Bra Ntemi Piliso died on the 18 December 2000. The African Jazz Pioneers felt it best to cancel their Cape Tour. His passing will be sorely felt.
There are few bands in South Africa – and, indeed the world – that do the big band sound more infectiously and with more accomplishment and just plain love for the genre than the African Jazz Pioneers.
The Pioneers espouse the music of the fifties, fusing big band jazz with township marabi sounds. The band has endured, in fact this is the third generation Pioneers, and now has a younger face and a younger sound. Bandleader and saxophonist Bra Ntemi Piliso, who has always penned all of the Pioneers' songs, has opened the field of composition to the band's younger musicians.
Their latest album 'Afrika Vukani', boasts nine compositions by 'the young ones' and two by Bra Ntemi himself. Much of the contemporary sound that forms an integral part of this album, comes courtesay of Joe Nina, undoubtedly one of South Africa's most versatile and talented young producers.
The title track 'Afrika Vukani' (Wake up Africa) in particular stands out. "Without being political , we wanted to take off from Thabo Mbeki's standing up in parliament and saying I am an African", Piliso explains. "This was followed by even the likes of FW de Klerk echoing him. Mbeki then spoke about the African renaissance and this is really our message. The song calls on Africans to unite".
The African Jazz Pioneers had to work hard to establish themselves. International fame came soon after their first overseas tour as part of the 1987 Casa conference in Amsterdam. Over the years, they have performed in France, Switzerland, England, Spain, Germany, Australia and Japan. During these years they shared the stage with the likes of Youssou N'Dour, Quincy Jones, Gilberto Gil, Chick Corea and Nina Simone, to name but a few. Their music has been released in more countries than can be mentioned here.
The driving force behind the Pioneers has always been Bra Ntemi. Musicians have come and gone, but he was always at the core of the band, ensuring the continuance of its unique township jazz sound. But even Bra Ntemi finds it difficult to categorise the Pioneers' music. It derives from from marabi and evolved to include the instrumental sound of the big swing bands of Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Since the band's early days, Bra Ntemi has changed from one structure to another without giving up anything along the way.
Just over fifty years ago the young Ntemi settled for the saxophone, after his cherished trombone was grabbed by someone. The saxophone soon became his trademark and today he is one of the country's best and most enduring saxophonists.
The African Jazz Pioneers are: