Allen Kwela: Black Beauty

South African guitarist Kwela's 1975 album seems over-arranged but demonstrates his fusion of Wes Montgomery, big band and township styles


This is a reissue of the long-disappeared 1975 album, on the Soweto label, by South African guitarist Allen Kwela. He was inspired by guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and by American big bands and he reinterpreted their music by amalgamating it with traditional African marabi influences. This is evident to a certain extent here, and although it has been said that he was unwilling to go along with the musical trends of the day, much of this shows the contrary.

The title-track opener has an infectious township riff as a hook, with Kwela’s guitar featured, solos overlaid, possibly trying to achieve the success that Abdullah Ibrahim had with his Mannenberg album, recorded the previous year for Sun records. However, it lacks the improvisational qualities of Ibrahim’s music, seeming slightly over-arranged at times.

Mild Storm leans more towards a contemporary large band style, with a strong tenor solo from Stanley Sithole. Dimpie Tshabalala’s piano leads into Quaphela, Allen joining in the vamping, before the leader throws in a George Benson Breezin’ style solo. There are strong contributions from the horns.

The slower tempo of Willow Vale is a vehicle for an effective big band arrangement, to this listener reminiscent of Harry South orchestrations. Sithole again solos on tenor, followed by an expansive Tshabalala and possibly Kippie Moeketsi on alto. Allen shows his blues credentials by bending notes in a single-note run, before changing gear into chordal mode as the brass section reappears.

There is the overriding feeling that the production is trying to aim at a more commercial audience, with the dominance of electric bass and leaning at times into the funk area, but there’s enough to interest those who like African jazz and larger ensemble playing. It includes informative liner notes by Kwanele Sosibo, which casts light on the life and career of this overlooked pioneer of African jazz. The exact recording details are unclear, but the personnel below is generally considered to be reasonably accurate.

Black Beauty; Mild Storm; Quaphela; Willow Vale (34.22)
Dennis Mpale (t); Kippie Moeketsi, Barney Rachabane (as); Stanley Sithole (ts); Dimpie Tshabalala (p); Kwela (elg); Boy Ramotsie, Sipho Gumede (b); Gilbert Matthew (d). Johannesburg, 15 April 1975.
Matsuli Music MM126