The BBC’s Desert Island Disc debuted on 29 January 1942 and till date has almost 3500 episodes recorded. One aspect of the program that fascinates me most is how the guests who are often persons who are very exposed musically, manage to narrow down their favourites to eight tracks and a further pruning to 5 tracks as the soundtrack of their lives. I am often intrigued by that ability to eliminate favourites because for as long as I have appreciated sounds, I have been unable to make a list of my top 5 favourite songs without feeling like I was abandoning a part of me by choosing one song and leaving out another. Also, my favourites change almost monthly. It is almost impossible to have the same favourite over a 10-year-old period much less a lifetime.
Another aspect of the program that fascinated and still fascinates me is how seemingly very ordinary tracks that mean very little to the listener are the soundtracks of the guests’ lives. Through the Desert Island Disc, I have come to appreciate the personalisation of music. Every song resonates differently with each listener. A seemingly meaningless and ordinary song could be brightening a life elsewhere while serving as a constant reminder to another for lifelong pain.
Over the years, a lazy past time of mine has been imagining that I was a guest on the program and tried to narrow down the so many favourite tracks that have accompanied my life. It is always a frustrating experience as the moment I seem to have narrowed it down to the allotted quota, I remember a song that was the soundtrack of a period in my life or a pivotal event in my past. Leaving that song out often feels like neglecting a dear friend who had been there for you when you needed help. I often abandon daydreaming with frustration and guilt.
I feel that the best compromise I can muster is to assemble the most played tracks in the year where I was being banished to an Island. Nothing proves that proves a track is your favourite more than the fact that you listen to it repeatedly. After all, what use is a friendship where the parties do not communicate and do so regularly?
I looked over my playlist in 2018, and I found that the proof of the favouritism is in the most played songs. I decided to make a playlist of these most played songs and they truly captured my thoughts, moods and experiences throughout the year. So, if I were banished to my imaginary island at the end of 2018, this would be my tracklist. I will revisit this at the end of 2019, and I can bet it would differ greatly ?
Vijay Iyer Sextet – Far From Over – Far From Over
I had not heard much about Vijay Iyer before 2018’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF). I was initially intrigued because he was double billed to perform on both nights at the Rosie hall. This was huge and rare, so my expectation was high. While in the queue waling into the hall as his set was about to commence, the couple in front of me and I were making small talk, during which I responded that I was about to see Vijay Iyer play for the very first time. They reassured me that I was in for a threat. They certainly were not wrong. Besides Vijay, the sextet is composed of very accomplished artists, the likes of Marcus Gilmore and Stephan Crump; together they made magic that night. I was so wowed that I at the end of the night, I quickly got a ticket for the second set of theirs the next night.
Almost all the music played on both nights were from the Far From Over album. A beautiful album from which the title track stood out for me that night and has been a staple diet of mine throughout 2018. The opening notes from Vijay’s piano set a distinct Asian note to the track. It gets better as the horns engage in thorny interplay setting up a cascading solo for the piano. Vijay Iyer’s career is wide-ranging with over 25 albums, and he is one of the most decorated jazz players. While his music is often termed analytical and intellectual, the track Far from Over is a very accessible track that I find most enjoyable.
Feya Faku – Le Ngoma – Barefoot Boys
An unscientific observation of mine is the music an artist produces is often a reflection of their personality in some way. I find that observation evident in the music of Port Elizabeth born, world-renowned Trumpet and flugelhorn player, Feya Faku. There is a mellowness that is the signature of the notes that Feya produces from his instruments. The sound is an elegant fury. The level of control he brings to his notes and his mastery of restraint. I got my first Feya Faku album over almost two decades ago and fell in love with his sound. I have seen him play a couple of times, and each time the set was wow!
Once I was aware that he was going to be playing at CTIJF, I knew I was in for a good time. His set was very good, and I suddenly got very hungry for his music and set about finding more of his released works. Feya Faku is a bit of an unconventional artist. More interested in writing music, rehearsing and playing gigs than making his music commercially available. The only available works of his on the usual outlets are albums done with us usual collaborators in Europe. None of his own albums is available. I finally hit gold when I contacted an American jazz journalist who tweeted one of Feya’s tracks. The journalist accommodated me in his DM before sharing details of how to reach Feya Faku. My conversations with Feya were just like his music; focused, direct, subtle and calm. I listened to all albums of his and said I was willing to pay over the odds for them as I could not find them in the shops. The gracefulness that shines in music was replicated in his kind gesture – he sent me spare copies of the albums (apart from Hommage, which I am still searching for ?) by courier from Joburg to Lagos. All I paid was a little token, barely covering the courier cost.
You can bet that these albums dominated my life for the next few months. Out of the lot, Barefoot Boys was a stand out tune. In an album that had an overarching melancholic tone, this melodic tune resonated exceedingly with me. The interplay between the drums, Piano and horns were truly rhythmic. Also, the drum solo by Dominic Egli in the middle was a delight.
Femi Kuti – Africa Shrine (live) – Eh Oh
Can you imagine the contradictory position of having a secret that is known to all? That explains my relationship with not just this song but the version in this album. I am often part of the bewildering audience at the New African shrine on most Thursdays and Sundays when the Positive Force band wield their magic. I am often at the very front of the stage once the initial notes of this song start playing. Femi Kuti himself knows, and a quiet smile plays on his face each time he directly in his line of vision metres away contemplating the depth and conciseness of this song. Back at home, each time it comes on the speaker as an almost daily ritual during my shower time, I imagine my daughter roll her eyes as she blurts out “Daddy has started playing his favourite song again”.
My preference for this version is hinged on the fact that it is way livelier than the studio version found in the Day by Day album. This liveliness is because of the energetic participation of the crowd in the live version and the way Femi waits for the audience to approach the end of the chorus at the start of the song before jumping into jump-start an already moving vehicle of meditation and supplication. I love this song because it is a short meditative piece that applies in almost any situation and is not creed based. I love this jam!
Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson – Classics – Ene Bate
One Saturday morning in early 2018, I was in bed with my wife (this is not an attempt at erotic fiction ?) and was recalling some nostalgic incidents in my early teenage years. I was telling her about a distant neighbour who sold gin and weed in his shack a stone throw from my flat in the working class area where I grew up. Besides the escapades that were regular occurrences in that shebeen, I have fond memories of it as an introduction to highlife music of the Niger Delta variant. Rex Jim Lawson was (and still is) the king of highlife. Lots of his songs were boomed out of that shebeen during that period, and without hearing a word of most of the languages he sang in, I was mesmerised by the songs.
That Saturday morning, I remembered Ene Bate particularly. Tried miming it and asked my wife who understands the language what the lyrics meant. That morning I learnt that this song is a wake-up call. The Cardinal is calling his Kalabari kinsmen to wake up, that the day had dawned, and it was time to get up and work. In addition to the message, the strings in this song get to me each time. It is reflective, calming and Rex Lawson’s croaky voice is super sexy ?. I checked at the end of the year and found out I had played and enjoyed this track an inordinate amount of times.
Hugh Masekela – Home is where the Music is – Uhomé
It is a bit of a scientifically proven observation that when an artist dies, their work attains a level of appreciation that was unseen just before their demise. I was already very familiar with the works of Bra Hugh. Seen him perform live, read an autographed copy (let me confess, it is a second-hand copy ?) of his hugely entertaining autobiography and collected over a dozen albums of his very huge catalog. However, soon after his death, I began to revisit his less popular works, earlier albums that I had not cared to listen to in recent times. That was how I rediscovered the Home is where the Music is an album, and that was how this gem of a jam captured my heart.
This album released in 1972 marked a sharp detour from the more pop and folk-oriented jazz that Bra Hugh was playing until then (and returned to in later years). This arguably Bra Hugh’s best album and more informed critics consider it one of the best albums that were released in 1972 and that is no mean feat when you recognise that the field was full of spectacular releases.
Uhomé is a cover of a Miriam Makeba original, but it is a most special and gorgeous arrangement at that. Produced by Caiphus Semenya and with Eddie Gomez pulling strings on bass in this track, together with the bullish and ebullient Dudu Pukwana on horns with Bra Hugh, mellow magic is worked on this track.
Nduduzo Makhatini – Listening to the Ground – Same Mother
CTIJF 2018 was the first time I heard of Nduduzo Makhatini, saw he and his band play, enjoyed there set thoroughly and went out to get half a dozen album of his. Dude works so hard. He puts out so much work that you could find three albums of his released in a year. He is an exceptional pianist who is focused on recreating the works of past legends in a new light. You can hear echos of Bheki Mseleku and Zim Ngqawana. Of all the albums of his I bought soon after CTIJF, at the end of the year I found that this Same Mother track had been one of my most constant companions.
Moses Taiwa Molelekwa – Live at the Fin De Siecle Festival, Nantes – Biko’s Dream
When Moses Molelekwa died in 2001, avid listeners and critics alike agreed that a very bright light had been dimmed abruptly while it still has much luminance to offer. Taiwa Molelekwa was an exceptional pianist and composer who was way ahead of his time. His music used the jazz artform as a springboard to escape the boundaries of labels. I stumbled on a DVD of his set at this Music festival over a decade ago while foraging for secret gems in of those recently closed high street music shops in Pretoria over a decade ago. Now and then I watch the video and enjoy the unique talent that was Moses Molelekwa as a bandleader, genius pianist and composer. Soon after, one of the songs played in that set remains on repeat on my playlist for say next two months.
That was the case in 2018, and at the end of it, I found that Biko’s Dream had been on heavy rotation on my devices. This version of the song has a faster tempo than the studio version. Begins with energetic chant by Moses (a style popularised by the late Bheki Mseleku), with very rhythmic bass lines by the irrepressible Fana Zulu and the flute of Kaya Mhlangu, the song soars to melodic plateau. The beauty of the track is around the fifth minute when Moses Molelekwa begins a piano solo that lasts till around the ninth minute when the song is skillfully brought down to a lower tempo as the horns, drums and piano are involved in lovely interchange.
As the name suggests, this tune was written in honour of Bantu Stephen Biko, the Black consciousness leader during the struggle against apartheid. Moses Molelekwa was barely 24 year old at the time he played this set at the Fin De Siecle Festival in Nantes France.
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Mra
The history of the Jazz art form in South Africa can’t be complete without the pivotal role Chri McGregor played. The Brotherhood of Breath band is an extension of his previous band – The Blue Notes. At a time when evil apartheid laws made it a crime for blacks and whites to play together, Chris risked it all by forming bands with some of the most talented black South African artists. When the noose of apartheid tightened, most of them went on exile to Europe and continued their careers. The Brotherhood of Breath was a big band with loose but skilled translation and lots of free improvisation.
Mra was one of their stand out track and is the cornerstone of their 1971 self-titled album. The song was written by the ebullient and bellow sounding Dudu Pukwana. The sound of this track is reminiscent of Charles Mingus at his best, and that is partly due to the accommodative bass chords of Harry Miller. Joyous and exuberant jam.
Thandi Ntuli – The Offering – Umthandazo
It is a testament to how busy the jazz scene in South Africa to which I am beholden is, that if you blink you miss a lot of the phenomenal work that is being put out by world-class artists. For reasons which I still do not understand, I missed Thandi Ntuli’s music until I read a piece related to her sophomore album Exiled at my favourite music blog. I checked out the album, liked it but decided to see her debut album, and that is where I got hooked.
Thandi Ntuli is an excellent pianist and composer. Her music is tender yet complex. Her notes are gracefully delivered, and while listening to The Offering album, I kept oscillating from one favourite to the other. There is not one bad track in the 11 track album, but the track that resonated most is Umthandazo. The track starts with the well-layered piano notes echoing the chants that Thandi vocalises, the horn waltzes in and out while we are left with some exquisite piano solo with the drums in the background and the chants in the refrain. Beautiful piece and a firm favourite of mine.
Herbie Hancock – Maiden Voyage – Maiden Voyage
Now and then, you get reacquainted with a standard and you are reawakened to how excellent the past of this art form has been (not just its present). This album was released in 1965 and might be getting better with each listening session. With the title track, Herbie Hancock had said that he wanted to evoke everything in the ocean: the flow of the current; the creatures who live in the water; the response of voyagers, who experience it for the first time. All these moods and sentiments are aptly captured in this majestic track. Herbie’s piano notes find an awesome ally in Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman’s horns. The voyage is smooth and seamless with one band member taking a solo one after the other — smooth sailing of improvisation and hard-bop at its best.
Bethel Music, Steffany Gretzinger and Jeremy Riddle – Starlight Live – King of My Heart
I often have trouble remembering lyrics of gospel songs that resonate with me. This was one of those moments where I was smart enough to google the initial lyrics of the song soon after I heard for the first time. Days later, I worked out the details of the song from that initial google search. This song was a favourite of mine throughout 2018 as its theme found expression in various moods and circumstances of my life. Indeed, He was the wind in my sail and the anchor in the waves. A reassuring tune that blessed my heart most of 2018.
Dr Lonnie Smith – Too Damn Hot – Norleans
The thing about live music is that it opens a whole new vista to your listening sessions. I chanced on a live performance of Dr Lonnie Smith at the Half Note Jazz Club in Athens. It was a surreal night but one that got me voraciously consuming the Dr’s very large body of work. Dr Lonnie Smith is a Hammond B3 organist who has figuratively patented the jazz-funk sound. His sound is unmistakable, and his compositions are diverse and eclectic. Norleans was the most played of the lot I sampled from his discography in 2018.