wax Poetics

Jonas Gwangwa and African Explosion

Who (Ngubani)?

Released 1969
record label Jamal Records
Written by Robbie Busch

Jonas Gwangwa & African Explosion - Who (Ngubani)?
Jonas Gwangwa & African Explosion - Who (Ngubani)?

Intense whispered chanting drifts towards a solid groove of hand percussion and guitar. It locks in with a mesmerizing beat for a few bars, when suddenly there is an explosion of joyful noise. A galloping herd of musical ponies make a mad dash for the cool stream of hot jazz that comes from Jonas Gwangwa’s trombone.

His sound is as rich with the history of his native Johannesburg as it is with American jazz and soul. He came up playing in South Africa with Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand. His confident and easy style helped him land a gig as arranger for Harry Belafonte in the mid-’60s, which led him to work with Miriam Makeba on the first big African soul crossover hit, “Pata Pata.”

Gwangwa was in full stride by the time he hooked up with Ahmad Jamal, who issued Who (Ngubani)? on his personal label and coproduced it with James Shaw. The world was open to grooving with the African Explosion, a dashiki-powered supergroup that included the top South African saxophonist, Dudu Pukwana, and former Velvettes lead singer, Mamsie. Jonas touched off the big bang with a powder keg full of smoking tunes.

The heat starts when Jonas and Dudu burst out of the gate on “Switch #2,” which puts some safari buckshot in a Jr. Walker–style funky grind. Trombone and sax bop into each other like java junkies, as the pounding drums whip them into a deeper frenzy. The fuse burns intently as it snakes around the down-tempo lament on the title track and the uplifting hoedown of the ironically titled “Dark City.” Gwangwa’s crowning moment is the final track, “Kukunde (Far Away).” It brings together all the elements that have been burning under the surface with a big sound that embeds itself in your head and sets deep roots. It’s at once a cry for the motherland and an embracing of a new home. It is African soul.