Another piece of vinyl community service here from the We Are Busy Bodies team, sharing out the treasures of South African jazz to a wider listenership. This time though it’s not about resurrecting a long-lost classic from the golden seventies, ‘Azania’ by iPhupho L’ka Biko is the vinyl debut by a band that are now pushing to the forefront of today’s Jo’burg scene.
Formed by bassist/composer Nhlanhla Ngqaqu in 2015 from musical relationships made around the Braamfontein community, this collective have built a swelling reputation with their vibrant infusion of jazz, improv, bop, gospel and African rhythms. A dynamic live show, refined and refreshed through diligent gigging, has made the growing buzz around the band around eGoli even noisier.
Outside their home country murmurings about the band first surfaced in 2021 when their emotive Abaphezulu featured on the Brownswood curated compilation of happening South African jazz ‘ Indaba Is’. A long, loose jazz spiritual that flowed from sitar to elevating vocals with an improvisational drive, the song highlighted the devotional dynamism at the soul of the iPhupho L’ka Biko sound.
Their debut ‘Azania’ EP reinforces these foundations although perhaps hinting at a sharpening of the focus and refinement in the production. The collection opens with a version of their previous, homeland-hit single uThixo uKhona in all its swaying, gospel calling glory. As soon as those curling horn lines mould the song and the drum roll announces the ensemble voices, you know there’s something deeply reverential in the air. Revolving around the call/response echo of the earthy lead vocal and the ensemble chorus, the honesty and emotion simply reels you in.
Braam Streets leans more in the soul jazz direction, all soothing electric piano strokes and the melodic huddle of horns. It’s an easy-going tune, a stroll along well-known sidewalks, more everyday hustle than night-life glitz but with similar Crusaders’ sax colourings. Perhaps Singabakho is a clearer signpost of where the collective’s sound is heading. Built around the choral traditions of the band’s communities and fronted by an emotionally loaded lead voice, it reaches out with a surge of church and Igwijo energy. The band also add subtle details to the familiar gospel-blues heart-swell, with an r & b tint to the melody and an ear-catching trombone interjection from Kgethi Nkotsi. Such diversions serve iPhupho L’ka Biko well.
As well as their collective inventiveness the band’s values fuel their musical statements, ensuring they live up to their name. The combination of spirituality and belief (iPhupho) together with a commitment to continue the fight for freedom against any oppressors (Biko) shapes the soundscape that Nhlanhla Ngqaqu and his group are working towards. The EP’s title track captures such influences in a rousing marching ballad that harks back to the protest songs of the apartheid era and the black liberation movement’s vision for their new country, Azania. From the powerful spoken word introduction (“I know their names, I know their faces”) to the confident stride of the rising unison vocals and street toned brass, the song pushes the ensemble to build a real momentum.
Such expansiveness continues on the sombre beauty of EP closer Qamata. Working from that marching band vibe for starters, the tune drifts reflectively between a yearning vocal and the uplift of the hook. Jazz inflections ease in with a crisp sax commentary before the whole glorious brass section get to swoop free in the song’s closing section. It’s here, in those moments where Ngqaqu’s acrobatic bass urges the players to stretch out, that the dynamism of iPhupho L’ka Biko is confirmed, emphatically.
As the band leader recognises “Azania the EP is an introduction of iPhupho L’ka Biko to the world, marking the beginning of a new era.” There’s an element of taking stock to the release which is fine in itself, but it’s as an indicator of where this band may be taking us that ‘Azania’ scores real significance. iPhupho L’ka Biko have musical vision and more people are going to recognise that very soon.
Get your copy of ‘Azania’ by iPhupho L’ka Biko from your local record store or direct from WE Are Busy Bodies HERE