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In their homeland South Africa, Tananas has enjoyed an immense popularity since the end of the '80s. At first glance, their music cannot be identified as typical "South African," as they play around with a wide variety of styles and merge them into their own unique blend. Their musical craftsmanship is outstanding — the self-taught "guitar wizard" Steve Newman is considered one of the best guitar players in South Africa, and the rhythm section consisting of Gito Baloi (bass and vocals), also a self-taught musician, and Ian Herman (drums and percussion) is incredibly precise and sophisticated. As a consequence, they are also heavily in demand as studio musicians for various artists of the South African music scene and feature on many South African releases in the field of fusion and jazz.
Tananas was formed in 1987 by Steve Newman, Gito Baloi, originally from Mozambique, and Ian Herman. The times were not the best for creative musicians, South Africa was in political upheaval, and the music industry not interested in local musical talent. There was, however, one exception: the independent label Shifty Records, founded by Lloyd Ross, was a haven for all these South African musicians with higher ambitions. Tananas released their first self-titled album in 1988 on Shifty and for the South African music scene, this was a revolution. This mix of different styles — jazz, Mozambican salsa, and township jive — had not been manifest before and took the country by storm. Within a short time, the band developed a strong local following and achieved cult status in their home country. Constant touring throughout South Africa was the result.
In the beginning of the '90s, Tananas was signed to Gallo, another of South Africa's independent record labels, and released two further recordings of constant high quality: Spiral (1990) and Time (1992) both explored a variety of stylistic universes with the virtually limited trio lineup, which in the case of Tananas, is powered by a sort of spontaneous musical combustion.
By the end of 1993 however, the end of Tananas seemed to have arrived. Artistic tensions between the three highly individual musicians arose and there did not seem a way to carry on. Drummer Ian Herman moved to New York in order to expose himself to new musical styles, bassist Gito Baloi started to tour with a solo band and released two highly acclaimed solo albums, Ekaya (1995) and Na Ku Randza (1997), whereas Steve Newman continued his side project of performing with Tony Cox, a master of the 12-string acoustic guitar and another intrepid musician in the South African music scene.
Upon Ian Herman's return from the United States in 1994 however, he and Newman decided to reactivate the group. Gito Baloi, on the other hand, had no interest to join the band again. So Newman and Herman continued as a duo with different guest musicians, modified the band name to Tananas Wide Ensemble, and released two albums, Orchestra Mundo in 1994 and Unamunacua in 1996. For these two releases, Steve Newman and Ian Herman experimented with different instrumentation. Unamunacua featured a dozen of the most prominent South African musicians, such as vocalist Vusi Mahlasela, as guests. The quality of both these works was recognized by the South African public in winning them two South African Musical Awards for Best Contemporary Jazz. Shortly afterwards, however, Tananas went into hiatus again. Ian Herman, who is considered to be South Africa's most gifted drummer, accepted a work offer in the United States, worked with George Duke and Paul Simon in New York, and later settled permanently in San Francisco.
A 1998 effort by Steve Newman to reunite Tananas again, this time with the involvement of Gito Baloi, was eventually successful. Ian Herman was flown in from the United States and the group took the chance for a fresh start. A year later, they released their sixth studio album Seed, for which they returned to their initial trio lineup. Their participation in the 2000 WOMAD tour promoted this album and finally also brought Tananas the international recognition they deserved.
Since the three members of Tananas are also strong artistic individuals, they always pursued their own side projects; as already mentioned, Steve Newman often performs with Tony Cox, Gito Baloi was active with his own group until his tragic murder in April of 2004, and in the United States, Ian Herman drums for the acid jazz band Junk as well as for trumpeter Matt Venuti.