Continuing their excavation of the works of Almon Memela, one of those unheralded dynamos of seventies South African music, We Are Busy Bodies have just released ‘Deeper Roots’ by ROOTS (available from 13th May). If you picked up on the review of Memela’s soul-jazz classic ‘Funky Africa’ in Backseat Mafia last week you’ll already have a handle on the back-story and brilliance of the guitarist/ producer whose contributions are threaded through the vibrant fabric of the Johannesburg scene. Well ‘Deeper Roots’ brings more weighty evidence of Memela’s deft production skills, discerning ear and dedication to the emerging sound of modern Africa.
He was also a canny operator. Rising up through the ranks of the South African division of Atlantic/WEA Records after joining the company in the mid-seventies, he took on an A&R/production role, set up his own label, Highway Soul, and negotiated a recording/manufacturing deal with the mega-corp. ROOTS were one of the bands released through the portal, a seven piece that fitted his new label’s oeuvre perfectly, infusing the strident US soul, jazz and R n’ B of the time with the fizzing directness of township energy. At the end of a year of frantic creativity for the band, that saw them form in 1975 and swiftly release their debut, their second album ‘Deeper Roots’ appeared.
Such a rapid turnover might suggest that here was a group with no time to waste but this follow up record wasn’t some hastily assembled studio time filler. ‘Deeper Roots’ may have bristled with spontaneity but the band never lost its focus or dedication to the groove. Opener ‘Don’t Cry’ clearly signposts such a coolly presented sense of purpose, easing you in with a glistening soft jazz lilt, all burbling bass lines and skipping snare steps. Flow established the promenade continues, welcoming some rasping sax soloing and characteristically clean guitar from Memela himself to add that colour and distinction.
Another composition on the album from bassist Sigho Gumede, the title track ‘Deeper Roots’, takes off from a slightly different rock toned starting point before opening out into a glorious sweep of big city music. Some serious Motown soul orchestral undercurrents can be heard in the chord progressions that ROOTS squeezed together here and Peter Mureke’s palpitating bass drum beats are alone worth five minutes of anyone’s attention. The track also highlights those Almon Memela production signatures, the resourcefulness, the balance of the arrangements and the fine attention to detail that define his approach – it’s a significant moment in his illustrious story.
But don’t lift the needle or hit the skip yet, ‘Deeper Roots’ has so much more to keep you tuned in. The soul-funk, housed up swagger of ‘Steel Man’ strides out on a mission, powered by the welded stabs from the brass section of Barney Rachabane, Duke Maghasa and Dennis Mghale. This unit flies again on the soul jazz swinger ‘Song For My Baby’ which gurgles along brightly from the first lively wah-wah whips to final fading sax phrases. With playing connections forged in the 60’s the twin horns of Rachabane and Maghasa often delivered an authoritative flourish to ROOTS’ music but really it’s the way the band gelled as a collective that was central to their impact.
Maybe this connectivity is best showcased on the urgent gospel blues numbers, ‘To All My Friends’ and ‘Ubabam Zakes’, that deliver that extra emotional integrity which enriches so much South African jazz. Both written by keys-man Jabu Nkosi, they emphasise his importance to the cohesion of ROOTS as a band, effortlessly and intuitively switching from rumbling chords to those mazy blues run that bring out your inner smile. ‘Ubabam Zakes’ especially allowed this fine group to bring their traditional township melodicism to their close-knit musical conversations.
In some ways ‘Deeper Roots’ is a record could get passed over as an easy listen. It may not be intrusive or aggressively insistent but that’s not to say it doesn’t cast a more subtle spell. Exceptional players, locked into the tightest of rhythmic huddles but given room to explore their jazz sensibilities, like most of Almon Memela’s productions, ‘Deeper Roots’ won’t let you down.
Pick up a copy of ‘Deeper Roots’ by ROOTS from your local record store or order direct from: https://rootssa.bandcamp.com/album/deeper-roots