They dig real deep at We Are Busy Bodies – three highlights: Graham’s General Store, Eboni Band and the Malombo music of Philip Tabane

We Are Busy Bodies continue their distinctive and enlightening release schedule, with a forthcoming self-titled album Graham’s General Store. The Canadian label drops this sumptuous folk music around October, another direction to their work after recent highlight releases of Ghanian highlife, South African jazz and the must hear Eboni Band reissue.

“The songs on Graham’s General Store were written in early 2020, with the hope of getting the “family band” of siblings Leigh, Carey, Theo, Christo and Theresa back together,” the label says. “Inspired by shared memories of their early lives at home and the legacy of their forborne General Store in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, the ten songs also reflect the influences that formed their musical education – The Beatles, Eagles, Emmylou, Linda, Dolly, Lyle… Rehearsed and recorded together at Christo’s home in Lansdowne, Ontario, the album serves as a time capsule filled with precious memories that only come with being born, raised and homeschooled together in a house in the woods a kilometer from the nearest neighbour. It was presented to their parents as a surprise for their 43rd wedding anniversary, and is set to be released on vinyl in autumn 2021.”

It follows the label’s last release, the re-issue of the seminal, spiritual jazz album The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman. This beautiful album was originally released in 1969 and shows the experimental approach that has seen Tabane lauded by critics as ‘Africa’s Sun-Ra’.

The word ‘Malombo’ refers to the drum and dance performance rituals of traditional healers – healers dancing to a sustained beat and channeling their energy towards other-world forces.

The ‘Malombo music’ of Tabane first came to prominence during an award-winning live performance in front of 40,000 jazz lovers at Castle Lager Jazz Festival, Orlando Stadium, Soweto, during 1964. This was a year in which Nelson Mandela had been sentenced to life in jail, dashing hopes of organised resistance towards the Apartheid state. Malombo music could help unite the people, giving hope and more positive feelings of identity.

The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman was recorded that same year, Tabane had parted company with original bandmates and introduced a versatile young drummer and percussionist by the name of Gabriel “Sonnyboy” Thobejane, who also played thumb piano on the album (known as “Dipela” in Northern Sotho), accompanying Tabane’s guitar, penny whistle and vocals. The choice to use cow-hide drums, instead of a modern drum kit, is a central defining feature of Malombo music. It enompassed a ‘decolonial’ approach for South Africa’s burgeoning jazz scene, with its virtuoso improvisation, Malombo music resisted western cultural dominance, as well as challenging America’s hegemonic claim to jazz.

Philip Tabane. Credit: @GautengANC/Twitter

Dr. Philip Nchipe Tabane was born in 1940, in Riverside, Pretoria, to a family of guitarists. He went on to become one of South Africa’s longest running, most respected and innovative jazz guitarists and band leaders, as well as serving as mentor to future incarnations of his percussion based Malombo backing band. He toured internationally, whilst being based in his home country. Tabane was also the recipient of the South Africa Music Awards (SAMA) Lifetime Achievement Prize and in 1998 was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy of Music from the University of Venda. Tabane worked with players such as Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. Tabane died in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2018.

One of the highlights of the reissue calendar so far has been We Are Busy Bodies’ release of Eboni Band’s self-titled 1980 debut album, featuring Motown session musicians and Fred Wesley, with production and arrangements from studio legends Art Stewart and Greg Middleton.

It’s Motown meets the kora of West Africa and is an album of great depth and diversity, sounding like no other album from the continent.

On all three of these highlight albums from their catalogue, We Are Busy Bodies research and curate to the highest level, enlisting insight from a range of experts.

Words below by Orphy Robinson M.B.E. – the renowned British jazz multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and more:

From the opening moments of Sing A Happy Song, the sound world that we are invited into reveals an excited crowd of voices, and above this hubbub you can clearly hear these words “Hey, what’s going on everybody?”. It evokes a familiarity and a feeling that you might have heard this record before but can’t quite place it. It’s got similarities to Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On, however the accents coming from these voices are a little different.

Marvin’s lyrics and music perfectly reflected the times of a black aesthetic and a journey of socio-political awareness. The Eboni Band’s own historic journey also has voices underpinning their music. Four on the floor bass drum, bass and rhythm guitar lay down a taut and tight foundation, allowing the percussion to dance around creating a polyrhythmic tour all the while the crowd chant enthusiastically underneath. You find yourself in anticipation of something truly special. Horn arrangements build up into a heavyweight trombone solo by the funkiest trombone player on the planet – the JB’s very own Fred Wesley – sending notes and phrases on their own trajectory expressing the funkiest of narratives.

Eboni Band’s music is an altogether powerful and historic mix connecting people and groove from across the African diaspora, in this case, the Ivory Coast where The Eboni band was formed after Motown Studios alumni, Gerald Theus — who set up Eboni Records — met musician Abdoulaye Soumare in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan and convinced him to stay and work on a series of records with the label’s artists.

Word got back to Motown’s Art Stewart, an iconic Hitsville inhouse engineer and the producer of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up and Rick James’ breakthrough album, Come Get It!. Art’s credentials are impressive, with a heap of classic records to his name, engineering recordings by Motown’s house band the Funk Brothers and other household luminaries like The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Leon Ware, Marlena Shaw, Rick James and Tenna Marie to name a few.

Stewart travelled to the Ivory Coast to scope out and assess the potential of the Eboni label project. He was suitably impressed with the music and the musicians, so he suggested taking everyone back to Los Angeles to record in studios there where he could utilise more flexibility in familiar surroundings. Four projects were recorded bringing together the vocals, rich harmonies and skilful playing of djembes and koras, typically West African griot traditions, by Mamadou Doumbia, Gun Morgan, Amadou Doukoure, Abdoulaye Soumare, Lamine Konte & Fode Drame, from Eboni Records. Yet it was the idea by Art to stay put and record a fifth album, combining the traditional musicians of the Eboni band with Motown’s African American session musicians that captured the essence and a spirit of togetherness from across the African diaspora which turned into this unrivalled recording.

Led by legendary James Brown/Parliament alumni trombonist Fred Wesley it features trumpeter Nolan Smith (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder), saxophonist Ernie Fields Jr (Rick James, Marvin Gaye) with a rhythm section including guitarist Richard “Wes” Blackman (The Whispers, Calypso Rose & Bloodstone), bassist/arranger Greg Middleton (Marlena Shaw, Stanley Turrentine) and drummer Quentin Dennard (Aretha Franklin, BB King). The album’s arrangements were by bassist Greg Middleton. Combining Wolof and English lyrics brought a distinctive sound and flavour to the end result.

However, the initial excitement was tempered by disappointment and frustration after Motown’s reaction to hearing the album at a pre-arranged listening session. Motown believed that American audiences weren’t ready for the record and so it was never released on the label. It received a limited release in the Ivory Coast and was released and distributed back in Africa. Ironically, the following year, vibraphonist Roy Ayers spread his message with Nigerian Afrobeat star Fela Kuti on the ground-breaking song Africa Centre of the World, released through Polydor, with great commercial success.

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