VIRTUAL JAZZ PERFORMANCES AT 2020 NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL (NAF Makhanda): PART I

Couch festival? Digital watching ‘live’ jazz, dance, curated theatrical videos? What? Fans of South Africa’s annual National Arts Festival (June 25 – July 5, 2020) might have given up on this year’s ‘festival’, brought digitally to our homes by COVID-19 sponsorship. COVID is saying: think creatively, out of the ‘norm’, see and react differently when emotions, anxieties, and uncertainties take over self-worth. Same for the Arts. Watching a variety of offerings this June/July, with an eagerness to figure out ‘how did they do that’ or find a particular awe in the lighting effects accompanying a dancing figure, I resolved to just let it happen….and this is what I discovered!

(Inspite of the streaming issues which the NAF techies had to iron out fast, which plagued viewers like myself from the start of the Festival presentations.)

Did I need the social solidarity of festival crowds whistling their appreciation? Or rubbing shoulders with the artists during a break, or rushing to an event with ticket since it was a once-off viewing? Digital viewing on a television or computer screen certainly didn’t provide these, but did surprise with other advantages:
* That camera close-up capturing the emotion on that pianist’s face when soloing, or how those bandaged fingers of the double bassist didn’t alter delivery;
* Being able to get up and dance to a performance, even spilling the popcorn far and wide, and not worry about kicking the seat in front of you;
* Viewing a performance after it went live, in case you missed it because you took an important phone call about a sick aunty in Mpumalanga (tickets allow viewing anytime up to July 16)
* Seeing LOCAL and highly talented South African artist’s creativity spread worldwide, thanks to wobbly w.w. streaming, and knowing cousin John and family in New York are also watching.
* Listening to stories of South African life and seeing hills and valleys and homes and people working and enjoying cultural ceremonies and…..
* Being moved by the mixed media: using music, photographs, video tapes of movements and interviews, and interesting lighting effects – all brought interesting angles to stories or musical pieces otherwise hard to pull off at a live gathering.

So, here’s what made me very content with this digital festive wizardry…and what I highly recommend for viewing (up to July 16). Let’s start with…. JAZZ REIMAGINED…brought to us by the Standard Bank Jazz Festival of NAF….

Sisonke Xonti (sax) & Shane Cooper (bass)

Tenor saxophonist, Sisonke Xonti, the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, shines with delight with his debut album, Iyonde. After a solemn beginning, Xonti’s performance with his seasoned band of close friends jumped into the core of improvisation with pomp, clarity, and purpose. ’15 Sandile Str’ song displayed his compositional skills, also mastered by Shane Cooper’s double bass solo and Keenan Ahrends’ guitar. Xonti’s rise to jazz heights has been tempered by study, exploration, and determination to find identity and joy in music. He allowed his fellow musicians freedom to interpret, as could be heard with Ahrends’ soulful guitar solos. Watch Xonti’s exquisite solo around minute 40 of the video. Vocals by Keorapetse Kolwane take the listener on another journey; hers is crisp, steady, hitting her notes exactly. The perfect piano accompaniment of Bokani Dyer, with shades of the late, great Bheki Mseleku whose style has influenced these band members, reigned throughout. We await Xonti’s next album for sure.

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (left) with Ramon Alexander

Pianist Ramon Alexander’s quartet with Byron Abrahams on tenor and alto saxes, Valentino Europa on bass, and Annemie Nel on drums took us on a very pleasant sonic journey through Alexander’s beautiful compositions with lilting harmonies complemented with Cape Ghoema rhythms, soulful balads, and thoughtful nuances of Cape Jazz.

Alexander offered tributes to his late brother, to his active mentor and musical guru of Cape Jazz, Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, and to several other late Cape jazz musicians, including saxophonist Robbie Jansen. His compositions spoke history and touched notably on local influences, funk, gospel, and bluesy elements. Abrams and Alexander each soloed effortlessly, diligently supported by the whispy drums of long-time collaborator, Annemie Nel, knowing full well they could capture any audience to join their rocks and swings anywhere.

Zango (left) with Mashiloane (right)

South Africa meets Mozambique presented a stunning duo between Durban-based pianist, Sibusiso ‘Mash’ Mashiloane, and multi-instrumentalist Mozambiquan Cândido Salomão Zango, (aka ‘Matchume’), known for perfecting the style of the Timbila, a marimba-style instrument. Mashiloane’s body becomes a barefoot ankle shaker tapping on his ancestral spirits who, by the way, are listening. The performance consisted of a pre-recorded video of each artist telling their stories of growing up within cultures which they found seemingly similar. They then shared those sonic commonalities – and here’s when you could get off your couch and stomp with them. A gem of a performance!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Linda-Sikhakhane-SBYJF-2018-scaled.jpg

LINDA SIKHAKHANE’S ISAMBULO (revelation) performance was a highlight of this festival that showcased just what solid hard work and collegial friendships can produce. Young Umlazi-born Sikhakhane, playing soprano and tenor saxophones, with a tight band of loyal musicians, delivered emotion, surprise, and rich texture in his compositions. It was breathtaking, thanks to Ndabo Zulu on trumpet, the fiery Afrika Mkhize on piano, the thoughtful Benjamin Jephta on double bass, the energetic Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums, and the steady Gontse Makhene on percussion.

In the introductory song, ‘Cause of Life’, Sikhakhane expertly controlled his soprano sax’s long notes with a calming vibrato that did not sound like wailing. Then, the energy erupted with drummer Mazibuko’s aggressive style and pianist Mkhize at one point jumping off his seat with cataclysmic runs. The percussionist Makhene slowed things down to end the piece. What an introduction, followed by a melodic song with Sikhakhane on tenor sax accompanied by trumpeter Zulu holding the sonic reigns. Bandaged fingers didn’t stop bassist Jephta from delivering some soulful solos, further supported by the rich togetherness from the sax and trumpet duo. Sikhakhane understands what improvisation is all about, even admitting that during the time of COVID, one must improvise and be flexible with one’s life and purpose, while faced down by the vagaries of pandemics. The last song, written for the band’s name, ISAMBULO, which means ‘revelation’, revealed each musicians’ talent for mastery, insightfulness to sound and feeling, and general all-round enthusiasm to deliver the best. I’m going to watch this concert again!

van Wyk (left), Motuba (center), Mogorosi (right)

One of the most moving and conceptual projects in the NAF’s jazz offerings is The Wretched, a sonic interpretation of the psychologist and revolutionary intellectual, Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. Jazz vocalist Gabi Motuba along with drummer and scholar Tumi Mogorosi and avant-garde sound-scape artist Andrei van Wyk take the listener on a roller coaster sound journey, with an interesting mix of voice overs and spoken word muffles of historical contexts between the oppressed and the oppressor. Electronica leads this performance thanks to van Wyk’s psychedelic interventions with haunting rumbles, whines, choral wails, and politicians’ quotes made inarticulate, if not inconsequential. Any resultant cacophony is understandable. It’s about injustice. Focusing on the paintings of ‘the wretched’, enslaved, infringed humans – in crowds and as portraits – elicited sad, if not angered, emotions in the viewer. One remembers Franz Fanon’s own words: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” This performance was mostly engaging for its chilling revolutionary energy that the wretched of the earth will rise and find justice. On the technical delivery side, however, some spoken narratives were recorded way too faintly requiring increasing the computer’s volume considerably. When the instruments accompanied, the spoken word became drowned out. Yet, this unsettling performance masterfully portrayed Fanon’s own sense that neglect of the past follows into contemporary themes: ”This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.”

If you’ve arrived ‘late’ to the Festival, you can still catch a live webinar this Saturday, 4 July, at 8PM with Moderator, Dean Flanagan, who zooms in with Sisonke Xonti, Michael Bester, Lana Crowster, and J-Something. Click on this URL to join. https://zoom.us/w/98231447712?tk=vXofdPzw0WruUqkmFs0a8jHfgy4A5RVF75Ath0PQlVI.DQIAAAAW3wzwoBZiSW15Ui1QZlJiT0lGTkc0bk8yWFJRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA&pwd=cllwK29FSzJOWC94UlFHM1VQT25DZz09&uuid=WN_dJ6qx_n_Sjubb7hXXCKTow

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