Album Review: Mankunku Quartet - Yakhal’ Inkomo

Not that I’m, like, any kind of subject matter expert when it comes to jazz, but I get the feeling that jazz music is, typically, not where you would hear songs fade out. With my experience, jazz compositions—often winding and lengthy—come to an eventual conclusion.

That, however, is not the case on the Mankunku Quartet’s practically lost classic of an album, Yakhal’ Inkomo; two of the album’s four songs slowly fade out as the song continues on into the distance. And as I listen to Yakhal’ Inkomo, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the tape had continued to roll on the album’s titular track, as well as on “Doodlin’.”

Originally released 50 years ago, Yakhal’ Inkomo went on to become well known and received in its native South Africa, and has built up a cult following over time with the rest of the world. In 2007, it was reissued on CD by the Gallo Record Company, packaging it with another album, Spring, recorded around the same time with a different group of musicians. In this edition, the album itself was attributed to simply Mankunku, rather than Winston Mankunkun Ngozi’s quartet.

To commemorate the album’s milestone anniversary this year, the UK-based label Jazzman reissued and remastered the original four track edition of Yakhal’ Inkomo in late 2017, on both CD and LP—though the LP is, by all accounts, already out of print, and difficult to find online.

Yakhal’ Inkomo is an impressive accomplishment (Ngozi was only in his early 20s at the time of its recording) and it’s a very accessible listen, complete with a very compelling history behind its creation—a compelling history that has allowed the album and its significance to endure.

The essay within the liner notes of the Jazzman reissue goes into much more detail about Ngozi’s life leading up to the recording of Yakhal’ Inkomo, but in short, even though it’s a brief record comprised of two originals and two covers, it’s a huge political statement, born out of the struggles of living in apartheid South Africa—the titular track, translating to ‘The Bellowing Bull.’

We had it tough,” Ngozi says in the album’s notes. “I was always being arrested and a lot of my friends and I thought it was so tough for black people, and put tat into the song. So it was The Bellowing Bull; for the black man’s pain. A lot of people would come up to me and say quietly, ‘Don;’t worry bra. We know what oyu are playing about.’”

If you get a familiar feeling from the songs included on Yakhal’ Inkomo, it may be because you recognize the two covers—Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’,” and John Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues.” Or, it may be because, the album’s sound and feeling owe so much to the jazz performers of this era. Coltrane passed away in 1967, but his imprint—or at least, the imprint of his most accessible, earlier material—resonates throughout Yakhal’ Inkomo. Ngozi also was a tenor saxophone player, which certainly contributes to that familiar feeling.

The covers included on the album are certainly the jauntiest of the set—“Doodlin’” is structured around an incredibly infectious and playful musical idea that the song spends a bulk of its time in, and “Bessie’s Blues,” originally from Coltrane’s Crescent record, is a rollicking and unrelenting number to conclude the album with.

Opening with Ngozi’s two original compositions, “Dedication (To Daddy Trane and Brother Shorter)” is the most serious in tone, though it juxtaposes that with sudden, and short dips into a lighter atmosphere. A sprawling 10 minutes in length, the quartet keeps a frenetic, urgent pace, with the rhythm section of Early Mabuza on drums and Agrippa Magwaza on bass, maintaining a restrained shuffle in the background, allowing Ngozi’s saxophone to lead the group through, as well as giving piano player Lionel Pillay time to solo near the middle of the piece.

The fascinating thing about the titular track is that, despite the racial and political unrest that was poured into it, it is a surprisingly smooth and gorgeous piece. Sure, there are minor moments of dissonance from Ngozi’s saxphone blasts, but overall, it’s built around roughly two musical ideas or phrases and rarely does it stray from those—allowing Ngozi’s soloing to take center stage while everybody keeps the song moving forward.

Steeped in history and cultural importance, Yakhal’ Inkomo’s success in South Africa is also a little sad; despite continual repressings and hundreds of thousands of records sold, Ngozi saw little, if any, financial gain from the popularity of this record. The liner notes for this reissue claim his contract, like many jazz artists from South Africa at this time, did not include any kind of royalty payments.

The Jazzman reissue, as with many reissues, also remasters the album—comparing it to the 2007 edition, this version attempts to add some more depth between the instruments, though in doing so, it does push some things a little farther in the background than it maybe should. The Gallo reissue is mastered in such a way that everything is moved up to the front, giving the songs an unintentionally cacophonic and cluttered sound.

Certainly a classic—possibly lost classic—among jazz music aficionados, the Jazzman reissue will certainly introduce it to a new audience; but for something that clearly deserves to be heard by more people, a limited edition vinyl reissue and CD edition on a UK based jazz label still keeps it a bit of a secret or an idiosyncratic listen.

Jazz is, at least for me anyway, a tough genre to crack at times, and like the Prestige-era Coltrane records that influenced its sound, Yakhal’ Inkomo is certainly a listener friendly access point to similarly minded records both from its time, as well as today.

The Jazzman reissue of Yakhal’ Inkomo is available via their website; the Gallo edition from 2007 is available in the iTunes Store.