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Four Blokes, Four Band Leaders highlight free jazz improv

Overflowing crowds packed CapeTown’s venerable jazz venue, Straight No Chaser, this January to imbibe a new year dose of jazz improvisation from four distinguished musicians across several age ranges. Quirky free jazz Capetownian pianist, Kyle Shepherd, elder drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, and bassist Byron Bolton, brought together British/Caribbean tenor saxophonist, Shabaka Hutchings, for several evenings of unusual performances during the hot week of 13-16 January 2016.

South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo

South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo

I walk in late. Moholo’s frantic drums are spitting away. Kyle taps away on piano keys influenced by various objects strewn across the piano strings, like wooden sticks and cardboard. Nice harpsichord effect amidst an intense melody-absent improvisation. This foursome chatters, talks about important things, expresses emotion through various thumps, instrumental grunts, plucks and wails.

Now, what are they all talking about? Pianist Kyle then picks up a drum mallet, and starts hitting the piano strings, with purpose, not randomly, it seems. Double bassist Bolton eyes drummer Moholo as they share secret things behind their tapping, bow strumming, and pitter patters. They dance together, not necessarily in rhythmic harmony. There is no ¾ time. There is no time, just presence, the now! Shabaka’s sax offers undertones and subtle nods as a wrestling match ensues. Who’s refereeing this road race? All four of them! It’s intense, and after 25 minutes, I’m exhausted. Time for applause as one watches the two ceiling fans seriously pushing warm breezes in this packed venue. We are all seeking relief from a January heat wave.

This cozy venue of Cape Town’s Straight No Chaser needs to be five times bigger to hold offerings by, simply put, The 4Blokes, who performed additional nights due to popular demand. And still the music fans keep coming to these sold-out shows. The band simply advertise themselves as: “A pioneering free jazz drummer. An award-winning British saxophonist. A virtuoso young pianist. A bowing bass maverick. Four band leaders. 4 Blokes” .

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings

The visiting tall lean Londoner saxophonist, Shabaka Hutchings (http://www.shabakahutchings.com/) has a number of impressive awards and experiences with notable bands. His second Sons of Kemet album was released in September 2015 as he continues his research on the musical influences amongst the Caribbean diaspora in Britain. Back to his Cape Town concerts, he survived the ring matches with drummer extraordinaire, 77 year old Louis Moholo, who has absorbed every worldly influence on jazz improvisation since his early beginnings with Chris McGregor’s The Blue Notes, and then the Brotherhood of Breath in the 1960s/70s. Moholo doesn’t age; he just gets better. One doesn’t just ‘listen’ to him; one watches him. He’s very much engaged with his percussive instrument which becomes an extension of his own humanoid discussive personality.

Likewise, the enigmatic bowing bassman, Brydon Bolton, shows prowess when his bowed strings wrestle with the group’s improvisational quackery. He’s another watchable performer bordering on the classical traditions and jazz improve, as manifested in his electro-acoustic band, Benguela.

All four ‘blokes’ are composers with propensities for ‘free jazz’, the experimental, and home ethnics. Theirs is hardly conventional, even though several songs in their recent gigs were traditional bebop jazz of another era. There lies their inexorably creative improvisational talents!

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Ancestral Heartbeats Code the Music, an interview with award winner pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.

“The greatest moments are when you can’t tell the difference between the piano, or the bass, or the drum, but rather when there’s one wave of sound…… This is consciousness, becoming one with the environment.”

I felt somehow connected with ancestral energies as I drove this youthful bearded jazz pianist to CapeTown’s airport after his weekend gigs with trumpeter, Feya Faku, and local musicians. His performance with Faku’s album launch, “Le Ngoma”, at CapeTown’s popular Straight No Chaser jazz club was a subdued low key presentation of his wider talents. Johannesburg-based Nduduzo Makhathini, originally from Kwa Zulu Natal, is still on a high from being granted Standard Bank Young Artist 2015 award in the Jazz category. I asked him about his philosophy, messages, and what he meant by ‘identity politics’ which he has adopted.

NM: Mine is spiritual, wedded with cultural. I was introduced to music in its religious mode, and later to the business side of music. I grew up as a Christian, going to churches, etc. but I don’t subscribe to any of them. Music moved me into a more spiritual groove. In my youth, I would visit up to four churches on a Sunday just for the music. I loved the gospel messages and sounds. I would leave when the sermons started!

CM: Who else has influenced you besides Zim and Bheki Mseleku?
NM: My mom is my greatest inspiration, and my first piano teacher. I also grew up with the traditional isicathamiya ensembles, or male acopella, like Black Mambazo. I love harmonies which is why this singing drew me to the piano where I can make harmonies myself. I also love harmony in life, which is why I became so close to Bheki who focused on harmonizing things in life. Andre Petersen is also one of my favourites as he expresses inspiration also with Mseleku.

CM: Your three kids are also part of your music journey, aren’t they?
NM: Wow, I have three kids. What a responsibility now! What can I put out there for them? What is left for me by my forefathers, and for them? So my album, “Sketches of Tomorrow” is for my kids. I fused the Western with the traditional African since I have to deal with both cultures, which meet on this album. And they do too.

2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz- Nduduzo Makhathini. Credit: Adam McConnachie

2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz- Nduduzo Makhathini. Credit: Adam McConnachie

CM: You talk about healing others. What about healing yourself?
NM: I always feel that the music I play has a message sent through me. Sometimes I don’t understand these messages. So healing goes through me, my system. It tries to heal the space that we’re in, our environment where everyone operates. There are different forms of healing, but I concentrate on the traditional kind in my Zulu culture. I want my family to learn that each and every individual has a role to play on earth, and we need to find out what that is. That’s my ‘politics’, that everyone, equally, has a contribution to offer. We are passing the shacks now [along Cape Town’s N2 highway on route to airport]. Without those people here, this process of honouring each other cannot be complete unless we continue the legacy. That’s why I care for everyone, the kids and people on the streets, and even the more fortunate in the suburbs. These people in shacks barely have the basics for living. My music speaks to them more because these people need healing.

My grandmother was a healer who would have water and pray on it. I asked people to bring water to my gigs, and just have it there in their possession. My music, I believe, then allows the water to capture the healing, and this water has the power of coding certain messages. Mbeki and I used to go to these temples and learn how the spiritual energies were moved by earth elements, and I learned from this. Together, we explored healing as a gift through the language of ingoma or our musicianship.

CM: Regarding your still-to-be launched album, “Listening to the Ground”, I’m curious why you have pulled in the Swedish tenor saxophonist, Karl Martin Almquist, one of my very favourites from northern Europe?
NM: I found him on YouTube, had never met him, but loved his sound. I sent him an email a few years ago, and invited him to join in my latest album. He said, Yes!

CM: Tell me about your album, “Listening to the Ground”.
NM: This is for my ancestors. It’s about the African soil, and African environment, which has so much energy and sounds in it. How deep is the African ground, and how deep is the African soul? In spite of slavery, African people continue to smile, continue to have hope, and till the soil.

CM: Your music you say comes from an ‘external’ force. If you mean a higher Spirit (let’s call it ‘God’), then why can’t this powerful force be ‘internal’ as well? Your project seems to have integral components working together.
NM: Yes, right. I see God as a holistic view of consciousness. It means ‘God’ is a complete picture, both internal and external. The deeper you get into the internal mode of self, the more you can go outside yourself. Like those who had ‘out of body’ experience….. they went so deep inside themselves that they could actually come out of that experience.

SBYA 2015 - jazz. Nduduzo Makhathini

SBYA 2015 – jazz. Nduduzo Makhathini

CM: You’d make a good Buddhist!
NM: Oh, hah hah! I read and listen alot to Osho? On Sundays, with my family in our house, we listen to Osho teachings and alot of music, and learn and discuss. Osho leaves things open for us to look for conclusion. For instance, he observes the cycle of water with this story: There was a stream that flowed for so many years, but then runs into a desert. Osho then panicks wondering how he’s going to find water in this dry desert. But he had another thought: If I become one with the desert and dissolve in it, then I’ll be OK. It then began to rain in a different place and saved his desert. His message was that sometimes, we must dissolve and not take ourselves so seriously. And this is what the exercise of music teaches. I can just let go and not become so absorbed in my individuality. The greatest moments are when you can’t tell the difference between the piano, or the bass, or the drum, but rather when there’s one wave of sound…… This is consciousness, becoming one with the environment.

CM: Are you interested in teaching about this consciousness, environmental holistic healing, and ways to save us all!
NM: It’s always there indirectly. The music is our greatest teaching. My music is universal, always a means to a destiny. Music has a power, something deeper, for people to reach for. I’ve been writing alot, in social media, about what inspires my music. Many people who resonate with my music and its ingoma (musical healing) are not necessarily jazz lovers.

CM: You’re on a journey….particularly with your family. With your mom….And your wife?
NM: My Mom’s very special, supports me 100%, even though she doesn’t have my belief systems. My wife, Nomagugu, is on all my albums. She’s one of my favourite singers. I’ve got my daughter on ‘Mother Tongue’. The three children and my wife finish the last track on “Sketches of Tomorrow”, with my children ending the song: “Oh Nothing; Oh Nothing Again”. I thought what a beautiful message as it came from them listening to the woes about Zimbabwe daughters there, about “Africa’s daughters are without names,” with a loss of identity. So I think it’s amazing how kids can spark this energy in the music we play in the house. In terms of healing the space, the kids and my wife heal that house space which becomes charged with so much energy.

CM: What an experience for the kids! You talked about your Sunday gigs just for the three of them.
Do you record your family sessions?
NM: Oh Oh. No. What an idea! I should record them, you know. We would talk about the gigs, about what is God and existence, and about what they feel in the music, and how the music connects to God, etc. Other kids would tell them about their church experience, but my kids would tell their friends about the music: “Our Dad does gigs for us!” and explain what we played at home that morning.

CM: So your journey continues….
NM: Like Bheki Mseleku who said he never knew how or where to finish a tune, it just kept going and going, with no real ending…… So I think I love the same kind of thing, where music never ends. Durban is a center for guitar harmonies, too, which I love. My father played guitar, so I have been inspired by those traditional sounds . I portray this in the song,“From an Old Bag of Umkhumbane”. I recently discovered that my paternal grandfather came from this town of Umkhumbane which, like Sophiatown, became a melting pot for jazz and music. There was a whole tradition of guitar culture. This is why I like to explore how to express this guitar on the piano.

I’ll be doing my masters at Stellenbosch University through York University partnership. I’ll focus on oral tradition and jazz, and how music has been taught without written music. Similarly, how stories in a song have been orally presented, not written. Written scores present different interpretations, like Winston’s Yakhal’ Inkomo which he authored in a different time. Likewise, I’m dealing with certain things now, but how do I make that song relevant and how do we push this music forward for it to make sense with the generations to come which don’t know much about the history of South Africa? But in this music, certain things can be coded and documented, of history and music.

CM: The coding of music……

At this point, Nduduzo had only half hour to check in for his flight. Our chat could have continued forever….. It will.

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Bokani Dyer dyertribes again at Straight No Chaser with Swiss crew

As light rain falls in the middle of Cape Town’s dry winter, Straight No Chaser is the place to be, a manageable venue that handles what warmth seekers want to hear – good live jazz. I walked in on last night’s well advertised gig featuring our own pianist Bokani Dyer who presented his band of seasoned Swiss musicians having musical ties to South Africa. Together, on a country wide tour, his Swiss Quintet performed Bokani’s own ‘dyertribe’ compositions, some from his latest album, ‘World Music’.

Bokani Dyer Swiss Quintet on Tour in South Africa

Bokani Dyer Swiss Quintet on Tour in South Africa

I arrived for the second set, as the first group of patrons were leaving. Entering this small but cozy venue from the chilly wet outside, my eye glasses immediately fogged up. The sauna of human breath was inviting, indeed, and I quickly warmed up as these five musicians took to the stage, thanks to their sponsor, Prohelvetia.

Being a Bheki Mseleku fan (as I am), Bokani performed his own version of Mseleku’s “Cycle” which featured a stunning double bass solo from Stephan Kurmann, followed by a piano duet which sounded very much like the late great Mseleku we knew. Trumpeter Mattias Spillmann started the next song rustling an A4 paper as the bass punctuated. Bokani plucked his piano strings. Drummer Norbert Pfammatter fell in with a steady funky beat. Then, Spillmann put his hat on his trumpet to act like a muffler, another innovative ‘hat trick’! I called this ‘trumpet ruffles while hat muffles’ as the song’s name wasn’t announced.

Mattias Spillmann's hat muffler

Mattias Spillmann’s hat muffler

The final song, “Fanfare”, struck off with a familiar South African beat – again a Mseleku sound – with an extraordinary saxophone solo by Donat Fisch followed by an equally competitive one by the trumpet. It was a finale making any outside inclement weather little to care about.

The Bokani I knew from the past was shining, as usual. But he has lost his dredlocks. His shaved head grown out a little bit connotes him as avant-garde, plain, older, but simpler. I guess a Bokani in the raw!! I grew up with big Afro -black-is-beautiful heads. OK, I’m outdated….

Bokani’s set perked me up. Mind you, at 10.20pm, on a rainy chilly night at the bottom of this hemisphere, I could have dealt with bed. Easily. The trek out was worth it! And why the Swiss four? In May 2014, Bokani did a residency in Basel at the Bird’s Eye Jazz Club where he performed with his Swiss comrades who, individually, carry a wealth of experience with worldly views, including performing with notable South African musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim, Feya Faku, Marcus Wyatt, etc.

Bokani with Marlon & Shane

I now look forward to digesting his new CD, ‘World Music’, which Bokani recorded with South Africans he has grown up with. The 12 songs promise another dyertribe special, I’m sure!

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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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Young American jazz saxophonist releases debut album with Capetownians

An Interview with Tristan James Weitkamp by C. Martin

“Flash in the Pan” , the debut album of 23 year old Tristan James Weitkamp, talks about issues of the heart brought on by contemporary social incongruities. Here’s a young jazz artist with a message. A native of Portland, Oregon, Tristan has crafted his Cape Town band, called New Horizons, to produce an exciting assortment of home-grown, South African-influenced songs with stories. The album will be released this June by Milestone Studios followed by gigs in Cape Town on 12 (UCT/SACM C7) and 18 June (Straight No Chaser).

I interviewed the band members during their studio ‘shoot’ and found some very creative and ambitious guys and gals willing to give their all. There are a host of guest artists performing in this ambitious album: Ludwe Danxa plays keyboard; Revon October plays electric bass; Ndumiso Manan and Diana Neil on vocals; Dizu Plaatjies on pipe flute; James McClure and Marco Maritz on trumpets; Georgie Jones on baritone sax; Tammy Breakey on flute; and Norwegian guitarist, Gorm. The poet is Kgmotso Malele.

But firstly, let’s hear from the young maestro himself.

TJW: I had studied music at college in Portland, Oregon, but wanted a break to study African affairs more closely. One professor I had in Oregon was Darrell Grant, a pianist who accompanied Better Carter band, inspired me to explore the world more when my family held house concerts featuring Darrell. This led to my applying to the University of Cape Town (UCT) for African Studies. I also knew UCT had a vibrant music school which is why I brought my sax. So, my family helped raise my funds for an expensive tuition at UCT. I also jammed with musicians and never dreamt I would end my year cutting my first jazz album with these wonderful musicians!

Tristan at Piano Bar

Tristan at Piano Bar

CM: I understand you have strong messages to convey in your album, like in your song, “Coffee Stains”.

TJW: My most authentic composition is ‘Coffee Stains on Cardboard Boxes’, which is a duet between my sax and the double bassist. There’s a story on this from Prestwich Memorial, about how building developers found graves of slaves and exhumed them to build a new building, and doing this digging without consideration for the slave’s ‘rights’ to a dignified burial.

CM: [I thought to myself: How does a 23 year old ‘white’ American boy, coming to Africa, learn and incorporate a profoundly significant but little known historical incident (at least to average CapeTownians) about the treatment of slaves, dead or alive?]

TJW: The corpses of slaves were stored in these shelves, in this building, like they would be stored on a slave ship. I was in their mausoleum but the frontage was actually a coffee shop, like a corporate business. I think it’s a horrible modern day example of slavery, and how we do not take interest in what these people represented. Their memorial grave is being supported by money generated by coffee! That’s why I wrote this song, about coffee stains on cardboard boxes.

CM: You sound quite politically aware as an artist wanting to send out your concerns in your music. Have you been an activist of sorts?

TJW: Not really, but I’ve grown frustrated with the unchanging nature of our world. I’m seeing proposals made by Martin Luther King’s movement back in the 60s are not being achieved 60-70 years later. During College, I took several courses in African studies, and this enthused me to study further, which is why I came to UCT/CapeTown. I became exposed to hurtles and blocks to democracy in this country. I was seeing issues not much differently from other parts of the world. I arrived right after Mandela’s funeral. I’m a political animal, and am aware of the economic crisis. But studying African history and music – and political and social issues in South Africa – woke me up. UCT is a microcosm of the country. Political and social protests are being held amongst students and faculty/administration.

Through the African Studies department, I learned about the Prestwich Mortuary. Also, one visiting South American lecturer, Walter Mignolo, inspired me to understand how colonialism is a persistent trait, spawned out of the feudal and renaissance times, hand in hand with technological advances. History is not linear but vertical, one layer being built upon another. Apartheid is like this, accumulative history using ‘race as a way to measure….worth. He said, if we are concerned with race today, then it means we are still colonialists. If we did not make a big deal about ‘race’, then the subject would not be important and the issues would fall away. He talked about how you go about de-colonizing the human psyche because colonialism lives in the brain. We have to de-program our minds – get rid of the propaganda instilled in us.

CM: So where did you get “Flash in the Pan” as your album title?

TJW: Flash in the Pan comes from the time when firearms were muzzle-loaded, but nothing came to fruition. Big sensationalism with no real results. Like having a movement to remove Rhodes statue, to combat the neo-colonialism in the modern context, but when it happened, it only removed the statue. This created conversation, but nothing really changes. History remains. If you want to change, then change laws moving contemporary society along, not tear down historical statues.

Tristan at Tagoges

Tristan at Tagores

CM: Tell me how you chose your songs.

TJW: “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney, is a song he composed to convey the opportunity to fly, amidst the 1950s and 1960s black consciousness movement. Another song is about a meatgrinder – is a Cape jive tune with an American jazz twist. I was told by a friend from Delft that his home was like a meatgrinder in the township, because of the amounts of crime, people fighting with each other, grabbing what they can. It turns people around, grinds them up. Then another song, “Impetus”, is a force that sparks something, moves the boulder. ‘Flash in the Pan’ , a ballad tune I wrote, starts out as a Cape jive gospel intro, then completely changes. The album continues to deal with social issues, like ‘Coffee Stains’ with young bassist, Sean. The spoken word hip hop song has poet, Kgmotso Malele who starts off: “Silence is the loudest form of noise….”. When you get towards the end of the album, the ‘Blue Boat Home’, which comes from the Universalist hymnbook, has beautiful lyrics about a man’s ride from earth (the Blue Boat), travelling through space on a sea of stars , to reach ‘home’. This song was played at my grandfather’s funeral because it’s about going home to our final resting place. I wrote a jazz arrangement of it which is sung by a wonderful Cape Town singer, Diana Neil. Then comes “Down the River” and “Welcome Home” which I dedicated to my grandmother who is 100 years old now, and to my late grandfather, both who urged me to pursue music. “Here we are, all at home; without ruthlessness, without greed, …..”

CM: You leave South Africa this July to return home. What are your future plans?

TJW: I will go back to music, and prefer conducting. I like conducting an orchestra with woodwinds and choirs. New Horizons is not meant to be just a South African initiative; I plan to release the album in the States with another band. I’d like Zoe, my singer here, to come and do the release with me and give it a South African flavour.

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So who is New Horizons? I interviewed members of the band, and found an eclectic mix of cultures, musical persuasions, attitudes, and experiences.

Singer and composer, Zoe Modiga, offers soulful gospel and blues sounds, all improvised carefully with the occasional scat. Her low voice and poise give her a mature air that defies her young self. At 21 years of age, and having come from teenage years studying at Gauteng’s National School of Arts (NSA) and studies at UCT Jazz Studies, she has remarkable sound, sincerity, and carriage on stage as well as in her delivery. No wonder several bands include her regularly as their vocalist, such as the seasoned Frank Paco and Bokani Dyer, and the Jo Kunniji Experiment. Having won the local GrandWest’s Open Jazz Mic competition last year, Zoe will probably move on to other sites of Gauteng for more exposure and experience and further study, even incorporating other loves, like cooking and photography, to her list of skills.

Drummer Andre Swartz grew up in Retreat in Cape Town and graduated from UCT’s Jazz Studies. He is now married to an American lady from Dallas, Texas, and moves between his two country homes. He presently fills the position of Head of Faculty of Music at the Campus of the Performing Arts in Woodstock, which started in 2006 and specializes in contemporary music, mostly the pop genre.

“I intentionally wanted to depart from the traditional bebop jazz to phrasing of African rhythms, particularly with contemporary African jazz, and show what commonalities exist between these different time and cultural periods. I have the kit drum doing one thing, and the snare drum doing another thing, like that to get the polyrhythms. For instance, I have a high tam and a low tam and the snare which fills in, and then a djembe which clicks in. “

Pianist Blake Hellaby, presently teaching at Cape Town’s Wynberg Boys High School, believes in ‘giving back. “I feel music is the freest form of expression and can affect the positive transformations in the Cape Flats on people’s lives. The people living on the Cape Flats have never been told that they can become anything they want to be. They’ve never been told, ‘You don’t have to be a cleaner.’ I feel there’s room in South Africa to improve people’s lives and jazz needs to carry this message without being accused of becoming ‘political’”. Blake feels that indigenous South African music is becoming extinct. “The Klopse aren’t playing their own music any more. They’re playing American pop.”

Tristan was an international exchange student with African music specialist, Dizu Plaatjie, last year, so Dizu understands Tristan’s ideas and his willingness to play South African jazz music. Dizu offers a R5 irrigation pipe flute to the album, thus boosting the authentic African pipe soundscape in some songs.

The youngest in the band is 19 year old Sean Sanby who plays double bass, and loved having the freedom to express his own reactions to Tristan’s stories. A first year student at UCT SACM, Sean has already participated in five Grahamstown Youth Jazz Festivals, and played in the National Schools Big Band in 2013 and 2014. He also plays 16 string guitar, and was a member of the Cape Town Youth Orchestra 2015 and the Artscape Youth Jazz Band this year.

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Another meet-up with Somi at SNC – a gig review by C Martin

Somi at Straight No Chaser on Wed, 6 May 2014

This pan-African singer, who proudly hails from Ugandan and Rwandan parentage, pleased too few listeners on Wednesday evening, 6 May, at one of Capetown’s premier jazz clubs, Straight No Chaser, on Beitankant Street. II first saw her at Johannesburg’s Joy of Jazz a few years ago, and was blown away!

Somi's latest Album

Somi’s latest Album

Her New York- based band of international artists shared her planetary space on the small stage as she swung through a repertoire of African- and Arab-influenced contemporary jazz songs. Her influences have recently accumulated from an 18 month study and research stay in Lagos, Nigeria, where she could compose songs that highlight the pop, soul, and jazz of that cosmopolitan African city and beyond. Her latest album, released last year, “The Lagos Music Solon”, speaks to that.

Somi is straight, elegant, and humble in her demeanor. On stage she breathes the African way, and swings her body in rhythm the African way. Her first piece was taken from singer/pianist Nina Simone. Somi shimmers with body emotion which exudes short rhythmic breaths, characteristic in African dance. I watched her guitarist who grooved as he sight-read the score. Nevertheless, he offered some splendid runs. Then her Japanese pianist took over, adding further excitement to Somi’s stage gyrations.

The electrifying drummer presented his steady taps in “I’m Still Your Girl” . Then, the bassist of Greek origin broke out with a southern Indian scat which fit the rhythm of the drums. His Tamil scat accompanied by his own bass added further electric energy which you don’t hear here in Cape Town! A third song, introduced with a drum solo, featured Somi singing in the African idiom as the band strummed out a reggie beat. The guitar wails its answer and talks with the singer. And more mesmerizing songs kept coming…..

As Somi thanked the crowd for their presence, she folded into a melodic Africa-south-of-the-Sahara –meets-north-Africa-Arabian twist and explained how her Ugandan and Rwandan ancestry gave rise to her breath scat, which she repeated in a drum duet. We were all spellbound with this ancestral sounding of presence and purpose – Proud to be African. In her last song of the evening, she displayed what seemed like a synopsis of the hour’s set: ziggy ziggy stage movements with her body, slinking sideways, then forward, then sideways again, her voice following the panic of guitars and drums making their crescendos before the solo piano finally takes us all away.

Among several notable positions held, as both an artist and scholar, Somi has been a TED Senior Fellow, and has performed at a major United Nations Memorial event. She has studied both African and Arab jazz traditions, and in 2015, serves as Artist-in-Residence at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance and The Robert Rauschenberg Foundaton.

It is no wonder that Somi is completing a jazz opera about South African singer Miriam Makeba, her life and legacy. Somi performs again on Thursday, 7 May 2015 at the Straight No Chaser club at 8.30pm and 10pm. On 8 and 9 May, she appears at Johannesburg’s The Orbit jazz club. Not to be missed!! And if you can’t make those gigs, see her at www.somimusic.com.

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