In the bustling city of Johannesburg, black classical music comes alive through the sounds of the powerful experimental jazz group, iPhupho L’ka Biko. Emerging from the influential student movements of 2015-2016, this group has become a beacon of hope, embodying the spirit of resistance and resilience that defines South Africa’s postapartheid paradigm shift.
Following a successful debut project in 2019, iPhupho released their highly anticipated debut EP, Azania on June 30. Songs like “Qamata” and “Azania” feature prominently, showcasing the band’s growth and artistic prowess. Over time, their interpretations of rhythm, harmony, melody, tone, color, soloing, improvisation, and duration have evolved, resulting in a magnificent transformation. Known for their captivating vocals and exquisite jazz improvisation, the ensemble, often referred to as Abahlali, aim to keep their followers enthralled. The EP carries a deep-rooted message inspired by the current challenges faced by young people in South Africa, the struggles faced by women experiencing abuse, and the persistence of racial disparities worldwide.
A standout track on the album is “Braam Streets.” It takes listeners on a reminiscent journey of the militant marches and activism that took place in Braamfontein (an inner city neighborhood of Johannesburg), including the FeesMustFall movement, which exploded on the campus of the nearby University of the Witwatersrand. Jazz music has always been entwined with black culture in South Africa, serving as a powerful weapon against the legacy chains of oppression. The Fallist movement, while demanding free education, sparked discussions on various important issues, such as patriarchy, homophobia, and xenophobia. Within this charged atmosphere, music emerged as a medium to communicate the students’ anger and to conscientize the masses. Esteemed artists such as Hugh Masekela and Thandiswa Mazwai paved the way, confronting South Africa’s history of exploitation and migrant labor through their significant musical archives.
Interestingly, the first song iPhupho L’ka Biko composed, “uTthixo Ukhona,” (God Is With Us) was crafted at Kitchener’s, a 100-year-old bar in Braamfontein named after the infamous British imperialist Herbert Kitchener (who played an instrumental role in developing concentration camps during the Second South African War). The song “Azania” resonates deeply, reflecting the concept of death in African cultures. It portrays death as a transformative period, where ancestors become guiding lights for those who remain oppressed. Featuring a stunning solo by Kgethi Nkotsi, it calls us to action in the face of today’s struggles. The melody is expertly composed, and the combination of horns and vocals echoes the work of the iconic, late Moses Molelekwa. Molelekwa, a jazz pianist, was the defining musical figure of the 1990s and 2000s in South Africa, creating eclectic works that blended jazz, traditional song, electronic music, and kwaito. iPhupho finds their roots in a historical song by Moses Molelekwa, aptly named “Biko’s Dream.” Its politics speak to every black individual, encompassing black queer and feminist voices, united in the struggle against the violence inflicted by the current government and its neo-liberal allies—a truly intersectional piece of art.
The jazzy sound of the EP evokes raw emotions and spiritual connections. Sibusiso Mkhize and Koketso Poho, the lead vocalists, infuse elements of gospel into their captivating performances, beautifully curated alongside the imaginative brass lines crafted by Nkotsi. The plea urges people to persist in the fight against oppression, ultimately seeking liberation. This form of musical activism follows in the footsteps of other trailblazers, such as Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, and Mazwai.
Over the years, iPhupho L’ka Biko has captivated audiences with their diverse performances. What sets them apart is their grassroots motivation and belief that art and theater should have a positive impact on communities. They have actively engaged in various projects, including performances in the townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto. The band draws inspiration from the rich history of South African jazz and uses their art to ignite conversations, empower communities, and spark positive transformation. Their commitment to social engagement and uplifting narratives reflects the enduring spirit of activism within the country’s music scene.
The hit “uThixo Ukhona,” for example, embodies the very essence of spirituality, awakening, and resilience within the black community. It stands as a testament to the strength of collective action, inspiring hope in the face of oppressive systems. This captivating curation beautifully showcases the range of black experiences, drawing attention to the injustices while evoking deep emotions and traumas. This powerful piece serves as a poignant reminder to persevere in a world seemingly filled with hardships, offering solace and gentle encouragement.
With each release and live performance, iPhupho L’ka Biko continue to inspire hope, encouraging listeners to rise above adversity and work toward a more just and equal world.