The possibility of beauty – Tribute to Mankunku’s Yakhal’Iinkomo and the Human Spirit

Drummer Ayanda Sikade keeps the tribute to Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s “Yakhal’Inkomo” moving at the DSG Auditorium in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, while Percy Mabandu completes a visual representation of the theme. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

Who better to mount the tribute to Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s 1968 album “Yakhal’Iinkomo”, than the man who wrote the book – literally. Author, journalist and (to my pleasant surprise) artist Percy Mabandu set the tone of the tribute performance by beginning a drawing of Inkomo with an impression of the bellowing bovine drawn on stave paper. Strong metaphor for a song carrying the notes to represent the completion of a ritual sacrifice.

“You learn to see the emptiness,
A darkness on a photograph,
A shadow on the march of time,
The death break between the notes,
The lapses and gaps of collective public recollection,
This is the absence of musicians now far too gone to speak,
Men too dead to remember for themselves,
Then there are the fading memories of friends and families,
Too traumatised to be troubled with remembering,
Who will remember them now?,
On piano: Lionel Pillay – dead,
On bass: Agrippa Magwaza – dead,
On drums: Early Mabuza – dead,
On tenor saxophone: Winston Mankunku Ngozi – dead,
How do we remember them now?
We only have their living absence,
A darkness stretching over memories”
(shared as a spoken word performance by Mabandu)

“Yakhal’Inkomo” is a metaphor traced to a story told by artist Dumile Feni about a trip to the Eastern Cape, in which he witnessed the aftermath of the slaughtering of a cow. “The other cows were rattling and being a danger to themselves,” described Mabandu in a radio 702 interview discussing his book Yakhal’Inkomo: Portrait of a classic. “These cows that are rattling and raging in the kraal, are like the black people who are raging in the townships, after they have seen the slaughtering of their kind,” explained Mabandu as he connected the dots between the phenomena that gave 1968 its socio-political resonance.

Bringing out the various narratives abounding in 1968, Mabandu described the context of the album’s production in a decade headlined by the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the Rivonia Trial in its middle period (which Mabandu described as having “decimated all organised opposition to apartheid”). Concluding with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the story of 1968 includes a number of assaults to a collective identity, eliciting an “intertextual” creative response in the work of Mongane Wally Serote, the artwork of Dumile Feni and the music of Ngozi.

Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the death of Mankunku’s idol saxophonist John Coltrane, the 1968 album captures the diasporic links in blackness, of struggle and the artwork created in its shadow. Evidenced on the album by the three tracks that follow the opening “Yakhal’Inkomo”, the album comprises four tracks in total: three out of four serving as dedications. “Dedication: To Daddy Trane and Brother Silver” a tribute to Coltrane, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Horace Silver, follows the title track and leads the listener to the end of side A.

A flip of the LP takes the listener to “Doodlin’” (composed by Silver) and “Bessie’s Blues” (composed by Coltrane). Tributary streams converging in what late soul musician Donny Hathaway described as the “pool of black genius”. Artistry produced under duress, the tide of “despair” changed pace with the election of Stephen Bantu Biko as the president of the South African Students Organisation (at what is now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal), and the gaining of independence of the kingdom of Swaziland (now known as eSwatini).

With these historical and intertextual vectors in mind, the performance of a tribute to this significant cultural artefact carried tremendous anticipation and expectations. With a band comprising a balance of some of the living masters of the jazz idiom, and a younger cohort tackling the material, Mabandu opened up the space with a piece of visual artwork (completing it as the musicians played), adding to the intertextual mathematics and invoking the spirit of live composition, a modern-day tribute to the still living Wayne Shorter. On piano, Andile Yenana; on bass, Shane Cooper; on drums, Ayanda Sikade and Tlale Makhene (percussion) – some strong foundations for the horn section
featuring Graham Beyer (on trombone), Sisonke Xonti (saxophone), Linda Sikhakhane (Saxophone).

Invoking the spirit of some of the original album’s influences, Sikhakhane delivered a stand-out performance. Sikade’s drum work also inspires a particular mention. these were notable inclusions from a whole that could have cohered more neatly. With so much happening on the stage – an ambitious endeavour to put on an intertextual show comprising music, live artwork and spoken word – neatness may not have been as much the goal as the sheer audacity to dare to try for a holistic tribute to this seminal work. Perhaps the point is that, despite the cacophony of sound and fury in contemporary contexts, “wherever the human spirit is, beauty remains possible”.

By Mandisa Mpulo