Some of the most joyously communal jazz played in Britain over the past half-century has involved South African emigres who took refuge in Europe from the apartheid system in the 1960s and 70s. The vocalist Pinise Saul, who has died of cancer aged 71, was a powerful part of that exodus. Many consider her to be one of the greatest South African jazz singers of her generation, whose distinctive identity combined the country’s indigenous music, its vibrant black music scene of the 50s and 60s, and a love of American jazz vocalists – especially Nancy Wilson, many of whose standards Saul covered.
Her formidable technique embraced methods from the Xhosa language’s percussive clicks to immensely creative jazz improvisation. She put her profound grasp of South African traditional choral harmony to eloquent use with her own South African Gospel Singers, an accomplished group drawing on Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho vocal traditions, sought after for more than 20 years after their formation in 1989. Saul considered her roles as a freedom fighter and a musician to be inseparable in the apartheid years, and often performed at fundraising African National Congress concerts.
Saul was born in the Eastern Cape, to Nomini, a domestic worker, and Mthuthuzeli, a musician. She recalled, in a 2014 interview with London Jazz News, that she would barely have begun singing a song in her kitchen at home before the whole family joined in. In her teens, she met an influential local pianist, Tete Mbambisa, who recruited her to his vocal group, the Four Yanks, and by 1962 the group were enjoying chart hits.
Mbambisa also played in a powerful instrumental group, the Jazz Wizards. Saul performed with them in a 1963 musical called Xapa Goes to Town, and she was then invited to Johannesburg to join the cast of the Zulu-language musical Back In Your Own Backyard. She remained in Johannesburg to frequent Dorkay House, a vibrant centre for African performing arts, and a cultural oasis under apartheid. Emerging South African stars including the vocalist Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela often met there.
In 1975, Saul joined the cast of Ipi Tombi, a dynamic black South African musical that became a hit in Europe and the US. She remained in London after the show’s West End run, and began performing with Jabula, a group whose albums were regularly banned in South Africa for their anti-apartheid lyrics. In 1979, Saul and the band participated in the Unity festival in Boston, where she sang alongside Bob Marley and Patti Labelle.
Saul worked regularly with Dudu Pukwana’s groups Assegai, Spear and Zila in the 80s, and then with the guitarist Lucky Madumetja Ranku in the groups Township Express and the African Jazz Allstars. Saul was to remark that Pukwana encouraged her into instrument-like vocal experiments she might never otherwise have considered. Zila pieces also drew her into writing lyrics steeped in township life – such as those for the buoyant dance tune August One, which touched on her own family life.
In 1989, the BBC invited Saul to form a singing group to feature in a TV documentary about Nelson Mandela, then about to be released from prison. A six-piece vocal group called the Progress evolved under her direction into a fully fledged choir, the South African Gospel Singers, who performed regularly at the South Bank Centre, London, for the next two decades. Saul and Lucky Ranku returned to South Africa to play a homecoming concert in East London in 1990, and she also worked with the saxophonist Trevor Watts’s percussion-centred Moire Music group. In 2001 she appeared with Ranku at the Moers festival in Germany in the US saxophone star David Murray’s African-inspired world jazz project, M’Bizo.
In the 1990s, Saul and Ranku jointly ran the ensemble Township Express (a rare album credited to Saul’s leadership, Fishbone, was released in 1998), and in 2009 Saul, with others, formed the exhilarating Township Comets.
Saul’s last gig was at The Ivy House, Peckham, in 2015, as part of the SA-UK season of London concerts. She was performing in a classy nine-piece band on new arrangements of songs from her Fishbone album. The audience were on their feet and dancing – as were Saul and her three vocal partners – for a vivacious version of Saul’s original The Girls.
Saul is survived by two sons, Mongezi and BoyBoy, 11 grandchildren and a sister, Nodasi.
• Pinise Saul, jazz singer, born 31 December 1944; died 26 October 2016