Mbambisa, Tete - Tete's Big Sound LP
The album Tete’s Big Sound emerged during a golden age for local South African jazz recordings in the 1970s. Issued by the independent As-Shams/The Sun label in 1976, it was the first album attributed to pianist Tete Mbambisa as a solo artist. Yet, Mbambisa was already a seasoned composer, arranger, bandleader and performer by the mid-1970s - an artist at the peak of his powers who had patiently cultivated his craft to create his enduring debut.
Born in 1942 and raised in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, Mbambisa’s childhood home also served as the family’s small business - an informal tavern where social gatherings orbited around his mother’s carefully curated music collection and live performances by a local pianist. His musical roots are thus deeply embedded in marabi - the syncopated piano sound of urban black South African culture in the 1950s that took cues from American jazz, blues and ragtime while fostering the sensibilities that would shape modern South African jazz.
A self-taught musician, it was as the leader of the vocal group The Four Yanks that Tete Mbambisa’s music career began in earnest in the early 1960s. Mbambisa humbly recalls to this period as his education in harmonic structure but his special talent for musical arrangement was quickly recognised and widely admired. With encouragement from Abdullah Ibrahim, he dedicated himself to the piano and was a member of the award-winning Swinging City Six ensemble in 1963 (with the added distinction of receiving the Cold Castle Festival’s piano prize). Mbambisa went on to assemble and record with The Soul Jazzmen in the late 1960s and the group’s sole release Inhlupeko (1969) joined Winston Mankunku’s Yakhal' Inkomo (1968) and Chris Schilder’s Spring (1969) to create a wave of aspirational modern South African jazz albums that expanded the ambitions of artists and labels in the 1970s.
As a record store owner with a direct relationship to the jazz scene, producer Rashid Vally led the charge for the independent labels with early 1970s releases by Gideon Nxumalo and Abdullah Ibrahim on Soultown Records. Rebranding as As-Shams/The Sun for the release of Ibrahim’s Mannenberg - ‘Is Where It’s Happening’ in 1974, Vally’s breakout success found himself at the
helm of an autonomous production enterprise with access to mainstream studios, manufacturing and distribution. As-Shams/The Sun quickly earned a reputation as the home of the vanguard of local South African jazz, offering an unmatched platform for artists to create without compromise and attracting a host of South African jazz luminaries, including Mbambisa, as a consequence.
Leading on piano, Mbambisa enlisted the support of a five-piece brass section with guitar, bass and drums for the January 1976 recording session at Gallo Studios in Johannesburg that yielded
Tete’s Big Sound. The arrangements were meticulously prepared and confidently executed but there was more at stake than personal reputation for Mbambisa as a jazz creator in 1970s South Africa as Vusi Khumalo, writer of the album’s original liner notes, passionately extolls. Tete’s Big Sound was an affirmation of black excellence in modern arts and culture that calmly dismantled the doctrine of a regime that denied equality to black citizens on the basis of race. And while much of Mbambisa’s early work was guided by black heroes from the United States, Tete’s Big Sound articulated a voice that was both proudly South African and unmistakably his own. Reissued in collaboration with Tete Mbambisa and As-Sham/The Sun, Mad About Records’ 2021 edition of Tete’s Big Sound marks the album’s very first international release.
Using a quartet format, Mbambisa recorded a second album for As-Shams/The Sun entitled Did You Tell Your Mother in 1978 and unreleased sessions from this period have yet to be fully issued.
In recent years, Mbambisa has released a pair of live recordings in partnership with the Music Research Centre at the University of York. Turning 80 in 2022, Tete Mbambisa lives in Cape Town and continues to enchant audiences with ad hoc special appearances.
Text by Calum MacNaughton
Under License and Courtesy As-Shams/The Sun Records
1. Umthsakazi (The Bride) 08:07
2. Stay Cool 09:41
3. Black Hero's 04:34
4. Dembese (Dedicated to Cyril McGabane) 05:45
5. Unity 06:29