Author Archives: Carol Martin

Classical Indian sitarist Niladri Kumar explores  musical boundaries

'Path Bender' sitarist Niladri Kumar

‘Path Bender’ sitarist Niladri Kumar

The Indian classical sitar comes to Capetown’s Baxter Theater 29 July and to Johannesburg’s Lyric Theater on 30 July straight from Niladri Kumar’s home of Mumbai, India. These ‘Raga Ecstasy’ concerts are possible thanks to Inner Circle Entertainment which produces  Indian Classical Music concerts in South Africa. As one of India’s premier classical sitarists, Kumar is not so much eager to collect sitars or sit on their glory, but to highlight how the instrument can benefit others.

Training orphan girls to play sitar

Training orphan girls to play sitar

Coming from a prestigious musical family of means, his heart seemed always in tune with those less fortunate.  During the International Year of the Girl Child in 2013, he and his team trained orphan girls to play sitar and to perform.       He auctioned off a nearly 100-year old sitar he grew up with in order to raise funds for underprivileged musical prodigies in his midst.

PHOTO  With grandfather & father

Playing sitar from age 4, under the tutelage of his father (who was also a disciple of the famous sitarist, Ravi Shankar), Kumar remained loyal to his five-generations family history of sitar playing, while feeling his contemporary world demanding flexibility and change.  Kumar, thus, created the ‘zitar’, an electronic version of the traditional sitar.

Kumar playing with grandfather and father

Kumar playing with grandfather and father

 

“The scope of an instrument is never decided by the music.” Kumar refers to the sitar’s range of use in Hindi film music. Musicians’ sensibilities change, thus affecting how the instrument complements particular themes.   The ‘Z’ in zitar connotes the zany, edginess.  Hence, the electronic sitar evolves to a five string fusion of Indian classical with a contemporary international flavour.  Some traditionalists queried this upstart. But these how-dare-you sentiments were gradually subterfuged by the encroaching young global fusions of sounds, rhythms, and message.

While respecting tradition, Kumar admits that Indian classical music ‘needs a boost’.  What awaits our raga listening ear on 29 July at the Baxter Concert Hall promises to be awe-inspiring and highly entertaining musical feast.

Kumar with John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain & Eric Harland

Kumar with John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain & Eric Harland

* * * * * *

Ronan-Feature1

This writer (CM) and tabla/dirigidoo musician Ronan Skillen (RS) from Capetown had an awesome opportunity to Skype chat with Kumar, prior to his travels to South Africa end of this month.  Skillen provided an ideal complement to our discussions since he specializes in various ethnic percussion instruments,   and has, himself, studied in India under the tutelage of a notable tabla musician.  Kumar will be performing with the renowned tabla player, Vijay Ghate, who is widely acknowledged for his forays into fusion with well-known artists including the Jethro Tull band, George Duke, Al Jarreau , and Ravi Coltrane.  Ghate has lectured at Codarts University of Arts at Rotterdam as well as formed a trust called Taalchakra, which provides a platform to young and upcoming artists and supports for musicians in financial need.

………

Kumar says he will just be playing the sitar in his South African concerts,  and will explore with the audiences the world of Indian classical raga melodies and different rhythmic time signatures, or Talas.

CM:  Here in South Africa, we hear lots of other types of music.  Do you fuse your classical with other forms of music?

NK;  Yes, we explore these fusions, particularly in Mumbai which supports musicians collaborating with jazz and other kinds of non-Indian music.  This has been going on for at least 60 years now.  Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve played in unfamiliar territory of art other than the comfort of just having the tabla.  So it’s no longer ‘unique’ to explore these other sounds and rhythms.

CM:  OK, then maybe we’ll hear a little bit of jazz from you… (laughter).

NK:  The thing is, I don’t know jazz music.  I’ll explain with this short story.   I was preparing for an English essay exam and the preparation I did was to write an essay on the river.  The river is like classical music for me.    But at the exam, I was supposed to write about the elephant.  I know what the contours of the elephant looks like, what it eats, and what it does.  So I explained what the elephant looks like and how I walked it in the forest while it munches on the vegetation.  Then the elephant arrives at the river to drink, it falls into the river.  Then, I write the essay about the river which is what I prepared for!  So that’s how I play jazz, and that’s how jazz musicians play classical music.  So if you’re expecting jazz music from me, you’re in the wrong place!!  We tend to play what we know most about!

CM:  (laughter)  I’ll hand you over to Ronan whose home wifi username is – guess what?  ‘Elephant’!

NK:  Oh, my goodness!!

RK:  You know, it’s so bizarre! That story you just told.  I was just re-watching  the making of the  “Industrial Zen” album which features guitarist John McLaughlin and he told that same story on that DVD.  You had told it to him.  That’s so funny.

NK:  Because people tend to ask the same question….about playing jazz….. (laughter).

RK:  That’s a good answer because most people know that Indian classical music is improvised …

NK:  I think improvisation is more in the thought process, but not necessarily in the music, because it comes from so many different cultures and in that sense, it can only smell and feel different in different parts of the world.  But at the same time, it’s a valid question and a good answer, so we still have to deal with those 7 notes in our universe. And imagine that every emotion needs to be expressed through those 7 notes.  This narrowed down connection with musicians all over the world is amazing.  I don’t think any other trade can do that, to pinpoint such a connection.

RK:  You’re right. Because it’s like having guidelines – within that context (7 key notes) you’ve got to express what you want to say.  And it’s amazing.  You take the sitar, with its 19 strings, but you’re only really playing one string.  You’re exploring a contemporary version of something very ancient.  It’s also interesting how you bring in chordal progressions – wit those long reaches  …..  and I can see on the fretboard that you’re struggling to get them!

NK:  Yes, those chords.  In 1995, I was playing a concert in Mumbai at a very traditional music place.  All the traditional greats have performed there, even my father.  I was in my early 20’s and that was the first time I played chords.  The next day, a big article made the newspaper saying how sacrilegious it was for me to play chords because I had come from a great musical tradition of my father, so much more was expected of me.  This got me thinking because I had played a 2 ½ hour concert; yet, the chords had lasted not more than 30 – 45 seconds.  The writer’s critique of this small percentage of the concert took up over half the article!  So maybe I should increase the chord playing time in order to get an important front-page article from my concerts! (laughter)

This is our Indian music – we have to go through all these stages of exploring sounds and techniques on our instruments to appeal to the younger generation.  So, the journey of exploring boundaries has to continue, even in traditional music.

CM:  About that exploring boundaries….. Some people say that the sitar is always so romantic and so sad at the same time.  How do you take this sadness out of the sitar sound?

NK:  You don’t have to.  Why would you take an emotion away?  Our music revolves around the nine emotions which we call ‘navaras’.   Melancholy or sadness is one of these moods, or emotions, the feeling of having lost something, or missed out on whatever.  This is very much part of our musical evolution.  We are fortunate to be able to explore these diverse emotions, from happiness to actually making someone cry in sadness.  It’s wonderful .  Not many instruments have that range.

It also depends on the musician, which areas he wants to explore that day, whether the song is to be happy, or sad.  This is essential.  I see young people listening to music and dancing to it, finding it very groovy, and letting their hair down.  What about having a dance within you?  Without having to actually get onto the dance floor?  That dance within needs to have a range of emotions.

CM:  That brings me to another point.  Given your various generations of listeners in India, which groups tend to like your music, and which groups question what you’re doing with your contemporary music?

NK:  The senior groups tend to question, like your teachers as they technically know more and will always question you.  On the other hand, if the listener doesn’t question why I’m playing in such a way, then that listener is stagnant and thinks you’re not moving anything.  If someone in a comfort zone asks why, that means you have shifted something which is not the usual.  If that shift doesn’t happen in any form of music, then it’s not music any more.

CM:  Well, I look forward to hearing your ‘shift’ at your concert…….

NK:  Please don’t get stuck on the ‘shift’, because the usual is also good enough! (laughter)

RK:  Can I say you’re from a younger generation?

NK:  You’re very kind, Ronan.  I’m in my early 40’s.

RK:  Just listening to why you do what you do, I feel that in this modern world, to try to keep such a culturally diverse form of music alive, like with classical Indian music, is a difficult thing. I’ve been exposed to a lot of this music, and I love it, as abstract and as difficult as it can be to listen to …. You can have an interpretation of whichever raga you hear one night, and the next night you can hear the same raga performed by somebody else, and it’s completely different.

NK:  Exactly

RK:  …and in terms of India as a country with a culture so intact…. I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the world where music is being taken to such a level.

NK:  It’s also because such music has evolved over thousands of years …..

RK:  What I’m saying is it’s great to see someone as enlightened as you, taking from all the different ways and walks of life, and putting it into something that is currently contemporary music.

NK:  The light switched on my head from my musical family. (laughter)

RK:  Sometimes, I have also found how Indian classical music can be quite one-sided and closed off as well where you don’t access the tradition …. This is how it’s done, and this is the tradition…period.

NK::  But I would consider this necessary, where some form simply doesn’t change.  This is essential if you have to have your base in some form of tradition.

RS:  ….yes, to preserve it.  But what I’m getting at is the question Carol raised about the younger generation, that the more you’re able to draw upon the lineage and respect for the teachers and all who have distilled the music into what you know, and if you’re able to portray it in such a way that it’s going to reach everyone, and specifically the younger generation, that’s the key.  In today’s world, like you were saying, that dance inside….instead of the quick fix…  And listening to how you play and operate, in an interactive way on stage, I think you’re on that track.  It’s great!

NK:  I don’t do things which I don’t believe in.    The problem lies when you try to form someone upon somebody else’s success. That’s where the passion and commitment  get nullified.  You can’t copy.   Everyone has to have their own path. The only thing about Indian classical music is that sometimes it can become a bit preachy, that you’re telling the audience that this is the tradition, and this is how you do it, this way or the highway!  But I think rather than become preachy, let this music become a form for communicating with the audience.

CM:  You’ve given us a lot of food for thought, Niladri, and we thank you very much….

NK:  Oh, I’m so sorry about that!  Everybody’s on a diet nowadays!

CM:  We wish you could be longer with us as we would take you to a cave for recordings.  This is what Ronan and two other colleagues did recently, and recorded an album in a cave in their ‘Cave Project’.

NK:  Incredible.  You’ve got certain acoustic enhancements right there, like delays, all free of cost!  I’ve always wanted to play a concert in a church, and did so in a chapel in France.   The acoustics are incredible,  you have to alter your playing.  The sustain is so much longer and so different.

CM:  Well, we have lots of churches here, so you may want to change your schedule a bit!  And I also look forward to crying a lot at your Baxter concert!

NK:  Oh Oh!  (laughter)  But that’s how a musician’s schedule is.  Nobody want to keep us so we’re shoved onto the first available flight back home!

This interview will broadcast LIVE on www.alljazzradio.co.za  pm Friday, 21 July 2017, at 9pm  Central African Time, and repeats on Sunday 23 July at 5am CAT and on Monday 24 July at 1pm  CAT.

Computicket:  tickets for Niladri Kumar and Vijay Ghate concert are available for 29 July at the Baxter in Capetown and on 30 July in Johannesburg.

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COSY VENUES for LIVE JAZZ make Capetown winters hummmm

‘Jazz in the Native Yards’ series offers pleasant Sunday afternoon outings to hear the best of South Africa’s live music performed in Capetown communities’s back yards. Hosted by jazz-entrepreneurs, Koko Kalashe and Luvuyo Kakaza, residents in Gugulethu just outside of the Capetown business district, Sunday concerts feature some of the finest local musicians who pull in visiting international partners where available to join in the festive gigs.

Luvuyo Kakaza & Koko Kalashe run Jazz in the Native Yards series of concerts

Luvuyo Kakaza & Koko Kalashe run Jazz in the Native Yards series of concerts

The two men and their funding partners envision the best for both artists and live music buffs – provide platforms for up and coming artists which bring talents and entertainment directly into local appreciative communities.

Guga S’Thebe Community Center is one of these venues, just off the N2 national highway on the Langa turnoff.

Guga S'Thebe Langa auditorium offering outdoor snacks

Guga S’Thebe Langa auditorium offering outdoor snacks

Centered in Langa, the oldest Black community and one nearest to central Capetown city, its auditorium is well equipped with a sound system, and even a first floor room where a radio station, like the community station Fine Music Radio (101.3FM) can broadcast live shows. Drinks catering is permitted, too.

Drummer Dominic Egli

Drummer Dominic Egli

This happened when the inventive Swiss drummer, Dominic Egli, joined by his fellow Swiss bassist and saxophonist, and South African trumpeter/flugelhornist Feya Faku, a firebrand at improvisation, hit the stage in this cozy venue on Sunday, 9 July 2017.  Excerpts from their ‘Pluralism’ series of three CDs, the latest entitled “More Fufu!”, rocked the stage for two exhilarating hours.

Pluralism quartet. Credit: Atiyyah Khan

Pluralism quartet. Credit: Atiyyah Khan

The local crowd intermixed with other suburbanites from outside of Langa listened quietly with discerning ears and exploded their enthusiasm during breaks with cheerful talks, selfies and group photos with the musicians, and a little wine on hand to warm already bustling hearts. Supported by the Swiss fundor, Prohelvetia, this Pluralism quartet recently completed their six night South African tour, certainly with a bang at Guga SThebe.

Their usually sold-out gigs consist of a variety of African rhythms and sounds ranging from West African ‘high life’, aka ‘fufu’, to Sahelian Mali tuareg, to Afro-Peruvian, to local South African ghoema. Egli can open a song about Mali playing the mbira, and then swing into a very explicit African drumming sequence. His versatility is heightened by equally versatile fellow Swiss players who hover sonically around Faku’s horn which punctuates with rhythmic detail. ‘Fufu’, in French slang, means ‘crazy’. But as a common West African dish, often served with a slimy, chillied ochre soup, ‘Fufu’ connotes symbolically food for the soul that sustains. The latest Pluralism CD, ‘More Fufu!’ admirably follows through the Afro and fusion themes started in the previous two albums. It seems Egli and his group simply cannot run out of songs for us!

 

More Fufu! Album cover

More Fufu! Album cover

Faku had met Dominic in Basel, Switzerland. Out of their ensuing friendship came a song, “The River Crosses the Path” played on Faku’s endearing fugelhorn. You couldn’t hear a pin drop in the hall, as all were spellbound by his gripping delivery. The song had a gospel flavour, pensive, telling a story. You could hear the emotion. Egli then presented his first ghoema composition. Inevitably, the gig had to come to an end, but not without a standing ovation, an ovation applauding the pluralistic and interactive characteristics of this truly Euro-African band. By the end of this Sunday’s gig, the audience is vibey, greets each other, even if strangers, and one leaves this community center having made a friend or two.

Jazz in the Native Yards has hit the eager pulse for live jazz close to home.  All look forward to their offerings, come rain or come shine!

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LISTENING VENUES SUPPORT LIVE MUSIC ARTS- Rootspring at Novalis Ubuntu Institute, Wynberg, Capetown

Rootspring presented at Novalis Ubuntu Institute on 8 July, 2017, a dramatic full moon concert of serenity featuring singer Indwe on traditional Xhosa- bow, with an exciting percussion duo, ‘Intone’ made up of tabla and dirigidoo player, Ronan Skillen, and James van Minnen on skin and box drums and other percussion.

Intimate staging at Novalis Ubuntu Institute

Intimate staging at Novalis Ubuntu Institute

Singer Indwe

                        Singer Indwe in cave

Van Minnen’s thesis is that lower-frequency instruments producing sounds of earth and nature are soothing to babies in utero and outside the womb, and to pregnant women.

The two gentlemen came together recently to revive their 17-year history exploring similar soundscape interests:  van Minnen invited Skillen to come and play in a coastal cave north of Capetown. Not surprisingly, given the spiritual yin-yang balance of these two men, their musical purpose was to honour motherhood and femininity.

Intone percussion instruments  Intone percussion instruments

Ronan Skillan & dirigidoo in cave

   Skillen exploring dirigidoo sounds in cave

Supported by neurological research, he says such sounds would favourably activate the baby’s brain waves with pleasant resonance from the cave space and acoustic instruments. The two-CD album, called The Cave Project: Meditations and Lullabies, was thus recorded over a three-day period in this found cave. Fascinating and explicit photos and videos on the making of this unusual sound project are worth digesting, at http://rootspring.co.za/the-cave-project-lullabies-meditations/

3-in-a-cave

                              3-in-a-cave

The music is about human connections, meditatively explored from the roots of our being. The Novalis evening was choreographed with standing candles lighting the prepared round stage in the middle of this oval interior. The audience seating completed this roundness. The building’s dome facilitated the excellent acoustic sounds from voice, bow, and percussion instruments with minimal amplification. To enable a cave decorum, pre-recorded sounds from inside the cave – birds chirping, bats flying, water rustling – accompanied the live performance, creating an extraordinary ambiance of serenity.

The Institute is known as being a quiet, meditative space for courses and workshops of a developmental nature, hosted by various NGOs and community groups. This writer has enjoyed many full-moon evening meditations in this spiritually uplifting space. This full moon evening on 9 July was nothing short of magical.

James van Minnen & Ronan Skillan outside their cave

James van Minnen & Ronan Skillen outside their cave

Rootspring Conscious Music is the brain-child of its Producer, the well-known musician, Jonny Blundell, whose music label promotes ‘world music’ by local South African musicians with ethnic bents. He was drawn to The Cave Project because “it features musicians playing instruments that are generally traditional ethnic instruments. It also appealed to us because of the unusual combination of musicians and certainly because of the unusual location! Recording in a cave was a first for us.”

The Cave Project: Meditations & Lullabies is available from www.rootspring.co.za

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SAMA 2017 winner Nduduzo Makhathini’s ‘Inner Dimensions’ (2017): Reflections & Prayer

Nduduzo Makhathini receiving SAMA 2017 for Best Jazz Album

Nduduzo Makhathini receiving SAMA 2017 for Best Jazz Album

SAMA 2017 rewards another son of the African soil with Best Jazz Album (‘Inner Dimensions”), but this isn’t about ‘jazz’ only. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s 7th album to date continues to haunt us with the inner workings of what our soul journey to higher, spiritual dimensions should look like. He seems to know, in a deeply ancestral and real life, way. [See my interview with him below.]

Album cover of "Inner Dimensions"

Album cover of “Inner Dimensions”

This 11-track album, recorded in Switzerland in May 2016 with Swiss colleagues (the Umgidi Trio) Fabien Iannone on double bass and drummer Dominic Egli, along with a 7-person choir (the One Voice Vocal Ensemble), exudes innovative techniques meant “to go deep within the inner realms of our souls and find those melodies that bring about harmony, healing and hope for all people,” according to one of Makhathini’s YouTube interviews. By reaching the inner, we can than reach the outer universe everywhere else.

To do all this, Makhathini and his cohorts have developed artistic styles to accompany his sometimes contemplative, zesty, and freely unconfined runs on the piano. The range of styles include early South African jazz motifs, contemporary gospel and jazz choral, funky liturgical, accopella harmonies, indigenous African chants to Spirit, and freeflow improvisation.

What is different from his previous albums is the inventive use of vocals and choral orchestration alongside acoustic improvisation of his trio. These styles have successfully pushed ‘jazz’ to another level, what Makhathini calls God’s hand touching every soul that encounters this music. Appreciation of Spirit is tantamount, as in ‘At Your Feet Oh Lord’, a prayerful beckoning for blessings, which starts the album, and ‘Mama Africa”, pronouncing deference to Mother Africa’s ancestors. In “Sobantu”, referencing live jazz oozing from a vibey township near his Pietermaritzberg home as he was growing up, Makhathini displays his vast understanding of chord structures and changes as the same tune is repeated but in different 5ths and 7ths. As he deconstructs chords into singular runs that regroup back into chords, this song becomes reminiscent of early South African jazz styles of the Sophiatown era. Here, like legendary pianist Tete Mbambisa on his ‘Black Heroes’ album, Makhathini wants to guard and retain these sounds proudly produced by earlier maestros of township jazz during the apartheid era. Choral and gospel arrangements are diligently presented in “Lift Those Voices”, and in “Alphinah” where choral harmonies morf into a solemn, moving liturgical presentation backed by the trio’s playful jazz style in ¾ time, almost as a sing-along jaunt with a gospel twist. The album ends with three very differently styled Movements: I – about Compassion with English lyrics sung by the chorus which flows directly into Movement II that features the melodic mbira, traditional chants, and KhoiSan sounds emanating from this inventive concoction of voices and percussion.

Drummer Dominic Egli

Drummer Dominic Egli

Surprisingly, this second piece was composed by drummer Egli, a European who has captured superbly the dynamics of traditional South African sounds of the soil. The third Movement called ‘Freedom Chants’ breaks from traditional beats into a ‘free jazz’ vocal and trio mix. One is moved into another ethereal realm, maybe the final ‘nirvana’ in attaining spiritual awakening.
Thus, the most inner of all dimensions of our human existence is touched and elevated.

My clear assessment is that Makhathini’s ancestors are not angry; rather, they keep pushing their son’s consciousness one step further, something we can look forward with his subsequent recordings.

&*&*&*&*&*&*&*&*&

I chatted with Makhathini about his album and his reflections on winning the SAMA award:

CM: Does your SAMA award put pressure on you now to do other things in promoting music, etc?
NM: It’s great that one can be recognized in that kind of way; but some of these awards mostly belong to the record label, and not necessarily to the artist. So I went to the SAMAs more as a record label owner as I own my own private label, Gundu Entertainment, co-owned with my wife.

CM: When you become an award winner, you may be asked to do various things, like lead a band, or give workshops and master classes, etc. How do you feel about that? Wouldn’t these activities detract from what you want to do creatively, like write and perform your music?

06 NMakhathini

NM: That whole development thing has always been with me. Even now, in my teaching at Tshwane University, I’ve been putting an emphasis on mentorship beyond the classroom, and how lecturers can inspire students further who feel they don’t have opportunities. For instance, I always thought I came from an insignificant city of Pietermaritzburg and wanted people who could mentor me. So if I can contribute to mentoring others in any way, I’m willing to stretch beyond playing the music . I recently did a TED talk, and am presenting papers at different universities on different subjects in order to expand beyond the piano. But it gives me more inspiration when I play my music – when I have more to say through my compositions, or just as an improviser. Then there’s a lot more I can project in the music as opposed to just playing the instrument. It’s great when we all can contribute to this communal consciousness and create something beautiful out of it!

CM: You’re producing many albums now. How is this?
NM: You know, it’s because I see in this country a great need for healing, and I talk about it. People think talk about healing is boring, so I try to push it to a less superficial level. This idea of democracy was initially a pre-mature wish here, even with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other events that centred around these notions of freedom. But I think of this freedom and truth at three different levels:

One, the physical level of physical brutality when people were beaten up and shot. Then there is the brutality of the mind which conditions you how you think about yourself, where you think less of yourself, feel you don’t belong, or don’t have a voice or say in anything. Then there is this third level, and more dangerous one, what bra Zim Ngqawana called the ‘vandalism of the soul’. If you’ve been brutalized by the first two, then it’s necessary that the soul be in a safe place to help correct or survive from these brutalities.

So in the work that I do, we think of our ancestors as souls, and they are often angry at having died not being fulfilled on earth, or not loving themselves. ‘Inner Dimensions’ was trying to tap into who we are. Even in pre-colonial times, did we have a name as Africans? What was our story? Now, our identity is trying not only to capitalise on the idea of ‘blackness’, but also on the idea that if you contribute to yourself, then you contribute better to the pages of consciousness, and towards this new idea of a humanity with a collective consciousness. But sometimes we forget that the building blocks for a healthy society are focusing on the inner way enabling us to make contributions to ourselves, our families, and communities and expand to become the universal message. So look at these small building blocks of consciousness in order to think in more universal contexts.

CM: Do you think this album is your best so far? And which album is your favourite at this point?
NM: I don’t have a favourite album. Each album has a special narrative; they become like different chapters with messages which are connected. No album is ‘better’ than another. ‘Inner Dimensions’ is one of the few albums where I use vocals and choir orchestration. It was also recorded in Basel in Europe which meant I had to connect with my ancestry in a different way. We believe in the African soil, so from a foreign land, trying to make those spiritual connections in a deep way meant I had to do a lot of meditation to make sure I was connecting to what I believe in.

At Native Yards in Gugulethu/Capetown April 2017

At Native Yards in Gugulethu/Capetown April 2017

From the album liner notes, Makhathini’s prayer calls to God: “…may your beauty be found in every space in-between the notes….” and “….may your invisible hand touch your people as they experience each theme on this record.”

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Zoe Modiga’s “Yellow the Novel”, a story about self-awakening: a CD Review

'Yellow the Novel' album cover

          ‘Yellow the Novel’ album cover

Twenty-three year old songstress, Zoe Modiga who hails from KZN, South Africa, has launched her debut album containing an ambitious and seriously orchestrated series of her compositions which highlight her sense of self-awareness and being-true-to-oneself. We are ever-changing, as portrayed in nature’s Four Seasons, about which her band members eagerly chat on brief tracks, sparing about their favourite colours.

Often on South African stages with various other jazz bands and notable artists,  Modiga has absorbed multiple influences that have now enabled her to branch out with her own band, which include these notables, most recently heard on the Capetown International Jazz Festival stage in March 2017. It is therefore no surprise, yet still remarkable that she has chosen to market her talents in this introductory album with two disks containing 23 tracks, all but a few being her own compositions. There’s much to talk about in her ‘Yellow’ album, yellow being her favourite colour, which connotes peace and love for her. One clearly hears these messages as band members participate in various playful banter which confirms more their comradery and joy in this music project, rather than any meaningful messaging. It’s not clear, however, why her two discs have these verbal breaks which, for me, broke the flow of the increasingly engaging musical mood and temperaments which the songs offered.

Ms. Modiga hails from Kwa Zulu Natal, and completed her Jazz studies at Capetown’s South African School of Music. Other successes found her 8th in The Voice SA competitions, a winner of the 2015 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Competition for singing (Jazz); and a vocal score in the Oscar nominated movie, Noem My Skollie, scored by her highly talented pianist, Kyle Shepherd. Other band members, like bassist Benjamin Jephta (Standard Bank’s 2017 Young Artist in Jazz) and pianist Bokani Dyer (Standard Bank 2011 Young Artist Award for Jazz, and recipient of the Samro Overseas Scholarship prize in 2013) feature in ‘Yellow’.

 With guitarest Keenan Ahrends

With guitarest Keenan Ahrends

‘Yellow the Novel’ is just that – a musical story with careful lyrics full of information, set to jazzy and melodic tunes. The listener is beckoned to listen carefully. Modiga sets the pace in Disk 1 with a lovely short African ballad, ‘Balele’, and then swings into the upbeat poppish ‘Abounding Within’ about our hidden peace morphing into jubilation. Yes, calls for peace feature abundantly in her two discs, in spite of low points. The song resolves into a slow meditative mood with the horns’ repetitious long notes. One learns how her sextet, with thirteen alternating musicians, eagerly follows her mood and direction without overpowering.

 

The novel unfolds musically, like a dramatic story, with forceful lyrics that advocate confidence, persistence, and hope. Modiga uses voice-overs and loops effectively to mimic a chorus. This is why her Disk 1 is uplifting; musically, she touches on a variety of improvisational styles, allowing the band to explore their own reaches. They introduce Track 8’s ‘Autumn’, again, with a carefree cacophony of mostly incoherent chats about their favourite colours. One muses, hearing the various South African accents from these mainly Capetown-based musicians.

03 Zoe_Modiga

Modiga occasionally falls into a vocal scat which calls out to the spiritual, such as in the melodic “Healer”, not requiring heavy messaging of a social nature like in her other songs. The power of God’s love is again recognised, as in the haunting “Love (Yahaweh)”, when the world seems hopeless. This love translates into how Modiga loves different kinds of people in “Would They” (get along well?). Recorded voice overs are effective here as the song queries if, in fact, saints and sinners, who are just ordinary people, could ever get along well with each other. A song for thought, indeed. An inspiring guitar carries this tune well. She is not ‘Alone’ as she takes chances, like everyone else, echoing her vocals through loops and repetitions, sometimes sarcastically because the world is asleep. This message returns at the end of Disc 1 with ‘Shake the World’ and a plea to get into your lane and wake up! This appropriately ends a winter season as the listener awaits for Spring to arrive in Disk 2.

Modiga breaks from English lyrics to pay tribute to the vernacular, particularly, to the legendary Winston Mankunku in his song, “Yakhalinkomo”, in a lovely arrangement with the guitar effectively adding a ballad mood. Sensuality and emotion punctuate other vernacular songs, like the moving “Inganekwane” referring to fairy tales and myths we live with. “Nantsi Ntsepe” offers lots of vocal chorus characteristic of morabi with a beautiful sax solo.

04 Zoe

*(*(*(*(*(*(*(*

Not all is rosy as a novel enters conflict zones. Disc 2 opens with a mournful philosophical bent about our worldly delusions and the life-is-not-rosy confusions we live with, hiding our inner tears, in “And so it goes”. Lyrics again dominate the musical novel , with Winter having seemingly carried stories of woes and depression, like in “One Litre Deep”, a folksy satire, maybe about what dark winters can do to spirit. Hope resurrects, however. Spring explodes yellow flowers, like in “Dandelion” which, as a relief, doesn’t echo opinionated words of caution, but rather soft scat vocalisations by the singer in a childlike, carefree manner. Modiga ambitiously tries a wide range in her vocals, sometimes wandering erratically ‘off key’, as if dazzled by the emotions evoked by this intricate song. One wonders, should dandelions be that complex? Answers come in the last track,“Yellow”, which now explains what self-realization means, after hard work, an awakening of confidence hummed nicely by trumpet and piano, bringing the ear back to the spiritual and calm. It is a breath taking piece!

Disc 2 lyrics are softer, less contentious than those in Disc 1, implying that out of struggle comes yellow, aka peace and love. Modiga strongly believes in perseverance, and lives it, building her talents through festivals, working with distinguished musicians in South Africa, and meticulously studying her art.

05 Zoe

Having blessed a prestigious CTIJFstage recently, and slated for the upcoming National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in June 2017, Modiga is well on her way to extending her yellow hopes and loves that can impact on the South Africa’s jazz music industry. It’s rewarding to see her perform live; her songs speak directly to the audience with slinky, individualistic projections of who Zoe is. And her yellow cape is truly stunning!

Musicians that feature in the two-disk album are: Benjamin Jephta; Bokani Dyer; Claude Cozens; Frank Paco; Keenan Ahrends; Kyle Shepherd; Ludwe Danxa; Marlon Witbooi; Revan October; Robin Fassie Kock; Romy Brauteseth; Ruby Crowie; and Tim Mosh.

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Resonance for Peace in ‘Tales of Life’ by Etuk Ubong: A CD review

Tales of Life seems taller than life. Nigerian jazz trumpeter Etuk Ubong’s thoughtful album of his compositions speaks to not only Nigerian ancestral spirits, but also to the beauty of peace which our world could promote better through our humanity. Ubong’s ambition is to bring truth to music, sonic storytelling being one way. Young Ubong does just this, and exceeds expectations as he ambitiously, even conservatively, continues to explore reflective soundscapes and rhythms, in this, his second album, released in February 2017.

Tales of Life Album Cover

Tales of Life Album Cover

The opening piece, “Battle for Peace”,  honours hope, love, and peace. The drums speak with eagerness and forward-thinking, even coercion as the three horns introduce the theme of this album. All seem to cry for peace. It’s an energetic beginning, honouring what’s good.

Etuk Ubong - media

  Etuk Ubong – media

Ubong plays a staccato trumpet with a breathiness reminiscent of the early Miles Davis whom he emulates. His revealing solo in “Drawing Room” gives testimony to the serious practice he has undergone faithfully over these years of performing and perfecting his instrument along with the moods and emotions that can go with it.  Likewise, he pairs nicely with the piano of Timothy Ogunbiyi with the off-beat drums of Benjamin James, as in “Genesis”, a piece that displays obvious talents of Ubong’s bassline.

His provocative sounds are clear, simple and thoughtful, improvising to be understood. In ‘Story’, he continues his telling, like a yoga massage.  The drum silhouettes with a steady undercurrent, and the piano ends this story the way it began, pronouncing that the healing has been done.

In ‘Suddenly’, midway through the album, Ubong continues to unfold his tales with the same haunting off-beat drum and announcing piano that enters/exits, then re-enters, changing tempos and moods. This arrangement allows for a special layout by drummer James that charms. But when Ogunbiyi’s piano takes over, things become meditative and wondering. There are sudden outbursts of hyped up tempo and emotions, like questioning the purpose of life, then a whimsical return to the basic theme. This is a beautiful reflective piece, and my favourite on the album, as well as the longest song.

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This questioning leads to the boppish ‘Tales of Life’, again with Ogunbiyi’s punctured piano treble runs. The long notes of Ubong’s horn are unwavering, bringing out the melancholic undertones which characterises this album. Some notes deliberately go off-kilter, synonymous with life’s sometimes erratic journey. As in life, one must learn to listen attentively.  “The Earth Meditation” brings the listener back to reflection with the soothing near-silence of Ubong’s fugelhorn.

Ending the album, and befitting a son whose mother passed away too early, ‘Uyai Mi Margaret’ is a beautifully orchestrated song honouring Ubong’s mother, Margaret, as well as all women of this world. It’s a soulful vocal chant that adds meaning to this wonderfully inspiring album.

‘Tales of Life’ displays obvious growth of Ubong’s talents as he journeys his music far and wide, between South Africa, Nigeria (where this album was produced), and soon-to-be other worlds. Stay tuned as this innovative jazz trumpeter brings his African influences to his intriguing improvisational styles.

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Tango Improvised with Afro-Cuban: a Fusion Feast with Escalandrum of Argentina

The recent Capetown International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) was given a special treat – a resurrection of grandmaster Astor Piazolla’s ‘New Tango’ with a special twist by grandson Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazolla who loves the Afro-Caribbean claves rhythms set to a Tango mood.

Daniel 'Pipi' Piazolla, drummer

Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazolla, drummer

Grandfather Astor Piazolla has been considered as Argentina’s most celebrated composer and bandoneonist of the ‘New Tango’ which did not include a singer, but wedded improvisational jazz and classical music together.  Two generations later, grandson Daniel ‘Pipi’  Piazolla and his merry Escalandrum sextet band have put aside the traditional bandoneon and violin of former tango years, and added singer, Elena Roger, and a three-horn section plus drum kit.

Escalandrum at CTIJF 2017

         Escalandrum 

Their intention is to promote the sounds of their city, Buenos Aires, which reigns with the tango, but continue to fuse the delightful urban swing with some complicated improvisation techniques, particularly using the sonorous, multi-ranged bass clarinet, a rarity in contemporary jazz.  Pipi says his grandfather hated the dancing that went with his-day tango.  “People should listen, not dance, to tango,” Pipi agrees.

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They love their city of Buenos Aires as well as sharks.  “Escalandrún” is the Argentinian name for a sand shark, the favourite marine animal of the Piazolla family who fish sharks.  One song performed at the Jazz Festival was composed by drummer Pipi to honour sharks.  It was a stunningly haunting piece with the bass clarinet making sonic images of whale and dolphin calls, low rumbles conveying feelings of dark sea depths, and other primordial sounds, even imitating the dirigidoo.

Escalandrum performing at CTIJF 2017

Escalandrum performing at CTIJF 2017

Their performance at CTIJF this year was their first on African soil.  ‘Pipi’ felt there were so many similarities between African rhythms and the tango that they hope to continue more collaborations as Escalandrum perfects their own new age tango improvisations.

Escalandrum at CTIJF 2017 Media Conference

Escalandrum at CTIJF 2017 Media Conference

During my interview with the sextet of large and well-built men, Pipi explained that in 2001, when a crisis in Argentina caused many to leave the country, he and his merry men stayed (his musical buddies formed Escalandrum in 1999);  they felt the pressure to change the folkloric tango and offer uplifting music for their depressed fellow citizens.  Hence, an emphasis on the milonga 5/4 odd meter beats.  “We were more socially inspired than political because the country wasn’t stable. We searched in ourselves; our ages influenced us:  when young we just wanted to play bebop, but as we grew older the mind opened up to other inspiring rhythms.  Everybody was running away, but we wanted to stay here.”

We talked about why Escalandrum was fusing more with Afro-Cuban music.  “The Latin milongas go well with our own folkloric traditions in Argentina:  the chacarera and malambo rhythms in 6/8, the sambo in ¾, and as jazz musicians, we love rhythms.”  Then, why did they move away from the accordion?  “The bandoneon is more difficult to adapt to the improvisational jazz approach which we want to move forward.  In Argentina and particularly in Buenos Aires, we are a melting pot of cultures so we don’t stick to one traditional sound, but branch out and absorb others which have influenced us – like African, North American, and Cuban music.  The bandoneon has actually saved our music, and made it original, but there is other original music we can continue to produce. “

And what was that about Mozart, I asked?  “A festival producer wanted us to bring our interpretation of Mozart in Piazolla form to a festival, as an art form.  Those people interested in classical music were willing to let us be free with our presentations, which is good.   We brought on one of our best classical musicians who also was our teacher and also taught my grandfather, and we performed with only two microphones – very stereophonic.  It was one recording with no mixing, and is available.  It was quite a challenge, however, to play Mozart and Piazolla together!

CD 'Piazolla plays Piazolla' Album Cover

CD ‘Piazolla plays Piazolla’ Album Cover

Escalandrum’s Latin Grammy-winning album, “Piazolla Plays Piazolla”, explains so eloquently and sonorously the dimensions and styles which their contemporary music is using.  Produced in 2011, the album is excitingly polyrhythmic, thanks to the many clave beats grounded in Afro-Cuban/Caribbean varieties.  Each band member has composed songs and infused his own sounds to make this album multi-spirited and innovative.

‘Tanguedia  1” sounds like an angry retort against the flimsy tango dancing people, unsupported by Escalandrum’s style of tango.   “Fuga 9” implants a classical flare which contorts into horn-pronounced  resolution,  followed by a boppish piano trio which seeks to calm down the protesting horns.  This is a well improvised piece, full of jazzic twists that return to the fundamental Piazolla beat.

“Romance del Diablo” starts with low key bass clarinet paired with melodic saxes morphing into a surprising ballad honouring the devil.  Here, the horns spell diabolic images romancing themselves, a winner!

It’s this fusion of the at-times cacophonic improvisation (as in ‘Buenos Aires Hora Cero’), mellow ballad moods, and standard jazz bop, which permits the re-entry of that notorious tango rhythm into the sonicsphere,  that keeps one’s ears eagerly plugged to the band’s conversations.  “Adios Nonino” does this nicely, resolving into a beautiful, almost mournful, song.

One learns the wide range of the bass clarinet, so expertly played by Martin Pantyrer,  which successfully establishes frameworks for both mood and message.

Martin Pantyrer plays bass clarinet & tenor saxophone

Martin Pantyrer plays bass clarinet & tenor saxophone

The beats keep changing between 5-4 time, then the clave 3-2 time, and so on, but the fundamental 4/4 time sounds come from Pipi’s clave, that five-stroke pattern that is at the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms. The album ends with a stunning drum solo by Pipi in ‘Libertango’ that fuses, again, with the basic tango sound and seems to heal and free up the spirit.

Escalandrum sextet

Escalandrum sextet

Pipi explains what influences him:  “The Uruguayan–African influences have molded the Milongo and  malambo mixtures which are heard, such as the  5/4 time. Also, every night I watch YouTube music videos to find something new and interesting. Then in the morning, I try to practice what I heard and explore different sounds.”  Pianist Nicholas Guerschberg says he tries to find new music and ideas and styles so he can play different originals.  The latest project is to combine Mozart with our tango!”  Escalandrum’s latest album,  “SesionesION:Obras de Mozart y Ginastera”, recorded in mid-2016, was released January 4, 2017.

 

'SesionesION' Album Cover

‘SesionesION’ Album Cover

They do sound like friends who have hung out together since youth, who decided to put their talents together into a band in 1999.  Escalandrum has traveled extensively since, winning awards as they merge the Argentinian rhythmic styles more and more with the Afro-Caribbean Latin influences.  Hence, sounds of conga, son, mambo, and salsa spice up their forward-sounding tango and other globally-influenced rhythms.  This is rhythmic excitement at its best!

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Jazz – Wine – Food – Comedy: a Soul Cleansing

Love wine?  Love it more:  pair it with that food for the soul – jazz – complemented with a good dose of belly-shaking comedy, all which works up the appetite for that 3-course delectable meal from award-winning chefs where different wines are paired with the different dishes on offer.

12289647_923882977704178_750311950479883073_nComedian Lindi & Hassan'adas

MmWHaaaa!  Now that’s an afternoon to follow the annual Capetown International Jazz Festival as festive spirits literally spilled over into Sunday jazz brunches, wine tastings, and the like.

It’s not just about that wine bottle, or that particular jazz band, or about that colourful starter at table.  It’s about experiencing, moving the culinary and emotional juices to realize what wholesome healing can take place and what wonderful memories can endure into the week ahead.

Wines

Sip by Sip does just that by creating opportunities for marketing South Africa’s finest wines and addressing the ‘new age’ needs of various wine aficionados who wish to combine taste experiences.  Not just good taste in the culinary, but in music and entertainment.  “A voyage to enchanting places, and encounter with remarkable people, and the delight of good food and cultural experiences,” is Sip by Sip’s visionary purpose, and delightful it is.

Da Capo Wine Estate

Da Capo Wine Estate

Thanks to Sip by Sip’s event, “Sunday in the Vines”, I was honoured the experience of imbibing wines from Italian cultivars with my 3-course meal at the Da Capo wine estate, high up in the Hottentot Holland mountains of Sir Lowry’s Pass in Somerset West, Western Cape.  This event ‘paired’ with the annual Jazz Festival, particularly for those who couldn’t attend the festival but could benefit from one of Capetown’s finest jazz band, on this day being “Hassan’adas”, a vibrant combination of Mozambiquan and South African musicians of the highest quality. Da Capo is owned and run by the Bottega family of Italian descent, hence the marketing of fine Italian wines of the Idiom brand.

Views around winery

After winding up through some 4 kilometres of mountain scenery on a tarred road, one arrives at the estate’s restaurant which boasts almost 360 degrees of luscious mountain and sea views. Da Capo is the most southern winery in the Western Cape, with high exposures to wind, rain, and sun, all which have created a certain ambiance for the Sip by Sip event.  I walk into the event hearing the high-pitched soothing contralto voice of the band’s lead singer, Jaco Maria, ringing magically in the air back by an inviting percussion. I am handed a glass of the bubbly, a carbonated white wine (champagne?).

Comedian Ndumiso Lindi

Comedian Ndumiso Lindi

After the performance, the entourage of invited guests and others, coming from corporate, business, and individual worlds, go to the ‘comedy’ hall for a genuinely funny 20 minute celebration delivered by comedian, Ndumiso Lindi (aka Roosta).  He certainly offered well-heeled and slick digs at current political and ethnic struggles in the country which didn’t depress, but rather elevated one’s tummy to overall shakes and gaffaws – a delightful pre-lunch appetite booster.

Upstairs in the Idiom Restaurant, our palates received delightfully succulent dishes paired with the Da Capo varieties.  And fine they were:  the Whalehaven Pinotage Rose served with my beetroot salad starter,

Beet root soup & Whalehaven Rose

Beet root soup salad & Whalehaven Rose

Mushroom ravioli with goat cheese & hazelnut

then the white Sangiovese 2013 served with the elegant mushroom filled ravioli.

Mushroom ravioli with goat cheese & hazelnut

Succulence continued with an Amaretto Coffee Tiramisu for dessert, followed by wine tastings downstairs.

Sip by Sip plans to focus on South African wines as it manages events that promote also the other talents of the Cape, namely jazz, chefs, and of course, comedy.  But plan for a whole afternoon out with friends or family, as the entertainment flows through the hours. Besides offering quality-sourced wines and accessories, and a wide range of other services, Sip by Sip events are designed to create memorable experiences through wine tours and tastings, and wine, food and culture pairings.

 

What a wonderful way to showcase the quality and authenticity of South African creative talents. Even if you don’t or can’t drink wine or alcohol, the events are sure to entertain through multi-dimensional experiences with the culinary and the cultural.

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Parlato and Washington: TWO AMERICAN JAZZ ARTISTS FROM DIFFERENT ILKS…..

Post-CTIJF 2017 Notes from the Underground #1

Kamasi Washington; courtesy John Lamparski

Kamasi Washington; courtesy John Lamparski

They grew up in the same city of Los Angeles.  They both studied ethnomusicology at the University of Los Angeles. Both come from musical and artistic families who supported their artistic growth. The common thread of rhythm, sensitivity, and intelligence punctuates their exceptionally unique sounds. Yet, their styles of improvisation are as different as their own ethnic backgrounds and communities.

Gretchen Parlato at CTIJF 2017Parlato 1-1

Songbird Gretchen Parlato’s quiet, whimsical and careful emoting style  vs  saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s protesting, raw but enlightening sonic outbursts in his choral, orchestral, and improvised music on the large Kippie’s stage of the Festival, she on the listening stage of Rosies.

Gretchen Parlato

Parlato hisses, clicks, and hushes into her microphone while clapping gentle beats with her hands, supported by husband, Mark Guiliana’s off-beat clickety clacks on basic drums.    Born into a richly musical family in Los Angeles, CA, Parlato has cultivated musical dimensions from multiple sources who have lavished praise on her, like American jazz musician of note, Wayne Shorter:  “There’s simply no one out there like Gretchen Parlato.”

Gretchen Parlato band at CTIJF 2017

Gretchen Parlato band at CTIJF 2017

Her performance on the Rosies Stage at the Capetown International Jazz Festival 2017 brought sighs and awe to a highly charged crowd which gave her a standing ovation after her riveting and rhythmically enduring concert. We floated home after her last ballad, a catchy ditty that rang in the head for days.

In her Masterclass, offered a day before her performance, Parlato stressed the three levels of analysis she uses to characterise and deliver a song:  On a more basic level is the emotional, with the tools to feel and indulge the impulses, messages, and tones of a song. “Examine what the lyricist or song writer is trying to convey in the music and what emotions affect the listener or deliverer of the song.” At the middle level is the technical, how a song is constructed, what techniques are used to deliver the song. “Ask yourself: what process did the writer go through to write the song.” At a higher level is the spiritual, how the song connects with others, and what higher thoughts or consciousness are realised because of the song’s delivery and message.  She had started her Masterclass with a 10-minute unspoken meditation to introduce the audience to her process of creating. That mellowed all.

In chatting with Parlato, she explains her stylistic technique with humble recommendations:

I asked: what did she want to convey in her songs, whether written by her or by others?   “Every song I perform is an extension of my personal connection.  There should always be some work with a song about ‘the story’, but also a personal injection, about what is genuine and honest for me.”

She has sung on some 70 albums and produced four of her own. And what is genuine and right for her now?  “Every album is a portrait of what’s happening in my life.  The last album “live in NYC” contains love songs that question our life, the meaning of life, our existence, why we’re here.   I wrote these songs with what was for me a twist of irony and sarcasm, but someone else might interpret them differently.  I think that’s good – to allow the listener to have their own interpretation.  A song I sang five years ago, if sung now, would come from a different place in my life experience, and be expressed that way.”

Parlato 4

I found Parlato exudes a strong confidence with herself.  “It comes from being honest and true to myself.”  We discussed what suggestions she could give to those female singers coming from marginalized backgrounds, for instance the Black South Africans musicians, in how to project themselves with honesty and confidence?

“Everyone has pain and pleasure in their life, at different degrees and intensities. One should do soul-searching to find out who they are, their background and history, and find out what their talents or gifts are. Find out what their learned behaviour is, does it come from their parents, or from some event that happened that caused a change? Then try to write about it, in poetry or words. I recommend journaling.   I journal so that I can record that stream of consciousness that flows…….It just might turn into a song, or just bring out some truthful thinking about oneself.  This is about getting comfortable with yourself, and your agency.  Everyone has something to share, whether it is sorrow, or tragedy, or something uplifting. This is when confidence comes, when you see that truth, and you’re willing to share it.  Then your song becomes helpful and therapeutic to others who hear it.”

Parlato’s music is very polyrhythmic, so she explained where that comes from. “Yes, my high school, Los Angeles School for the Arts, exposed me to the different arts, with a West African drum teacher, teachers from the UCLA Ethnomusicology Department where I studied later, with Javanese ensembles, and many other groups. Then, at UCLA, I pursued the cultures and rhythms through music and dance.”

Kamasi Washington

On the other large Kippies Stage, saxophonist Kamasi Washington exploded with his 10-piece band, including his own brother, Rickey, on a delightful flute.

Kamasi Washington at CTIJF 2017  Kamasi Washington at CTIJF2017

Washington’s three-album The Epic (Brainfeeder label) stirred up critics’ charts and listeners in 2015, and contains his own compositions in collaboration with a variety of artists ranging from choral to hip hop to orchestral to electronic grooves.  Indeed, an epic fusion.

The Epic album cover

The Epic album cover

As we chatted, he explained his epic three-disc album : “ I wanted the album to speak my own mind for a change.  I had always been playing other people’s music.  I wanted something that was completely me, to put it all out there at once. There were some consultations about the songs with masterful musicians, but because the musicians were close friends, I could run with it freely.”  Thundercat, the electric bassist, is one of Washington’s top five musicians he applauds, as he led his Masterclass listeners to understand what influenced him to ‘break away’ from other mainstream jazz and make his own fusions with a variety of hip hop, R&B, and choral genres.

Washington humbly presented his wish to know South African musicians better, citing Hugh Masekela as a big influence on his early musical years.  “My father used to play Hugh’s records over and over, and I grew to really dig him.  This opened my ears also to other Africans, like Fela.”

Kamasi Washington Masterclass at CTIJF 2017

Kamasi Washington Masterclass at CTIJF 2017

As an African-American, Washington confirmed a desire to spend more time with Africans (aka indigenous or ‘black’) on this continent because he felt a connection. “I listened to the kids outside this hotel playing drums and dancing.  My African-American culture comes from here – it is African culture.  I feel a connection.  My dual connection is to Africa and to my own community – I think about troubles here in Africa as being similar to ours at home.” He says he learned a lot from the Academy of Music of Alexander High School in Beverlywood, Los Angeles, “but it’s in my home area of Watts (which experienced serious riots during the 1960s civil rights marches) where I hear the rhythms, language, tones, and emotions from my people, and where I feel free to express myself”.

Kamasi Washington being interviewed 2 April 2017

Kamasi Washington being interviewed 2 April 2017

What messages, i.e. political, is he trying to convey, if any, in his music?  “I guess music and politics are intertwined.  I don’t force the music either way, just infuse it with my views on society. I don’t see myself as a politician, but I have strong views on how the state of things should be or currently is. I don’t present anything directly political, but try to infuse my thoughts and sensitivities into a song.”

And how does he see jazz education in American black communities, mentioning how ‘decolonizing’ of curriculum is now an important issue in South African arts, in the curriculum, and in learning processes?  “We call it ‘institutionalizing’ which has caused lots of problems with the arts, with equality issues. Schools in urban African-American communities don’t have music programs at all.  And where music is taught in the other schools, African-American music isn’t necessarily taught. That’s why I’ve stayed close to my cultural community of Watts. Our other issue in schools is to obtain instruments, just to be able to have classes.  African-Americans grow up with music in churches where there’s some instruments, but our schools don’t have the instruments for teaching and learning.”

The CTIJF 2017 event was all the richer because of these two incredibly innovative artists and their bands.

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The unique Blue Note at Sea Jazz Cruise haunts the Caribbean

From 4 -11 February 2017, this maiden voyage of the ‘Blue Note at Sea’ out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was the third back-to-back jazz cruise for some 6000 like-minded passengers organized by Entertainment Cruise Productions (ECP), a slick and well-experienced company having run over 60 full ship programs all over the world for decades. Named after the sponsoring jazz record label, the Blue Note cruise was hosted by the Blue Note Records President, Don Was, and program-managed by the very personable bassist, Marcus Miller, with interviews conducted by the fusion saxophonist extraordinaire, David Sanborn.

On stage: Dave Sanborn, Wycliff Gordon, Marcus Miller

On stage: Dave Sanborn, Wycliff Gordon, Marcus Miller

Don Was interviewing Gregory Porter

Don Was interviewing Gregory Porter

 

Marcus Miller interviewing Diane Reeves

Marcus Miller interviewing Diane Reeves

Obviously, the artists featured on this cruise were all Blue Note labelled who could easily promote the brand. They were not only dons in their own jazz genre over the ages (aka decades) in American jazz circles, but were buddies, having mixed and matched their talents with various band configurations that promoted their own individual creativity over time, domestically as well as internationally. The offerings for 7 nights constituted one long well delivered type of ‘jam session’ starting from 5pm each day and lasting until well after 1am, as performers moved from one stage to another, remarkably (by the organizers) with very little overlap in schedules. Most bands borrowed each other’s artists, almost incestuously. And most performers could stay on the ship during the whole cruise with the exception of one or two. The only ‘oh-shucks’ moment came when four artists had to leave the ship early in order to travel to the Los Angeles-based Grammy Awards ceremony where their nominations translated into awards. These were, not surprisingly, multi-Grammy award recipients: Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, pianist Robert Glasper (USA), singer Gregory Porter(USA), and singer Lalah Hathaway.

Lalah Hathaway

Lalah Hathaway

Chucho Valdez on stage

Chucho Valdez on stage

A major import to this USA-based cruise was the exciting London-based Ronnie Scotts’ House Band which featured the thrilling singer, Natalie Williams, who unashamedly took late-nighters through energetic jam sessions in the appropriately named ‘Revelations’ Lounge. They also kicked off the music at day 1 disembarkation at the pool side,

Natalie Williams at poolside

Natalie Williams at poolside

What swelled for the following days and evenings were not the seawaves, but the swing, the cool sounds of jazz all over the ship. Another ‘house’ band which entertained, but incurred unfortunate time conflicts, was the Celebrity X Summit House Band led by South African-born, New Zealand- resident, Andrea Lisa who sang as well as played guitar. They offered youthful bursts of improvisations, a bit of rock and pop, and danceable songs that pleased the seasoned crowd.

Rubbing shoulders with the artists before and after their gigs, and taking selfies with these celebrities was permitted, but not interviews, at least formal ones. This is America’s music industry – one must work through the musicians’ agents. Nevertheless, Marcus Miller was easy to find wandering the ship

Program Manager Marcus Miller

Program Manager Marcus Miller

 

and availing his friendly self to passing chats with passengers, as were other artists when their time and energies permitted. Most, however, remained a bit hidden from the masses, and for due reason, many preparing for their daily gigs.

Energy is key on an event-filled cruise like this. Sleeping ‘late’ might mean missing a morning shore excursion in San Juan, or opportunity to just walk around on the sands of Haiti’s Labadee island (exclusive only to cruise ships) and enjoy the sea breezes. One might forsake those hefty lunches or dinners in order to slip away for a power nap (on the beach or cabin bed) that recharges for the evening rackets.

Most cruises offer choices of activities, but for the music lover, the jazz never stopped.

The Horns talk to us

The Horns talk to us

Marcus Miller, Dave Sanborn, and Don Was held interviews with featured musicians which took the listener to realms of the artist’s creativity not well known or previously broadcast.

The youngest on board, 23-year old saxophonist, Grace Kelly, held her own amongst these legends with grand poise.

Besides individual interviews, instrumental groups had their say, my favourite being the drummer group made up of the indomitable Greg Hutchinson, Miller’s drummer, Greg Bailey, The Bad Plus’s energetic drummer, Dave King, and the awesome Billy Kilson.

The drummers talk to us

The drummers talk to us

Sanborn’s conversational style steered the chats well, inserting his own multi-layered experiences playing with the various musicians. Bountiful stories emerged, adding dimensions of wit and depths of learning about what jazz and improvisation in the music industry is all about.

Day 1 set the pace with a blue-skyed Saturday, Feb 4, as the 2100 passenger Celebrity Summit left the Fort Lauderdale port to slowly steam eastward first to the Bahamas, then on to Puerto Rico. I didn’t have time to gape out of my ocean view cabin as there were other things to do, like listen to live jazz! As I got into the elevator, I tripped over Gregory Porter’s little boy wallowing on the elevator flour and heard Porter’s sonorous voice announce to fellow passengers how ‘this naughty boy’ is giving him a hard time!

Gregory Porter by poolside

Gregory Porter by poolside

Porter excused himself as he and child exited the elevator and wished us all good times! Later, I reminded Gregory how we met at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival a few years back, something he well remembered. What I recall back then, as I sat at his rehearsal led by conductor and trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, was the band waiting some 45 min for Porter to arrive! Apparently his manager was not informed of the exact time of this important rehearsal for that evening’s performance!! Oh well….. Noone would have known!

During disembarkation at 4pm sharp, the poolside was bustling as the Ronnie Scott’s All-Stars kicked off the 7 day festival. Boy, did that set the pace! I took some videos of that fun bash, took free celebratory drinks on hand, then popped down to the Rendezvous lounge for Joshua Redman and his group – it was his drummer Greg Hutchinson that blew me away.

Joshua Redman

Joshua Redman

He later played with the Peter Martin’s trio. At that point, after this energetic set, I didn’t care where I was going…..I was just going with that jazz flow!! The Greek-born, Ecuador-resident Captain Alex told us where we were going in his comical and zesty way. He was clearly into the vibe as well. Robert Glasper’s trio came on next at the main Celebrity Theater stage at 9pm.

Robert Glasper on stage

Robert Glasper on stage

Thanks to Glasper’s usual comic wit and not too subtle digs at his own fame and fortune, we enjoyed his self-toasting and, at times, roasting. This evening kick-off was just the beginning of evening sessions happening throughout the week which witnessed artists whimsically indulging in comical presentation about their often erratic mis-notes and fancy feelings about their own artistry, all in the name of entertainment. And it was.

 

Wycliff Gordon with Marcus Miller on stage

Wycliff Gordon with Marcus Miller on stage

Drummer Dave King with The Bad Plus on stage

Drummer Dave King with The Bad Plus on stage

Around 10.30pm, I wonder up to the 11th floor’s Revelations Lounge which becomes the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club at sea, a small intimate venue for good listening and interactions. The Cuban trio of Harold Lopez-Nussa were performing, his brother on drums and a younger up and coming double bassist blowing me away. Boy, was this place humming with its blue ceiling lighting and purple hues that matched my jersey. Yeah, it was air conditioned and ‘chilly’, maybe around 20 degrees C, in spite of the warm(er) air outside. The cocktail booklet greeted my table with $10 drinks. Lopez’s melodic piano and his percussionist sitting on his box drum pounding away with a soft salsa was a welcomed change from Glasper’s philosophic and intense solo piano. By 11pm I was already on overload – but bassist Marcus Miller and Grammy-award singer, Lalah Hathaway, were just starting on the large theatre stage!

Lalah Hathaway on stage

Lalah Hathaway on stage with saxophonist Alex Han

What would the rest of the week be like, I pondered nervously, wondering if my age and beauty could keep up with it all!! It was a very sound sleep that followed after midnight. I was reaching the beginnings of my musical nirvana….

See more photos at: www.bluenoteatsea.com/gallery-2017

Sunset clouds

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Pianist Kyle Shepherd’s sonic scaffolding continues to enthrall: an Interview.

Grounding a song with left hand pounding out the steady chords, while the right fingers tickled lines, chords, and pearly runs up and down the heavily microphoned piano, the listener was carried through soundscapes of the Kyle Shepherd Trio’s vast repertoire once again.

Kyle Shepherd

                        Kyle Shepherd

On 25 February, Shepherd trio fans experienced another jolt as this 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year pianist, Kyle Shepherd, and his very loyal double bassist Shane Cooper and drummer Jonno Sweetman raised the Reeler Theater roof again at Capetown’s Rondebosh Boy’s High School.  Coopers’ intense plucks and plunks dialoguing with Sweetman’s clackety, forceful drums exploded into crescendos of delight as the trio maneuvered through old and new Shepherd compositions.

You could tell, see, hear, and feel these peers listening intently to each other. They had to; and have done so for the past 9 years.  That’s the make-up of these three masters of their craft as they collaborate, offering their individual sounds. Shepherd’s newer compositions crafted a lot of behind-the-beat, and in-front-of-the-beat, and delayed, punctuated beats on several songs, playing around with off beats that are becoming common in his forward-looking musical journey.

Kyle Shepherd trio in Japan, May  2016

Kyle Shepherd trio at Straight No Chaser; credit: Gregory Franz

The 94-minute session was only interrupted when the pianist looked into the audience, and apologized for the lights still being on.   They were quickly dimmed.  The thirsty pianist also had to ask for water which might have embarrassed the stage organizers somewhat.  But maybe not.

Shane Cooper at Reeler 25 Feb 2017; credit: Gregory Franz

Shane Cooper at Reeler 25 Feb 2017; credit: Gregory Franz

What Shepherd did not tell the audience, even amidst the cameras and sound recording equipment strewn across the stage, was that this concert was the second and final recital required for completing his Masters degree!  It would be submitted digitally as a video presentation.  But even if the audience knew this, I have no doubts that their applause, standing ovations, whistles and cat calls of appreciation would have been less intense,  for this concert was very special, indeed, a culmination of a decade’s worth of hard work, commitment, and growth in developing talents.

Kyle 1

I caught up with Kyle before his concert:

CM:  We live in a strange world where artistry is being stressed out. Some artists are more political than others.  Listeners don’t want to hear about politics either, preferring to listen to music to relax. Yet some artists are message-givers, like Gregory Porter, who writes his own lyrics.  What’s your message now?

KS:  In the beginning of my career, I focused on my ethnic and traditional background.  After the first 3 albums of this, I felt I had to move on towards more global sounds and transcending borders more.  I think borders are human fabrications. I discovered this after traveling for 10 years and meeting people from so many different places around the world, only to see how common we all are.  So the music I’m writing now reflects these realizations I’ve gleaned over the years.  I don’t feel the strong pull to create cultural music of the past.

CM:  Are you saying that perhaps your music is moving into, what some would say, is an ‘intellectual’ mode?

KS:  I think a little bit.  It had to happen a little bit. But it’s not purely intellectual.  I had to start combining other elements.   Now, the sound is more expansive, but in a concert setting I can go in between these two worlds, and can play just Cape cultural music for 30 or 40 minutes if I feel like it. Or, if I play with Xhosa or Zulu musicians, I feel very comfortable with their type of sound….playing Mbaqanga for 90 minutes or more.  Now, with my trio, we have metric challenges in the compositions, but for me, it’s what music I’m feeling in my heart that counts.

CM:  You’re starting to touch on style, and I was wondering how or if your band members are influencing you.  How do you collaborate?

KS:  We’ve been together for 9 years.  In the beginning, for the first 3 years, I had a singular vision on the sound I wanted to create.  I was studying all these cultural influences from South Africa, like what Abdullah Ibrahim and Zim Ngqawana and Winston Mankunku were doing, and I wanted to combine these with my jazz style.   And then, I hit a ceiling – from lack of inspiration, and that necessitates a whole different type of research.  I started this research with my band members because Shane and Jonno came from a totally different cultural and economic background to mine.  So the type of music they were talking about on our planes and buses wasn’t the type of music I grew up with.   I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment, thankfully!  I realized that if I want to expand my scope, I can start with the people they were talking about…. Mostly rock musicians.  Rock wasn’t a sound I knew at all in my upbringing.  My Cape flats life – we listened to R&B, soul, smooth jazz – stuff like that.  Then I started listening to RadioHead smashing funk and rock, and loved the energy and found the spirit quite akin to what we as a trio do in jazz…..sometimes frantic, sometimes crazy, really energetic.  So that’s what we do but sonically on a much smaller scale!  So Shane and Jonno influenced me in that way.  I felt like writing music for all of us and keeping everyone’s musical personality in mind.  The emotional investment in the sound becomes like their own stuff. I found we are all connected on a much higher level as I wrote for them.

CM:  I notice that you seem to prefer the acoustic piano, yet have played the electric piano with other groups, like on Claude Cozen’s “Jubilee Jam” album.  Is that so?

KS:  I have no aversion to the electronic instruments at all –  I have a few keyboards at home.  I use the electronic more with the film and documentaries I’ve written for because I love the analog synthesizers.  If I could afford it, I’d have a room full of Moogs.  I love sounds and the analog ones.

This sound is coming back into contemporary music , like Radio Head, and the Little Dragon. They’re all using analogs now and  I love synthesizers.

But when I think of the trio,  I think acoustic, since we’re all playing acoustic. If others are playing electronic bass, for instance, I can play electric piano.  But it comes down to the sound you want to create with the individual band members.

CM:  Sometimes you put things on the piano strings – like cardboard or paper  –  to get a specific sound effect, which may alter the traditional acoustic sound…. But you convey a message.

KS:  Yeah, I like doing that.  It’s almost like using the analog synthesis without the wires.  As you know, I play a lot of other instruments. But I find that sonically, the piano is very one-dimensional. You plonk a note and it stays as that note.  With a bass or saxophone, you can bend notes.  So I like to create other textures using what we call ‘prepared piano’ which means putting things on the strings to get sound effects.

CM:  Cultivating the traditional instrumental jazz idiom, however it’s done, is a lifelong mission.  But you are now delving into the world of film scoring.  Is this because there are more opportunities in this genre, particularly here where there is a growing film industry in South Africa, or is it something you like?

KS:  On a practical level,  I had to make a decision.  Here in Capetown now, there are no more jazz venues to play at, whereas for years I had gigs 4-5 times a week with no problem.  I could pay the bills and perform.  Now, the film opportunity came.  I love film, my wife’s a film buff, and her father is a film director.  So we take note of the cinematography and the score – we’ve always done that.  And there’s composition in film.  It’s not just compiling pre-recorded music for film; it’s actually intense composition.   At first, I wasn’t sure it was for me, but when I got to the end of my first film scoring which was for Noem My Skollie, I felt that this was something I can do, that I would like to do.

CM:  Your songs were featured in other films, like Action Kommandant, about Ashley Kriel….

KS:  Yeah, those were already pre-recorded.  But for Noem, the songs were originally composed for the film.  Again, I loved the idea of Noem My Skollie because the sound you can operate in is so expansive – from orchestras to crazy sound module stuff which I love.   If I could do one or two films a year, I’d be very happy.  My ideal life going forward is doing both:  performing and film scoring.

CM:  You write poetry. Are you interested in writing lyrics for songs?

KS:  I used to write counterparts to my compositions, but not any more.  I used to read live as part of the performance.  It’s not something I’m particularly interested in doing now.   But if I compose something, and there’s an inspiration for a text, then that’s cool.

CM:  Interested in playing any other instruments?

KS:  (Ha ha ha!).  My practice routine now is …..  my music is heavily baseline driven.  I play this odd-metre repeated chords with my left hand, while with the right hand, I tap out on the snare drum for 30 minutes.  This helps to develop rootedness  and stamina of my left hand while also keeping the grooviness going.  You have to be groovy when you play drums, there’s no other way!!!  So that’s my practice thing, playing odd-time signatures and repeated patterns with the left hand but playing drums at the same time with a drum stick in the right hand. It’s also fun.

I had struggled to make practice fun which is part of the challenge!  After ten years of playing, you have to make fun.  Otherwise, it’s just mechanical.  I tell my private students this all the time.

CM:  Are you interested in teaching?

KS:  I’m finishing my  Masters degree at Stellenbosh University. It was funded by the British Council. I focused on half performance, half research  – an orthography of my own process of composing and improvising, and interrogated Abdullah Ibrahim and Zim Ngqawana’s process as I know it from their work and writings.  This opens up new opportunities, perhaps, for education and teaching, but I don’t see myself there yet.

CM:  There was a time when you were collaborating with another group in a festival – with the Beatenberg  band.  In terms of the future of South African jazz, is your music remaining in the ‘jazz’ genre, if that’s what you want to call it? Many ‘jazz’ musicians renounce the description, saying  “I just play music”!

KS:  Yeah.  I feel the same.  We can’t take improvisation away, because the way we phrase is jazz.  But now there’s so much influence from contemporary music  in what we’re doing, from classical music to ethnic or primitive music .  I can’t call it just one thing anymore.  But festival producers and record label producers – it helps them  to catalogue ‘jazz’.   The different textures and emotions and themes all piled into one sound – is hard to define.

Kyle trio in Japan May 2016; credit:  Seigo Matsunaga

Kyle trio in Japan May 2016; credit: Seigo Matsunaga

CM:  Speaking about emotions.  I found a quote you made that referenced ‘emotional disposition of a character in a scene’,  ‘sonic scaffolding for those emotions’,  – you’re using very poetic words here – ‘emotional anonymity’ ….

KS:  I had to learn how to write when doing my thesis – that was a big thing, to write properly!  What I meant by ‘emotional anonymity’, when I wrote my solo works on my own albums, there’s a deep emotional investment in it – like an emotional rollercoaster.  But what I like about composing for films is that there’s the requirement to just tell the story; my own emotions fall by the wayside, they don’t count.   By ‘emotional scaffolding’, I mean create the sound, the spine of what’s being seen.  What you see on the screen falls onto the sound.   The music is a very important part of filmmaking.

CM:  You would consider yourself to be a very visual person?  You’re driven by visuals.

KS:  Yeah,  I think so.  When I see star performances by actors in films, it tells me what kind of sound I have to produce, what I have to compose.  For me, it’s a welcome release from having to compose something solo or concert music because you have none of that emotional pictorial context.  All that content, all the narrative is coming from you, by yourself.

CM:  Have you considered doing slides and visuals put to your music?

KS:  Right now, I’m collaborating with a photographer.  We’re doing a performance on 11 May at the Youngblood Gallery in Bree Street.  I’ll work with his photo projections.

CM:  Anything else?

KS:  I went through a really bad period with the closing of venues in Capetown for gigs. It really depressed me.  My plea is do something, who’s going to help us musicians?  Traveling has become very difficult with prices so high.  Also, my trio has lost two possible performances in the U.S. because of the change of government there now, and the sponsoring organizations are not sure of funds coming in to support jazz/music efforts.  One in New York, one in Washington DC.

But with the film prospects in South Africa, the future is looking brighter now with many film productions in Capetown and a lot more funding is becoming available.  So there’s something to do there.  As a composer, I’m quite excited about that.  But as an artist, I would love to be able to play in concerts and gigs with my trio, with appreciative audiences, and with different collaborations – through jazz and also composing for visual media projects.  That’s what I’m working hard towards, where I would like things to go.  It’s like I’m at the beginning of my composing career!  It’s like ten years all over again.  You know, when my first few albums were released, I was flying all over the country doing gigs and launches, driving to radio stations to deliver my CDs, etc., essentially doing the leg work to promote my music.  Luckily, with the digital age, things have become a bit easier to promote oneself.  But now,  with my composing career, I’m doing the same thing, just not physically.

@&@&@&@&@&@&@&@&@&@&@

In an announcement made on Thursday, 16 Feb 2017, Kyle Shepherd, who composed the film score for Noem My Skollie / Call Me Thief, was nominated for South African Film & Television Award [SAFTA] for Best Achievement in an Original Music Score in a Feature Film.  In a major feat, the film scored 10 SAFTA nominations including Best Feature Film & Best Director (Daryne Joshua).  The original soundtrack of the film is now available for purchase, worldwide, on all major digital retail platforms via Gallo Record Company.

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Jazz trumpeter, Feya Faku, knights drummer Jeff Siegel’s Quartet in kingly fashion in “King of Xhosa” CD.

Feya Faku, trumpet; Jeff 'Siege' Siegel, drums

Feya Faku, trumpet; Jeff ‘Siege’ Siegel, drums

American drummer, Jeff Siegel, has discovered and gleefully responded to the beckoning African sounds from a musical ‘king’ of the Xhosa people in South Africa, trumpet and fugelhorn wizard, Feya Faku. For those who know him, Faku is known to carry himself certainly in a kingly, but humble, way with the various peers he has played with around the world. As special artist on Siegel’s latest album, “King of Xhosa”, he has indeed knighted Siegel’s Quartet with stunning applause and African sound dimensions that are very special. Both musicians have benefited as teachers of jazz in their respective countries which might explain how the multi-faceted songs landed in this album, with lots of sharing of compositions amongst band members: Erica Lindsay presents her sonorous tenor saxophone on most tracks; pianist Francesca Tanksley keeps the pace, sometimes with a heavy bottom clef or whimsical treble runs, as in her ‘Prayer’; and bassist Rich Syracuse, also a professor, holds the backline tightly, with percussionist Fred Berryhill filling in with samba and other African rhythms.

Xhosa-cover-web

This eclectic album, released this January 2017 by Artists Recording Collective label, starts and ends with Africanness, thanks to Faku’s praise vocals in the beginning ‘Totem’ and Berryhill’s percussion at the end song ‘Umngqungqo (Rhythm)’. In between, the album boasts a mosaic of impressions: open sonic spaces of the South African countryside with Faku’s fugelhorn brilliantly invoking spiritual calling and elephant roars, as in ‘Call to Spirits’; post-bebop tributes to struggling musicians, as in Tanksley’s ‘Life on the Rock’; unattended heros, like Faku’s teachers who gave so much towards cultural growth in others, as in the duo, ‘Courage’ and ‘Unsung’. The latter soulfully presents that familiar Faku touch strengthened by an eloquent Siegel drum solo.

But it’s the prayerful, spiritual nature of mood and message that grabs as Faku weaves his horn’s melodies through solemn chats with Lindsay’s saxophone, as in the thought-provoking ‘Prayer’, which is Siegel’s favourite song on the album.

Erica Lindsay. Courtesy: Francesca-11

Erica Lindsay. Courtesy: Francesca-11

Faku continues to develop his spiritual soundscape by wandering mournfully through “Ballad of the Innocent”, a beautifully crafted piece by Siegel written after the Brussels bombing. It speaks to a need for reflective quietude so that humanity can realize peace and hope for a better world. One hears the pain and struggle for this through Faku’s sensitive manoeuvres as he reverently enhances the mood through conversations with the tenor saxophone. His familiar signature tone is heard also in a ballad-soothing, ‘Inner Passion’, which both Faku and Siegel agree all musicians must have to drive their musicality.

Siegel’s drums set the pace in ‘Gotta Get To It’, an upbeat message after a lilting slow ballad. One hears Coltrane influences from saxophonist and educator Lindsay who penned this piece, which explains her love for bop. The sax and trumpet make carefree play, frolicking very nicely over the keys and rhythms. Once appropriately woken up from a musical slumber, the album intersects with fast beats dominated by Siegel’s skilled percussive direction, like in the salsa inspired “Erica’s Bag”.

Francesca Tanksley

Francesca Tanksley

Feya Faku not only boasts a distinctly clear and relatively uncomplicated sound with clean runs and tonation on his instruments, but also continually activates his intuitive ears which enable him to collaborate with so many other greats. He cannot be ‘compared’ with others; his uniqueness, both in musical mechanics, spirit, and technique can best be measured by the honesty of delivery he gives to so many of his albums. This album shines with Faku’s integrity. And it’s Afro-fusion has rubbed off on the Jeff Siegel Quartet in very special ways.

"King of Xhosa" Jeff Siegel Quartet with Feya Faku

“King of Xhosa” Jeff Siegel Quartet with Feya Faku

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SABC Studios brings live Jazz from the diaspora: Trumpeter Darren English excites!

On Saturday evening, 14 January 2017, the Sea Point/Capetown SABC Studios came alive, even with few people, fans, robust jazz fanatics, family members – to hear and watch the gentle, yet extraordinary, person of trumpeter and drummer, Darren English. Born and bred in Capetown, this now Atlanta-based young music wizard followed his organizational mentor, radio broadcaster Shado Twala, to present a two-nighter of his music before he returns to USA next week, and showcase his Capetown band which offered equally awesome gifts to us listeners.

Darren English at SABC Studios 14 Jan 2017; courtesy: Diane Rossi

Darren English at SABC Studios 14 Jan 2017; courtesy: Diane Rossi

Soft-spoken Darren, dressed in tie and jacket, looked reassured and in control as he swung his band through careful improvisations on some jazz Standards as well as his own compositions featured in his first CD with Hot Shoe Records, entitled ‘Imagine Nation’.

Even though Darren cut his album in the USA (2016) with American musicians, he allowed his stage mates to shine their talents throughout, never dominating the conversations. This humility seems one of his stellar characteristics as a team player….to bring out the best in others.

Mark Fransman. Courtesy: Diane Rossi

Mark Fransman. Courtesy: Diane Rossi

The thoughtful and expressive piano of Mark Fransman was immersed throughout. Double bassist, Benjamin Jephta, highlighted his own presence by vocal scatting his scales with precision. A stunner was drummer, Clement Benny, who just wouldn’t give up. I felt his drums were too aggressive in the 2nd song of the gig, but his handling of a basic drum kit was quite riveting, generally. In one song, Clement joins in a quiet gospel-ish ballad by tapping with an empty plastic water bottle on his symbols. Now there’s another soundscape!

Bass: Benjamin Jephta; drums: Clement Benny; trumpet: Darren English. Courtesy: Diane Rossi

Bass: Benjamin Jephta; drums: Clement Benny; trumpet: Darren English. Courtesy: Diane Rossi

Darren’s own trumpet stayed mainstream and managed to hide impulses to shimmy into fast runs heard on his CD, which was a studio recording. Fortunately, live gigs like this one offer other ways to showcase songs, musicians, and musical emotions.

A welcomed short break to digest the first hour’s arousing offerings prepared us for an exciting and different second set. A trio emerged for the first few songs, this time with Darren on drums with a highly improvising piano and adjoining double bass. Darren enjoys this new physicality, one can hear, as he showcased his other talent, drumming being his early start at home as a pre-teen.

Shado Twala organizer and MC.  Courtesy: Diane Rossi

Shado Twala organizer and MC. Courtesy: Diane Rossi

The evening displayed not just how young talent can grow with multiple types of musical experiences as Darren has witnessed from his jaunts through many States of USA, but how other seasoned local musicians can add value and loyalty through peer growth. Such events also show fan and friend loyalties when people like jazz festival organizer,

Rashid Lombard greeting Darren

Rashid Lombard greeting Darren

Rashid Lombard (of ESPafrika), and Twala, the event organizer, and former teachers and mentors Professor Mike Rossi and Fred Kuit, show up …. At least on this Saturday evening.

With the scarcity of regular jazz ‘clubs’ in Capetown, the SABC Studios with its excellent sound system and comfortable seating should be used more often to support jazz and music culture which so many of us are thirsty for. Thanks to Shado Twala, who works in the building, for organizing this event!!

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“Take Another Five”(2016): The Mike Rossi Project takes Odd Rhythmic Improv Journeys

The great jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, and reconciliation leader, Nelson Mandela, both men passing on 5 December one year apart (2012 and 2013 respectively), are memorialized in this latest album orchestrated by Professor Mike Rossi of Jazz Studies in the South African College of Music, University of Capetown. For students and professionals alike, or even for the timid uninitiated, it is a study in ‘odd’ rhythms* built upon Rossi’s publications which feature works in 5/4, 7/4, and 9/4 ‘time’. Pleasing sonic innovations abound.

Album cover by Capetown artist, Beezy Bailey

Album cover by Capetown artist, Beezy Bailey

Melodies ooze as one journeys through samba-scapes to infectious New Orleans dixie to memories of youth in the family barbershop, continuing on to an Italian village that hand makes the Rampone & Cazzani saxophones which Rossi so diligently markets, then to everyday life in South Africa since Rossi’s arrival in 1989. Resting in South Africa, Rossi gives tribute to South African-born wife, Diane, in a song which references ‘uncommon’ bebop performed in his doctoral recitals after they married. A quirky trip with a Czech orchestra performing a Peter Farmer concertino rounds out this multi-rhythmic compilation of Rossi compositions plus others’. Excitement abounds in every piece.

With a stellar band lineup of four horn players, plus baseline, the album threads through impressive and mostly clean solo scale runs, some challenging part harmonies and chats between the horns, and the skilful piano backup of Andrew Ford whose Nut House Studios recorded the live segments of the album in April 2016.

Mike Rossi at The Crypt

Mike Rossi at The Crypt

Besides Rossi’s various Rampone saxophones, plus clarinet and flute, Willy Haubrich’s trombone excelled in both range and technique. Likewise, guest artist Darren English, a young Capetonian trumpet wizard, fresh from United States gig runs, leaves one spellbound with his endless confidence. National Youth Jazz Band trumpeter/flugelhornist, Marco Maritz, shows great promise as well. The solid drums of seasoned Kevin Gibson predictably complement well. The double bass of Charles Lazar remained quieter and more layback in what essentially is a horn-dominated album.

The first track, “Take Another Five”, elegantly follows on the Dave Brubeck ‘Take Five’ tradition of 5/4 time, and was motivated by a tour with son Darius Brubeck’s band after the deaths of both legends. Rossi’s world tours with the likes of Darius inspired other Rossi tunes, like “To and Fro” with some fast and fearless runs by all three horns in sometimes erratic unison. The 9/4 samba rhythm supported by Gibson’s faithful drumming is dizzying, and further executed by English’s unrelenting scale runs. The rare flute adds rhythmic harmonies, but not enough.

A Rossi favourite Billy Strayhorn piece, ”Lush Life”, features his tenor sax in a careful, slow sonic duo with Ford’s relatively steady piano. Then ‘Nicholas’, a tribute to Rossi’s godson and written in Rossi’s family barbershop offers lots of clean solos with Ford’s tinkling piano, a conversational trombone, and lovely horn arrangements, all remarkably orderly. Rossi solos on the altello saxophone which gives out pleasantly rich and full-bodied tones.

Enter a New Orleans flavour in “Seven from Heaven”, Rossi starts out on clarinet that teases and moves to tenor sax, followed by a funky bop that connotes a New Orleans funereal romp that morfs into a joyful Dixie swing commemorating the deceased. The party has begun! Another tribute to the hand made saxophone craftsmanship takes us to Quarna Sotto, Italy, in “Quarna On My Mind”.

Darren English

Darren English

It’s like listening to villagers chatting: English’s breathless trumpet solo is followed by Rossi’s tenor sax which is followed by Haubrich’s chatty trombone which is followed by….. The horns then regroup in this challenging piece, and produce a fluid and pleasing resolve. Having said that, all three horns must run together again in “Beauty and the Blues”, through tidy harmonies, distinct trumpet statements, and phrases spewing boppish appeal. One of the few double bass solos by Lazar, hardly audible, breaks up the excited horn wah wahs which still remain subtlety enticing in their three part harmonies. What sounds like a difficult piece turns into a sensitively crafted and well-rehearsed soundscape engaging to the ear.

Haubrick, Maritz, and Rossi at Native Yards, Gugulethu;  Dec 2016

Haubrick, Maritz, and Rossi at Native Yards, Gugulethu; Dec 2016

The saxophone remains supreme. “Lament for N.S.M.” presents Rossi’s (New Saxophone Music) tribute to the peace and harmony (of the sax) that can refine our madly rushed lives. Likewise, “Saxophone (s) Plus One” breaks with tradition again: Rossi plays his four saxes creatively dubbed to the often percussive electronic backing of Ulrich Suesse with whom Rossi collaborated in their 2008 album. Here, sax versatility hums with verve and pizazz – if one likes the atonality of electronic wisps.

“Lady Di”, dedicated to wife of 26 years, is a study in chromatic language set into various recitals, publications, and teachings on meter shifts over time, starting with Rossi’s doctoral incarceration from the mid-1990s at Boston’s Conservatory of Music. Trade offs are bartered individually as each instrument spars for recognition, particularly Rossi’s tenor. Then the song becomes melodic as horns frolic amongst themselves. A delightful tempered piece.

The album ends on a different note: a previous recording of Rossi performing, with the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, a piece by Peter Farmer entitled, “Concertino for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra”. As a symphonic guide to the sax, this piece which comes from a hymn expresses what Rossi might applaud as transformative and introspective ‘’odd time” with a bluesy feel, or some such thing. Whatever the analysis, this album features innovation, exceptionalism, and what this writer simplistically would call, “just good ole unconventional jazz”!

The Mike Rossi Project: Take Another Five is dedicated to Dave Brubeck and Nelson Mandela and
features Andrew Ford (piano), Kevin Gibson (drums), Charles Lazar (double bass), William Haubrich (trombone) and Marco Maritz (trumpet & fugelhorn) with special guest Darren English (trumpet). Mike Rossi plays baritone, tenor, alto, altello, and soprano saxophone, clarinet and flute.

Publication 'Odd Times"

Publication ‘Odd Times”

 

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Jazz Pianist Blake Hellaby blazes into “New Beginnings”: An Interview and CD Review

A relaxed Leigh-Ann met me for the first time as she and her husband, Blake, finished their lunch at La Vie Restaurant on Beach Road in Sea Point, Capetown. I had heard her for the first time at their “New Beginnings” CD launch at the Nassau (Groot Schuur High School) several Sundays ago, as she opened their set with two mellow Christian songs which have inspired both of them in their personal and musical journeys.

 

Blake and wife Leigh-Ann Hellaby at CD launch 27 November 2016

Blake and wife Leigh-Ann Hellaby at CD launch 27 November 2016

In 2013, Blake was selected to be part of the Standard Bank National Youth Band, The Standard Bank Schools’ Big Band, as well as The Miagi Youth Orchestra. He has performed at The Oslo Jazz Festival, The Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the Jo’burg Joy of Jazz Festival, The Grahamstown Jazz Festival, The Young Euro Classic Festival in Berlin, and at Jazz on The Rocks – Titties Baai. He has also toured Burgundy, France with The Delft Big Band.

I spoke with Blake and Leigh Ann about their musical journeys, life together, and what makes them tick.

CM: What do you mean by ‘New Beginnings’? You had mentioned at your concert that your songs were inspired after experiencing some travails of life before your first son was born.
BH: Yeah, I was in a bit of a personal mess in my late teens that caused me to suspend my University studies in music for about 2 years. Family problems, my own smoking and drinking bouts, a child – all these made me wake up and find a path out of a little hell I had created. I wasn’t a Christian at that time, but meeting and marrying Leigh-Ann helped me to see a way towards a higher goal, and find God as my salvation. I started going to her church, and became involved in their musical program.   Our first son two years ago struck a ‘new beginning’ for me, and us.

CM: Then you continued with University?
BH: I continued with jazz studies as that’s the type of music I really wanted to pursue, instead of classical which is what I grew up with. I was influenced by so many South African musicians who were making their way with their craft, like Kyle Shephard, whose own spirituality drew me inward to find my own voice. I attended his concerts at Grahamstown a few years ago and was just blown away with how he handled his piano. He is someone who shows great integrity in his music, and discipline. Likewise, I listened a lot to the late Moses Molelekwa who, like the late, great Mbeki Mseleku, died before his time and left such a wealth of creativity behind.

The late jazz pianist, Moses Molelekwa

The late jazz pianist, Moses Molelekwa

CM: What other musicians have influenced you?
BH: Kenny Werner, saxman Michael Brecker, Keith Jarrett – these all have a very spiritual bent to their playing and thinking.

CM: I often ask to what extent a musician wishes to engage with social activism, at different levels, depending on one’s time and concern about certain issues. Do you have a message in your music about current affairs or social/political issues about which you would like to make a statement?
BH: I try to read a lot, and particularly like my fellow jazz saxman, Buddy Wells, who writes his own blog about economic matters. I am very concerned about ethnic and racial inequalities in this country, as someone who has mixed ethnicity – my father being English and my mother being a local ‘coloured’.

Blake Hellaby

Blake Hellaby

CM: How does this affect you?
BH: I’m curious how other people look at me – am I ‘white’ or a ‘coloured’? Many think I’m white, yet I my music is made up of all sorts of South African and African influences and rhythms. I really hate racism and will work to get rid of it where possible. It has no room in one’s spiritual development. My music seeks to attract all peoples, regardless of their backgrounds.

CM: How do you plan to promote yourself?
BH: I need a manager now. I simply can’t practice and compose and focus on my art while trying to promote myself in the business. Earlier, I had released an album under a U.S. label, and some songs became quite popular here, and were played on the radio. They were more pop songs. But that album isn’t available in this country now.

CM: I wonder if you could develop some Christmas songs that pertain more to South African realities.
BH: We were just talking about that! Yes, there is a need for more indigenous Christmas songs that don’t talk about snow and reindeers and Santa Clause! I agree, we should work on that.

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New Beginnings band members

New Beginnings band members

Blake’s CD launch of “New Beginnings” convincingly displayed his own and his band’s talents when they performed at the Nassau on Sunday, November 27. One song not on his album was a tribute to the late piano maestro, Mbeki Mseleku’s “Monwabisi”. This was lovingly presented with its funky groove and listenable drum and bass duet. However, along the way during the well-executed offerings, the sound system’s bass amplification produced irritating loud hums which threw off concentration. This is surprising for the Nassau, known as a comfortable listening venue, to make these mistakes.

New Beginnings CD Cover

New Beginnings CD Cover

But the CD itself contains jewels of sound, starting off with reference to his family background in “The First Hellabies in Africa”. A familiar few bars of Abdullah Ibrahim’s famous ‘Mannenberg’ sets the scene for England-comes-to-the-Cape where his British father fell in love with a ‘coloured’ girl. The song contains memories and rhythmic changes to connote ethnic realities, flowing between bebop to ghoema, all woven with a bit of salsa. Nice piece. “Me” has, again. a salsa feel with horn duets and a subtle piano improv , again in the minor key. Hellaby displays prowess with chord structures as he unrolls his personal statement. One hears some sadness, wandering (by the sax), different rhythms, many conversations. A delectable piece.

Hellaby appropriately honours fellow jazz spirit, pianist Kyle Shepherd, with whom band members grew up during their respective Cape schooling days and professional boost into the music world. “For Shepherd” is just that, a big ‘thank-you’ for mentoring sounds.

Several songs remind us that God helps fulfil: “He Who Loves Us” is a clear message of what spiritually rules us. It’s in a minor key which one can associate with the interior, hidden, even dark, elements of our soul. A bass solo melodically overrides a piano staccato. Likewise, “Thank You For Listening” has a slow funky gospel-ish groove with lovely, elevating trumpet, guitar, and sax solos. This is a jewel of a song. “Take Me To Church” also suggests how to turn one’s life around through a spiritual purpose driving the process. This happened to Hellaby so he knows.

“All That Surrounds Me” starts with human activity sounds and moves into a delightful arrangement of guitar tinkling around piano phrases. Drums keep pace nicely with Hellaby’s various changing themes. “Noonku” is a restful lullaby with synthesizer, written for youngest son, Daniel, who reminded his family that ‘new beginnings’ meant chasing renewed possibilities. One can hear little Daniel’s advice.

This album is a gem that needs a following. It’s copyrighted by Under the Influence.
www.blakehellaby.com

THE BAND: Marco Maritz | Trumpet & Flugel Horn
Zeke Le Grange | Tenor Saxophone
Bradley Prince | Electric Guitar
Sean Sanby | Double and Electric Bass
Lumanyano Mzi | Drums
Blake Hellaby | Piano, Electric Piano, Organ and Synthesizers

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Two Capetown jazz venues shake up Sunday afternoons for avid listeners!

Jazz in the Native Yards is a cosy outdoor space in a pub seating about 50 people who view a performing band taking up about the same amount of space. Its address suggests ‘community’, a residential heartland amidst Sunday outers who play or stroll in the streets of Gugulethu.

Viwe Mkizwana band at Jazz in the Native Yards, Gugulethu

Viwe Mkizwana band at Jazz in the Native Yards, Gugulethu

Last Sunday, a riveting quintet of three Johannesburg-based musicians headed by double bassist, Viwe Mkizwana, with the innovative trumpet/fugelhorn of Ntsikelelo Mcwabe, and fellow saxophonist, Malysi Masia, along with two local Capetown musicians, Blake Hellaby on piano and drummer Claude Couzen, impressed all with their daring improvisational styles, expressive solos that elicited appreciative whistles, and general professional comportment.

Viwe Mkizwana band

Viwe Mkizwana band

There is no street named ‘KwaSec NY 138’, and you’ll find it difficult to see ‘no 52’ if you want to read. Your ear will guide you. Just keep the car windows open and you’ll hear the jazz oozing out of this small corner house which is a bar by night. The young smiling fellows in their bright yellow jackets beckon you to park. You’ve arrived. It’s Sunday afternoon, and immediately the smells of meat braais from the super popular Mzoli’s restaurant down the road hit the nostrils hard. All your senses are kicking in. You are welcomed at the narrow doorless entrance to the venue where the upside down wine barrel announces an entrance fee – ‘R60 / R40 Pensioners & Students’ plus a small leaflet listing upcoming Sunday gigs. Stacked chairs unfold for some sort of seating arrangement under an outdoor ceiling. The afternoon sun rays hit the band straight on if there’s no large umbrella for them. Someone takes your drink order. Listeners are listening, smiles on their faces, identities from far and wide, and local. The band is already hot, not amplified but pleasantly acoustic, and already you’re tapping away, head swaying. The beat is on!

Bongani Sotshonanda, marimba band with Willie Haubrick

Bongani Sotshonanda, marimba band with Willie Haubrick

Who performs at Jazz in the Native Yards? Obviously, locally resident musicians, like Marimba extraordinaire Bongani Sotshononda and his capable group, or trumpeter Fezekile Reginald Tempi, known familiarly as ‘Blackey’, and others. These Sunday jazzy afternoons are sponsored by Concerts SA (a joint Norwegian-South African collaboration to promote the arts) and are comfortably receptive to all sorts of music lovers. There seems to be plenty of room for all.

Upcoming Sunday gigs at Native Yards are:

27 November Chapterz and McCoy Mrubata (guest)
4 December McCoy Mrubata and Paul Hanmer
11 December The Mike Rossi Project

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A TOUCH OF MADNESS on Nuthall Rd in Observatory is a welcoming restaurant, which seems like a home with various rooms for eating and lounging. One room contains the band with seating for about 30 people, meant to be more for listening than eating, although the bar provides the imbibing arts for the thirsty seekers. The outdoor veranda provides fresh air and a perfect proximity to the band’s sounds.

A Touch of Madness, Observatory/Capetown

A Touch of Madness, Observatory/Capetown

The venue’s Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening gigs offer fine and seasoned jazz bands for the week’s listening as well as a common menu of eats and snacks. Local resident owner Olivia Andrews and her husband rescued the venue after it was closed for some 8 months, and hopes to provide some sizzling sounds from far and wide, like the Thursday night Irish band, and also another night of poetry. Just the thing for Observatory’s vibes, which love the fringy and alternative.

Ramon Alexander, piano

Ramon Alexander, piano

As I walked in last Sunday afternoon, the familiar improvisation style of Ramon Alexander’s piano sung to me, as did the drums of Annelmie Nel and bassist Chadleigh Gowar. Classically trained percussionist, Annelmie, admitted she has ‘crossed over’ to jazz drums now, and has joined the highly underrated pianist and winemaker, Alexander, to strut their jazz stuff through the Cape.

The latter, managed by a visionary studio-owner, Leonardo Fortuin, and his entourage are supporting a fresh jazz venue in Kraaifontein called ‘Joostenberg Vlakte’ which is appropriately situated for the northern suburbs crowds eager for listening venues.

In the meantime, House of Madness also hires out its rooms for parties at R150 pp which includes a meal and drinks. What a nice cozy hangout for a party celebration! Restaurant contact is 021 447 4650.

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Pan-African Live Jazz sizzles at Grahamstown: A CD Review

This is mixed African music at its best. ‘Live at Grahamstown’ features a world-renowned South African duo of multi-instrumental specialist Pops Mohamed, and his faithful side-kick, Dave Reynolds on steel pan and acoustic guitar.

A Traveling Pair - Dave Reynolds & Pops Mohamed

A Traveling Pair – Dave Reynolds & Pops Mohamed

In this live performance at the 2015 Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown, they are backed by another impressive array of world-class musicians: Capetown-born Tony Cedras adds rhythm and texture with his accordion, guitar, and trumpet; Mozambique-born Frank Paco is no stranger on the percussion and drum scene; and Congolese singer/songwriter Sylvain Baloubeta punctuates all songs with his electric bass and falsetto vocals. In fact, all musicians sing and harmonize on this exciting album which melds African indigenous sounds and rhythms with contemporary expressions and improvisation.

Dave Reynolds & Pops Mohamed

Dave Reynolds & Pops Mohamed

All musicians carry not only highly experienced musical weight but a faithfulness to fundamental African beats and bites that they have grown up with. The album moves from earthy messages to past and present blessings to the inevitable spiritual conclusions of life. How better to do this than with blended accordion-steelpan-kora sounds of the soul. Cudos go to Pops Mohamed who wrote the musical score for the South African-made film, The Whale Caller, which recently won an award for Best African Film at this month’s Johannesburg Film Festival.

‘Hands in the Sand’ starts the journey with lovely mellow harmonies from all musicians, almost like settling into their early mission to create harmony. To realize mission, one needs to dream so here enters a brief introduction of the kora, which swings handsomely into a South African swing in ‘Ons Gaan Huis Toe’. Cedras’s accordion presents that familiar morabi sound, steadied by Baloubeta’s electric bass. One feels the home-grown texture of this danceable song.

Dave Reynolds with Tony Cedras, accordion

Dave Reynolds with Tony Cedras, accordion

Throughout the album, Mohamed speaks poetry, both literally and musically. ‘Welcome to the Future’ starts with the soothing relief of the rain stick and his vocals, with earthy undertones held nicely by Reynolds’ equally calming steelpan. This is truly a peace song for the future, for unborn babies, referencing a list of sterling world leaders who have delivered. It’s a refreshing memorial to what can be, as it welcomes the next song on the album, ‘Spirit’. The band manages to engage the audience as they clap into the future, accompanied by a profoundly spiritual buzz from Cedras’s accordion which brings on more applause. More Khoisan vocals and poetry from Mohamed at the end adds further release of the spirit.

Now, we are only half way into the album, and already sniffing a touch of nirvana.

A ghoema swing takes off by Reynolds in ‘Malay Jam’ and awakens that dancing spirit. This moving piece reeks of Cape rhythms, as does ‘Breakfast Ghoema’ as the Reynolds and Cedras swing their way joyfully and energetically to start a new day.  Have we entered nirvana yet?

The album ends with two songs, ‘‘Never Again’, with Mohamed’s African mbira with the Cedras accordion and vocal harmonies which spin the listener softly and delightfully onto another sonic plane. A soft duo of Kora and steelpan in ‘Song for Jos’ brings closure to this eclectic and ambitious album, transporting the listener to another part of Africa, with fond memories about what talents abound among touring South Africans and their pan-African bands.

Reynolds with bassist Sylvain Baloubeta

Reynolds with bassist Sylvain Baloubeta

This album is a winner! Don’t miss its launches this weekend:

Friday, 11 November – KMA Soiree, Hout Bay (021 790 4457 bookings)
Saturday, 12 November – Blue Bird Garage, Muizenberg (evening)
Sunday, 13 November – Guga S’thebe, Langa (afternoon)

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Nigerian Jazz Trumpeter, Etuk Ubong, remains consistent and focused: An Interview

As I was clearing out old files and articles, one caption hit my eye hard. “Exodus of Cape Town’s Jazz Giants” by Ayesha Ismail started: “Jazz greats are leaving Cape Town in droves because they can’t earn a living in the city once regarded as South Africa’s capital of jazz.” That was published in September 1998 (Sunday Times Metro) ! Yet, jazz schools of music, like the U.C.T.’s College of Music Jazz Studies, has experienced a steady influx of overseas and African talents seeking degrees and interactions with South Africa’s music legends. One such determined soul is 24-year old trumpeter, Etuk Ubong, from southern Nigerian, who already has notable experience to his name as well as incredible discipline and commitment to his art. His quartet of young South Africans is one of five bands which will compete for the ESP Young Legends award to perform at the 2017 Capetown International Jazz Festival. His album, ‘Miracle’, can be heard on https://soundcloud.com/search?q=Etuk%20Ubong.

Etuk Ubong - media

Etuk Ubong – media

I caught up with Etuk on 10 October 2016 before he left for Nigeria to resume his life and goals there. It seems consistency and focus is this young gun’s mantra. Oh, and ‘hard work’. He sounded mature and seasoned, having weathered the disruptions which his University (U.C.T./Capetown) politics were affecting. It’s hard to study and get ahead in a foreign academic environment when the indigenes upset academic progress which eager students from other disruptive African countries so badly seek. Etuk chose to leave those protests behind him, for now.

We chatted about his personality, and mentors like Victor Ademofe and Femi Kuti, son of famous late shrine leader Fela Ransom Kuti, and his own emerging form of music which he calls ‘Earth’ music. “It’s got attitude, spirit, and voice.” His other gurus like Clifford Brown and Wynton Marsalis have helped groom his sound as well.

CM: What makes you tick, and go for improvisation? And why jazz?
EU: Just passion and love of the sound of music. It’s about the message and how to integrate it and reflect it in my music. I studied music at an early age so I got my freedom early. I considered music is about love, bringing people together and making them smile. I love the Coltrane and jazz, but I see myself creating another sound.

CM: What’s so special about your music that comes from Etuk?
EU: Attitude, spirit, and my personality: essential factors are about love, obedience, loyalty, and being humble. Making sure things go right.

CM: It sounds like you had a good childhood.
EU: Yeah, I got this discipline from my parents and my four sisters who were all around me growing up. Also, my parents were hard working – my father was a driver who would get up at 5am to go to work. Same with my mom, a trader. I was a teenager when I took up this trumpet, thanks to my Mom who said this would be my future! She got me to play in our Church band. I didn’t take it seriously for a while, just played around. Then I started practicing from 5am before walking to school and would continue the practices after school until 10pm. My tutor, Victor Ademofe, was a God-send. He was like a Godfather and taught me a lot about life as well, so I got that food and solid orientation from him. He’s also very talented and disciplined as well. He changed me.

Etuk Ubong in Capetown

Etuk Ubong in Capetown

CM: Some musicians are activists who use their music for a cause or to get their message across. Are you an activist of sorts?
EU: Yes, I grew up to love nature, and I never liked the way my country’s economy was going or the corruption surrounding our leaders and the way they were acting. I used to say that I’m going to get to a level where I was going to fight for justice and to eradicate this corruption, and stand up for what’s right. I grew up with like-minded people and wanted to address these corruption issues growing in my country.

CM: How were you going to do that?
EU: With my music, with my power, with my soul. I read this book about Fela Ransom Kuti who said a lot in his music and life. He referred to Malcolm X whom I then studied. Fela was making sense by presenting his perspectives on politics at that time. As a teenager, I read about his legacy and structure, and what he was trying to fight for. He made sense to me.

CM: So you were doing things that other teenagers in your home weren’t doing, it sounds like?
EU: Yeah, none of my friends liked what I was doing and thought I was just lazy. After high school, they got involved with jobs, making money, buying clothes, etc. But I just kept practicing trumpet.
I don’t mind going back to those days as I prepare to return home to Nigeria. I’m so grateful that I had learned something about hard work, diligence, commitment, consistency, focus, and of course, my culture. This is what keeps me going. Back then, my parents tried to discourage me from going into music. My father actually grounded me, wouldn’t give me money, and sometimes would lock up my trumpet! [Etuk laughs] He didn’t want me to identify with some of those musicians or artists who smoke and take drugs, but he didn’t see the other side to what I wanted from the music, and I knew where I wanted to go.

I told my parents I was playing on TV and that I was going to travel on tours. They didn’t like this, but gradually could see I was playing well, even as a teenager, started to show me respect. Now, they’re my number one fans!! I wish my mom was still alive; she would have been crazy about my success now. For my second album, I’ve composed songs for her in a high life form which she loved. My Dad is supportive now, as are my sisters.

CM: Are you interested in teaching?
EU: Yeah, I’m doing this in Nigeria. I try to reach out to the youth to impact them.

Etuk Ubong Album Cover 'Miracle' (2016)

Etuk Ubong Album Cover ‘Miracle’ (2016)

CM: What influenced your album songs?
EU: ‘Miracle’, ‘Prayer’, ‘Reading in the Dark’, and ‘Thinking’. They’re all my compositions. I had studied classical music in Lagos, and played in Femi Kuti’s band. But when I put my own band together, I wanted to play my own music. So my songs came out in different places, and at different times . I just wrote the music but never gave the songs a name, until I had to record them. The song names came to me while I was in the bath! I thought of what Nigeria has gone through, its struggle for Independence and all, and that’s how I got those names….’miracle’, ‘thinking’, ‘prayer’. It was like we in Nigeria were reading in the dark, when things were obscure and uncertain , and then thinking how to develop ourselves as a nation,

CM: Are you thinking of becoming politically involved? I think I’m driving to that! I need to study history, learn more about where I’m coming from in general. So I’m trying to read as much as I can now.

Here’s a fiery artist to watch as Africa broadens its reach with interesting jazz initiatives having those special cultural flavours.

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Kenyan jazz pianist Aaron Rimbui overcame odds to excel

It was no small matter, at age 14, to suffer second degree burns from a gas explosion, and over months in hospital, to reconstruct the functional parts of his body, including his hands. Pianist Aaron Rimbui from Kenya had started with drums as he simply couldn’t finger the piano keys. But he overcame, and now rates as one of East Africa’s top jazz artists, as well as a radio host on Capital Radio in Nairobi.

Aaron Rimbui plucking at The Orbit 22 Sept 2016

Aaron Rimbui plucking at The Orbit 22 Sept 2016

On 21 September 2016, Rimbui joined Nigerian double bassist, Amaeshi Ikechi, and South Africa’s master drummer, Ayanda Sikade, for an impressive two-set performance at Johannesburg’s premier jazz club, The Orbit.

Amaeshi Ikechi at The Orbit

Amaeshi Ikechi at The Orbit

This is a tight group, careful in their relational manoeuvres with each other. Relatively little known, yet energetic bassist Ikechi, who says he’s been living in South Africa for the past 10 years, never shied away from telling it how it is. His best plucks accompanying Rimbui’s piano string tapping presented a most rewarding aural funk from such songs as ‘Karibu’. Rimbui made no secret about his scarred hands as he introduced himself and his band, saying that healing and recovery of his ability to play piano was solely a gift from God. Supported by his actress wife, Rimbui attests to his spiritual rehabilitation, through music, soul and jazz he listened to throughout his youth. “I am a born-again Christian who happens to be an artist.”

Aaron Rimbui

Aaron Rimbu

Rimbui, also a composer and producer, has travelled widely and performed with other notable African musicians, such as Kora winner Eric Wainaina and the world traveled Sauti Sol, South African legend Hugh Masekela, and with Nigeria’s afro-beat sensation Sean Kuti. His several albums have boosted him into the international talent pool of African jazz artists

“I am self-taught, never studied music formally. It’s a God-given gift,” he says. Rimbui apparently had been offered scholarships to study music in the USA, but lack of funds prohibited him taking that route.

“I met Ayanda and Siya Makuzeni from South Africa at this year’s Safaricom International Jazz Festival in Kenya where we chatted and discovered our common threads. Ayanda invited me to Johannesburg in April where I joined Benjamin Jephta on bass at a gig at the Orbit. And now I’m back, enjoying the Joy of Jazz, and reuniting with my South African friends, thanks to the Orbit’s owner, Aymeric Peguillan, who invited me to perform. I chose Nigerian bassist, Amaeshi Ikechi, because of his energy, sound, and confidence.”

Aaron Playing at All That Jazz 2013

Aaron Playing at All That Jazz 2013

Next week, Rimbui will be recording an album with this trio, and a stunning trio at that. From what I heard at the Orbit, the collective and individual styles, nuances, listening skills, and musical comradery of these three will produce an unusual album with mixtures of mainstream bebop, Afro-funk, and soul ballads all tinged with experienced improvisation.

His 2016 album, Deeper, is available on iTunes.

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SKYJACK fuses and dialogues: A South African/Swiss collaboration

Three South African musicians, all previous winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, and two well-known Swiss musicians offer an exciting and emotion-packed album, long overdue. This group has toured together in Europe and Grahamstown since 2013, and have finished their jaunts in Capetown last weekend.

skyjack-musos

Energetic drummer Kesivan Naidoo is now home after a finishing his Masters degree at Boston’s fine Berkelee School of Jazz; bassist Shane Cooper continues to grow his sometimes esoteric double bass styles with various groups of musicians, both local and international; pianist Kyle Shephard brings his extraordinary improv renditions to the aural table. Swiss tenor saxophonist Marc Stucki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp are no strangers to Grahamstown’s National Arts Festivals or to South Africa, generally. Tschopp has been on a three month residency in South Africa. Thanks to Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council and Concerts SA, they have launched their album here in South Africa with packed-out audiences.

Skyjack cover

Skyjack cover

The first song, “Taffatala”, sets the tension for the rest of the album. One hears Ethiopian chords in pentatonic scales with rumblings of elephants, or are they giraffe herds, and the characteristic spirited drumming of Kesivan Naidoo which comes through loud and clear throughout the album.   Cooper states he resonates more now with African music and jazz idioms, particularly from Mali, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, as in this first song.

“Anonymous in New York” starts in a minor key, following on the Ethio-jazz tradition, but with a contemporary jazz mix of urban aloneness and Tschopp’s extended trombone voicings which sometimes sound mournful, then joyous and meandering.

“Grandmere Dasant” starts with a welcomed shift into Shepherd’s characteristic Cape ghoema beat which is immediately dominated by saxman Stucki who runs a small jazz club in Berne, Switzerland. Each musician adds his chat to the ghoema, with Naidoo’s drum signature ever-present.

Stucki’s ‘Black Box’ has pianist Shepherd conversing with both sax and trombone in a slow ballad. “Flying Without Leaving the Ground” suggests its title. Is there hesitancy or joy that spirit can hover and lead us? Some interesting chord combinations by the horns present wonderment. Then, surprisingly, the take-off happens as Shepherd’s keys up the tempo, propelling the melody into a sonic but terrestrial boom. Naidoo drums keep up the pace.

Slowing the pace comes “Sakura”, another minor key, contemplative ballad. It’s sadness comes across through Tshopp’s clear trombone chorded with the tenor sax, and an almost funereal drum praise.

A very moving piece in this album, for me, is “The Last Rainbow Doesn’t Fade”, again submerged in alternating minor and major keys, with a samba beat mixed with a bit of ghoema and other South African beats. Half way through, the tempo changes with Shepherd’s danceable Cape sound ….and the beat goes on with each musician nourishing the song.

An impressive and emotional end piece is “Freedom Dance” featuring recordings of Nelson Mandela expressing his hope for peace and harmony in the future. It contains his “….for which I am prepared to die” speech as he entered the free world fighting all the way for a unified and dignified democracy for the nation.

This is a wonderful album which shows the individual expertise and soul of each artist, brought together by a common thread of trans-nationalism and cross-culturalism. One can’t really determine whose composition is playing as the songs fuse each musician’s creativity. This is marvellous fusion.

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