A Good art sometimes disappears, but thankfully, it often reappears. So is the case with this album, which was originally released a little over 50 years ago and is now reissued and remastered for new generations of listeners to enjoy and savour. In 1969, The Beatles released ‘Abbey Road’, the last studio album they recorded together. In the same year, South African alto saxophonist Henry Sithole formed a new band, The Heshoo Beshoo Group (roughly translated means ‘going by force,’ or ‘moving by force’).
This is their sole album and both its title and cover photograph were inspired by ‘Abbey Road.’ Armitage Road, was in Orlando, a township in Soweto, and it was where guitarist Cyril Magubane lived at the time. The album cover shows the band striking a similar pose to The Beatles, when they were photographed striding across the Abbey Road zebra crossing. The difference between the two locations could not be starker. Whereas Abbey Road was tree-lined and located in an affluent part of London, Armitage Road revealed the poverty of the townships. What is more, Magubane is in a wheelchair, the victim of childhood polio and a healthcare system that did not cater for all of its citizens.
When this album was recorded, apartheid was a way of life in the racist state of South Africa, and twenty years would pass before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. ‘Armitage Road’ was released in 1970, but copies were hard to find and second-hand copies cost the proverbial arm and a leg. But now thankfully, it is much more widely available and more affordable.
Despite the societal conditions at the time, this album is not filled with rage, pain or anger, but the sound of hope, optimism and joy. The five tracks (four written by Magubane, one by Henry Sithole) are a potent blend of South African jazz, American Jazz and Memphis Soul. The Sithole brothers form a tight horn section, sometimes playing in unison; other times soloing in succession, with one seamlessly handing over the other, such as on the swinging opener, ‘Armitage Road.’
The breezy ‘Wait And See,’ with its blaring horns, soulful sax solo and funky guitar riff sounds like Stax Records meets jazz. ‘Emakhaya’ (‘back in the home in the bush’) is driven along by the strong rhythm section of Magwaza and Mothle, and sees Magubane channelling his inner Wes Montgomery on his extended solo (with Magwaza’s drumming providing excellent support). ‘Amabutho’ (‘warriors’) has a catchy melody and features more impressive solos on guitar and saxophone, but also listen out for Mothle’s supple bass playing.
The final track, the mid-tempo ‘Lazy Bones,’ is also the longest (12 minutes) and has a traditional African feeling, as well as lots more strong soloing (and rhythm playing). This music may be fifty years old, but it’s still as fresh, relevant and energizing as it was when the day it was recorded.
George Cole/Jazz Views