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Magnus Opus: Yakhal’ Inkomo by South African jazz legend Winston Mankunku Ngozi

Winston Mankunku Ngozi at the tribute to SA Music Heroes Concert on September 1. 2008, in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Vathiswa Ruselo)
By Zach Lees
18 May 2022 0

The acclaimed SA saxophonist imparts the depth and complexity of his musical credentials on the album from within the context of apartheid while ranking alongside jazz heavyweights like John Coltrane.

The 60s are regarded as a ‘silent decade’ in mainstream South African history. Indeed, after the Sharpeville Massacre, the apartheid regime cracked down on resistance, banning political parties opposed to the regime and ushered in a new era of political silence. Though that may be misleading: in the 1960s the South African jazz industry was booming and within it, a vast political landscape existed. Testament to this we get to Yakhal’ Inkomo by bona fide South African jazz legend Winston Mankunku Ngozi.

Recorded and released in 1968, the album is widely regarded as Mankunku’s magnum opus. Directly translated as “the cry of the cow before slaughter” the album is Mankunku’s cry that expresses the lived experience in South Africa where non-white South Africans were living and dying to satisfy the desires of the ruling white population.

Though to speak only of the political context of this album would ignore the brilliance of the music itself. At a time when John Coltrane was at the peak of his abilities and on top of the musical world, it isn’t hard to imagine how in a hypothetical world where Yakhal’ Inkomo got the attention it deserved Mankunku would be right up there with him.

From a technical standpoint the album is exemplary, and the first second of the first track (Yakhal’ Inkomo) sets the tone. It’s cool but forlorn empty spaces sitting delicately between moments of frantic playing, the saxophone an extension of Mankunku himself allowing us to listen in to his joy and his pain.

Yakhal’ Inkomo by South African jazz legend Winston Mankunku Ngozi. Image: Supplied

We get through to the second track, it’s a dedication to hard bop legends John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter — one I’m sure they’d have been proud of. We’re halfway through the album now and it’s time to flip the record over — for this album we have finished with Mankunku’s originals, the B side is also only two tracks.

They are covers, “Doodlin’” was originally written by Horace Silver and “Bessie’s Blues” originally written by Coltrane himself. In this sense, we get to see directly how Mankunku stacks up to the greats, and he matches them pound for pound.

For me, this album is among my three favourite jazz records of all time, though I can never settle on exactly where in the top three it sits.

It’s accessible as well; you can enter this album from a range of angles and it was one of the first jazz albums I listened to on repeat (many many times) — if you’re a jazzhead already, don’t even think twice. If you like classic hip hop from groups like A Tribe Called Quest or even later on J Dilla — dig into Yakhal’ Inkomo. DM/ ML

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