In the mid-eighties at the height of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Azumah an energetic group of nine musicians, singers and dancers lead by visionary innovator Smiles Makama gathered at the house of a bohemian couple in central Johannesburg to record what would become Long Time Ago. Produced and released originally in 1989 by David Marks through his label 3rd Ear Music.
The albums nine tracks roll out like a live performance, compositions progressing seamlessly with upbeat marimbas, percussions, chilling call and response phrases, ruminating musical bows and urgent vocal harmonies. Showing off a rare minimalism and mature playfulness that makes one recall moments of Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos and Colin Walcott’s Cordona trilogy, at other times it feels like an ode to the rich folk melodies of Southern Africa with its triumphant and uplifting spirit.
Breaking out of the mould of the typical sounds of the era whilst simultaneously carrying the same traditions into the future, a statement of what is possible. Where Steve Reichesque marimbas meet Fela Kuti’s drive and Count Ossie’s Mystic Revelation of Rastafari’s chants and righteous incantations. All while never leaving home, because home is where it all began.
Songs like Woza Moya (Calling the spirit) stand out with its slow yet charged dub tension in-between Smiles Makama’s ingenious invention called the Smilerphone, mbiras, marimbas and a flute creating a ruminating trance-like groove before a strong chant from Smiles leads a powerful call and response summoning the spirits for wisdom, guidance and the necessary sustenance to overcome or equally Zamadlozi, upholding African spirituality and honouring one’s ancestors, in a time of suppression is a potent message.
A reissue has surfaced of a tense and wild time in South African history, sounding as fresh and relevant as ever. Definitely one of those gems that will always send shivers down your spine and echo into the future.