Reedman McCoy Mrubata Meets Strings in the Sonic Chambers of a Pandemic

Unholy alliances emerge from the lockdown blues, it seems, while we tend to listen to our own noise and seek redress from unpleasant pandemic restrictions. Reedman and eclectic jazz artist, McCoy Mrubata, decided during 2020 and 2021 to just be quiet, reflective, and continue the creative bent that has characterized his unending career in music. Two albums later, we revel in his generous offerings.

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Quiet Please (2021)
Speaking to SABC Morning Live one day, Mrubata was adamant: “We talk too much, there’s too much narrative, and not enough sitting back and listening to the youth, the musicians, with each other. We need to listen more.” Quiet Please , a compendium of long-worked compositions over time, represents his thoughts and tributes towards many musicians he has worked with, including pianist Paul Hanmer on 4 tracks and bassist Lex Futshane on 2 tracks. With clever finesse during those quiet days of the pandemic, Mrubata decided to throw in four stringed instruments into his repertoire, thanks to assistance from arranger Gareth Harvey.

“The real influence was Andile Yenana. He was in KZN, me in JGB. We went into Studio in December 2020 face-to-face after sharing notes on songs.”

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Andile Yenana

Four short ‘Lockdown Suites’ were assisted by Yenana and Hanmer and feature 2 violins, viola, and cello, with soothing flutes of Sydney Mnisi and Mrubata in a rare harmony. The bouncy mbaqanga ‘Ndlelantle’ breaks the previous soft ballad mode, as though the pandemic was finally breaking up and freeing us all. Yenana’s own ‘Saka Ke’ brings back the ballad with stunning piano runs.

“This is the first time I brought in strings. It was challenging in a studio setting, but Gareth Harvey did the strings arrangement. “ Quiet Please intended just that: “Let’s pause and listen to the young ones. It’s nice to zoom, but at the end of the day, we have to work. There’s too much narration.”

Quiet-spoken, 63 year old Mrubata, known for his subtle on-stage jokes and stories behind his songs, has yet to ‘take a break’, pushing his desires and intentions to produce more strings in inter-generational

The Strings Attached Project – First Green (2022)

Mrubata’s Strings project had been long in the making, thanks to collaboration with excellent chamber musicians based in Daveyton near Johannesburg, and skillful arrangements by composers Viwe Mkiswana and Gareth Harvey who also had his hand in producing Quiet Please.

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Honouring women, an important cross-generational hum through Mrubata’s musical and ethical veins, runs thematically through the album starting with Swedish vocalist, Eva Rune’s ‘First Green’ composition about spring in Sweden. This is a soothing chat between soprano sax and cello, mellow with intention to entice. Gradually, the songs swing into familiar rhythms without strings domination. Continuing with the melodic ‘Two Ma Sophies’ , one hears the steady percussion and bass rooting the song. Familiar South African chords and choral structures take over in ‘Zodwa Wam’, a tribute to Mrubata’s best love and partner, his wife. To the glee of Norway-based saxophonist Shannon Mowday, Mrubata presents her ‘Women in Africa’ as Track 8, written as a tribute to the brutal death of Mrubata’s daughter in 2006. Mowday says on her Facebook page:

“When experiences like this come into your ‘inner circle’, you are reminded of the harsh reality of SA having one of the highest rates of abuse against women and children. A fear that ultimately saw me leave my country. A song in her dedication flowed out of me-whilst upbeat and seemingly ‘positive’ – honouring women for the gift of life and nurturing mankind, overcoming all obstacles thrown at them with positivity; it also asks in return, how is it then that they are treated so unkindly, alluding to rape and murder.”

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Mrubata tosses between orchestral chamber sounds and jazzy arrangements, switching instruments between his lilting flute in early songs to broader temperaments of his saxophones, ending off with his expressive, jivey tenor sax. His influencers and co-producers, bassist Viwe Mkiswana, arranger Gareth Harvey, and others add weight. He enjoys mood ranges: the rhythmic ‘Tunisia’ with drums, darbuka, and percussion which reflect co-composer Greg Georgiades’s own style of middle eastern cadencies, followed by a thoughtful duet between soprano sax and cello in ‘You Are Not Alone’ composed by Mkiswana. Ziza Muftic’s vocals in ‘Ziphi’ add texture and strength along with Godfrey Mgcina’s drumcussion, another ‘McCoy’ special.

More mbaqanga with strings follow in the homey jive in ‘Khumbul’ekhaya’, a danceable tune skillfully arranged by Harvey. A tribute to Ma Madosini with younger musicians, vocalist Thandeka Dladla and fugelhornist Marco Maritz round out the feminine touch to this unusual album.

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Stephen de Souza, bass; McCoy Mrubata sax; Marco Maritz trumpet

What’s next? More Quiet? Strings? Intergenerational collaborations? …… YES!

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