NTEMI Edmund Piliso, leader and a founding member of the African Jazz Pioneers, nourished the group from their humble roots to their current international acclaim. In the early 1950s, Ntemi and his “Alexandra All-Star Band?hit the cutting edge of South Africa’s music scene, blending American urban big band style with traditional Majuba tempos and Marabi music influences.
At the centre of this great musical movement was Sophiatown, a thrilling community of artists, musicians, gangsters, writers and political leaders making their mark on South Africa’s growing urban culture. Despite pass laws, bannings and censorship, discriminatory practises by recording companies and state ?controlled radio, despite the forced removals and the violent bulldozing of Sophiatown, the African Jazz Pioneers and other South African musicians survived apartheid and evolved their music.
Saxophone, trombone, trumpet
After the easing of the cultural boycott in 1990, the African Jazz Pioneers were among the first to travel abroad, headlining jazz venues, festivals and concerts in Europe, Australia, Japan and Africa. They shared the stage with artists like Youssou N'Dour, Quincy Jones, Manhattan Transfer, Neville Brothers, Chick Corea, Gilbert Gill, Salif Keita, Nina Simone, Rita and Ziggy Marley, as well as South Africa’s home ?grown virtuosos like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Winston Mankunku, Darius Brubeck, Mbongeni Ngema, Dolly Rathebe, Jonas Gwangwa, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu.
Their albums, the 1990 debut The African Jazz Pioneers, followed by Live at Montreaux, (1991) and Sip ‘n Fly (1993) have been well received by a growing audiences around the world. The 1995 release of Shufflin?Joe, brought the African Jazz Pioneers back into the limelight with a fresh new sound and a special tribute to the birth of the New South Africa, Viva Madiba.
"Most of our listeners like an easy sound that allows them to rejoice and forget the material, but somehow we take them beyond that. We develop both the musician and the listener. At a black ?tie function we played in Denmark, everyone suddenly broke loose and danced. It was wild. I think South Africa and the world need to revive this spirit", said Ntemi Piliso
The African Jazz Pioneers will make your head spin with joy. There is profound feeling in their music, too as well as humour. Like “Sip’n Fly,?the Pioneers?ode to African tactics for sneaking booze past the apartheid police pass patrols. The African Jazz Pioneers take you into their stories and dreams, their parties, their fantasy land of great sound. With their wonderful music the Jazz Pioneers celebrate life.
It seems incredible that the background to the African Jazz Pioneers stretches way back to the fifties when jazz was in fashion and big bands were the name of the game. It was at this time on any single day that one could bump into Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi, Miriam Makeba, Dudu Pukwana, Hugh Masekela, Wilson Silgee, Zakes Nkosi, Jonas Gwangwa, Ntemi Piliso ?the list goes on forever, either at Dorkay House (at the end of Eloff Street, Johannesburg) or in Sophiatown ?the well known melting pot of colour and culture.
All that ended in the sixties when vibrant Sophiatown was demolished and some of these greats went into exile. This signified the end of big bands ?at least until the early eighties when the Jazz Pioneers took a step out of the musical doldrums into Dorkay House and reformed with personnel including Ntemi Piliso, Tim Ndaba, Wilson Silgee, Stompie Manana, and Shep Ntsamai. The Pioneers were back on the road. Hectic rehearsals were followed by their first gig, at a church in Alexandra Township playing numbers such as Tuxedo Junction and Hellfire. Since that first gig in Alex the Pioneers have evolved to a point where their invigorating performances have become famous at venues throughout the country and neighbouring states.
The Pioneers reach everybody in South Africa, from ‘high society?to liberation movements and political rallies; including the honour of several performances before our country's first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela.
The inception and success of the African Pioneers has brought many inactive ‘Jazz Giants from the Big Band Era?back on the performance trail. This process gets away from ‘Bubblegum?music and giving many young artists, who weren’t around in the fifties, an opportunity to enjoy the sound of Mbaqanga and is providing for them a way back into the real South African Township Jazz. The band’s musical content epitomises the links and cross ?currents between North American and African music. Much of the material performed is composed by over 70 year old Ntemi Piliso, the seasoned veteran who helped to pioneer Mbaqanga in South Africa in the 1950's.
NTEMI PILISO passed away on the 18 December 2000 in Johannesburg, aged 75.