An entirely improvised live album recorded in one take in the inner city of Johannesburg, featuring some of the city’s finest experimental musicians, namely Siya Makuzeni (vocals, FX & Trombone), Nosisi Ngakane (vocals), Joao Orecchia (synthesisers & electronics), Waldo Alexander (electric violin with FX pedal), Gontse Makene (percussion) and Ariel Zamonsky (upright bass).
In the context of this improvised album, the term “spaza” not only refers to the name of the outdoor gallery in Troyeville, Johannesburg where this project was recorded in the autumn of 2015. No way.
In South Africa, “spaza” comes heavy with meaning. It could refer to an informal neighbourhood store usually attached to someone’s house, operating out of a shack or a repurposed shipping container. It has come to signify an entrepreneurship spirit, especially in South Africa’s black townships where restrictions to business ownership meant that only a few could attain that privileged societal status of legitimate business owner.
But in contemporary South Africa, spazas are also contested territories, given continental migratory patterns that have seen the country attract millions of political migrants against the backdrop of the remaining economic and spatial legacy of apartheid. Spazas have emerged as sites of war, bloodshed, wailing and despair as financially disempowered South Africans routinely mete out their frustrations on those spaza store owners that they consider “foreigners” and “outsiders”.
But spaza can mean something else entirely. Perhaps obliquely, there are musical references to be grasped at. SPAZA, the term, the recording, and the location, evokes a spirit of musical independence, a looseness, a jam session, a collaboration, a coming together of great minds at the corner to shoot the breeze, or let off a seriously considered prognosis.
In this sense, SPAZA, the album, is a conceptual coalescence of space, the body politic and an approach to music making. Helmed by the arbiters of spontaneity, Mushroom Hour Half Hour, this loping, expansive recording brings together musicians already adept at creating on the fly and playing in unlikely set-ups with their instruments of choice.
What emerges from the confluence of ideas, lead by vocalists Nosisi Ngakane and Siya Makuzeni (who also plays trombone), is a sonic experiment that is as tense as it is playful. There is an emotional intelligence to the vocal sculpting that spills over into the music, creating, in a sense, a sonic document that honours the precariousness of a simple trip to the cornerstore or the liberating feeling of levitating above it all.
SPAZA is at once opaque, direct and an unyielding morass of joy melding with pain, furtiveness caressing boldness. This could be the sound of the city turned inside out, ruminating on its troubled history and uncertain future, the sound of celebration and pensiveness.
Musically, there is a vulnerability to SPAZA that is in keeping with the ethos of Mushroom Hour Half Hour - that of bringing similarly minded musicians who might not necessarily play together, to create in one setting.
The results, while shaped in the milieu that is Johannesburg, are that of continental astral travel, a sonic reading of the city’s dreamscape.