Jazz Pianist Zoe Molelekwa brings his “unconsciously South African” repertoire to Cape Town: an Interview

All Jazz Radio caught busy Zoe Molelekwa for an interview about what makes him tick with his music and life in general.

With all your current training and family influences, I was just wondering – everybody finds their own style as they grow into their music – so what’s your style? You’ve been influenced; you’ve studied, and probably done a lot of experimentation as well. What kind of sound do you feel comfortable with ? What turns you on in playing music?

Zoe Molelekwa – credit T. Visagie

Being around my father growing up, and absorbing the music he was playing, was a time very short-lived. I grew up in Soweto which was very culturally rich with music all around. There was so much to pick up from everyone. My one real experience that made me want to listen to jazz was from the old man who lived across the street from where I lived – I grew up with my uncle, on my mother’s side of the family. This man was always playing his LPs, but I could never know who he was playing. So, he challenged me to get to know my father’s music and CDs, and the older music on these vinyls, and how people were approaching this music . My formal music training started with the recorder in the First Grade. Then, I took up violin, then alto saxophone and just listening to different music. The music that attracted me most from South Africa was the mirabi and mbaqanga variety.

How did your family support you in pursuing music?

I had to work for a year after my high school.  Growing up on my Mom’s side of the family, they didn’t want me involved in music. So I worked at Exclusive Books for a year after my high school. There, I became very interested in stories, music, and art. I was always listening to music on my headphones, so the store asked me to make a playlist of music to play in the store. People in the store would come and ask me who was playing a song, and what’s the album called, this sort of thing. Some actually would buy the album and show me that they had bought it!

That’s when I started meeting musicians I had heard on radio, through their albums and interviews, and even seeing them at their performances. The first musician I met who helped me alot was Lwanda Gogwana, the trumpeter. He heard my father’s music being played in the store, and started to befriend me, asked me if I wish to pursue this music, and what my plans were.

Uhadi Traditional/Synth Modern – Lwanda Gogwana Expands Xhosa jazz

Then I was introduced to the pianist, Themba Mkize, who helped me find places where I could study music, and recommended University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN).

Wonderful. OK, I thought on your grandfather’s side (Moses’ father), you would be groomed as well.

Actually, I hardly ever saw my grandfather growing up. I saw him maybe four or five times when I was very young. This was not out of choice. Then when I was ten years old, I ran away [from my mother’s family side] because I felt suffocated. I really wanted to have an experience with music at that time. I was playing drums with my father when I was three or four years old. I would walk into his rehearsals and pick up the drummer’s stick and started beating. Then I got my own drum kit. When I was picked up from school, I would ask if my father was rehearsing at Kippies. If yes, I would ask to fetch my drum kit so I could rehearse with him. That’s the kind of environment I grew up with, and when I no longer had that, after my parents’ death, [when I was just six years old] and into my teen years, it really was challenging for me. But the exposure I had at that early age made me continue to listen and try to absorb all the sounds that I loved. So when I finally got an opportunity to study or express myself, I had a certain foundation already.

When you met up with Mkhize and Gogwana who encouraged you to continue in music, was your family still not supportive?

They were….yet in a sense they weren’t. I mean, to them, music was not considered a viable career for me. I think also with the circumstances surrounding my parents passing on, and the kind of environment that the music scene can operate in, they were reluctant about me being a part of that, of knowing what that environment actually is. It’s funny because even my mother was an artist, and her father was a great actor and musician, James Mthoba, who acted in various productions at the Market Theater [and was artistic director of the Theater], was a pianist in the film Sarafina, and worked with other actors, such as John Kani. So it was weird for me to experience this, knowing that there’s so much cultural heritage that we have at home that I could actually take so much from. It would also help me on my journey. But they weren’t so supportive so it ended up being that way.

Your mother’s father, did he support you?

He passed away when I was very young so didn’t know him. I tried to be around people I’d like to be like, like musicians. When I was studying privately with Themba Mkize, and I actually lived with him for a while, that’s when I met pianist Nduduzo Makhatini who became another great influence for me.

Nduduzo Makhathini

He was performing in Soweto with his band when I was on way back to JHB as my UKZN semester had just ended for the holidays. Nduduzo called me and asked me if I’d like to come with two tunes and rehearse with his band. The gig which followed was the first time I had performed my music live! I had been composing and attending performances, just trying to get to know how other musicians prepare for their performances, and what makes the music sound so great. So when I think about how I would present my music, it would come out as though I, too, am trying to set my own path in this music.

Where are you studying music now, and is it your full time love?

I’m in my 2nd year at UKZN Jazz Program with one more year to go. It’s not my only love but where my passion lies. I envision my performances to have many experiences which include visuals, sound, and words – I’m a poet as well – because I find words can express things we can’t feel in sound, or see in pictures. That’s the ultimate vision, but primarily, I’d like to be a full time musician, perhaps work as an arranger, or a film scorer, but also be involved in art entrepreneurship in the long run.

In what way? The entrepreneurship…..

I think my being around some of the great musicians to whom I and my peers look up to, and getting a sense of how to look at ourselves not only as musicians, but also as a business, teaches us how to make a living. I’m seeing certain things not known to musicians, that could actually really help in their careers. In the immediate sense, that’s how I’d like to be of help. Maybe have my own label. But for now, I just want to be a great musician and a great human being!

What are your other interests?

I enjoy art and also writing…. Literature. I experiment a lot; I write essays, I write short stories; sometimes I write poems . I’m thinking a bit broader to write novels…

What about some jazz journalism?

People have told me I should consider archiving or journalism – something more serious and worthwhile. I’ve been very busy just archiving my father’s works, trying to put all the content together and package it in such a way that it could be used by those hungry for the music.

I like your mention of stories and poems…. Not everyone can write, but it sounds like you have a facility for that. If you could spend a whole day in a library, what would you want to read?

I love History, African history. In earlier days, I read the Classics – Edgar Allan Poe and George Orwell. I like philosophy, many different schools of thought, Eastern philosophy, some Buddhist and Zen books. I practice Tai Chi – I’ve adopted this as a habit to keep me balanced about what troubles me.

I see you have a meditative style when you sit down at the piano, like at Guga S’Thebe during Hassan’adas tribute to your father’s music. Where do you think you fit into South African jazz? Where do you feel comfortable – with free flow, traditional, contemporary styles….?

I like the traditional – it’s like the foundation of the tree. In those earlier times, there were different things – socially, politically, and economically – that were influencing not only the way people were living, but the music which was being written for a certain purpose . I might fall under not just the traditional, but maybe the contemporary, African . There are influences, such as kwaito , deep house, hip hop which I’ve come to like. My father’s music was traditional, but also progressive…. I try to have nuances that are unconsciously South African because that’s where I come from.

Sunday, 25 August at Jazz Sessions, Masque Theater, Muizenberg, at 18.30 hrs. R120.

And at these sponsored by Jazz in the Native Yards: (see poster) 
Wed 28 August at Youngblood, 74 Bree Street, at 7.30pm
Friday 30 August at Alliance Francaise, 155 Loop Street, at 7.30pm
Sunday 1 September at Guga S’Thebe, Langa, at 4pm
Sunday 1 September at Selective Live, 189 Buitengracht St, at 7pm.

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