JAZZ/MUSIC PERFORMANCES AT 2020 NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL (NAF) : PART II

More exciting ‘virtual’ stage and video performances are still offered, up until July 16 with your ticket/s. Here’s a few more that rocked my boat!

Ziza Muftic album My Shining Hour

Ziza Muftic’s Shining Hour concert was just that – shining with her clear, crisp vocals and lyrics, speaking of stories from her Balkan past and South African present where she has lived for several decades now. Folk tunes turned into vocal scatting, or what some would call ‘jazz’, have influenced her own style of compositions that mark Muftic as inventive, thoughtful, and impressionistic. Taking from her second album, My Shining Hour, this performance highlights her various musical influences, like Johnny Mercer and Chick Corea and others who borrowed from other musical cultures. Muftic skillfully flavours her own compositions with twists of Eastern European folk mixed with South African jazz styles. For instance, ‘Kwela Gontsana’, composed by saxophonist Sydney Mnisi in memory of a beloved late musician, was given a lyrics interpretation by Muftic about her own Bosnian upbringing. The bluesy ‘Love is the Drug’, a take from the 60s’ rock version, finds Muftic’s broad lower register voice slinking through these darker toned messages reminiscent of the sassy Billie Holiday or an angry Nina Simone. In ‘Unfinished Story’, Muftic inserts compelling bossa rhythms that accompany her intricate scats which, at times, seemed to lose their melodies, but which found resolve with intensive piano runs of Roland Moses. An abrupt finish of the song said it all. Her album is available on all digital platforms.

Loyiso Bala, singer, Swing City

For a type of Rat Pack swing and blues of the 50s and 60s, the entertaining Swing City with three vocalists, Loyiso Bala, Nathan Ro, and Graeme Watkins, and a Nigerian bassist, Amaeshi Ikechi, along with three horns, added musical value to the ‘jazz’ lineup. These dapper and well-suited-and –tied musicians on stage, with their shiny black and white shoes, exuded the flashy dress code of ‘that era’, and the attitudes that went with it. Their narratives were not without the occasional sexist gibe: ‘Guys, wearing a suit on stage now is like…..a woman not wearing a bra….”. Another quip followed, keeping to what boys do….

Their dooWA dooWA gave a charming rendition of what the ‘swing’ era sounded like, mixed with their joking around. Clearly these swingers were having fun, and would get you off your couch; “Dirty boogie” gets you jitter buggin’, shoes or no shoes. “Fly Me to the Moon”…. That sailing song beyond the seas…. ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ . It became a sing-along. The vocalists rather humourous, yet natural, ad lib banter in between songs kept interest levels and smiles high. Their theatrics improved into the program, now that the audience was used to the boyish antics. Great for a rainy day! They even added a maskandi beat to an oldie, and sang an Afrikaans song which swung into ‘De Alabama’ klopse. Thanking the non-audience for listening: ”And thank you all from the heart of my bottom.”

Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, Sisonke Xonti, presented a Part II performance for this year’s Jazz Festival which featured another slew of first-class band members. Blind pianist and vocalist, Yonela Mnana, who is studying for his Ph.D. in music, stole this show! Mnana’s obvious emotional connection between fellow musicians and his piano helped him to sound out images that supported Xonti’s, at times, wailing sax and at other times, his softer improvisations. Xonti doesn’t ‘do’ smooth jazz or Standards. He believes in giving his musicians space to play their own compositions as well as his own. Just listen to percussionist Tlale Makhene at the finale with Mnana’s chants…. It’s like a send-off to another joyous world! Pure unadulterated improvisation!

Black Lives Matter themes

One of the most powerful messaging about contemporary (and past) issues of racism came with Making Grace Amazing, a mix of film, music, and performance art portraying slave histories. This engaging 30 minute visual is curated by Neo Muyanga, a musician and installation artist known to traverse African idiom and voices, Jazz improvisation and new opera. Various impressionistic props are shown to depict a slaver’s ship – with sounds of water drops, oars rowing, seagulls squawking as a ship enters the harbor; then an artists’ picture of young black descendants of slaves. The ships’ journeys are plotted on a world map; blood red lines between Europe and both Americas; sounds of a steady one note stroke on a cello with clinking of chains, and a trumpet. Black youth march through a huge empty concrete structure and characterless spiraling staircase. Neo’s own vocals are superimposed over the gentle playing of a euphonium and trumpet as the troupe march back and forth. The instruments play the popular gospel song, ‘Amazing Grace’, while the troupe sing another song, walking chained to each other. Angola to Rio. One dramatic scene looks out to the wide ocean, then a photo is superimposed of the inside of a Christian cathedral with Christ on the cross at its center. A gospel choir sings over the calls of seagulls, again. Opera singer, Tina Mene, and the Brazilian multidisciplinary troupe, Legitima Defesa, exquisitely map out challenges to contemporary racism, sexism and class in societies of today.

With vocalist/rapper, J’Something and three horns, Mi Casa has stormed South African audiences with their urban house band boasting lively dance beats and important lyrics. Black Lives Matter chants and messages were delivered seriously and in timely fashion, considering the issues of the day.

East Londoner violinist and vocalist, Siseko Pame, delivered important social justice messages: When he picked up his violin with a soulful and impulsive energy, one could understand why gender-based and sexual violence, and neglectful attention to human rights issues drove his musical emotions. A 2018 SAMA award winner for Best African Adult Album, Pame shows guts and avoids a silence of complicity. Singing in isiXhosa, along with vocal backups, and a backline, his emotions are convincing as are his facial expressions seen through the close up camera lens, a special feature of this year’s video recordings at NAF. Truly a front row seat! Pame confirms today’s difficulties, and urges all to stop spreading the Covid-19 virus, as in his song “Prayer Works for Me”. His tribute to Jabu Khanyile’s popular song “Mmalo We’, a danceable and melodious hit, offered a reminder of other songbirds, like Vusi Mahlesela.

KoraX, led by vocalist, guitarist, and flutist, Bongani Tulwana, another melodically gifted band, messaged joy and hope in these uncertain times. Few jazz musicians play flute, or at least feature the flute as a prime instrument. Just when I get excited with a lovely flute (my bias) ballad introduction on a song about hope, Tulwana switches to acoustic guitar. But that’s OK….His music stresses harmony and story telling with a gentility and empathy for those stressed and challenged with life. His facial expressions, again thanks to up close camera shots, confirms these emotions about others’ sufferings. One hears the styles of the late Zim Ngqawana, and the very prominent Feya Faku, with whom ‘KoraX’ Tulwana has performed, and such influences have certainly rubbed off on him, creating his own sound that moves and endears.

Vinnie Mak, aka Xola Vincent Makeleni from Gauteng, is a soul and blues singer from an early age. His powerful vocals are full of emotion, with chilling wails and cries dramatically captured on his sometimes contorted face and body. Limping along through his set, Mak hustles his husky voice into convincing refrains of sadness, guilt, and abandonment. After 18 minutes of this set, it became hard to listen to….as the pain and anguish seemed all too real.

OTHER MUSIC

As part of the Eastern Cape Jazz Showcase series, vocalist Vuyolwethu Nyangwa approaches her music with zest and pride in delivering Ubuntu messages in keeping with her traditional African identity. Her performance was convincing and spirited, her deep broad voice chanting, bemoaning, and emoting in moving ways. Camera closeup shots effectively showed the determined facial responses of her band members, full of feeling. It’s not just the instrumental music, but the dance and body movements and storytelling that round out the sound and message.

Another offering in the Eastern Cape Jazz Showcase is bassist Mlungisi Gegana who features a just-met young pianist, Chester Summerton, and drummer, Thulani Funeka. Playing from his second album, I am Who Am I, this self-made bassist proudly exhibited confidence and mellowness in his songs without overreactions or too many subtleties. Basically, a very pleasant listenable set full of rhythms and melodies.

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