There’s something light, playful, and pleasantly swinging about the xylophone….or should one say, the African chromatic marimba which plays both black and white keys.
Bongani Sotshononda is reputably one of the very few in South Africa who has mastered his marimba, custom-made to his own specification by a manufacturer in Grahamstown. Sotshononda was encouraged, or in his own words, ‘forced’ by his then manager, Henry Shields, who ran the Marimba Restaurant at Cape Town’s International Convention Center back in the early 2000s, to acquire and master a chromatic marimba.
This second album with his Indigenous Orchestra, Live in Cape Town, just released, attests to this mastery, resonating joy, Africanness, swing, and soft ballads with an honest intent to please the ear, heart, and soul. Some up-and-coming stars, like the self-taught Stephen Sokuyeka on trombone, and Mpumelelo Mnyanana on saxophone display a daring creativity, effectively mixing their solos with some otherwise intricate rhythms from the percussions. Watch this riveting YouTube of his Artscape concert In October 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OrrtD71WFs&t=4s
All songs presented are composed by Sotshononda except for two songs with Hebrew lyrics inspired by Shields and arranged by Sotshononda. For instance, ‘Malacha Hayam’ offers a soft Middle Eastern sonic lift held together by the horns, marimba and Ricky Kleinsmith’s piano. The steel pans and African drum add that Caribbean and West African rhythmic ting with freshness and innovativeness, as in ‘Alvinu Malchenu’. This being the longest song on the album showcases the tight expressions of all instrumentalists.
Besides his 10-piece instrumental orchestra, lead singer Fancy Galada faithfully carries longing, joy, and emotion, thanks to her deep, broad vocal style that soothes. Her rendition of ‘Bulelwa’, a song Sotshononda wrote for his sister, the last born after four brothers, is both beautiful and lilting in tone accompanied by the soft ballad rings of Dave Reynold’s steel pans.
What’s the message in this album, I asked?
“Music is not about where you are based. It’s about all the different backgrounds, combining sounds and techniques so as to come out with something different. The western influence, along with African and Arabic influences, and others, are all combined for exciting arrangements. I was always fascinated by the Arabic scales when practicing. Track 8 has a lot of Arabic influence.”
The album sings to a ‘new day’, full of lessons to be learned. Sotshononda writes on his album cover: “Decision was mine…Let the lesson be mine”, an ominous suggestion to always be aware and upbeat about what’s happening. Ironically, after these uplifting songs, the album ends with warnings about the ineptitudes and failures of government to attend to its people, in “Ubulala” (You Killing the People). Lessons are indeed to be learned. And who says the classical Harp can’t fit with African indigenous sounds?
All Jazz Radio had a chat with Bongani Sotshononda about his album and beyond.
CM/AJR: This year of the COVID has really hit you creatives hard, hasn’t it? How have you treated the year?
BS: For me, it has been a time to be creative and compose. I got to record this second album, for instance. We have to think outside the box now and find outlets for our music. I wasn’t particularly happy with my first album – it wasn’t really a professional product and I wasn’t mature enough to see some shortcomings.
CM: So times of stress, like happenings this year, perhaps pushed you to produce?
BS: Yes, there were different levels of stress during this pandemic. I also realized that being married to someone who was not an artist was a blessing! My wife could work full time as she is in marketing.
CM: Talk about how and why you chose the marimba and vibraphone as your main instruments.
BS: My schooling at St. Mary’s here allowed me to start with a music program, followed by high School in Bokaap, then two years at UCT and music tuition at MAPP. I loved the mallets and the traditional marimba, but it was diatonic and limited to only two key scales. This meant I couldn’t play diverse sounds with other instruments, so I moved to the chromatic marimba, similar to the xylophone, with all the other keys. So my marimba was custom made by someone in Grahamstown. Growing up, I listened a lot to mostly American vibraphonists, like Milt Jackson, and Bobby Hutchinson. Also, Dizu Plaatjies was a huge influence on me with his Amapondo band and his encyclopedia of traditional instruments. Then playing with the Phambili Marimba and Brass Ensemble. I was also fortunate enough to work with our local musicians like Basil Coetzee, Robby Jansen, Hotep Galeta, Lulu Gontzana, and Rene McLean at the Waterfront, early 2000s!
CM: You have modern instruments in your band, including the classical harp, the horns, all mixed with other indigenous instruments, like the marimbas, African harp or kora.
BS: Yes, I’m working on getting more flutes, too – modern ones, like what Buddy Wells plays and also traditional flutes.
CM: Maybe the flute made from seaweed….? Let’s talk about where you are fitting into the jazz or improvisation genre with your instruments?
BS: It’s world music so I travel with my instruments and I’m always influenced by other people’s traditional instruments. I end up melding different musical traditions and rhythms. For instance, I have mixed up the lyrics: in the second track of my album, ‘Anozarwa’ is chanted in Shona language of Zimbabwe and means a baby is born. In tracks 7 and 8, Henry Shields inspired me and introduced me to a Gaza musician and activist, Hair Dalal, so I learned a lot about Jewish and Arab music. I just gave them an African touch. Also, I’ve chosen singer Fancy Galada because we have worked together since the 90s, and I like her very strong vocal technique, and skills in arranging from my lyrics.
CM: This seems to confirm your ‘indigenous’ orchestra which absorbs ethnic expressions. So where do you see your instruments moving African jazz?
BS: In South Africa, I think I’m one of the few using the chromatic marimba in jazz. I have a project with guitarist Jean Pierre ‘JAV’Josefinn from Reunion Island, our first album being Trapdanza with musicians also from Madagascar and Mozambique. JAV has produced two more albums: Baladiroots, which includes Jean Pierre and other musicians from Reunion. The other album has no name yet, but includes the same musicians as in Trapdanza album. Then, I am collaborating now with retired UCT professor, Mike Campbell’s Big Band, which also brings together Jean Pierre’s JAV band with Reunion influences which are mixed sounds from the south west Indian Ocean peoples. It’s a nice partnership to bring our two bands together, with singer Nonfundo Xalala, to produce Southern Indian Ocean sounds in jazz.
CM: What musicians would you like to collaborate with… within the jazz tribes in this country: the Joburgers? The Port Elizabeth/Capetown types? Or the Durbanites? What about a possible working relationship with Nduduzo Makhathini?
BS: It will happen. I like the way he thinks – out of the box. More South Africans need to do this. A mix of unusual combinations is needed. And Sibu Mashiloane – He’s another one. Those guys are more indigenous jazz. Moses Molelekwa started that revolution. I saw him in 1997, in France, performing for the first time live.
Next year, I want to do a lot of concerts in this project (Indigenous Orchestra). I can put together an 8 piece band to perform at Kwa Sec on a low budget. The thinking here is let’s share our music and be happy with a small remuneration.
CM: What about live streaming as some platforms and artists are doing these days? I’m thinking of people like Leonardo Fortuin and Blake Hellaby who are pushing the music virtually – a positive side of COVID. Or check out the Urban Sessions organized by Aymeric. What do you think?
BS: South Africa will take a while to get into this. It’s good, though, to give people a month of a ticket so that people can watch streams at their own time.