They looked oddly rested after 25 flight hours, landing in Cape Town a few hours before their sound check for the evening’s concert at Kalk Bay’s popular Olympia Bakery-turned-jazz –club-at-night. The Toronto-based AVATAAR sextet arrived for their first African performance, which should not be their last.
Coming from ethnically seasoned backgrounds, including southern India and Italy, these Canadians presented a rare treat of sounds for this peninsula community, a mix of tabla-inspired blues cooked with a sometimes acid-rock guitar groove, then a Coltrane-influenced alto sax complemented with Indian scat of vocalist, Suba Sankaran.
Their jazz fused improvisation with varieties of world sonic motifs, playing off the compositions of sax/flute band leader, Sundar Viswanathan’s debut album, Petal (2015). Named for flowers that show their beautiful bloom for a short time, then disappear; thus the ephemeral nature of existence, impermanence.
The generous 100 minute performance was electric – a sitar-sounding guitarist, Michael Occhipinti who carries Sicilian accents of heritage wedded so perfectly with the raga nuances provided by Ravi Naimpally’s tabla and Haiku speaking bassist, George Koller. While one often associates Indian classical music with spirituality, the divine touch heard on this night felt more like a sitar-rock meeting contemporary jazz styles with cross-overs into funk and melodic ballads. These eclectic band members each boast musical accolades and awards across the Canadian music spectrum, and deservedly, needed to visit the finest of South Africa’s jazz traditions coincidentally during Heritage celebrations. Or was it a coincidence? Their three-city tour this week (September 22-30, 2018) takes them to other heritage sites of Durban and Pretoria, besides Capetown.
Befittingly, talking about ‘heritage’, AVATAAR’s performance cleverly highlighted some of the immigrant musical backgrounds of the musicians, thanks to Viswanathan’s Tamil influences. Such compositions from Petal include reference to South Asian contexts like tsunamis in “Banda Aceh” with staccato taka taka vocals of Naimpally, or storms in “Monsoon”. Long influenced by Brazil’s Antonio Carlos Jobim, Viswanathan infuses Brazilian rhythms for effect, and has even mastered Portugese in order to explore wider cultural circles.
But unlike the ending song on the album, “Petal (emphemerata)” with spoken word philosophies about the purpose of existence supported by one’s spirituality, AVATAAR chose to honour a South African jazz legend’s composition, Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg”. What ensued was a frolicking jazz rock heightened by tabla and drums as the familiar song swung through its cadences and rhythms in true South African style. Now that was a highlight of the evening! https://www.facebook.com/neil.frye.71/videos/10156676818712152/
Their South African tour was made possible by Canada’s Council for the Arts and Paul Bothner music providing the baseline instruments. Event manager Paul Kahanowitz had met Viswanathan a year ago, and managed to pull this group to our shores. Applause to all.
Further information from Sundar Viswanathan at firstname.lastname@example.org; +1-416 994 0758