The late Ntemi Edmund Piliso, leader and founding member of AJP, nourished the group from their humble roots to their current international acclaim.
In the early 1950’s Bra Ntemi and his Alexandra All Star band hit the cutting edge of South Africa’s music scene, blending American big band sound with traditional Majuba tempo’s and Marabi influences. The African Jazz Pioneers enjoyed enormous success and had a huge following in those days. Sadly, all this came to an end in the late sixties with the demolition of Sophiatown, when big bands went out of fashion.
However, in June 1981, Bra Ntemi decided it was high time to re-unite the band and get them back on stage. African Jazz Pioneers were back on the road, their first performance was at a church in Alexandra. Despite the pass laws, discriminatory practices and censorship, African Jazz Pioneers survived apartheid and evolved their music.
International fame came soon after their first overseas tour as part of the Casa conference in Amsterdam in 1987. After the easing of the boycott in 1990, the African Jazz Pioneers were among the first to travel all over the world and perform at festivals throughout Europe. During these years they shared the stage with the likes of Youssou N’Dour, Quincey Jones, Gilberto Gil, Nina Simone and Chick Corea, to name but a few. Their music has been released in more countries than can be named here.
Since that first performance in Alexandra, African Jazz Pioneers have evolved to a point where their invigorating concerts have become famous at venues throughout the country and neighbouring states. The band reaches everyone, from high society to liberation movements and political rallies, including the honour of performing several times for out country’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.
The driving force behind the Pioneers has always been Bra Ntemi. Musicians have come and gone, but he was always at the core of the band, ensuring the continuance of its unique township jazz sound. But even he found it difficult to categorise the Pioneers’ music. It derives from Marabi and evolved to include the instrumental sound of the big swing bands of Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Since the band’s early days, Bra Ntemi has changed from one structure to another without giving up anything along the way.
Just over fifty years ago the young Ntemi settled for the saxophone, after his cherished trombone got stolen. The saxophone soon became his trademark and he was one of the country’s best and most enduring saxophonists, fact for which he was honoured by Minister Ben Ngubane in August 2000, during a ceremony at Morelete park, Mamelodi. Bra Ntemi passed away on 18 December 2000.
The African Jazz Pioneers are honouring their promise to Bra Ntemi to keep the music going. The Ikageng Jazz Festival, established in 2001, has been named ‘The Night of the Pioneers’ and AJP closes each edition as top of the bill. […]
There are few bands in South Africa – and, indeed the world – that do the big band sound more infectiously and with more accomplishment and just plain love for the genre than the African Jazz Pioneers. There is profound feeling in their music, as well as humour too. Like Sip ‘n’ Fly, an ode to African tactics for sneaking booze past the police pass patrols. With their wonderful happy music that celebrates life, the African Jazz Pioneers will make your head spin with joy.» (Jam Ally)
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