reminiscent of Sextant (1973) by Herbie Hancock and an attacking vocal duet into which autotune plays heavily. The voices sing “sunshine and rain” with mantric repetition, and the jagged deep synths almost mimic the didgeridoo. Once again the bass and percussions are on point to great effect, and Alexander lightens the composition with airy, even ghostly whim.
Autotuned vocals also feature heavily in the next track, the mouthful “Five Rand Airtime nama-eveready – 4000 degrees”. An intense vocal opens the song, dubbed over with multiple vocal intricacies, as the song is backed by a heavy bassline and, eventually, a coursing percussive exhibition. Ambient instrumentals are prominent, with Makuzeni’s trombone providing the brass dimension with gravitas. The interplay of these musicians is absolutely masterful here. The chorale vocals dance in and about the instrumentation subtly. Soft vocals key in and the listener is swept up. Clocking in at 13:39, the song is easily the longest piece on the record. This seamlessly rolls into the fourth track, “Tigerbalm nobuhlebakho”, an unsettling, aggressive ambient piece of fuzzy synthesizers and attacking bassline. The vocals are obscure, and feature coarse but carefully applied filtering between autotune and some intense vocal distortions.
Likewise, this rolls into “Ice Squinchies: Waiting For You”, which borrows its mood and ambience from its predecessor. Alexander contributes more haunting licks that swirl about the heavily processed vocals, which are similarly treated only with the addition of classic vocoder sounds. At this point the listener has reached the truly avant-garde exposition of the record. Importantly, even now, the record is in good taste.
The sixth track is “Invocations”, which has a forceful, intimidating introduction that could be a battle song – the bass is heavy and low and throbs behind loud cries. After a moment of silence comes a much more relaxed – but hypnotic – “Stametta Spuit: Invocations”, still with wailing vocals but with a jazzy bassline and a swinging hand drum beat. Upon the song’s completion at 3:22, the record is over. Such an abrupt finish feels almost necessary and appropriate after the pervading discourse of the record to this point.
SPAZA is a meticulously articulated yet wildly avant-garde jazz piece of remarkably diverse origin. Every member of the ensemble plays a major role in determining the direction of the album, which has a distinct, creative and enjoyable character. Altogether, the record is a success, being exactly what it set out to be – and not having set expectations low either. There may be a bit less explosiveness and fewer riveting moments than there could be, but generally the record is a savvy exhibition. In particular, the work of Ariel Zamonsky stands out as being particularly good, with strong contributions from Gontse Makhene and Waldo Alexander to fortify. The vocals are certainly good, especially with their various treatments, but the record could still be without vocals and remain very good.
A record that offers the native inspirations of Johannesburg with the polish and international sheen of Chicago and London, SPAZA is a sound record that honours its roots – a fact apparent in the titling SPAZA – gesturing toward various aspects of South African tradition and experience, from violence and death to burial and divination rites.
SPAZA is released Friday 21st June via Mushroom Hour Half Hour.