Carol’s Musings

Carol Martin is AJR’s effervescent travelling reporter, blogger, reviewer in chief, music critic, and writer.

Ancestral routes in jazz – a journey with Siya Makuzeni, Standard Bank Young Artist 2016 for Jazz

This Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz 2016 started her first concert with an epic vocal scat, the likes I hadn’t heard from her previous songs (by others). Thirty three year old Siya Makuzeni, who hails from East London, skillfully fused her Xhosa sounds with some basic other roots of bebop and improvisational contemporary jazz. Her appearance at Grahamstown’s annual SB National Arts Festival 2016 offered her a first opportunity to present her own songs, constructed in careful refrains that cut across musical harmonies and genres. Hard to describe, but her adept band of three horns, including her own trombone, and rhythm backline including the talented Thandi Ntuli on piano seems ready to boom boosters into the South African jazz cosmos. I was relieved to see another female artist on stage, too.

Siya Makuzeni on trombone: NAF2016 CuePix/Aaliyah Tshabalala

Siya Makuzeni on trombone: NAF2016 CuePix/Aaliyah Tshabalala

I caught up with Siya for a chat on 1 July. I wanted to know what internal juju had been working on her creativity, and I think I got some insights.

CM: Your primary school teacher he told me that you were not very musically inclined or active in those young years. Perhaps it was the people you were working with later who gave you a boost. What was that spiritual bone that sparked you internally to blossom?
SM: I knew something was there, but I’ve never figured out what it was. Music has always been about how I understood life. Even before and during primary school, I was in choirs and learning the recorder. Music was always milling around me at home. My parents had introduced me to such a diverse arrange of music at home. It wasn’t called ‘folk’ or ‘rock’, but just a variety of music. Maybe that inspired me as a child, wanting to emulate my parents. They were a huge influence on me then.

CM: You were blessed with supportive parents. And what about now? Any other relatives or ancestral spirits that pushed you into some spiritual realm?
SM: Oh gosh! Wow! I’m sure that has existed. I haven’t tried to interrogate that. I remember going home where my family had a ceremony. One of my older aunts mentioned that I’m on the ‘right path’, that what I’m doing is like a vessel, healing as I go forward on my journey as a musician. For me personally, I’m still trying to figure that out. I definitely draw from that ‘right path’ and use music a lot to draw inspiration in terms of grounding myself, being on stage……

CM: It would be interesting to pursue that, and draw out from the archives of culture the influences on you. Let’s talk about your own music which is rooted to your own cultural background. There’s something primordial and ancestral about it. What is influencing your choice of song, lyrics, rhythm of your own making? You’ve performed others’ pieces, but with your own voice and interpretation. Now, you’re on your own journey.
SM: I really have to think about it. Many different factors are influencing me. Start on the musical level. Look at my loops: They’re very rhythmic and polyphonic and extremely Xhosa-centered harmonically which has helped me to choose which harmonies I want. I studied jazz, but when I was here at Rhodes, I studied ethnomusicology and this spurred me on to adopt a non-western approach to music. So since 2001, I don’t believe that this approach has left me.

There was also a sense of needing constant change, pursuing something that keeps going forward, that keeps the reel rolling. If the pathway becomes stagnant, then I become frustrated. Because of that, and as I try to grow my career, I look at collaboration as a huge part of my creativity. It has enabled me to do my own stuff. This ties in to finding and mixing genres that have common grounds, trying to flip things up on their heads.

Siya Makuzeni on vocals:  NAF2016 CuePix/Tamani Chithambo_30JUNE16

Siya Makuzeni on vocals: NAF2016 CuePix/Tamani Chithambo_30JUNE16

CM: Speaking about genres, there is melody, refrains, and lyrics. There were two songs you performed last night that you were singing which sounded like ….there was a fine line between scatting and the language. I found that quite intriguing. Also, you do a lot of scat in your songs. Few singers want to scat. You’ve pursued different types of scat and the language fused with it. Where does that come from? Was that deliberate?

SM: Probably. Also, I might not be aware of it because I’m in a space where it’s so natural. When I decided I wanted to be a jazz vocalist, I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. These were my biggest surprises; I’d never heard a voice being used like that before, and I found it completely fascinating. I was also dumbfounded to see how they used their voice like an instrument. This was completely new to me. At that point, as I was transitioning from the trombone to vocals, I could see the similarities between the instrument and the voice. And then discovering these women!

CM: That’s what you’re doing, going beyond lyrics and into the instrumental voice.
The machine you were using – the vocal lyrics pedal – what has enamoured you about that little box? Why are you using that?
SM: Possibilities! Possibilities! Endless possibilities! And as someone who needs constant change, I use it because it allows for this change. I had used a foot pedal for a number of years. I found myself in situations, also, where it was difficult to collaborate with other vocalists on the same song. I had used it in “Prisoners of Strange” band of Carlo Mombelli and the pedal allowed me to explore more with vocals. I listened to other avant guard women singers who were pioneering the use of vocals in different ways, like screams and seagulls and that kind of thing.

It was already an interesting journey, but when I realized there is so much to add harmonically, in terms of using modulation for effects, things you might not be able to do with your own voice, that’s where these explorations happened. So I just said, “I can back my own vocals.”

CM: I guess backing vocals and choirs are traditional in some older jazz forms. That little box gives you different ranges of the same note, harmonically.
SM: It gives a six part vocal harmony so you can really go crazy. You also have the opportunity to put it into the key that you’re working with.

CM: Have you thought about a collaboration with Lwanda Gogwana (trumpeter) since he has pulled from his ancestral roots also?
SM: That would be quite interesting as we both are revisiting the Xhosa traditional songs.
CM: I think of jazz as being improvisation on folk music in a society. Everyone has songs.
SM: Totally.

CM: Regarding your performance last night, I noted in the 6th song that you seemed to deliver a sense of anger in your voice, in your presentation. You show emotion……I felt there was a protest, a pulse you wanted to get across, maybe a sadness or disappointment you wanted to get out.
SM: Not really. It was a moment, when spontaneity took place, and I guess I seized that moment.
I was emoting, yes, but I was having fun. I think what was interesting about that moment was ….right at the end I was doing the vocal percussive thing…. After the growling….. and thinking, geez, I haven’t done that [type of vocal] since “Prisoner of Strange”. This was just a revisit to what I had done before, but this time with my own music.

CM: That’s great, then. To take that moment and go with it! That’s creativity.
Where do you go from here?
SM: Huuummm! Good question. We’re all trying to build dreams. I’m excited, but I can’t say I ‘know’ what’s going to happen. I do hope to tour with my new sextet as much as possible.
We’ll release an album before the end of this year. But really build on the sound, and use those opportunities, like at festivals, to go and visit other musicians. Or find a way to link up with other musicians around the world as a stepping stone for this band to be around in years ahead. The band is like family; we are all committed. This is my first jazz band.

Thandi Ntuli at NAF 05July 2015:  CuePix/Tamani Chithambo

Thandi Ntuli at NAF 05July 2015: CuePix/Tamani Chithambo

Another band I’ve had is more of cross over rock. Now, this is my first jazz band and one where I don’t have to fight musically and where people are personally committed. I’m excited for that and we’ll see what happens.

CM: Do you still collaborate with Carlo Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt as you were doing?
SM: I had to take a break. I just didn’t have time. Of course, we’re all family, but I needed my own time and space to create. That was a very tough decision to take a break from them.

CM: How could you encourage more women to find their creative talents in jazz?
SM: It’s very subjective and personal. To excel in this industry, you have to have balls. I learned this at a young age by being thrown in to the experiences, like with this Festival which I’ve attended for a long time. So because of this, coupled with my determination, it has worked out for me.

But you have to seriously have guts for these live performances!
I also think that if girls are encouraged at early childhood development stage, you would see a difference, and more activity from them as they grow older and enter the industry. More confidence. There’s simply not enough going on to make music accessible to kids at such a young age, so if we could fix that, we’d see a lot more active females.

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

Let’s watch this young lady flourish with future events, festivals, and live gigs! HAVING THE EXPERIENCE/DEEP END + DETERMINATION AND GUTS = success.

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NAF2016: A Bassist stole the show…..Trio Corrente from Brazil

Always smiling bassist Paulo Paulelli stole the show, only half way in, with his tongue-in-cheek clicks, hisses, boofs and other oral sputters and percussive grunts  on his willing double bass at Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival. He was left alone.  It was only the second show which kicked off the NAF’s annual, vibey, and highly successful Youth Jazz Festival, as some 350 music students from various educational institutions around South Africa descended on the Diocesan Girls School facilities.

Trio Corrente from Brazil

Trio Corrente from Brazil: right – P. Paulelli

The Brazilian jazz ensemble, Trio Corrente, blessed the DGS Hall with highly entertaining offerings, from soulful bossa nova to funky, clickety-clack choro rhythms, to just plain improvisational frolics that brought laughs, cat-calls, and a standing ovation at the end.

This Sao Paulo-based trio, two times Latin Grammy Award winners, displayed utter perfection in coordinating, not only their eye contact and internal laughter with each other, but their rhythmic, staccato sounds. Their repertoire ranged from the almost classical renditions of Brazilian songs to solo emotions to funky and whacky conversations between the instruments. The musicians talked a lot, musically. It was an unforgettable 75 minutes of pure aural fun ringed with lots of groovy humour and immense talents. This is their first visit to perform in South Africa, and definitely should not be their last! As their other collaborator and saxophonist band member, the renowned Paquito D’Rivera, has said: “Um trio maravilhoso”!

SOUL HOUSING PROJECT

Trio Corrente followed the opening act of the Youth Jazz Festival, a zesty bunch of youthful  South Africans headed by suave hippy hop singer, Sakhile Moleshe, who belts out danceable rap jazz that inspires the youth watching him. Supported by talents such as keyboardist, Bokani Dyer (nominally also an inventive jazz improviser), Soul Housing brings all sorts of familiar rhythms put to unconventional waves of sounds, such as mixed soul and rap, urban funk and ballads. Sakhile put the heat on when he switched to Xhosa rap, with identifiable messages to the largely Xhosa-speaking audience of students and other Eastern Cape ticket holders.

 

Sakhile Moleshe, Soul Housing Project

Sakhile Moleshe, Soul Housing Project; photo by Mia van der Merve/NAF 2016

The best way to kick off a ‘Youth Jazz festival’ is by a local young, familiar, and popular group of ‘young guns’ who are rocking their way to fame (forget the fortune – it doesn’t exist)!

Soul Housing Project: photo by Carol Martin

Soul Housing Project: photo by Carol Martin

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Who is bassist Lionel Beukes?

“After many years performing in China, I felt it was time to ‘come home’, join my roots again, and play our South African music and other standards, and maybe to teach the younger ones,” says Beukes as he proudly smiles his way through my interview.  Back to his home town of Capetown for a little over a year, and newly married to a long time sweetheart, Beukes’ desire right now is to promote fellow elder musician, pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, and pull the latter’s compositions out of the closet.  Beukes also has songs penned in China to bring forth.

Lionel Beukes

Lionel Beukes

“I have two upright basses, including the semi-electric acoustic Latina bass, a double bass and two bass guitars.  At the School (Cape Music Institute at Athlone stadium), I teach the students (who can only afford an electric bass guitar) the double bass positions using their own small guitars. I use the Ray Brown book.”

Lionel Beukes & Ibrahim Khalil Shihab at District 6 Homecoming 27 May 2016

Lionel Beukes & Ibrahim Khalil Shihab at District 6 Homecoming 27 May 2016

Just turned 66 years old, Beukes has no desire to ‘retire’.  “Retirement?  When I retire I’ll be in my grave!  I’m a musician and must help grow the music,” he exclaims when asked if and when he will settle into elder comforts.  “Dedication and commitment is what it’s all about, and for now I plan to fully engage with promoting Shihab’s music and artistry after so many drought years he has had.  I am also writing my own compositions, and together, we plan to get those songs registered with SAMRO and continue our business.”  Beukes et al are approaching radio stations like Bush Radio and Fine Music Radio for sponsoring and interviews as well as performing with his older band, the popular Out of Town, at Swingers in Athlone on Sunday evenings.

Beukes sees the need for a business approach in his music industry. “It IS about making money, but also having opportunities to work with the younger musicians as well.  We aim at the concert hall stage rather than the club scene for live performances, where people can come to listen and appreciate, and pay for it.”  Beukes is presently choosing his own band, including saxman Buddy Wells, known to play with everyone to date. Twenty year old Liam Webb, presently a student at CMI, is his drummer who will soon attend UCT’s School of Music.   “Although I’m putting together the project, my acoustic quartet will include Buddy’s group, in order to promote him, and another piano player. We are all like family.”  But sponsorship is key, he says, to finance promotions and recordings. Beukes plans to approach his old manager in Johannesburg to come on board again.

Various collaborators are supporting the concert hall idea, and even recommending using school halls that are well equipped with sound systems.  So the Beukes team aims to present more lively and vibrant acoustic jazz performances in South Africa’s major cities with the young and old timers.

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Ibrahim Khalil Shihab Quartet exuded history, texture, and good ole acoustic jazz at District 6 Museum’s Homecoming Center last Friday evening, 27 May.

Having cruised the south Pacific Ocean, I find Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” rings a familiar sensation about what ‘unfathomable’ means, like true love, which is what makes this song rich and textured. The brilliant artistry of pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab does just that for 24 minutes in his solo piano album, ‘Solo Piano’, cut in 1999. Known as Chris Schilder of Pacific Express in earlier days, and who converted to Islam in 1975, this Capetownian is no less magical in his musical renditions now. With his fellow team members named below, 70 year old Shihab wishes to revive himself with both established and younger musicians in South Africa.

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. Photo: David Harrison

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab. Photo: David Harrison

Friday’s concert portrayed an extremely gifted and powerfully alert pianist who excels at improvisation and message. His Scarlotti-styled runs in some pieces reverberated throughout the well-packed hall. Even without an acoustic grand piano which he would prefer, his two electric pianos which admirably served for the evening’s performance managed to do justice to his messages.

In conversation with double bassist, Lionel Beukes, earlier, even Beukes had to haul out his thin Latina semi-electric bass to match Shihab’s piano that evening. “I’ve returned from years in China, and want to continue to perform our South African music, and to promote Ibrahim who has been too silent for too long,” says Beukes. “I teach at the Capetown Music Institute with its musician head, Camiillo Lombard, and try to match our good students with the jazz dons like Ibrahim.”

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab quartet at D6 Homecoming 27 May 2016

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab quartet at D6 Homecoming 27 May 2016

Indeed, Friday’s offerings (promoted by Classic CT) presented 20-year old drummer Liam Webb, formerly from South Peninsula High School jazz band and soon to attend UCT’s College of Music, in his first jazz gig. A student at CMI, Webb displayed confidence and humility during the performance as he was occasionally mentored by Beukes and Shihab. Webb was allowed a drum solo in a Shihab piece, “Pursuits”, which Webb pulled off in clean pizzazz. Another generation later was Buddy Wells whose tenor and alto saxophones provided impressive, clean, and consistent accompaniment to Shihab’s piano runs. The varieties of songs this Quartet played wooed the audience with classic standards, like the whimsical “When You Wish Upon a Star”, with Buddy’s smooth slides in tone. Shihab originals gave tribute to another legendary don, the late Winston Mankunku, in “Spring”, and to elder Chinese people exercising in a Shanghai park across from where Shihab and Beukes worked at the Hilton Hotel.

Liam Webb, drummer

Liam Webb, drummer

The concert ended fittingly with a fast-paced “Bo-Kaap”, another original, which showed everyone’s skills. Shihab is well on his way to performing and, in the near future, recording his pile of compositions which he let to lay for so many of the rainbow nation years.

We can look forward to more mastery from this legend as concert halls gear up for more acoustic jazz performances. A new era to be launched??

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“Come Play with Us”: Deep South’s attitude towards artistry; an Interview with songwriter Dave Ledbetter and arranger/producer Ronan Skillan

Deep South, a South African duo who spreads wings wide, travels to the deep northern territories of Europe to harvest fiordic acoustic sounds from Swiss, Swedish, and Norwegian colleagues. “We love what you do and we want your voices to grace our stuff,” invites this duo. Their time is limited, but their zest for inclusiveness is great, with eagerness to explore with fellow artists. “Here’s my composition and you know my sound. What can you add, please?” is the ticket for networking longevity. Guitarist/pianist Dave Ledbetter and percussionist/tabla/didgeridoo maestro Ronan Skillan have been CapeTown friends for long, and meld into each other’s works like happy jelly. They play regularly at Capetown’s popular jazz club, Straight No Chaser, (next gig on Wednesday, 10 February – not to be missed!) and include a handful of illustrious local musicians who add their South African and Cape voice to Deep South, particularly in their first album, “A Waiting Land” (2013).

Deep South’s recent launches of their second album, “Heartland” (2015), have spiralled these innovative acoustic wonders into depths of tonality and expression that cut across ethnic, regional, and even spiritual identities. I lamely attempted a review of this eclectic CD: http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2015/11/04/acoustically-tripping-with-deep-souths-skillan-and-ledbetter-in-heartland/ and was sorry to miss their November 2015 launch in Cape Town with fellow European collaborators: ECM artist and co-producer of Heartland, bassist Bjorn Meyer from Sweden, bass clarinettist Jan Galega Bronnimann, trumpeter Samuel Wurgler and percussionist Fredrik Gille.

But even better was to chat with the deep souls of Deep South, while overlooking Kalk Bay’s wistful harbour, and find out what makes them tick!

Dave Ledbedder loves dogs

Dave Ledbetter loves dogs

CM: How have you attracted foreign artists to migrate towards you, as in your recent album?
Dave Ledbetter (DL): At the moment, the music has taken its natural course. I think the fact that our music is out there allows people to have access to it. Our first album was more home-grown here because we wanted a sound that was acoustically Capetonian and South African with local musicians like Mark Fransman (clarinet/flute), Shaun Yohannes (electric bass), and Shane Cooper (acoustic bass) adding their particular voices. When we branched out to the northern hemisphere, to our networks in Switzerland and Sweden, we had a more collaborative relationship. Compositions which I and Ronan had worked on over a period of time received a ringing blessing from fellow Hearts.

Ronan Skillan (RS): In Europe, we got a different sound to our songs, with intonation and precision. With our local musicians, we got more heart and feeling and intimacy, because we all grew up together. I think it’s also the way Dave and I relate that builds our networks. I’ve always loved Dave’s music – he brings the compositions, I don’t. I help orchestrate and engineer the physical hands-on process, and offer arrangements and ideas about sound and production. I have visions of specific people I know who will resonate with the compositions, and approach them, like our good friend and co-producer Bjorn Meyer who loved our first album.

DL: When we went to Europe, and I remember this very well, we had no idea of how or what it was going to sound like – this collaboration – before we got there. Suddenly, we’re sitting down together, and things started just rolling. Here it is! It went forward from there. In comparison, our first album was a laborious process over a long period of time, but we managed to capture all the nuances of my playing and could spend time rolling them out. This couldn’t happen with our second album recorded in Europe with limited time and budget. But the organic and free flow of spirit and innovation allowed the guys to bring us what they could add.

CM: You are eclectic musicians with Arabic, Asian, and other influences. What stimulates you to be like this? For instance, to play an Australian shamanic didgeridoo?
DL: I think it’s the open hearted spirit of generosity, when we say, “come play with us”, wherever we are, and with whomever we meet. This same open hearted interaction underpins everything we do. And that, essentially, is what we’re all about.
RS: I’ve been travelling to India and studying tabla regularly with one leading Indian percussionist. This has exposed me to a variety of methods and meanings of Asian and Arabic instruments, including the healing qualities of the didgeridoo sounds.

CM: Would you compose or take somebody else’s compositions?
DL: I would write for whoever we book to play on the album, like my good friend, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt. I know his stuff and the way he plays, so would include his voice in what we do, and write specifically for that voice. Same for a bass clarinet or sousaphone player. This is a way to enhance your vision. Just invite them.
RS: Regarding who to involve, thankfully the composition are always very strong. A good song is a good song. Period. It doesn’t really matter who plays it.

CM: Take your song, ‘Forest Road’, written about a road in Nairobi, Kenya. What’s that all about?
DL: My parents and their parents were Salvation Army missionaries, and my grandfather died in Nairobi. My own mother was born in China, and has just turned 89 years old. My grandfather died very young from an allergic reaction to bees. One day, he was walking down Forest Road in Nairobi and collapsed from a bee sting and died on the spot. My grandmother would take walks along Forest Road where he was buried in the cemetery, and would allow herself to be attacked by bees until the ripe ole age of 92. That was in 1942. My mother was traumatized by this loss of her young father as she was only 14 years old then. So the event of his sudden death stood out for me, and I tried to imagine what the reaction might have been to his death, given the environment they were living in, being war-time and in Nairobi. In this song, I imagined the Forest Road funeral cortege carrying the coffin with the brass band wailing. The song just came to me, very easily. I was chatting a while back with Mike Meyer’s guitarist who is a white sangoma, and he told me, “Somebody is looking after you. I can see it; he’s an elderly gentleman with red hair and glasses.” I replied that that must be my grandfather. “He’s looking after you,” the sangoma repeated. “He’s making sure you don’t mess up….too badly!”

Ronan Skillen live

Ronan Skillen live

RS: This story was also touching for me. As I was preparing to visit Nairobi for performances with our local band, Babu, I told Dave I would like to visit the gravesite. Dave gave me a rose quartz crystal and said, “Please put this on the grave for me.” I wasn’t sure I would have time in our busy schedule, but one free afternoon allowed me time at the grave. I asked a taxi if he knew where the Forest Road cemetery was. He looked confusedly at me, a white guy with an accent, and asked “Why??” I said I would tell him the story along the way. The grave was hard to find with all the vegetation growth over the decades (from 1942), but I found it. It was a very touching experience for me.

CM: Another song on your Heartland album that moved me considerably was ‘Awagawan’. What influenced this composition?
DL: I was deeply saddened when my good friend and guitarist with Tenanas, Gito Baloyi, was shot and killed in cross fire in Johannesburg. That’s when I wrote this song which has a spiritual bent to it. Ronan and I sat with it, reworked it, and put it aside. When our European trip was being planned, I took the song out again, Ronan and I added some sections, like the didg section, and the oud section. It was good in hindsight that I left those sections to bring them back at a later stage.
RS: I remember thinking that bassist Bjorn would probably find something in the song to resonate with. Sure enough, there’s an additive in there which was written for him. The same for percussionist Fredrik Gille.
DL: That bass clarinet is not suppose to sound like it does on the album in this song. But clarinettist Jan asked if we wanted that breathy sound. We said, YES! For me, such a sound was more pranic, from the inside, and that is what I wanted. I was delighted when Jan broke out of that mold of what some people consider the ‘proper’ sound of the clarinet.

CM: What you’re talking about is the architecture of composition. You start with an idea, a composition, but it’s fused by others.
DL: Well, the composition is already written. How I want it to sound is going to depend on people able to voice that idea. So whoever is contributing, I’ll be hearing their voices to enhance what’s already there. The music sounds must perpetuate an intention from a conscious place, music that makes the light in people’s heads flash, that makes them feel they have stumbled onto a fundamental truth here. It’s about feeling in life, from a very conscious perspective.

These two multi-talented musicians, while displaying their undeniably rich consciousness and pursuit of truth, are flagging other creatives out there to ‘come play with us’. This, in itself, is a great honour.

Deep South perform weekly now in and around Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. Catch Dave Sunday 7 February 2016 at the Jazz at the Nassau concert (Bookings at 076 401 0008) as he plays piano and guitar with others. Also, Deep South et al play Wednesday 10 February at Straight No Chaser (Bookings at 076 679 2697).

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An Interview with jazz guitarist Vuma Ian Levin about “Necessary Contradictions”

Another vibrant, well-skilled South African guitarist hit Capetown’s Straight No Chaser jazz club with his quintet made up of young European musicians. Vuma Levin has been schooling in Amsterdam and making a professional life for himself, but well remembers his own home shores as his debut album suggests. “The Spectacle of An-Other” contains his original compositions which speak messages I like: Through cultural and national identities, how do we empower marginalised Black South African histories post 1994 to integrate into various spaces and experiences without stigma or enclavist mentalities so prominent in the past?

Quintet album cover

Quintet album cover & promotion

His evening at SNC drew a relatively large crowd, as do well publicized artists passing through. Levin is not just ‘passing through’ though. He participates in the Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival (SBYJF) in Grahamstown beginning July, and will hang around our shores for a while during his study break with the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music where he’s working towards his master’s in jazz guitar performance.

Informed by Levin’s facebook page promotional materials and this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtJuVskXjc8, I queried Levin on what interested him in cultural musicology and what he meant by wanting to liberate musical forms from jargonistic and Euro-centric definitions of what constitutes ‘African music’ or ‘jazz’. My interview with him on 29 June 2015 in Cape Town caught him just before his travels to Grahamstown where, in 2009, he was chosen for the National Youth Jazz Band.

Born in Swaziland from a Jewish South African father in exile with the ANC, and a Swazi mother, Levin could settle back in South Africa only after the new dispensation gave permissions for his parents’ mixed marriage. His father has acted as a DG in government while his mother worked as a consultant with the Department of Education. Settled in Johannesburg, it was only when Levin attended the Sacred Heart College and sang in the school choir that he started his musical training. At age 14, he picked up guitar, watched how buskers on the street fingered their guitars, and sang along with them. Formal musical training continued at the Tswane University of Technology where he studied with the late Johnnie Fourie for 1 year, and other noted jazz musicians.

CM: You talk in the South African context about trying to salvage music from the “pre-colonial, colonial, and post colonial” periods that have marginalized black music. What do you mean by pre-colonial?

VL: That’s a very hard term to define as there’s no written account of what existed in pre colonial times. That’s not to say that the only way to access history is through the written word. History can be encoded in cultural artifacts – song and dance, written items. One of the early projects of the colonial period was to try to neutralize African culture, a concerted effort to vilify it as needing ‘civilizing’, to rid the natives of their traditional practices, which were central to dispersing history through oral means, etc. This effectively limited access to this history. At the end of the day, the pre colonial history is hard to define as we don’t have access to it, unless we can salvage something of the traditional. From the Euro centric standpoint, which looks to written history, there’s none of that in African precolonial life.

CM: When you go to the colonial period, what do you consider ‘colonial’ music?
VL: I consider that music basically from 1652 onwards , when the first settlers arrived and settled, up to 1994. Obviously, that’s a very broad category with a lot of different phases but for me, that is what the colonial moment is for me.

Vuma Levin &

Vuma Levin & Bernard van Rossum (sax) at SNC

CM: Something came out of that colonial period?
VL: Yes, basically what was key was the interaction between new colonial settlers and the people already living in southern Africa, or the indigenous peoples. This interaction took hold particularly during the time when King Shaka was defending and conquering lands or borders of expansion. With this increased interaction, between various ethnic groups within South Africa, you develop a trade in culture, sometimes imposed, like with the Christian missionaries. Sometimes it’s more organic and fluid. The key thing is that whether art forms are forced or organic interactions, they change, even artificially. Even in the 1980s you had your Winston Mankunku’s and Chris McGregor’s travelling with their music in Europe, so there was that exchange. And the effects from these exchanges are different at every stage of history.

CM: What about the present?
VL. Post-colonial? Imbedded in the term is the understanding that even though formal colonialism has ended, the power relations which colonialism inculcated in us are so very much in existence nowadays.

CM: Power, yes. There is now a majority power in this country. Do you think the cultural and musical art forms of that majority are coming alive?
VL: I think it’s hopeful, but I still think there’s a western hegemony on cultural production – a white western one. Through media and business and other institutions, the iconography, I guess, of colonialism remains intact. It’s the same in music as well. So I think there’s concerted effort, particularly by young music professionals in this country to try to break those boundaries. Like: Kyle Shepherd, Bokani Dyer, Thandi Ntuli, Marcus Wyatt,

CM: Talk more about Carlo Mombelli and your experience or influence with him. I don’t see Carlo as being terribly ‘indigenous’ although you have dedicated a composition to Carlo. How would you describe his influence on you?

VL: For me, Carlo was a very early influence. I listened to his music and was inspired at a young age. It’s important to realise that terms like ‘authentic’ and ‘indigenous’ are dangerous terms to use in South African context . The moment that a South African subject takes something from the outside world and uses it in a non-reactionary way to express themselves, it becomes a ‘South African’ thing. So English, and French, and Portugese – all these languages are African languages. They’ve been appropriated by people here and used as a way of articulating their sense of self, and I consider this the same way with music. I consider Carlo’s music as authentically South African as would be a Xhosa composer. They are both citizens of this country appropriating something from the outside and using that as a means of expressing what it means to be a South African for himself, and in an organic way.

CM: Carlo’s stay in Germany perhaps meant he absorbed other influences, but maybe his own infusion of African-ness in his music might not be seen by European listeners in quite the same way as he would have liked.
VL: It’s basically about demystifying Africans because from the European standpoint, there’s a mystery about what it means to be ‘African’.

CM: Which is what Kyle and others are trying to do. Which brings me to your role in trying to demystify this African-ness. This is an important part of your workshops here, to try to correct people’s gahgah about: “Oh, here’s our boy coming back home to his roots” type of response from people. We all are born somewhere, but this doesn’t mean we have to get stuck in our ‘roots’. I have your quote I’d like to clarify: ‘denigration of historical and contemporary South African music’…… What did you mean by this? Isn’t the world trying to bring back this older music of another time?
VL: Well, I think there is this effort to bring it back, but the way it is done is highly problematic. Since Edward Said wrote “Orientalism”, terms such as exoticism and primitivism have entered the cultural lexicon, and people are not sensitive to the fact that they are largely engaging in these practices when they try to empower African forms, basically. So the idea is: If you’re going to book an ‘African band’, already you may have a preconceived notion of what constitutes an African band. You know how to market that. And if anybody falls outside of that strongly preconceived notion, you’re less likely to market them. For instance, how do you market somebody like Bokani Dyer whose music draws from jazz pianist Robert Glasper who doesn’t play African art forms? There’s an alliance between capital and the colonially inherited notions of what constitutes ‘Africans’. It is only fair that those people who continue to engage in these traditional practices, and who have been marginalized in the past, be given space to do their thing.

CM: So ‘traditional’ doesn’t always mean ‘in the past’…?
VL: Traditional artists themselves are often a lot more nuanced with contemporary sounds and narratives than people think . They’re human beings so can carry messages…. It’s a bit de-humanizing to have this preconceived package of beliefs about who they are.

Levin concludes:
So this is an essential feature about what my project is about. These go hand in hand: nuancing African identity and empowering marginalized histories. It is a contradiction because on the one hand, you’re saying there’s no such thing as traditional African-ness, and on the other hand, there IS such a thing and we need to empower that. It’s a necessary contradiction to draw in.

CM: The contradiction helps to empower through debate by providing that debate. It requires a sense of history and social propriety and intelligent debate, doesn’t it?
VL: Exactly.

CM: You have on the one hand local South African influences with people who reside here, whatever the expansion of their music art form is. Some are moving on with their sound forms; others are still stuck with what they know best and in the past. Then you have the ‘diasporic’ influences. Who are these Diaspora you speak about?
VL: I think one definition of ‘Diaspora’ is a large body of people who move from one part of the globe to another. Diasporic musicians can include Africans who have left their African areas. This doesn’t only include musicians but the Africans carrying their intellectual diasporic traditions, like Chinua Achebe, Kofi Agawu (a Ghanaian musicologist). But I’m referring also to the music itself, especially in the age of globalization, there’s increased motion in music. It’s moving around, and again allied to capitalism, not knowing really where the music is coming from. When I was 13 years old, I listened to Radio Head and Massive Attack – that was my music foundation and the music I loved most. So this was diasporic music, which doesn’t only refer to Africans moving about.

CM: That’s an interesting concept of migration, of people migrating without being ‘migrants’. We all are migrating in our social, cultural, and intellectual forms because there’s a world of information out there. This is great. But it’s also overload. People are getting confused – about what they’re hearing, etc. And terms we use are not catching up with the informational overload we’re experiencing. If you have terminologies that are not catching up, then you get stuck with jargon which influences people’s psychology, and the informational ‘box’ effect. But this is just human nature, isn’t it?
VL: Indeed.

CM: How do you break through this? It’s interesting your European band is playing a type of sound you’re trying to cultivate.
VL: The musicians are craftsmen and creators in their own right. The music I compose has such a strong basis in western harmony, just to be publically clear. I consider myself to have been very well colonized in that regard. My ears are very oriented to western harmony and because we all speak in this western harmonic language it becomes possible to compose songs and interact on that front, particularly with that jazz tradition , from Parker and bebop to contemporary modern jazz up until now. Secondly, we have a shared harmonic language that comes out of the classical music tradition and has been elaborated upon by various jazz artists. Because we have these common points of reference, it makes it possible for us to engage in the conversation.

CM: Good point….common points of reference. Are you planning on returning to South Africa more permanently now?
VL: If you asked me this two years ago, when I was finishing my degrees, I would have said, yes, I’m coming back. But with professional obligations, and with things happening in Europe to my favour, I would say, yeah, I’ll come back at some other time. I would try to set up some trans-continental arrangements in the meantime.

CM: If you were to spend time in South Africa, what would you want to do here?
VL: One has to be realistic about establishing networks and business outlets. I would be very interested in working with local musicians. I would also love a job teaching at a University, and having private students. In Europe, I’ve been lucky with several gigs per month. The band, Aurelio Project, led by a Mozambiquan, has included me in their tours.

CM: Who influences you in your improvisations? Who do you look up?
VL: Carlo, Marcus, Africa Mkize, John Davis, Kevin Davidson, Massive Attacks, Debussy, Ravel and other classical music. The atonality of Schoenberg…..

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Vuma Levin plays at the Grahamstown Youth Jazz Festival and also at the Fringe venues.  His quintet includes Bernard van Rossum (Tenor Sax, Spain), Lennart Altgenug (Piano, Germany), Marco Zenini (Bass, Italy) and Jeroen Batterink (Drums, The Netherlands).

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Episode #2 The Sweet Divinity of Life: Musically Smiling with Al Jarreau….

“Down South in Africa,” sings Al Jarreau. He explains: “where the little bougainvillea winds around the big jacaranda tree as they become one with us, sun, and nature.” This masterful singer emphasized, “And this is YOUR story, class”, as he waved his lyrics page at us journalists (who were given copies) during his press conference at the CTIJF a few weeks ago.

“I should have named my album ‘Jacaranda Bougainvillea’ rather than ‘All I Got’ after my visit to South Africa in 2001, when I saw this transformation taking place …. It excited my band and I to write this piece.” To Jarreau, it’s a “lavender dream, the envy of orchids, when it’s dressed in a pink and fuchsia twine”. He launched this song at the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland which also had a ‘South African’ stage. See the lyrics at the end of this article.

Al Jarreau performing at CTIJF on 29 March 2015. Credits:  NetworxPR

Al Jarreau performing at CTIJF on 29 March 2015. Credits: NetworxPR

Listening to this beautiful song on YouTube, one becomes mesmerized with the sweet divinity Jarreau attaches to the smallest of beings. As we chatted in his hotel, I discovered a deeply spiritual and compassionate Al Jarreau that could defy his otherwise contorting body and face when masterfully delivering his stage performance.

CM: At your press conference, you handed out the lyrics of your ‘Jacaranda Bougainvillea’ song. Talk about that.
AJ: You know, I was hoping some journalist would ask me some questions about this song which I and my band wrote after our South African performances in 2001. For instance, there’s this verse: ‘Oh Mandela, that garden that you made is a vision of the prayer you must have been prayin’ every day.’ What did you mean there, Al? And I would have replied, “Way down South in Africa. Look at the jacaranda tree huggin’ the Bougainvillea.” That song is thick with message. It was a very important song about what you can export from your past experiences – the political transition out of separate-ness and towards one-ness. That’s more important than the friggin’ gold, or the DeBeers Mine. I should have shouted it out when I was at the conference table.

CM: You performed the song at the Festival, but I think it went beyond people’s heads at that huge stage with several thousand howling people!
AJ: Yes, the sound on the stage was not good for my repertoire this year. The stage needed more of a listening crowd. I think the song is too subtle, too. It needs more exposure.

Jarreau performing at CTIJF on 29 March 2015. Credits:  NetworxPR

Jarreau performing at CTIJF on 29 March 2015. Credits: NetworxPR

Jarreau is a Seer: His reflections about 2015 CapeTown, noted on his website blog, say, “Here there’s something more relaxed and comfortable but far beyond that is the friendly and joyous spirit of the people. And if you look closely you can see an infectious kind of joy and hopefulness of the mind and heart….” Even though he considered himself ‘late to the party’ of the 16th CTIJF this year, his first appearance, he is convinced: “these [Capetownians] were brown skin people just like me who have found something special…some joy and gratitude for life and breath at the moment and big expectations about the future.”

Well, while many Capetownians might dispute this rosy announcement by an enthusiastic outsider, Jarreau’s own evolving life story seems to also reflect a joyous continuum. But it hasn’t always been easy for him….

CM: You had mentioned how you have gotten off your addictions to attend to your health.
AJ: I had to get out of the Whiskey and Bourbon drinking. Now, when I’m close to a bar, there’s a horrible smell…from those alcohols! I drank and smoked a lot, but had to let them go for my general health. And boy, am I unhappy!! (Hah Hah!) So ask me if I’m doing better? NO!! (Hahahaha) I only quit five years ago and boy, am I bored!! Hahahah!

CM: Has your creativity been compromised at all?
AJ: The creativity continues with different stuff to consider. We’re part of this surviving thing. It’s called being-ness, it’s called life, and presence …. what we see and what we comment about out there in the universe and on our planet. My vision has cleared a bit more in that way and I’m moving towards this immortality, and feeling more strongly about immortality, and about who we are, and there’s no such thing as death, which is a misnomer. We just move on and we’re part of this continuing thing which gets better.

CM; Perhaps you’re talking about the ‘past life’, or re-incarnation…?
AJ:  Yes, yes. I don’t know much about that or studied the Hindu and Asian religions, but all those little influences coming into my life from time to time make sense to me. It becomes clearer to me that there is a ‘first cause’, a first something out of which everything came. And today our scientists and cosmologists are beginning to point at it. We talk about it as God. It doesn’t exclude God when cosmologists say ‘it began with a big bang’.

CM: Which leads me to a point: Is jazz as spiritual as it should be? Or is it going into another sexy, material, money issues, gain-what-you-can world?
AJ: That is the danger of all human activity, and jazz is part of it. Song and music writing used to have more soul in it, at a point where it was really connected to survival-ness. Like, early jazz musicians were very close to the soil, to the earth, to growing crops. Raking and picking crops for ‘survival-ness’. As we move away from that sort of society, where the work is done more by machines, we lose that connection to survival-ness. Music is successful because it is the spoiled brat of the arts. Dancers don’t do as well as musicians, never have and never will. Also, painters….and sculptures in the arts. Billions and billions of dollars are made on music and on what musicians have created. And why? Because music is real close to the heart beat. ‘Do don, do don, do don….’[mimicking a heartbeat]. You felt the beat before you even got here, in the wound, real close. And hearing the blood go ‘whisss whisss whisss’. We listened to those sounds before we got here. That’s got to be why music is so close to us and captures us immediately.
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Well, I’m going to ‘do don’ and ‘whisss’ myself away to listen to and review Jarreau’s latest album celebrating his old friend, George Duke, and craft my next Episode #3 for this blog. Happy lavender dreams to all! Here are the moving lyrics of ‘our story’:

“Jacaranda Bougainvillea”

Oh what a dream, Oh what a story.
Don’t have to weep, Come and enjoy a smile.
Opening scene is just like a doorway.
Here’s a story, in rhythm and rhyme.

There is a tree on the street and in the forest.
Lavender dream whispered a poet.
Bright potpourri. The envy of orchids,
When it’s dressed in a pink and fuchsia twine.
Jacaranda tree and the Bougainvillea vine.

Oh Mandela, that garden that you made,
Is a vision of the prayer, you must’ve been prayin’ everyday.
Sweet Azaleas, every color every kind.
And the first and the last are all divine.

There is a dream of the trees and of the flowers.
There is a season of peace at the borderline…
Where we’re redeemed and history will crown us.
Jacaranda tree and Bougainvillea vine.

Oh Mandela, would you say that it’s alright?
When the children play they always say, they say that we were like
Cinderella, in your garden there’s a shrine,
To the first and the last they’re all divine.

One and all, big and small, a common birth.
Each and every child for all his worth.
Take the one who’s always last and make him first.
Take these seeds. Seed the earth.

[OUTRO:]
Comin’ along,
Oh what a long way we have come.
Comin’ along,
Makin’ a home for everyone.
Comin’ along, way down South in Africa
Look at (Study) the Jacaranda tree huggin’ the Bougainvillea

[REPEAT OUTRO X4]

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Musically Smiling with Al Jarreau: conversations in Cape Town

Episode #1:   Humor, fun, dancing, message…… mornin’ Mr. Radio, mornin’ little cherios…..

I little dream came true when I was called up after Al Jarreau’s press conference to interview him one-on-one.  As the main headliner at the 16th CapeTown International Jazz Festival, 28-29 March 2015, this American wizard of voice and rhythm in the jazz, R&B, and pop genres blessed me with some 105 minutes of heart and soul talk. Here we go…..

Al Jarreau talks with Carol Martin (28 March 2015)

Al Jarreau talks with Carol Martin (28 March 2015)

CM:  You’re very African in your rhythms. Have you been to other African countries?

AJ:  I’m embarrassed to say, no!  But my ears are bigger than elephant’s….. I grew up listening to polkas, because the Polish settled in Milwaukee where I grew up.  My ears listened to the waltz, and delta blues.  At the age of 7 years, I would hear from our Milwaukee, Wisconsin home the late night polka tavern next door pumping at full force, since the area was historically populated by people from Poland and Germany, etc.  These songs and beats had a huge influence on me as a child and played in my head then.  I listened to church music, since my father was a minister in the church.  (He sings) “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, tell ole Pharoah, let ma people gooooo.”

“Yeh Yeh…..” (Al sings a tune with a West African beat, and with scatty lyrics to demonstrate an influence on his own ears and heart.)   You listen carefully and hear these African rhythms and messages which can also be heard in Cuban music…..and Brazilian music.    That’s why I’m interested in making music for others to hear. That’s what I did. I listened to and felt those sounds in that music because that’s the important mission I have in life, to make music for others to enjoy!   And maybe find a little Africa in my music, and a little Poland in my music!

CM:  I was just interviewing Basia who has the same influence from the Cuban and Brazilian music influences, but she’s never been there.

AJ: So you don’t have to be IN a country to hear the music.  But if your ears are really listening, and you’re listening with your heart, you get it!

CM:  Here in South Africa, the lyrics of songwriters are sometimes weak in talking about the social, political, and economic transformations out of the past.  Can we talk about your song lyrics?  Here, there’s always the struggle…..

AJ:  What do you mean by ‘struggle’?  …. the struggle to do lyrics or….the ‘great struggle’?

CM:  Yes,  the ‘great struggle’  – the struggle for ‘freedom’ which is a continuum….  But the lyrics by musicians, particularly jazz musicians, and song writers are weak in reflecting these issues.  Do you write your own lyrics?  And how can jazz musicians be encouraged to write their lyrics addressing these transformation issues?

AJ:  Yes, I write many of my own lyrics.  My answer I think is to find the people who are doing ‘it’, which means people who are writing about the times they live in.  Also, find a sense of humor in the music you write. As well as a sense of fun and dancing.  We tend to emphasise too much the latter, and too little about the art of survival – on our planet earth, and in our communities. How are we taking care of each other?  Some combination of these messages are important for me. So a lot of my songs are the ‘mornin’ tradition –

mornin’ Mr. Radio

mornin’ little cherios

mornin’ sister orio

did I tell you everything is fine

in my mind

in my mind

everything is fine.

how you think is how you are….

Find a way to think properly and you’ll be OK.

Now this involves finding a way of knowing we are OK. I don’t care how many mistakes we make on this planet.  I don’t care how much radiation destroys the planet.  We are OK.  We are immortal. From the rib of God, we DON’T DIE…..  We’re the greatest lesson in the world, ‘cause we don’t die…..

Stop mourning, and celebrate the ‘morning’ –

 ‘thank you father, thank you father….  Thank you for giving me LIFE, and eyes to witness, and a mind to understand that YOU are forever, dear Father, and I have come from you. Therefore, I have immortality and forever-ness in me because of you. I’ve just stopped here (on earth) to learn a few little things from you. ‘

We’re on loan….. and un-learning!!  Hah hah.

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The next chats go deeper……  Stay tuned!!  Jarreau is promoting his new album “My Old Friend-Celebrating George Duke” and it’s a whopper!

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Intergalactic Storytelling with bassist Carlo Mombelli

The University of Cape Town’s College of Music (SACM) came alight Tuesday morning with an illustrious group of European and South African collaborators at the Jazz Educator’s conference of SAJE (South African Association for Jazz Education). Composition wizard, Carlo Mombelli, offered an earful of stories with accompanying sounds, ranging from how he must negotiate ways to bring his electric bass directly on board the plane, to a powerful vibrational song about death from a road accident. His workshop presented performances and some Q & As from the thin but eager audience of music students and jazz enthusiasts.

Carlo explaining style

Carlo explaining style

“Creating compositions means being in the same headspace with members of my band,” he explained. “We have a conversation that has to make sense. You don’t repeat the same sentence to each other in a conversation, but move an idea along….adding new ideas. I set up the ‘glue’ that holds the story together, and we converse.”

Boy, did those guys talk! Trombonist Adrian Mears (South African, currently teaching at the Basel Jazz school) and electric cellist Daniel Pezzotti (member of the Zurich Opera Orchestra) along with a masterful drummer, Dejan Terzic from Germany, debated with Carlo’s topics musically. “Compositions are topics,” says Carlo. “I invite the band to debate the topic, and thereby add their own instrumental voices and hearts to the song, while sticking to the topic.” There is structure to this intergalactic storytelling, even though the sounds and rhythms of the topics seem to veer around in aural space and time. It becomes headspace, painting whatever comes up.

“As a result, I’ve developed my style of playing from my compositions.” One example of developing a style was when his damaged right hand and wrist was in a splint, but the thumb was left free. “How do I practice my guitar under these circumstances?” He used his left hand fingers to create the melody on the bass neck strings, while his right thumb strummed the strings lower down. The Carlo sound.

“Sounds have to come naturally,” Carlo continues. “A poet doesn’t make up nonsense words or phrases, but pulls out what he or she wants to communicate naturally. Improvisation means having a deep respect for each other’s playing, and complementing what each is doing.”

Does he sit down to write “South African music”? “Of course not. Because I’m South African, my music is South African, but I don’t pretend to write ‘South African music’. I’m constantly inspired by the sounds around me and those experiences with sounds are what becomes integral in my compositions. SOUND! …..of the wind through the trees, its effect on the sound of leaves. I get freaked out listening to the insects, and the birds…..”

A whimsical finish to the workshop was a performance of his song “Motian, the Explorer” in tribute to the inventiveness gleaned from the late drummer Paul Motian. “Paul played horizontally, not vertically, and was a big inspiration to me.”

Anyone listening to this notoriously creative band, led by Carlo, will also feel holistically touched by the unique improvisation that comes from such a tight-knit group whose repetitive loops spin one into a meditative trance-like state. No wonder my bottle of water shook with those looping vibrations!

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Interview with multi-instrumentalist Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, performing at CTIJF

On Thursday, 26 March 2015, one day before the opening performances of the 16th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival in Cape Town, I was privileged to have a short interview with Sipho Mabuse, nicknamed ‘Hotstix’, a SAMA Lifetime Achievement Award (2005) musician as well as an entertainer and businessman. A drummer at age 8, Sipho went on to learn and play on other percussion, wind, and brass instruments. This youthful 64 year old is passionate about reaching the wider young ears with his ‘music’. During his press conference at the Cape Sun Hotel, he was questioned predominately by eager students pursuing what makes artists tick. He insisted, “I don’t play jazz. Probably, I’m pretending to play jazz, but my music is quite basic and allows young people to interact with it.”

Sipho Hotstix Mabuse

“Try not to be something that you’re not,” he advises. “Be honest and focused.”

A youthful voice commended Hotstix for his energetic (albeit ‘elderly’) approach to life. “I get motivated and inspired by the audience, and I embrace an attitude of inspiration,” replies Hotstix.

“I’ve always believed that each generation has its own space and expression, so we must hope to be able to enter that space and advance with it. I listened to Beatenberg in Soweto– they are, like wow! We cannot cocoon ourselves to believe that only our generation had the ‘best’ music. We elders must appreciate this expansion of expression….”

Hotstix performs Friday, 27 March 2015, on the ‘Kippies’ stage of the CT International Jazz Festival.
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Sipho and I started our interview session with some history. I was working in newly independent Botswana in 1968 as a teacher trainer when I listened to a lot of South African music of the ‘townships’. Sipho said his new band was playing at the Gaberones Main Hall then. Maybe I was there!

We talked about how my jazz soul emerged while attending the world’s largest jazz festival back in the 1950s-60s (still operating today) at the Newport Jazz Festival in USA, as a teenager. “Yeh,” says Sipho, recognizing the familiar, “I was there, too. I saw Miles – he was in retirement for a while. I was working in New York, then.”

I told him I saw the greats, too – Mingus, Charlie Parker, Brubeck – because I grew up as a teenager just a ferry ride away from Newport in those glorious, jazzy days. We shared our histories.

&^&^&^&^&^&^&^&^&^

CM: Our concern with youth – There’s a desire to honour the legacy of South African elders and deceased artists and their contributions to the jazz world here. How do we encourage this honouring amongst the youth?

SM: Unfortunately, most jazz musos have operated within an insular framework. For instance, they try to play like Miles, and interact the way he did. Rather, we ask young people,” Show us what you can do.” Then we can interact with this and the whole ‘them/us’ impasse goes away. They begin to understand music in a particular way, and ‘we’ allow it.

Barney Rachebane’s grandson, Oscar, has great sax skills, and plays pop. I told Barney to allow Oscar to play kwaito if he wants to. Don’t turn him into a Charlie Parker yet, but allow him to listen. He will listen, but if you try to channel his thinking….My advice was not heeded and I think this young talent is now messed up because he wasn’t encouraged to hear and learn from those early maestros of modern jazz.

CM: Should improvisation be corrupted by pop music?

SM: Improvisation cannot be corrupted by pop music, because improvisation IS what it is. Let’s first ask ourselves, what is jazz, historically? What were people doing before they decided to improvise? It was a development within a pop environment, maybe not the same as perceived today. There has always been pop music happening in a certain era which people related to. If you listen to Charlie Parker, for instance, some of his music was dance music. What he found in dance was the jazz…. He allowed the improvisation to happen within that dance style and this was a way to expand his jazz.

Maybe, we’re missing that point. Did the guys create jazz out of nothing? It’s a feeling, from the soul. Improvisation wasn’t just created out of a vacuum. Jazz should not ‘scare’ youth. So Parker managed to make pop culture ‘jazzy’.

In Soweto, we have ‘Jazz Sessions’, I don’t know if you have something similar here in Cape Town. Coltrane – he has a song called, ‘Spiritual’. It’s a bouncy, poppish song, but he improvises. It is a very repetitive piece, and could be boring. But because he improvised on it, you don’t hear the monotony within the chord structure…….because it’s Coltrane. You take the name and his reputation and it’s no longer ‘pop’. it can survive…..

CM: Jazz comes out of a folk history, like in the USA, the African Americans sang their gospel folk music. Folk music is ethnic, expressing a society’s history and culture. In South Africa, with its many different ethnic groups having their own folk expressions, don’t you think there should be more jazz coming out of these groups? Coming from the Afrikaaners, Anglos, Africans, etc? Is this happening? Maybe folk is jazz.

SM: Educationally, we South Africans suffer from myopia. We don’t research on ourselves. We believe something else. What can we offer, we say? Mbaqanga music has a complex guitar… just like in jazz. There’s also the Maskandi of KZN. There are different styles we have not been able to tap into and create. And yet outside people say, wow! Courtney Pine was very avant garde in his improvised West African music. We shouldn’t look down on our African music which is jazz just because it doesn’t sound like American jazz.

Look what Jan Garbarek did in his Norway. He went to the mountains to discover and research the indigenous Sami music, and brought it to us.

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Carol Martin chat with Cape jazz trumpeter Darren English

Carol Martin chats with ….

Carol Martin chats with ….

Darren English

Darren English

One meets few young persons who seem to just have that blessing to meet the right people in the right circumstances at the right time, and have the God-given skills to positively recognise, absorb, and exploit those opportunities that result from such contacts. An astrologer would go astro in analysing Darren’s chart. It makes us all jealous! So how is young Darren English taking up these straight balls (to use a pool expression -his favourite game) to grow himself and his artistry? Most of us know curved balls….

Let’s go backward: 24 year old jazz trumpeter Darren, currently visiting his Muizenberg family, is soon to leave for Tuscany, Italy, to meet his heart-throb friend Whitney, a New Yorker, who is finishing her Ph.D. in Anthropology. Hummm…… an interesting pull for Darren. While in Italy, he will hopefully play in “a few festivals”. From there to France….to Alaska.

Darren EnglishDarren is invited to feature as ‘the young artist’ with the Sitka Jazz Festival in Alaska in Feb 2015. One of his many contacts he made while he played the USA jazz circuit this year, after finishing his Masters degree at Georgia State University in Atlanta, paid off. Darren doesn’t know what the program will be yet or who he’s playing with, except he will play with one small and one big band.

Ok, so after Alaska? Who wants to be in freezing Alaska in the middle of winter, pray tell?? “The jazz will warm you up there. They know!” cackles Darren.

In February, Darren plans to return to a more southern Atlanta, his second home. By then, maybe the northern hemisphere freeze will start to thaw. “There are two special individuals, Ralph and ChaCha, who have adopted me.” Ralph deejays with a jazz radio station WRFG [98.3 FM].

I am happy to hear this because…… Darren had just arrived in Atlanta in September 2012 to start a Masters program at Georgia State. I also arrived for a short visit. Through Jazz Education Network (JEN) based in USA, I had arranged for newly-arrived Darren to appear on WRFG-FM to talk with me and the DJs about South African jazz. Little did I know dear DJ Ralph had eyed Darren as a son to adopt!

Darren English pocketIt’s about contacts…..

So when Darren’s visa to stay in USA expired, after finishing his academic program this year, Darren gasped. So…… he met Hot Shoe Records, an Atlanta label. Tony Wasilewski, its owner, who ‘heard about Darren”, approached Darren in July 2014 to “do an album” with some of Darren’s compositions and top notch musicians. Darren didn’t realize that Tony was listing him as the ‘youngest musician’ in the album, paying for the whole album’s production costs, and even organizing for Darren’s new USA visa under the Record label! Three years! Darren thanks GOD for Tony. See: http://www.hotshoerecords.com/news-2.htm

Darren English Harley sepia“We connected over music, because in South Africa, I was into sports cars and building an old Porsche, a BMW…. And Tony was into the same thing, but on an actual budget! So Tony would invite me for breakfast at a restaurant, and would come in his super-renovated Porsche model xxx”

It’s about contacts……and cars…….

So Atlanta is like your second home? “The way people accepted me in Atlanta was amazing. Particularly, my mentor Joe Gransden, and my professor, Dr. Gordon Vernick. I’d play every week, and people seemed to genuinely love me. I feel undeserved. Ralph helped me to get my motorcycle, which you knew then. Ralph is like my Dad now.”

Yes, I knew Darren’s bike! During my second visit to my newly-bought condo near Piedmont Park in May 2013, where the Atlanta Jazz Festival was rocking the town, dear Darren rocked up in his heavy Harley, with obvious exhaust vibes uncharacteristic of good Jazz sounds. I cringed as I thought neighbours would freak out, in this quiet neighbourhood, at the sounds of this belching dinosaurus rex!

Darren English silhoetteSettle? “I just want to perform and share. You’re either good at your art, or not. I’ve got a job at Georgia State University, even with a Masters degree, if I want, and also a proposal in to another school in Atlanta. I’ll teach trumpet, or drums. And I can play piano with combos. Prof Gordon has been a great father at University, strict but fun and understanding. By default, I’ve been surrounded by good people!

Yeah……good contacts…..

How do you feel coming back to Cape Town? “Some of my mentors say, ‘This isn’t the place for you’. I came from a hectic busy schedule back in Atlanta, so I just chilled when back home. I do miss meeting up with those musicians here doing things. But sometimes, I feel I don’t fit here. There’s not many places to check out to play in. But I remember all those great musos I met when I was 13 ot 14 years old, when I played in Grahamstown. I played in Russell Gunn’s Jazz Orkestra at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, and Joe Gransden’s big band. Both helped me grow in ways I never imagined.”

Longterm plans? “Whitney was accepted in a law program at University of Arizona, but went off to complete her Ph.D. in Anthropology. So I thought I might do law with her! But I would still play the circuit when I return to Atlanta.

Good fortune seems to follow Darren…..

Darren English pensiveDan did his Masters thesis on the life and work of late saxophonist, Nic LeRoux, with whom Darren shares a birth day, 9 June. Dr. Vernick offered him a scholarship in Atlanta which was only for tuition. But Darren needed funds for living in USA. At the last minute, in 2012, he won the SAMRO Overseas Award just before he flew away! Before that, Fine Music Radio awarded Darren two awards. Darren has received 100% on his recital marks at UCT.

“God has been too good to me. I never paid for schooling through college, my brother had started med school. My parents struggled. For my Honors, I received more funds than I needed to spend! Extra money went into my car hobbies. I still appreciate a good looking vehicle.”

FMR paid out R20,000 and then SAMRO gave R170,000. Darren was flying high! “I had prayed alot for guidance. I think it’s God…..And I thank SAMRO immensely!”

Straight no Chaser1You can see Darren perform at Straight No Chaser (79 Buitenkant St, Cape Town) this Saturday, 6 December with Jonno Sweetman (drums) and Brydon Bolton (bass).

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Carol Martin interviews Nigerian jazz trumpeter Jo Lanre Kunnuji

Carol Martin

Carol Martin

Jo brings New Orleans to Badagry!

Jo Lanre Kunnuji

Jo Lanre Kunnuji

Trumpeter Jo Lanre Kunnuji is completing his Masters degree in Ethnomusicology at UCT’s School of Music. His passion to ‘modernize’ his less well understood musical tradition of the Ogu people of Badagry in southwest Nigeria has led him to research it and improvise on it. Jo’s ‘Ogu’ people, whose language is completely different from that of the larger Yoruba ethnic group which covers south western Nigeria, are more numerous in neighboring Benin than in Nigeria. Yet, most Ogu actually speak Yoruba, but are considered by the Yoruba to be of a ‘lower’ status. Jo’s cultural exploration of Ogu music is quite fascinating…..

CM: So, why are you presently researching this music?

JLK: I said to myself, oh wow! My people really don’t know their own culture – they are ‘borrowing’ from the Yoruba….like names, the music, even the language. The older people remember and know the music, but not the younger ones. So I decided to research my own Ogu cultural roots, and the musical idioms.

I found there is a radio station in Lagos that hosts an Ogu language program run by people who don’t want to see this culture die out. So there is more awareness now. But it’s the older people in my home area who are performing the classical Ogu music. I want the younger Ogu to become interested, which is why I am fusing jazz with this tradition. Jazz is demanding, so maybe the youth will see they have to work at it. Many people consider our traditional African music as ‘old’ or not relevant. So they try to impose Western ideas on the music. There’s a condescending attitude about African music: “Oh, she’s not singing in tune.” Not singing in tune – by whose standard? The African concept of intonation is different, so you can’t judge them on Western ideals!

CM: You’re using the word, “jazz”, a lot. In other societies/countries, musicians take their folk songs and improvise on them, and call it ‘jazz’. Perhaps, you are doing the same with your Ogu music. So you’re not actually trying to preserve the traditional, are you?

JLK: I take Badagry music and do jazz harmony to it. As a performer, I’ve had great feedback and interest from other Nigerian musicians. Even Ogu people are asking “What are you doing to our tunes? It sounds cool.” It’s like bringing New Orleans to Badagry! I am keeping the melodies and the percussive base. What I am doing is adding on harmonies, and using Western instruments –the trumpet, flugelhorn, baritone saxophone, etc. At this stage, I am not writing my own music, because I want to build on our own songs which are familiar. But when I play MY own arrangements, people get excited to hear the mix of traditional and jazz.

CM: Let’s go back a bit to your training. You studied music in Nigeria?

JLK: I first received my BA degree in Sociology, but I grew up in church – my father was an Anglican priest – and played the drums. My older brother played with sons of afrobeat pioneer Fela Ransome Kuti, namely Oluseun Kuti and Femi Kuti. I was encouraged to study for a diploma in music. Now, I am focusing just on experimentation, taking the afrobeat groove , which is Fela’s music. That’s for one of my own arrangements. I believe in the foundation people and acknowledging what they did, try to copy what they did, then do something of my own. That’s my personal lesson from the jazz greats and masters.

CM: How did you get to Cape Town?

JLK: While I was doing my diploma in music in Nigeria, I learned about UCT from my professors who came from overseas. I was advised to go further than a diploma. I happened to be volunteering with the Limpopo Youth Orchestra as a teacher for three months– there were seven of us from Nigeria – as the head of my Nigeria music school had links with this Orchestra. So , from Limpopo I could apply to UCT School of Music.

CM: Who else has influenced you in your experimentation?

JLK: Definitely, Terence Blanchard. His album called ‘Bounce’ has a song called ‘Azania’ that sounds like my own traditional music. You can even hear my language spoken, but there’s a different version. I could just pick a few words. I wish I could contact Terence. I like his style, approach, and composition. This is just a personal thing – I would like to study with him. Another person I’d like to speak to is Kenny Garrett. He sounds like he’s speaking in my language. You know, African languages are tonal, and when Kenny plays a certain phrase, it sounds just like my own Ogu music!

CM: You don’t think this is just coincidence?

JLK: Oh well, there must be too many coincidences, then! Both Kenny and Coltrane use pentatonic. My own music uses a lot of pentatonics – so listening to them is like listening to my own language. Some of their songs have West African names, like Coltrane’s “Tunji” which sounds like home. Also, Sonny Roland’s pieces, “Airegin” which is ‘Nigeria’ spelled backwards! Then, there’s “St. Thomas” which sounds like highlife to me. The melody is very Yoruba.

CM: Who in South Africa has influenced you?

JLK: Marcus Wyatt and Feya Faku. Also my current supervisor and other School profs have encouraged me. Also, Miriam Makeba and Dizzy. Mostly what has influenced me is synchronicity, music from other worlds, peoples.

CM: What will you do in the future? Go back to Nigeria?

JLK: I see myself contributing to preserve my people’s music, as well as making it attractive to listen to. My plans are to record, write articles and music, and teach. I don’t see much appearing in publications. I’m still experimenting, nothing is final.

You can hear Jo Kunnuji Experiment and his Creative Project at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zQzux3KhWw
and “Jesu wa nami… dagbe dagbe” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNo9RF1ME88
with its lovely mix of horns (including a lady baritone sax) and vocals.

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INTERVIEW – Marcus Wyatt at Joy of Jazz – Saturday, 27 September 2014.

Carol Martin chats with Marcus Wyatt

Carol Martin chats with Marcus Wyatt

I caught up with 43 year old trumpeter Marcus Wyatt during the Joy of Jazz Festival in Sandton a few weeks ago – he seems to be everywhere in Jozi! First, at The Orbit jazz club in CBD the Thursday night before Joy of Jazz started, with bassist Benjamin Jephta and pianist Kyle Shepherd. Then, somewhat hidden at US crooner, Gregory Porter’s concert with a huge orchestra.

Regarding his newest ‘Language 12’ album entitled “Maji Maji: in the Land of Milk and Honey”, he explains the title: “Maji is like muti. It’s an album about protection, as ‘maji’ in Kiswahili means water, and water sustains life. Water keeps us sane.”

Marcus Wyatt in full cry

Marcus Wyatt in full cry

We talked:
CM: How different is this album from your previous one?
MW: It’s the same language 12 which is music, but it can go anywhere, just like the creativity of music, without genre, without specific definition. This ‘Maji’ album is probably the most accurate representation of who I am in my growth as a musician. I grew up playing everything and not just straight ahead jazz – drum and base, orchestral, west African. What makes me most proud about this project is that you recognize all these elements but there’s not a preconceived feel, and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

CM: Siya – your vocalist is quite beloved to you?
MW: We’ve been together for many years . There’s only one solo song of hers on the album; the rest of her vocals are with all of us. Her songs “take you places” thanks to the collective. This album is really hers. She’s done all of the lyrics.

CM: I love how her voice emotes. She has a range which sounds ‘African’. You have mixed your own cultural identity, and through her, your music has the flavor of many different styles and themes.
MW: I grew up as an English speaking white South African, this being the least cultured of all the groups in South Africa. We are probably the strongest ethnic group seeking a cultural identity, because we have the biggest reason to find this. On the positive side of all this, it allows me to choose and take from the different cultural groups, cultures that I am engaged with. I’m not locked into a ‘culture’ and therefore I’m free to explore.

CM: I see you haven’t used the accordion yet, in the South African Afrikaans sense. What about Melissa (van der Spey) for that ethnic dimension?
MW: I would definitely like to use her in the future, particularly her voice, with me playing vuvuzela and her singing, and in a mascanda style. The Vuvu has a place in South African history, like the kudu horn!

CM: I don’t think many people understand that or have thought of it in that way, so you can pioneer that attitude. You’re in a position to evoke ethnic sounds without having to be part of that community! Nice! So, who have been your greatest influences – in the music world?
MW: Who is the person I would default to? Well, my dad was chairman of the folk club in PE growing up so I listened to Tony Cox, Steve Neumann, David Cramer and those guys. At the house I listened to a lot of blues and folk. I played in the Navy band so several musicians helped me on the path. Other band members, like Buddy wells and Dave Ledbetter, whom I think is one of our most underrated musicians, helped a lot. In JBG, saxman Sidney Mnisi influenced me with his energy and do-or-die attitude. Others like Herbie (Tsoaeli, acoustic bass) and Carlo (Mombelli, bass) have been a big influence for many years. Ach….so many influences.

CM: But…..Siya?
MW: Yes, she is THE person. I can write pages on her. She is such an inspiration in what she brings. Language 12 is SHE. International artists? Mono DiBongo on Robben Island; musos in Europe/France, like those guys in Paris – Braka and Nicola and Daniel (tuba player). A gig with them at the Grahamstown Festival was great; the vibe of audience was one of surprise.

CM: What are your next projects?
MW: I’ve always wanted to promote the non-commercialized jazz exiles, like Chris McGregor and those of his time, who were pushing our jazz heritage, at least in Europe. The Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra, meant to be less Euro-centric with its spelling, buckled me down to write for this 13 piece orchestra. There is nothing recorded for release yet, but there are a few recordings in Europe. I’ve tried to sell the project of the Blue Notes Tribute to festivals here, but no luck.

CM: Isn’t there a ‘heritage jazz festival’ being bandied about among musicians and promoters here? What about interests by the SA Concert series?
MW: I don’t know, but I would love to travel the heritage band around to schools and their communities. The “Jozi Unsigned” company is interested in this. Even Language 12 has performed out of the country more than within RSA – mainly in India and Europe. Heritage jazz music needs to get out there to the public– such as at the upcoming Fringe Fest in Cape town, and at the Crypt.

I was left thinking how South Africa might provide that ‘land of milk and honey’ and that ‘Maji’ for the rich jazz heritage is still has, among the living, both older and younger. It’s about protecting history and artistry, and nourishing it for future generations.

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