Ancestral routes in jazz – a journey with Siya Makuzeni, Standard Bank Young Artist 2016 for Jazz

This Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz 2016 started her first concert with an epic vocal scat, the likes I hadn’t heard from her previous songs (by others). Thirty three year old Siya Makuzeni, who hails from East London, skillfully fused her Xhosa sounds with some basic other roots of bebop and improvisational contemporary jazz. Her appearance at Grahamstown’s annual SB National Arts Festival 2016 offered her a first opportunity to present her own songs, constructed in careful refrains that cut across musical harmonies and genres. Hard to describe, but her adept band of three horns, including her own trombone, and rhythm backline including the talented Thandi Ntuli on piano seems ready to boom boosters into the South African jazz cosmos. I was relieved to see another female artist on stage, too.

Siya Makuzeni on trombone: NAF2016 CuePix/Aaliyah Tshabalala

Siya Makuzeni on trombone: NAF2016 CuePix/Aaliyah Tshabalala

I caught up with Siya for a chat on 1 July. I wanted to know what internal juju had been working on her creativity, and I think I got some insights.

CM: Your primary school teacher he told me that you were not very musically inclined or active in those young years. Perhaps it was the people you were working with later who gave you a boost. What was that spiritual bone that sparked you internally to blossom?
SM: I knew something was there, but I’ve never figured out what it was. Music has always been about how I understood life. Even before and during primary school, I was in choirs and learning the recorder. Music was always milling around me at home. My parents had introduced me to such a diverse arrange of music at home. It wasn’t called ‘folk’ or ‘rock’, but just a variety of music. Maybe that inspired me as a child, wanting to emulate my parents. They were a huge influence on me then.

CM: You were blessed with supportive parents. And what about now? Any other relatives or ancestral spirits that pushed you into some spiritual realm?
SM: Oh gosh! Wow! I’m sure that has existed. I haven’t tried to interrogate that. I remember going home where my family had a ceremony. One of my older aunts mentioned that I’m on the ‘right path’, that what I’m doing is like a vessel, healing as I go forward on my journey as a musician. For me personally, I’m still trying to figure that out. I definitely draw from that ‘right path’ and use music a lot to draw inspiration in terms of grounding myself, being on stage……

CM: It would be interesting to pursue that, and draw out from the archives of culture the influences on you. Let’s talk about your own music which is rooted to your own cultural background. There’s something primordial and ancestral about it. What is influencing your choice of song, lyrics, rhythm of your own making? You’ve performed others’ pieces, but with your own voice and interpretation. Now, you’re on your own journey.
SM: I really have to think about it. Many different factors are influencing me. Start on the musical level. Look at my loops: They’re very rhythmic and polyphonic and extremely Xhosa-centered harmonically which has helped me to choose which harmonies I want. I studied jazz, but when I was here at Rhodes, I studied ethnomusicology and this spurred me on to adopt a non-western approach to music. So since 2001, I don’t believe that this approach has left me.

There was also a sense of needing constant change, pursuing something that keeps going forward, that keeps the reel rolling. If the pathway becomes stagnant, then I become frustrated. Because of that, and as I try to grow my career, I look at collaboration as a huge part of my creativity. It has enabled me to do my own stuff. This ties in to finding and mixing genres that have common grounds, trying to flip things up on their heads.

Siya Makuzeni on vocals:  NAF2016 CuePix/Tamani Chithambo_30JUNE16

Siya Makuzeni on vocals: NAF2016 CuePix/Tamani Chithambo_30JUNE16

CM: Speaking about genres, there is melody, refrains, and lyrics. There were two songs you performed last night that you were singing which sounded like ….there was a fine line between scatting and the language. I found that quite intriguing. Also, you do a lot of scat in your songs. Few singers want to scat. You’ve pursued different types of scat and the language fused with it. Where does that come from? Was that deliberate?

SM: Probably. Also, I might not be aware of it because I’m in a space where it’s so natural. When I decided I wanted to be a jazz vocalist, I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. These were my biggest surprises; I’d never heard a voice being used like that before, and I found it completely fascinating. I was also dumbfounded to see how they used their voice like an instrument. This was completely new to me. At that point, as I was transitioning from the trombone to vocals, I could see the similarities between the instrument and the voice. And then discovering these women!

CM: That’s what you’re doing, going beyond lyrics and into the instrumental voice.
The machine you were using – the vocal lyrics pedal – what has enamoured you about that little box? Why are you using that?
SM: Possibilities! Possibilities! Endless possibilities! And as someone who needs constant change, I use it because it allows for this change. I had used a foot pedal for a number of years. I found myself in situations, also, where it was difficult to collaborate with other vocalists on the same song. I had used it in “Prisoners of Strange” band of Carlo Mombelli and the pedal allowed me to explore more with vocals. I listened to other avant guard women singers who were pioneering the use of vocals in different ways, like screams and seagulls and that kind of thing.

It was already an interesting journey, but when I realized there is so much to add harmonically, in terms of using modulation for effects, things you might not be able to do with your own voice, that’s where these explorations happened. So I just said, “I can back my own vocals.”

CM: I guess backing vocals and choirs are traditional in some older jazz forms. That little box gives you different ranges of the same note, harmonically.
SM: It gives a six part vocal harmony so you can really go crazy. You also have the opportunity to put it into the key that you’re working with.

CM: Have you thought about a collaboration with Lwanda Gogwana (trumpeter) since he has pulled from his ancestral roots also?
SM: That would be quite interesting as we both are revisiting the Xhosa traditional songs.
CM: I think of jazz as being improvisation on folk music in a society. Everyone has songs.
SM: Totally.

CM: Regarding your performance last night, I noted in the 6th song that you seemed to deliver a sense of anger in your voice, in your presentation. You show emotion……I felt there was a protest, a pulse you wanted to get across, maybe a sadness or disappointment you wanted to get out.
SM: Not really. It was a moment, when spontaneity took place, and I guess I seized that moment.
I was emoting, yes, but I was having fun. I think what was interesting about that moment was ….right at the end I was doing the vocal percussive thing…. After the growling….. and thinking, geez, I haven’t done that [type of vocal] since “Prisoner of Strange”. This was just a revisit to what I had done before, but this time with my own music.

CM: That’s great, then. To take that moment and go with it! That’s creativity.
Where do you go from here?
SM: Huuummm! Good question. We’re all trying to build dreams. I’m excited, but I can’t say I ‘know’ what’s going to happen. I do hope to tour with my new sextet as much as possible.
We’ll release an album before the end of this year. But really build on the sound, and use those opportunities, like at festivals, to go and visit other musicians. Or find a way to link up with other musicians around the world as a stepping stone for this band to be around in years ahead. The band is like family; we are all committed. This is my first jazz band.

Thandi Ntuli at NAF 05July 2015:  CuePix/Tamani Chithambo

Thandi Ntuli at NAF 05July 2015: CuePix/Tamani Chithambo

Another band I’ve had is more of cross over rock. Now, this is my first jazz band and one where I don’t have to fight musically and where people are personally committed. I’m excited for that and we’ll see what happens.

CM: Do you still collaborate with Carlo Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt as you were doing?
SM: I had to take a break. I just didn’t have time. Of course, we’re all family, but I needed my own time and space to create. That was a very tough decision to take a break from them.

CM: How could you encourage more women to find their creative talents in jazz?
SM: It’s very subjective and personal. To excel in this industry, you have to have balls. I learned this at a young age by being thrown in to the experiences, like with this Festival which I’ve attended for a long time. So because of this, coupled with my determination, it has worked out for me.

But you have to seriously have guts for these live performances!
I also think that if girls are encouraged at early childhood development stage, you would see a difference, and more activity from them as they grow older and enter the industry. More confidence. There’s simply not enough going on to make music accessible to kids at such a young age, so if we could fix that, we’d see a lot more active females.

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Let’s watch this young lady flourish with future events, festivals, and live gigs! HAVING THE EXPERIENCE/DEEP END + DETERMINATION AND GUTS = success.

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Filed under CD & Gig Reviews, Interviews with Carol Martin

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