Ndikho Xaba and the Natives– S/T [African/American 1971] – New LP
Pressed on heavy 160gm vinyl at Smashed Plastic in Chicago, including booklet with rare photographs and concert bills, personal recollections from Plunky Branch, and extensive liner notes by Francis Gog, lding and the great Thulani Davis.
Ndikho Xaba left South Africa in 1964, an exile from his homeland who eventually found his place in San Francisco’s vibrant spiritual jazz scene of the late 60s. A songwriter, bandleader, pianist, and inventor of percussion and woodwind instruments, Xaba played alongside contemporaries like Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. But it was on the single album he recorded in the US, self-released in an edition of 100 copies in 1971, that Xaba realized his unique vision. Backed by a band that included Plunky Branch and Lon Moshe (Oneness of Juju and Black Fire label), Xaba bridged the Black Atlantic, connecting the music of Africa with the most brilliant lights of the Diaspora, and drawing a line between the Black Power movement of the US and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Across five songs, Xaba and the band move through spiritual invocations, wrenching soul, and dizzying layers of rhythm knocked out on homemade instruments. The album is a critical political and historical document, and one of our favorite spiritual jazz albums of all time. Licensed from Nomusa Xaba, Ndikho's partner, a poet, storyteller, album-cover artist, and namesake of the stunning track immortalizing her name. This is a re-issue of the remastered 2015 release by Matsuli Music, pressed on 160gm vinyl, including booklet with rare photographs and concert bills, personal recollections from Plunky Branch, and extensive liner notes by Francis Golding and the great Thulani Davis, who was a part of Xaba's musical community.
Ndikho Xaba - Piano, percussion, bullhorn, seaweed horn
Plunky - tenor, soprano sax, flute, percussion
Lon Moshe (Ron) - vibes, percussion
Duru (Baba) - congas, percussion
Shabalala (Kent) - bass
Kieta (Kieth) - drums
Re-recorded / Edited by
Photography: PHILLIP PRICE/PLUNKY
Art Conception: NOMUSA XABA
Album Design: EDDIE HORAN
Nomusa Xaba is a storyteller, poet and educator living in South Africa. Born into a musical family in Chicago, she worked for CORE as part of the Civil Rights movement before making her way to San Francisco in the late 1960s. There she met the South African bandleader Ndikho Xaba, in political exile for supporting Nelson Mandela’s ANC. He would become her husband and creative partner, collaborating until his passing in June of 2019. Together with a remarkable collective of local musicians, writers, and photographers (including Thulani Davis and Plunky Branch), they would record the DIY spiritual jazz masterpiece Ndikho Xaba and the Natives in 1971.
We called up Mama Nomusa at her home in South Africa to hear more about her art and creative universe.
Nomusa Xaba: Both of my parents were musicians. My mother played piano and later on, the organ. She played in the church, where she met my father. He was playing trumpet. It's funny because neither of them were religious at all, but that's where they met, and I think that was the end of that.
My dad was a professional jazz musician. So I grew up in a very musical environment in Chicago. Jazz, we were taught, was our birthright and our inheritance. Friday night you had my dad playing jazz for the whole neighborhood (laughs). He had like, 12 speakers, and he'd turn them all up and you could hear them all the way around the corner. Every Friday night, my house was a party, and I think of Fridays very fondly, because it was goin’ on.
And then Saturday, our neighbors would play the Blues downstairs. They would buy whiskey and play the blues all day and reminisce about the South. Sundays was gospel music, which was blasting everywhere. I thought everybody grew up like that. Only when I branched out, I realized how rich and wonderful that was.
It’s no surprise I married a musician! When I told my father I was going to marry a musician he said, “Good, great.” It was all he needed to know, “Oh he’s a musician? That’s fine.”
This was the old San Francisco, when real people really lived there. It was dominated by the Black Panther Party. I think Huey T. Newton had just gone to jail. I had no idea who he was, but I found out. He had quite a following. The Black Panther Party was active. The Soledad Three - Fleeta Drumgo, John Cluchette, and George Jackson - were on trial. Angela Davis was in love with George at that time. They were always writing letters back and forth. The hippies were there, you know, doing their thing. So there was a lot of energy. It was vibrant, it was youthful. It was looking for change. It was anti-Vietnam. It was definitely what I was looking for - something different. But you had to be careful. You had to know how you handle yourself. Cause suddenly everything your mother told you not to do, you could do. I loved San Francisco. It was an opening for me. But it wasn't a place I could stay.
By the time I met Ndikho, I had a community already established, and I wanted to go to Africa. I wanted to go to Africa like, yesterday.
Cyrus Moussavi: And can you tell me more about how Baba Ndikho arrived in San Francisco?
Nomusa: He was kind of a nomad. His father was a minister and they grew up all over South Africa. He lived in many different places. He was a preacher's kid, you know? And when he became political, it was right around the time Mandela was arrested and the ANC was banned. That's when he joined, and he immediately came under the radar of the special branch of the South African police. He had a bad incident where they chased him from a meeting looking for minutes to the meeting, which he didn't have. He ran from the police. It was quite traumatic for him. And right after that, they came to look for him at his house.
He became kind of a refugee in his own country, moving around in order to avoid the police. Because he didn't want to give up his political beliefs. So when he found an opportunity as an actor, he took it. Alan Paton had a play come up, Sponono, and Ndikho got a part. And that play got a Broadway deal. And that's how he came to the US. The play was a great success, ran for six weeks, you know how it is. But after that, then what do you do? There were 22 people in the cast. 11 went back to South Africa, 11 stayed and applied for political refugee status, which they did not get (laughs).
So he ended up again kind of in exile within a country. He was traveling all over, trying to get his music to work. He loved New York because New York was where he landed and it felt like home. Miriam [Makeba] was there. Hugh [Masekela] was there. Oh, my goodness. Jonas Gwangwa, everybody you know and don't know was there. They were a small but very tight artistic community. But after the play, everybody went their own way, trying to find their way musically. And he did the same. He ended up in Texas for a while and he ended up in Arizona for a while. And then he came to San Francisco all the while trying to further his music. He had very strong musical ideas, very strong political ideas. He was looking for fertile ground for his music when he got to San Francisco.
What impressed us as a community was that the piano at the Malcolm X. Unity House was very out of tune. Terribly out of tune. When Ndikho arrived, he played that piano like it was a grand piano. We couldn't believe it. I mean, everybody knew it was out of tune, but he just ignored that, the energy that he brought to it. He had a friend who danced, so they danced and he played piano.
Ndikho was self-taught, purposefully. He did not want anyone to influence what he heard. So besides sitting next to his mother on the organ when he was a child, he didn't have any formal training. I don't really know how he learned the piano. He never really talked about it because he was playing trumpet when he left South Africa. And then by the time he got to Texas, he was playing piano. You know how musical geniuses are. It just happens.
I thought he was the most vibrant man I had ever met. Energetic. And he had very peaceful eyes. I've heard people say that later, but he had very innocent, kind eyes. You know, when somebody talks to you and they really look at you? They don't look past you, or up in the air. Some people are just comfortable looking another person in the eye, it depends on their culture. The attraction was there.
CM: Shortly after meeting, you were part of this incredible record.
Nomusa: I was totally involved, and my daughter, everybody. I was introduced to Plunky [Branch] by a friend from the Civil Rights movement. He was a draft dodger. We never knew his name or where he was from. We knew nothing about him because he was on the list of people being looked for.
We were all young, we're all in our 20s, except for Ndikho, who was older than us. He was 34, he was ten years older than the rest of us. So he's kind of a father figure in that sense. And certainly much more worldly than the rest of us. So the band came together.
We rehearsed every day. Every day. We were almost like Sun Ra you know, we rehearsed every day. And so the music was there. We had good audience participation. Back then we had been to the Berkeley Jazz Festival, played for like 10,000 people. We were on an up, we were on a high. And we used to perform at a club with Sun Ra in Oakland. We would open for Sun Ra. Can you imagine? (laughs)
There was a lot going on. And very, very quickly. I mean, you couldn't blink your eyes. Everything was happening. And my daughter was the mascot. They absolutely would not perform without her being there, she was almost three years old. It was family - we were an artist collective without knowing we were an artist collective. We had musicians, we had writers, we had photographers. Thulani [Davis] was a journalist at that time. She worked for the newspaper. Ntozakay Shanday, who became very prominent later, was teaching poetry at the university. There was an ethnomusicologist. It was just about 20 of us or so. And it wasn't formal. That's just the way it was, you know? And everybody was feeding off of it. Thulani would always write poetry while they were playing music. I was just beginning to write, and so both of us would sit there and write poetry to the music. It was extremely vibrant, energetic. Creative. That's the word.
We were a community band. When Ndikho and I got married, it was like the whole community got married, you know? People were very excited about this coming together of South Africa and African-America. That was great. Some of the guys were a little pissed off. You know, like how does this guy come in and get her, thinking I'm like their property. I was like ‘You guys were here before, you paid no attention!’
The audience was always right on it. They were very much a part of the performance. We always had people at our rehearsals who were not musicians. Always! It just seemed like the way to do things. We never had really large audiences, besides that one gig, but it didn't matter to us. What we wanted was the essence of what we had. We didn't want to sell out to corporate interests. And Ndikho, he never did jazz standards, purposefully. Not because he didn't like them, but he didn't want to be known for that. He did his own music.
"Some of our Black and proud fans in the park in San Francisco for the Natives' last performance there in 1971," writes Mama Nomusa in her memoir.There was something pushing us to do an album. We had no money, we had $0 dollars. We put $300 into that album and that was a lot of money, you know what I’m saying? We had done some community work with the Independent African School, and that school had a storyteller, and that storyteller had a brother or a cousin or something who had a recording studio. The storyteller had just done an LP and he said, “You need to meet my brother, he won’t charge too much. You just have to get to L.A.” And we got to L.A.
The recording was pretty quick, because we had to go to L.A. We stayed at another musician’s house, all of us. I did the cover. What I remember is being at the kitchen table trying to get this album cover together. And the guys were in a garage up the street somewhere trying to get the music together. It was done very quickly, like a weekend.
CM: What was your inspiration for the album artwork?
Nomusa: Africa was everything. As Africans growing up in America and not really knowing we were Africans, when you discover that it's okay to be African, there's no disgrace, you know, Africa was everything! So, I just did Africa and put our pictures in there. Thulani, as you can see, was a great writer, she wrote up notes. And you can see those pictures are just little snapshots. Everybody gave me a little snapshot and it was cut and paste. Even the handwriting, it’s all organic.
CM: You said that Baba Ndikho had very clear political and musical ideas. Can you describe more about what he was aiming to do with this record, what the vision was?
Nomusa: Well, his point was to expose the South African government to the entire world and let everybody who would listen to him know what apartheid really was and what it was doing. It's like being a Palestinian or something - you're in the middle of a very repressive, ongoing, but socially acceptable system that nobody really knows about. You gotta remember this is 1970. There's no Internet. We've barely heard of South Africa, let alone knew about what apartheid was. Even the most political person. Baba Ndikho was naming this. And actually he was giving names to any African American who wanted a name. Everybody who came into the circle got a name. He thought the whole world should have Zulu names.
CM: And what does Nomusa mean?
Nomusa: Nomusa means the mother of kindness.
CM: Now that’s a beautiful name. Can you tell me more about the song “Nomusa”?
Nomusa: Not much more. It’s a love song, a love song for sure. I was always very honored to have that. I mean, not many people have songs made for them, and by the love of your life? It felt like an honor. There were words at one point, but in those days, you had to copyright the words. And when we sent them into ASCAP, they told us they weren't long enough. I don't know, we kind of got discouraged. Plunky had a singer that used to do it, but that was never recorded. I wish it had been, he really sang beautifully.
CM: What was the aftermath of the record? You self-released it or was it released by a label? And then what? What happened after?
Nomusa: Self-released. Trilyte Records was the brother or cousin or whatever that recorded it’s company, in his basement. We could not have produced more than 100 copies. I can ask Plunky, maybe he remembers, but I just don't remember us producing very many. Because we had no money and the major labels, I mean, who knows. Everybody was trying to do it themselves in those days anyway. And we didn't want the approval of the establishment. We were revolutionaries. That was it.
I wish we had had better equipment. I wish a lot of things, because the music was so much more dynamic than that album. But people seem to get a lot out of it, so I'm grateful.
CM: And then did the band stay together long after that?
Nomusa: No. No! Once we did that album, that was it. There became a leadership clash between Ndikho and Plunky. And you can see all that Plunky has done since. Plunky had all these ideas, places he wanted to go, and Ndikho couldn't understand them. They had a clash of where do we go from here? And they couldn't solve it. And so as usual, they played a song. And that song was just magnificent. And after the song was played, then they all agreed to go their separate ways, but to remain friends, which we did. And I'm still friends with Plunky today, and Shabalala. Lon passed away. The drummer, I lost contact with him. So that was it. It was like the record and then that was it, everybody left San Francisco and went back to New York and Rhode Island. Everybody went back East.
CM: What was the song that they played when they broke up? That's the best way I've ever heard of a band breaking up.
Nomusa: Ndikho called it Mad Mad, and Plunky called it.. Oh, I forgot. I'll have to research that for you. But it did get recorded. Plunky had to have recorded it.
CM: How did you feel when people came to you so many years later and said, oh, we're into this record?
Nomusa: Oh, very pleased and very happy that people so much younger than me could still hear. Because we knew it was classic. We know it was incredible, but we didn't know if anybody else was going to know that. So when the re-release came to be, we were very honored. By that time, Ndikho was ill. He had Parkinson's at the end of his life and couldn't play. So we were on cloud nine, that we had another venue in which to communicate with young people. Because in our minds, all of this was being done for future generations. We didn't want you guys to grow up in the same world we had grown up in. We wanted to make a difference. Black, white or green, purple, didn't matter what ethnicity. We wanted young people to be proud of themselves and to aspire to whatever their highest calling was. So yeah, it was great. It still is wonderful.