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Ghanaian Modern Jazz meets traditional Highlife – just barely!

Ghanaian jazz pianist, Victor Dey Jr, wooed audiences at this year’s Standard Bank National Arts Youth Jazz Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), with professional musicians on stage and loads of youthful students of jazz in the audience!

Victor Dey, Jr.

The Diocesan Girls School’s large Hall hummed as this pianist fundi, backed by the improvisational wizardry of South African jazz musicians,  spinned through modern jazz tunes with a West African rhythmic twist.

With Ghanaian music always a foundation of his artistry,  this vibrant soul treats piano keys like cotton, with energy, ease, and an uncanny transparency.  His unusual rendition of jazz icon, John Coltrane’s, ‘Giants Steps’ took all by surprise: silky runs reinterpreting familiar melodies with deliberate off-notes and missed beats, all playfully executed. Another composition, “Mr. PK Ambrose”, named for a fellow bassist who featured on Dey’s first album, Makola, thrilled with its fast pace mounted by both Dey and saxophonist Sisonke Xonti whose runs also caused audience gasps.

Romy Brautenseth (bass), Sisonki Xonti (sax), Marcus Wyatt (trumpet)- Standard Bank

This piece gave all players a chance to triple their usual rhythms, with double bassist Romy Brauteseth stylishly running furiously through her strings.   I kept looking for that West African percussive beat of Ghana’s famous ‘High Life’ style, but Dey ran away with more contemporary modalities….or was it that Johannesburg-based drummer, Ayanda Sikade, dubbed in a familial Ghanaian title of ‘Nana Ayanda’,  stole the show with his frenetic drum solos which wowed all?

Afrika Mkize (left),Victor Dey Jr (middle), Ayanda Sikade (far right)

Whatever one was looking for, or not,  this gifted pianist stunned his fellow artists, like pianist Afrika Mkize, whose fits of bowing and ululations later over drinks in the Hall’s cozy outdoor (and heated) bar foyer drew obvious attention.

 

 

 

 

 

Dey’s latest album, Makola (2017), named after Accra’s main busy market, contains zesty Ghanaian rhythms mixed with jazz, funk, and Latin American, representing “the spirit of the market which is diversity, movement and business”, as Dey puts it.

Playing Fender Rhodes and other keyboards, Dey is well supported by ambitious solos of Bernard Ayisa’s tenor & alto saxophones and  trumpeter Nicolas Genest. Distinct blues, ballads, and improvisations characterise this album without much West African punch.  But there’s a reason for that, as Dey and I chatted during afternoon breaks from workshops at the Youth  Jazz Festival.

Victor Dey Jr.,  born in 1980 and being the son of a diplomat,  spent his very early years in the UK and Algeria, learning piano as well as cultural dynamics.  Back home in Ghana, he completed a Liberal Arts education, and became one of the few who delved into the world of ‘modern jazz’, thanks to occasional alignment with Hugh Masekela and Stevie Wonder.  Granted “Musician of the Year 2014” at the Ghana Vodafone Music Awards, and featured on CNN’s  African Voices in 2016, Dey’s uniqueness was secured and followed.

His soft spoken, polite style of chatting set the tone to understand his impressions of South African jazz as he had faithfully listened to different musicians, like Bheki Mseleku and Andile Yenana whom he also met at the Festival.  Recognizing the strong jazz culture in South Africa with jazz roots and a special vibe, he continues to learn what he might want to add to his own music.  “I’m looking at the stylistics, how South African jazz is crafted, it’s mysterious, spiritual, sometimes dark tones, and what it’s telling you – it’s difficult to describe.  Like Mseleku’s “All for One, One for All” song…..

I suggested he talk with Afrika Mkize who had transcribed Bheki’s compositions.

* * * * * *

Dey is working on his second album with his trio.  “I want something more intimate and intricate.”  Maybe some traditional West African beats?  We’ll see. As we  talked about the more traditional Ghanaian highlife of C K Mann, Dey’s voice saddened. “Oh, that is the old highlife. It’s changed now.  I don’t want to say into what!”  He chuckles confirming my worst suspicion.

“The Highlife is more electronic now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But there’s a totally different feel about it now ….. It’s more like pop with the Akan Twi lyrics, and moving into a more global context.”  He suggested that people are playing around this mode, but are moving away from their traditional roots, while understanding the traditional in other more modern contexts.

“This is interesting because I worked on a project earlier this year, and recorded it, taking older classical songs of Ghana and giving them a more modern jazz twist with a light jazz piano .  That is yet to be released  with a well known highlife lady singer, Kodjoe Aisah.  So,  that kind of highlife is not totally dead yet, thank God!”  But are there other musicians willing to keep the traditional alive, and yet move the music forward as improvisational music?   “There are a few guys who haven’t yet put their tunes out .  They’re in that development phase taking so many things in, but it will come.”

This is an issue, remembering  how stuck musicians like Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatke were in trying to move Ethio-jazz forward, but the schools of music (and fellow musicians!) refused to do this.  So are there music schools for jazz in Ghana?

 

“No, not yet.  Schools prefer the [European] classical and choral music, and African traditional music.  Once in a while, workshops are organized.  I just did a tour in Ghanaian universities, sponsored by the American Embassy, but that’s about it.  Yes, I’m disappointed, but not surprised.   Jazz culture in Ghana was nicer in the 60s and 70s.  But what happened is that the soldiers took over the country in coups and forced curfews on citizens who couldn’t go out to hear the live music at night.  So the musicians left the country.  This is why I’m on a mission to enlighten:  organize workshops, give private lessons for payment or free.  I’m working on something now at University of Ghana which wants to catalogue my music and start a program  –  that’s in the pipeline.”

Hmmm.  The creative artist struggles with time management devoted to creating, but then the other teaching/learning cycle with society takes up space, too.  “I’ll make the time,” Dey says convincingly. “I’ve done some things with neighboring countries like Togo and Benin. My band may be performing at the Lagos International Jazz Festival in Nigeria, too, next year! But I have loved what I have seen and learned right here with South Africans at this Festival!” His eyes gleam.

Well, it’s reassuring to this writer that jazz, with some roots in tradition, won’t die.  I’m watching Dey Jr. like a hawk!

Catch his Youtube video at:  https://musicians.allaboutjazz.com/victordeyjnr

 

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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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