WRITING this book,” says journalist, visual artist and poet Percy Mabandu, “was a project of intersections: between the personal and the historical and between the SA and international music spaces. In my life, it’s the song that’s always been there, even as a child, before I knew its name.”

Mabandu is discussing his book Yakhal’inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic, about the eponymous quartet album recorded by Retreat-born saxophonist Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi for the Teal label in 1968. It won Mankunku the Castle Lager Jazz Musician of the Year award and became quite possibly the best-selling SA jazz album of all time, with sales estimated by his manager, Christian Syren, at around 100,000 in the first five years. Reissues still sell well today, nearly 40 years later.

That’s the “what?” of the Yakhal’inkomo story. Less understood is the “why?” of that unprecedented and persistent popularity, and that is the question Mabandu explores. A broad answer seems easy. Playing and composition are superb, melding SA stylistic and cultural references with acknowledged homage to Coltrane. The young reedman, and pianist Lionel Pillay, bassist Agrippa Magwaza and drummer Early Mabuza perform at the peak of their skills. The title track (translating as “the bellowing bull“) was intended and heard as a lamentation of protest against apartheid: “for the black man’s pain”, Mankunku explained. Yet the era produced much superb SA jazz, and much of it could also be read as enacting protest. For a long time there has remained a lacuna around what made Yakhal’inkomo special.

Awareness of that “generational responsibility to recover the history and produce knowledge on something where even Google has almost nothing” combined with a more personal impulse for Mabandu. “I needed to grow from journalism,” he says, “to see whether I could sustain a narrative for more than 3,000 words!”In a nearly three-year research journey he describes as “mining the silences”, Mabandu explored the documentary record, the responses of listeners and players, and the often-painful recollections of the late Mankunku’s family and friends. “Sitting talking with Mankunku’s brother Thulisile,” Mabandu recalls, “you could see his gaze drift to the man’s saxophone. He’d go sad and silent, immersed in memories.”

Before the book was published, Mabandu held a series of readings from drafts, accompanied by jazz musicians. Those also enhanced his insight: “Our rehearsals were almost like a workshop for me. The ways they pulled Yakhal’inkomo apart opened me up to understand the structure of the song itself.”

More such insights are likely to come from further planned collaborations, with dancer Thabo Rapoo and with visual artists: “All kinds of people are approaching me with ideas for taking the work into spaces I’ve never even imagined,” Mabandu says.

Portrait of a Jazz Classic is a valuable addition to the literature that ought rapidly to find its way onto required reading lists as well as jazz-lovers’ bookshelves. Through a layered narrative — about players, imagery around the music, and the song’s complex resonances over time — it adds factual detail, explores symbolism, and exposes moving human nuance. It provides precisely those insights we previously lacked about the jazz milieu of the 1960s and 1970s: not just how things were, but what they meant; what the tune meant and why it moved hearers so powerfully. “Access to people’s hearts,” says Mabandu, “was 50% of the job.”

Those are the monograph’s strengths. Weaknesses seem linked largely to the resource-stretched business of self-publishing. Too much is crammed into too short a volume. As a consequence, the transitions between the contrasting voices of often dense theoretical analysis and powerfully musical human reflection sometimes feel abrupt, and the text could also use the more extended proof-reading available via mainstream publishing.

For now, Mabandu simply wants this first edition to be seen, read and discussed. He is developing a business model around building marketing partnerships supported by readings with nonconventional outlets such as record shops, jazz clubs and galleries. But he concedes that a longer scholarly biography — supported by better resources — is an obvious next step. “I set out to curate the text so it always returned to contextualizing the song, but there was this persistent fear of leaving things out.

“When I look now at the material I had and cut, I realise I must find a way to use it.”

Yakhal’inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic
Percy Mabandu
DASH-Art Media

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