Jazz in the Native Yards Brings Joy with Music Coming back to the Capetown ‘Hoods

There’s a slight warmth in this winter air as one enters the outdoor patio where the band is set up, with listeners seated in the garage space looking onto the patio. This is No 52, NY138 named ‘Kwa Sec’ in Gugulethu, a ‘township’ outside of Cape Town center.

Sisonke Xonti sax; Jono Sweetman drums; Shane Cooper bass-credit: T. Visagie

People are buzzing with loud chatter which drowns out the MC with the mic, who is trying to introduce the band and settle the crowd. If one hops quickly inside the house, more buzzing and smell of freshly brewing coffee meets the senses as ‘Thaps’ (Thapelo Mahloane) churns out cappuccinos or hot chocolates at his Kofififee mobile kiosk.  

The eyes wonder onto a bucket of ice at the ‘Wine Shaq’ table which offers a variety of independently produced and distributed wines from the Cape Winelands/Stellenbosch area – always ‘local is lekker’ in attitude and taste, says its wine connoisseur, Nomhle Zondani. Hailing from Langa, Zondani travels the various routes of this promoter based at Kwa Sec, Jazz in the Native Yards, pleasing pallets thirsty for high quality but lesser known wines.

One carefully nurtured wineglass will last through the first set as patrons take their seats. The band numbers five well-seasoned musicians. A hush falls as the gig begins… or rather, the Experience continues…..

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It’s 4 o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti and his illustrious and long time band members, are bringing the music back to the ‘hood’. The Natives are at home! The patrons are also multi-cultural, coming from various demographics of the wider municipality – radio and media journalists, fellow musicians, regular fans, local leaders, and foreigners working in Cape Town.

Credit: Gregory Franz

During the set break, raucous joviality explodes as old friends chat about nothing, or strangers are introduced. Some patrons who announce this is their first visit to Kwa Sec are immediately embraced and coached on why they should come more often. The energy in the space becomes electric. Ubuntu is speaking. There are no barriers here – colour, nationality, profession, status in life – it doesn’t matter. It’s the pumping rhythms in song that brings hearts and spirits together, laughing and just enjoying life and being there.

Ezra & brother Duke Ngcukana 1987-credit: Tony McGregor

Home legends are being acknowledged by this youthful band as it swings into songs of late jazz dons, like Zim Ngqawana and Gugulethu’s own, Ezra Ngcukana. It’s Youth Day in South Africa, June 16, a national holiday celebrating how Black youth uprisings in 1976 against the then apartheid government’s attempts to enforce the teaching of Afrikaans in their schools changed the course of history. But sordid memories seemed subdued amidst the joyous celebration and networking around song and artistry.

JiNY Co-founders: Luvuyo Kakaza (left), Koko Nkalashe (right)-credit: Nikki Froneman

Jazz in the Native Yards, while proudly endorsing the otherwise demeaning apartheid address for township communities resident in ‘NY’ numbered streets, is enthusiastically spreading its philosophy of taking those ‘hood musical styles to other ‘hoods. After all, Cape jazz and South African jazz emanated and developed their unique sounds from many back yards during apartheid restrictions on township residents’ movements. In turn, this provided relief – comic and musical – for both artists and patrons in weathering the debilitating effects of racial, economic, and political separation from the country’s wealth and opportunities.

Jazz in the Native Yards traces its ancestral footprints to the 1960s when impromptu live jazz sessions took place every weekend in Cape Town’s townships and elsewhere. Back then, jazz enthusiasts listened to Joshua Sithole who made the penny whistle famous in kwela jazz, even on street corners of major cities. The Nofemele brothers played The Manhattan Brothers covers with unsurpassed flair. The Ngcukana brothers from Gugulethu performed with their father Mra and the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim, and became a regular feature in the community yards.

Then, a change in access evolved: Post-apartheid jazz clubs moved more to town centers, requiring enthusiasts to leave their home areas, and find often expensive means of transport to evening events which also charged fees higher than what true jazz fans from marginalised communities could afford. This restrictive gap in access to the quality legendary music has now been revealed: many arts and culture promoters no longer wish to dominate live jazz through another form of exclusionary, middle class opportunity to hear quality music.

Patrons at Kwa Sec Sisonke Xonti gig-credit: T Visagie

Ironically, as these town ‘clubs’ started closing down for various management and financial reasons in the past 10 years, the call from communities became loud and clear: ‘We want the music here, with us!” Thus, live jazz started brewing again in Native Yards and communities throughout Cape Town’s metropolis; in restaurants, in a bakery, at an artisan ginnery and beer brewery, at cultural centers , like Langa’s Guga S’Thebe, and even in musicians’ homes. Those opportunities to preserve the proven legacies of jazz giants like Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Robbie Jansen and Cups Nkanuka, were taking hold, partly thanks to appreciative and discerning younger musicians who saw value and integrity in preserving musical histories. These well-trained musicians also wanted live platforms to strut their stuff.

In contemporary times, Jazz in the Native Yards seeks to avoid a downward spiral caused by gangsterism, drug peddling and alcoholism. One answer is to groom human creativity, especially among the youth from marginalised communities. Its projects were born in 2015 and JiNY developed a social movement that encourages the use of live jazz performances as platforms for diverse musical voices to be heard and seen. Young and older musicians can ‘meet and greet’ each other on these platforms.

Bongani Shotsoananda at Kwa Sec- Oct 2018

For instance, Marimba specialist, Bongani Shotsoananda (from Nyanga) and trumpeter Blacki Tempi (from Gugulethu), often come to afternoon concerts at the homey ‘Kwa Sec’ house where weekend gigs feature a variety of South African and international bands.

Another legendary jazz pianist, Tete Mbambisa, and Langa singer Ncediwe Sylvia Mdunyelwa, pop in to see what the younger ones are doing. Koko Nkalashe, YiNY’s co-founder, says, “Thanks to ConcertSA we have also managed to bring more established musicians to our stages and the mix with overseas traveling musicians creates a beautiful mix of musical stories.”

Koko Nkalashe

It’s about ‘Experience’, says Nkalashe. “We want to create spaces and opportunities for more social cohesion for Western Cape residents, a positive ambiance of backyard performance venues for residents and visitors alike to get to know and understand South Africa’s diversity, rather than just focus on its marginalised communities. “ These spaces, safe but simple, grow paying audiences who thereby offer opportunities whereby artists can actually earn an income rather than rely on free or sponsored concerts.

So where does one ‘catch’ these audiences?

JiNY has ‘Routes’: musicians can perform at cultural centers and NGO spaces which have sizeable data bases of patrons, and at festivals, like the annual Stellenbosch Woordfeest as part of the musical program; then a Sunday afternoon at the Delheim Wine Estate pulling in residents from Franschoek and surroundings; then continue on to the Khaylitsha’s Isivivana Center, an NGO space ; then on to Mitchells Plain Alliance Francaise Cultural Center (still in progress). That’s the ‘Eastern Route’. Patrons and fans who live along the way can catch quality performances and be able to afford paying for the experience.

The ‘Central Route’ comprises of Gugulethu’s Kwa Sec for smaller crowds; then to Nyanga Arts Center (still in progress) which receives supports from the Belgium government….. then on to Langa’s Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center for larger crowds, and continue on to the Alliance Francaise in central Cape Town CBD or to an arts and culture gallery on Bree Street.

All of these routes seek to “cook up the vibe”: engage the moneyed class, suburbia folk and tourists, and the less economically endowed residents in experiencing together the fruits of musical achievements of the younger and older legends coming from these communities. Adding to the Experience are people’s video snippets on social media, selfies with musicians, and other pictorial stories which show patrons’ excitement. Clinking wine glasses, rattling coffee cups, audience members dancing, and an inside fire roaring to keyboard runs – people experience joyful fun and amusement in the vibey arena. And when the experience is good, you sure will want to return and find your new-found friends at the next gig….and on and on it goes. Socializing, appreciating, learning, seeing, asking questions, understanding, liking, tasting, telling others – the experiences expand.

Performing in ‘Native Yards’ does not benefit just local musicians and local patrons. Word spreads, rippling through social media, radio, print media outlets, and country Embassies. When South African musicians work on projects overseas, namely in Europe, international visitors, musicians, and music business promoters hear about the ‘hood happenings, and know where to go. Fundors like ConcertsSA, the Italian Consulate, Swiss promoters like ProHelvetia, and others, enable music students and their teachers to collaborate and spread music in the ‘Hoods.

Indeed, the Legends listen from their ancestral heights in pure delight! The ‘hoods are back!!

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