Mankunku Quartet’s Yakhal’ Inkomo was a landmark album for South African jazz

mankunku quartet yakhal inkomo

The 1960s and early 1970s are often referred to as High Apartheid in South Africa: the Separate Amenities Act of 1953—which legalized the racial segregation of public spaces—was still in full effect. The horror of the Sharpeville Massacre—in which police opened fire on crowds of demonstrators, killing 69—had traumatized the nation. Growing numbers of black South Africans were being forced out of their homes in some of the largest mass evictions in modern history. Following their ban, the ANC (African National Congress) had been pushed underground, with many of its leaders imprisoned at the infamous Rivonia Trial. In short, with the main source of internal resistance repressed and a lack of support from almost all Western countries, the future for black South Africans seemed bleak. Moreover, if music can be a hub of communal joy, safety, and collective catharsis for oppressed cultures, in the early ’60s even this was made impossible by the closure of any venues that catered to mixed audiences or ensembles. For many musicians in the still-nascent South African jazz scene, working in their home country simply became unsustainable. In the following years, a major exodus of talent occurred with major figures such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masekela moving to Europe or America.

During this early era of South African jazz, much attention was given to the incredible work put out by these exiled musicians. Abdullah Ibrahim—then known as Dollar Brand—and Samitha Bea Benjamin would go on to work with Duke Ellington. The Blue Notes became notable in the European free jazz scene. Perhaps the most commercially successful, Hugh Masekela would become the popular face of South African music in America.

While many left the country, a sizeable group of musicians remained, continuing to live and work through the height of Apartheid. Among them was young saxophonist Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi. Raised by a musical family in the Western Cape, Ngozi, inspired by a mix of local musicians and famous American players, would gradually build a reputation as a uniquely talented young artist. Staying in South Africa at this time proved itself to be routinely difficult. One story details how while playing at the Cape Town City Hall, Mankunku, billed as Winston Mann, was forced to play behind a screen while a white musician mimed his notes on stage. In the authorities’ eyes, black artists couldn’t be seen to play such complex music.

In 1968, with a backdrop of political despair, enforced displacement, and segregation, Mankunku would gather Lionel Pillay (piano), Agrippa Magwaza (bass), and Early Mabuza (drums) to record an album that has since become a touchstone for generations of South African jazz artists. Yakhal’ Inkomo, or Bellowing Bull, is a stunning, timeless record that deserves recognition not just within the South African jazz pantheon, but amongst the pioneering American albums it was inspired by.

The original release of Yakhal’ Inkomo, recorded on 23 July 1968 at the Johannesburg Studios of Manley Van Niekerk, consists of just four tracks. The first two, “Yakhal’ Inkomo” and “Dedication (To Daddy Trane & Brother Shorter),” are original compositions by Mankunku, while the remaining two, “Doodlin’” and “Bessie’s Blues,” are compositions by Horace Silver and John Coltrane respectively.

Beginning with the title track, Mankunku introduces a theme that permeates throughout the album: beneath a relaxed, joyful surface, there is a covert vein of protest. As all political resistance would inevitably be silenced, Mankunku, like many financially unstable and politically suppressed musicians, was forced to hide his rebellion in a commercially viable and non-confrontational package. The Zulu title, which translates to Bellowing Bull, was interpreted by white audiences as an evocation of the stereotypical pastoral lifestyle of the pre-colonial era. This vision of a tribal black existence sat well with the authorities, content to confine black cultural output to old clichés. As Gwen Ansell wrote in Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa, “A rural image of cattle roaring on their way to slaughter was … well in tune with the censors’ stereotype of appropriate African subject matter.” In actuality, the bellowing bull was a far more resonant image for black audiences. Though the liner notes by Ray Nkwe declare the title to be an expression of Mankunku’s grief following the loss of John Coltrane, Mankunku would describe the Bellowing Bull as a representation of “the black man’s pain”; a bull’s distress while watching the slaughter of its kin. In an interview within Ansell’s book, he explains how listeners would reassure him that they were hearing his message; that they understood what James C. Scott called the “hidden transcript.” In short, once one listens beyond the breezy tone, a much more complex expression reveals itself. This is music that is at once deeply enjoyable and imbued with a quiet resistance.

As for the track itself, “Yakhal’ Inkomo” hinges on a simple, elegant I-II harmonic progression. Mankunku’s motif establishes itself, dissipates into a wave of bubbling keys, before returning to comfort with a series of short, sharp, joyful bursts. The solos from Mankunku and Pillay are beautiful, Mankunku occasionally drifting into a stylistic expressionism reminiscent of Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. Following on shortly after, Pillay’s bluesy solo morphs from the lightness of the established E-flat major tonality to a darker minor phrasing. It is perhaps the only moment that brings the impassioned political subtext to the track’s surface.

There is another understated but powerfully subversive element of Mankunku’s music: the subtle integration of Xhosa and other indigenous musical stylings within a conventional American jazz context. Indeed, there is an intriguing circularity between African and African-American jazz of the period. While Mankunku looked to the work of John Coltrane, artists like Coltrane and Sanders were incorporating elements of African music into their own work. In a conversation celebrating the record on All About Jazz, Salim Washington recalls Mankunku going so far as to call Coltrane a Xhosa musician. Though Mankunku’s inclusion of this musical heritage was perhaps limited by commercial necessities and political context, the influence is there. Referring to the timbre of Mankunku’s playing, Salim Washington explains in his essay, Exiles/Inxiles: Differing Axes of South African Jazz during Late Apartheid, how “during his solos [Mankunku] frequently makes use of a technique that resembles umngqokolo, or Xhosa overtone singing.” 

The second track, another original composition, is equally notable to Yakhal‘ Inkomo yet less ubiquitous in South Africa. “Dedication (To Daddy Trane & Brother Shorter)” is a beautiful ode to Mankunku’s American muses. Their influence is plainly apparent in the song, Mankunku’s modal playing mirroring the wide melodic steps that Coltrane pioneered. Aside from another pair of excellent solos, the track also demonstrates the quality of the album’s recording; Pillay’s piano tones sound exquisite as they enter the track.

The two remaining tracks, “Doodlin’” and “Bessie’s Blues,” are renditions of Horace Silver and Coltrane’s jazz standards. The former’s swinging 12-bar blues is perfectly captured by the quartet while “Bessie’s Blues” introduces the explosive energy of Coltrane’s hard-bop work. As the album’s closer, the track demonstrates both the technical virtuosity of the players and the impassioned spirit of the project. It is a fitting end to the record and a loving tribute to the legend who had died a year before the album’s recording.

Yakhal’ Inkomo clearly made a powerful impression on the people of South Africa, becoming one of the best selling jazz records of all time in the country. Given the horror of that period of history and the enduring scars it has inflicted on the country, it is worth considering the role of art in times of immense struggle. The album is a demonstration of the ability of music to simultaneously allow for a moment of relief and to inspire a revolutionary zeal. Its importance within liberation movements cannot be overstated. Perhaps, in the case of Yakhal’ Inkomo, it is this unforced blend of protest, subtle indigenous stylings, and contemporary jazz that made the record one of the most important albums in South African musical history.

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