They flew in and wowed the crowd at Langa’s Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center with their authentic fusion of African, Creole, Euro-pop, and Afro-soul . Sitting on his box drum, renowned French percussionist Mino Cinelu rattled his various arsenal of sonic weapons, standing and emoting over his hand-held triangle when he wasn’t furiously tapping out a myriad of beats on his 25 year old plus wave drum.
Keeper of melodies, Swiss-Angolan singer Florence Chitacumbi, and leader of this Reunion Tour in Southern Africa, added soulful and jazzy tunes which come from several of her albums with Cinelu. This duo, along with the versatile Swiss Guitarist Christophe Bovet, were ‘encountering the other’ as they shared their musicality with South African and Lesotho audiences during their intensive one week tour to conclude a dazzling International Jazz Month of April. Multiple thanks go to local organizers, Jazz in the Native Yards and the South African Association for Jazz Education (SAJE), for these April performances.
The last concert on May 4 was properly framed in Cape Town’s beautiful Peninsula suburb of Kalk Bay which reaches another local area known for its artistry, Navy home, and calm waters facing a circle of mountains. Again, the Olympia Bakery shoved its machines to the side and made concert room for the trio, this time with an additional two South African guests: jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhatini based in Port Elizabeth; the other, Cape Town’s own legend, accordion/traditional bow/guitarist Tony Cedras who worked with percussionist Cinelu back in those 1980s New York City days. Another story! The beauty of spontaneity in the moment meant that Cinelu could invite Cedras to the reunion at the last minute.
Both South Africans added flavour and transformed the Chitacumbi/Cinelu Afro and Creole rhythms with their own jazz subtleties, the likes of Bheki Mseleku, Nina Simone, and a host of others.
The colourful, sold-out concert saw people still inching into the venue, even sitting on the piled up flour bags ready for use by the Bakery the next day.
Chitacumbi, who led the band, boasted a wide repertoire of music, thanks to Cinelu’s rhythms that included Congolese soukous, Portuguese Fado (folk music) , West African influences, funk, blues, and jazz Standards. She has toured with a host of notables and cut three albums featuring well-known African and European artists seeking to build those sonic bridges between the two continents. But it was former Weather Report’s (and Miles Davis, and Sting) master percussionist, Paris-born Mino Cinelu, whom the whistling audience eyed non-stop. Cinelu was also reuniting with his old pal, Tony Cedras, known for his exiled days in New York arranging songs and touring with Paul Simon’s Graceland album. This visiting duo maintained an exciting and vibrant stage presence right to the standing applause end.
Thanks go to the people involved in promoting/producing and sponsoring this concert, namely Arte Viva Management, Slow Life Music Promotion, Pro Helvetia, Ville de Neuchatel in Switzerland, Foundation SUISA, and Loterie Romande without whom the show and its success would not have been guaranteed.
Several histories were revealed in my interview (CM) with Florence Chitacumbi (FC) and Mino Cinelu (MC). Both have fathers from Africa or the Diaspora, and both were raised in Francophone/European cultures which explains Cinelu’s love for the Fado folk music of Portugal where his grandmother’s roots lay. Also, his interesting explanation on why the drum and percussion reigned more in Francophone Africa/Diaspora – read more below:
CM: Tell me how you guys linked up as a duo, since you both had lots of experience with other bands and tours over the decades.
FC: Yes, I had a band while living in Paris and I gradually felt there was still something missing. I knew Mino and liked his musical approach and rhythms, so I called him. We started collaborating in 2005 and we produced and album, Regard Croises.
MC: I’ve performed with many artists so feel at ease in both seats – with duos and larger collaborations. I just try to keep an open mind when meeting a new collaboration. And now Florence and I have a duo project that we were looking for.
CM: With South African jazz, what is so different to you personally compared to other African influences, such as the music of Francophone northern Africa?
FC: In Senegal, you find a lot of percussion or guitar, and in Cameroun, you find a good bass player, but not so much the piano or saxophone. But here [South Africa] , there’s a jazz tradition which mixes American jazz with their own sounds – the rhythm , the patterns, the scales, and different types of melody.
MC: Also, as you go north from here, there was less of the English influence which had strict rules about the use of the drum, but the French ex-colonial areas of central and west Africa allowed for the indigenous beats and rhythms and harmonies of those singers . In South Africa, the Africans under colonialism found a way to preserve their music, for example, in the boot dance of the miners. The same in Trinidad under the English when the people developed the steel pan and rhythms to go with it. So in the ex-British areas, the drums are not that well developed but there’s something else. So the non ex-English areas were allowed to develop the drums, and the singing, and other expressions.
FC: I find South African jazz really inspiring; they have something special – the melody, the styles of Bheki Mseleku, and Hugh Masakela… I saw Mkize and Washington’s gig in Langa yesterday, and I like the way they play that scale… it’s unique to South African jazz here.
CM: ….then you get to the Western Cape with the ghoema, and the Malay rhythms, and the Khoi instruments. … I wish the South African students could hear you, perhaps on your next tour here….
FC: It seems that maybe they are afraid of knowing their culture and roots….
CM: There is a trauma…. A psychological stress and anti-colonial phase students are going through presently, often not well understood by them. Whereas, African countries have been independent for long…
MC: People find a way to eventually express themselves…..
CM: You both have lots of African influences in your musical approaches, but you haven’t experienced much collaboration with Africans as such on the African continent, I mean in terms of performances. Why is that?
MC: You can hear in my first album many songs from Ivory Coast and Senegal. You have the talking drum, and the udu from Nigeria – I was the first to bring this instrument into rock music in Europe. I was music director for Saif Khaita, and was the drummer with Chris McGregor in Paris where I also met Dudu Pukoane.
FC: I was in Burkino Faso and Senegal, and last year I was at Jazz a Ouaga in Burkino Faso. Then we came here to South Africa last year….
MC: After touring with Sting, I just took the first plane out of New York, and spent one and a half months in Senegal and played with the drummers every Sunday. Just jamming. There was no TV at the time, or Internet…. I also went to the Ivory Coast to see the top guys there, and we started to jam a lot…
CM: We are more global and digital now so we don’t always have to be physically ‘there’ to collaborate. Yet you are doing a ‘reconnection tour’, not just with yourselves, but as you said in another interview, you (to FC) want to “encounter the other”. So, this means you want to be there physically, right?
FC: Yeah, one can’t stay in their comfort zone in home areas all the time. But when I say ‘meet the other’, I also mean to bring one’s own music to another audience, or another culture. We need to make the unknown interesting. When I meet up and work with Nduduzo [Makhatini] , I look forward to sharing our music with him.
CM: Why have you chosen Nduduzo? Of all the South African artists…
FC: I had met several artists, of course, like Zenzile Makeba. Then, last year I began talking on Facebook with Nduduzo and watching his page, and that’s when I contacted him about collaborating. I also know Afrika Mkhize very well… Then in 2004, I had contacted Darius Brubeck…
CM: Let’s talk about your audiences. What did you think of the audience yesterday [in Langa]? Their reaction was so different between your performance and Mkhize’s. You are perhaps used to revving up European and American audiences. What did you feel was different with the Langa crowd?
MC: Nice. People came out. It was good. People share the same passion and they were very thankful that we came. We don’t take that lightly or for granted. That humbles us. They were really listening and hearing something different. I like that. They didn’t want to miss anything. Our band was different to what they hear – we had no bass or piano, just a guitar, singer, and beat. In ours, there’s no safety net, no frills, just acoustic….
CM: [To MC] There are so many sounds from your percussion toys…. Back in the days of Miles Davis, the technology was different from now with a range of electronica…particularly the wave drum….Any comments?
MC: My wave drum is over 25 years old. I wish they still made this model, because the newer one is smaller and doesn’t fit my style as well. Zawinul [of Weather Report] asked me to join his new project and I was happy to be able to play with Weather Report, and to play with drummer Omar Hakim before the group broke up. Also, I have to rent my percussion instruments when I travel. I’ve got some made of wood – hard to find – to give that sound – like the shoe clogs people used to wear in Holland, or the stomping on wooden floors of verandas in old houses in the American South.
CM: Often, visiting musicians are flown in and out again, giving little time for making important connections with local artists and cultures. How could this be improved so that you are given time to workshop with students and others, and share your skills?
MC: It’s often the case. Promoters don’t realize that the hardest part for a musician is not the playing, but the traveling. Sometimes my conferences take a long time, and I go very deep in the discussions. This is all tiring. You have to open to people and cultures you’re visiting. I like to immerse myself into others’ cultures as much as possible when I’m visiting a place. We have to share our music with musicians we visit. This takes time.
FC: Definitely. At home in Switzerland, I teach at a music school in Geneva called ETM which is part of the government program – students can choose music as a subject with ETM . We also have a professional section for 3 years. Students study a 1st and 2nd instrument.
MC: I mostly have private students. I’d like to do more masterclasses in different countries, but I just don’t have the time. A dear friend of mine, Tony Gray, a bassist who is nephew of John McLauglin, and I are working on a collaboration to do a video program so I can share that as much as possible.
Catch both artists on a number of YouTube videos!