Gilbert Matthews – pioneer and visionary of South African jazz

South Africa has done little to acknowledge the passing of jazz great and drumming titan Gilbert Matthews. For Bra Gil, who has honored South Africa on many international jazz stages, the official silence remains deafening.

Matthews was a visionary of the South African jazz scene. Although he got his start on the conventional Cape Town jazz club circuit, his talent took him around the world – he was for a time Ray Charles’ regular drummer – and the music to which he was exhibited sparked innovation when he returned home.

South African musicians working in the 1970s credit him with inspiring the country’s jazz fusion explorations of that time through the group Spirits Rejoice, which he founded and which were, in turn, the precursor of ensembles revolutionaries such as Sakhile.

Matthews was born in Graaff-Reinet in Cape Town in 1943. Veteran trumpeter John Ntshibilikwana, his relative, recalled

Due to the poverty there, it was practically impossible for people to acquire instruments. If you wanted to play guitar, you had to take a can of oil and make a guitar out of it. That’s how Gilbert started – with a paraffin tin guitar!

Despite these difficult circumstances, his guitar playing was good enough that he started playing professionally, eventually getting work at the first (there were several successors) Tiffany’s Club in Cape Town. There he learned to play the drums and change instruments. His playing caught the ear of the city’s jazz elite and in the late 1960s he played on Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (Chris Schilder’s) Spring.

In the Spring years, the 1960s.

After these sessions, Matthews traveled to the United States via London. He was mentored by Max Roach and Elvin Jones, got an 18-month contract as regular drummer from Ray Charles, and worked with Sarah Vaughan.

A return home

But the house called. By the mid-1970s he was back in Johannesburg, playing with then-brand Dollar (Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi and more. He worked in the house band of the Black Mikado a musical staged at Diepkloof Hall and as a session musician on various tours, including what he found to be a particularly daunting series of hotel concerts in Swaziland.

On his return, he began to write the history of South African jazz, calling his Black Mikado band members and others together to form Spirits Rejoice, named for a recording by Albert Ayler. Spirits aimed to create the kind of imaginative, exploratory jazz and fusion music that Earth Wind and Fire, Weather Report and others pioneered in the United States.

Spirits Rejoice was not just a band, but a symposium and university for a whole generation of modern South African jazz players. Its first incarnation included Bheki Mseleku, Robbie Jansen, Duku Makasi, George Tjefumani, Thabo Mashishi, Sipho Gumede and Russell Herman; later incarnations included Mervyn Afrika, Khaya Mahlangu, Paul Petersen, Themba Mehlomakhulu, singer Felicia Marion, and later Joy’s full vocal range.

Spirits Rejoice on the album African Spaces.

For the much younger Mahlangu, it was Spirits’ innovative approach that inspired him – “it was a great learning experience” – with Gumede to want to “do stuff like that – but in a context more African.

The group has released two albums, African spaces in 1977 and the eponymous The spirits rejoice in 1978 and won, according to pianist Mervyn Afrika, nine Sarie Awards, the highest honors open to popular South African musicians. According to the late Ezra Ngcukana,

It was a very powerful group. They made history.

But despite those accolades and a few residencies – notably at the Sherwood Hotel in Cape Town, the Beverly Lounge and the Landrost Hotel, as well as the legendary jazz club Manenberg’s Club Montreal – respect and the freedom to innovate further were scarce in the end. of the 1970s.

Back to foreign shores

In 1979 Matthews left for Sweden. There he married and established an extremely distinguished career that allowed him to expand his innovative vision. He worked regularly with saxophonist Christer Boustedt’s band and, after the reedman’s death, re-established it as The Contemporary Bebop Quintet.

Matthews on tour in 2017.
Aryan KaganofCC BY

He has also worked with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, regularly with Archie Shepp, and with Mischa Mengelberg, Roscoe Mitchell, John Tchicai, Albert Mangelsdorff and Charlie Mariano among others. He was the drummer on the SA recording Exiles Thunderbolt, and on bassist Johnny Dyani’s groundbreaking Born in the heat. He was able to see the hopes of this music realized during his visit to South Africa in 1991, at the dawn of change.

Matthews performed and recorded in Europe, always in distinguished company, well into the 21st century. But in recent years his poor health has gradually imprisoned him away from the stage.

There can be no better way to end than with Matthews’ own description of the burgeoning improvisational fusions that Spirits Rejoice pioneered:

It’s like a game… We play whatever comes to mind and rearrange it later into a meaningful melody. At first, it looks like crazy musicians are just making noise with their instruments. Then, later, we remove the noise, and we are left with only music.

For the South African cultural landscape, Matthews and Spirits Rejoice have indeed made history. Now, indeed, we are left with nothing but the music.

Ansell is the author of Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa. Read his updates on South African jazz here.

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