UKZN Jazz Pianist Neil Gonsalves Celebrates Authenticity in Blessings and Blues (2021)

Style and melody characterize jazz pianist Neil Gonsalves’ recent album, Blessings and Blues, which journeys through memorable soundscapes and landscapes in his native South Africa and elsewhere.

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His temperament was celebratory upon turning 50 years in 2019 with a determination to cast compositions in a joyful and authentic light.

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Neil Gonsalves – credit Doub Mostert (UKVibe)

Then the COVID pandemic hit! Rightfully, this sensitive composer tweaked songs in order to counteract the negativities emerging from that year-long+ viral safari. For instance, he overlaid some songs with a synthesizer meant to create a mood, perhaps an upliftment from the bluesy sounds. Here is where Gonsalves meets his authenticity. As he reveals on his website, it’s time to recenter, refocus, rejuvenate, repent, remember and return to ourselves. For Gonsalves, the album improvises a journey within. It’s time to reconnect in a changing world.

Stylistically, the songs begin with phrases which return back to close the song. Look at a row of boxes; they have a similar form and shape and contain and hold their contents. But once you open a box and rummage inside, all sorts of items pop out with life’s textures, colours, shapes, impressionistic whims, free flowing beats, and judgmental sounds. Close the box up and it returns to its foundational purpose – to contain and preserve. Similarly, Blessings and Blues takes the listener inside multi-textured melodies and rhythms ranging from a bit of hymnal, to blues, to bebop improvisation, to African Cape ghoema, to some gyrating hop, and some Zulu cadences.

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Ildo Nandja

Gonsalves doesn’t skimp on feeling; his left hand likes some heavy chordal emphasis to energize his versatile trio of double bass and drums that navigate with their own peculiar depth. He allows them, former KZN University students, this wonderful space to explore: Mozambiquan double bassist Ildo Nanja, presently studying in The Netherlands, brings surprises with his solo fingering and bowing, creating the right moods. Durban-based drummer Riley Giandhari adds a gelling synchronicity through conversations with piano and bass that add meaning. Together, the ensemble depict how blessings received are founded on blues experienced.

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Riley Giandhari

The opening piece, “The Calling”, sets up the stylistic themes of the album. It is hymnal, but not typically, juxtaposing free drumming, and then strange moody guitar sounds “overlaying things from my different experiences”, and ending with traditional African ululating expressions. Gonsalves says, “The hymn aspect of this song is basically a set up for the second piece.” Gonsalves’ keyboard creates a quieter, meditative mood in “Let’s Do It Again”. Such songs activate the listeners’ memories of some fondness, joy, or shadow of past uncertainties.

The song that seems to stand out from what social platform listeners have stated – you know, that melody that vibrates in the head for days – is ‘Southern Migration’. The remarkable haunting melody jumps around in that box, being repeated, while the bass soothingly rocks back and forth with the theme, not afraid to jump into solo flights with the glee. To Gonsalves, the prominence of today’s human migrations elicits universal concern and hopes for soft landings. Another piece that rings in the head for its bounciness is “African Time”. Here, Nandja skillfully bows his double bass which opens the song followed by a melodic, energetic piano with, again, a heavy chordal lower register. Once in, an abrupt change of pace might indicate some confusion and restlessness. Then back to the root theme. The haunting melody reminds the listener of that soundtrack theme in the 1993 Academy Award film, The Piano. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo9G9C6KvCE

Another example of the piano’s heavy bass is in “The Breadmaker’s Blues” with a frantic attitude of drums complimented by the bowed bass which sustains the main sound energy. Gonsalves had visited a bread maker with his brother outside of London. Is there trepidation that the dough won’t rise well, as the piano fingers out a ditty about the chemical performance, followed by the bowed bass which seems to give instructions to correct the situation?

As the album is wrapped in textures, the whispering drum refrains in the opening song, “The Calling” are repeated, closing the album as the last song, “Qantani” ends. This clever resolve of story perhaps indicates new beginnings? This beautiful composition was inspired by watching scenery changes in the Maluti mountains as hikers and trekkers in the Golden Gate National Park of the northern Drakensberg range absorb these natural beauties. Watch this rendition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBBURuwuHDs

This and his previous releases are available on Bandcamp and other digital platforms.
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I wanted to dig a bit deeper into what Lecturer Gonsalves thought about where South African jazz is going, how it is being taught, and indigenizing jazz.

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CM: Quo vadis? Where is the South African jazz sound going?
NG: There’s more focus being given on uncovering and developing indigenous sounds, thanks to musicians like Nduduzo Makhathini, who has become a flag bearer for this growing platform and trust that is very rooted within South African culture and knowledge systems. His working group is building. Followers may not be so ethnocentric but they portray themselves as being on this side of the ‘Black Atlantic’, around Black Lives Matter issues. The Orbit jazz club in Johannesburg was a home for this, to offer a sense of how the South African jazz styles were growing, with that spiritual aspect of endeavor.

CM: I’m trying to understand how to describe, at least in English, this ‘indigenous’ sound and feeling in our jazz. One can listen to ‘indigenous music in jazz’ people, like Sibu Mashiloane, Nduduzo Makhathini, Hilton Schilder in the Cape, Blake Hellaby, etc. and the younger musicians from UCT combining hip hop and other modalities. Are they being properly heard?

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Capetown-based Hilton Schilder

NG: My fear is that some of these things can become marginalized. For instance, Nduduzo has had a lot of exposure to this music and knows how this game is played, and how to engage social media. And other South African jazz sounds out there are not any less credible or worthy. In terms of musicianship, craft, or authenticity, there’s an amazingly diverse kind of musician that should be getting more press and media coverage, but they’re not.

CM: Agreed. Given this plethora of sounds and ethnicities, when you’re teaching at tertiary level, how do you decide what to teach as jazz? What does the curriculum look like?
NG: My focus tends to be on craft, to get a student from point A to point B. Students come with little formal background, from a pentecostal church background, and already have a sense of the blues feel, have a great ear for music and natural feel for music. This is a typical South African trait, being rooted in this pentacostal environment, whereas other continental Africans come from more traditional musical backgrounds.

Decolonizing South African Jazz

CM: So, this leads to the ‘decolonizing’ of our jazz curriculum as musicians, like what Nduduzo and others are trying to do in an indigenizing way. True, you have the church–oriented people carrying a culture of music. Many of our hymns come from Western hymns, like organ music. How does this link with the art of messaging, of indigenizing?
NG: As a musician, I’m not looking to judge these aspects that link up the sounds or have a political perspective. What I love about jazz is that it expresses freedom, and for me, can help deal with issues of resistance. I grew up Catholic so the religious hymnal kinds of songs are a bit rigidly structured, in musical terms, but I still love hymns which are part of my music making. So in my freedom, I can use a structure to relocate the song, open it up, and infiltrate it with something else. We deal with what we have – a history of colonization. We resist it but we also absorb it. Look at how we have absorbed American TV. We need to work with these colonizations.

This idea of ‘decolonization’ – I try to make sense of it in my teaching. In my own background I’ve had lots of different influences, lots of African, Zulu music , Indian music etc. However, recently, teaching practice has changed in that I’m teaching more of my own music, and my repertoire and songs are starting to filter into my students’ exam repertoire. My teaching practice and my practice as a musician are not two separate activities.

I teach jazz. For me, jazz is not a way of playing music, per se, but a passing down of its tradition on to young students, in a jazzy sort of way. It’s an oral tradition – we learn by listening and watching. It’s more authentic for me to pass things on in the first person. Yes, I still teach about Coltrane and the past masters because that’s all part of the tradition. But if I’m teaching about myself, then I’m giving my students an experience of getting the information first-hand. This is similar to what Miles, and Coltrane and others did because we all come from the same tradition, and have the same aspirations because we are jazz people. This is tied to decolonization because I am feeling much more confident in my story, having grown up under apartheid, under colonial rule. I was made to feel a second class citizen, not good enough, plus being an introvert . Now, I’m growing much more into myself , not just as a performer, but also as a teacher. This reveals what I mean by decolonial thinking.

CM: I like that. It’s a subject that seems to be a heady issue among artists.
NG: What’s disturbing, though, about this decolonial thinking is that it puts people off balance. Not that that is a bad thing, but it means you’ve got to make a move to come back into balance. People can only operate fully, functionally and authentically if they’re working out of confidence, and not uncertainty. People want to do the right thing, but they’re not sure what the right thing to do is. They just have to find something which is authentic for themselves, and engage with their environment and the people around them.

Lack of Women Representation in Jazz

But for me, the main issue for jazz is not the decolonization issue, but the lack of women in jazz, their lack of representation. You don’t see that in Indian classical music, or Western art music or in African traditional music. You see those women artists at international competitions; but when it comes to the jazz category…. It’s just full of guys.

In terms of patriarchy in South African culture as an indigenous culture, it’s interesting to see those jazz musicians who are rooting their music in the indigenous culture and traditions (which has female participation). But if you look at South African jazz, women are still underrepresented. So, I wonder how musicians are trying to offset this imbalance, finding that male and female temperament?

CM: Yes, that’s ironic because there tends to be a balance of female/male students at tertiary level in jazz, but fewer women entering the performance arena after they graduate. If they become teachers, that’s great. But doing live performance?
NG: I’m thinking of that typical live jazz scenario of the late night club setup – like a boy’s club… In South Africa, we really have to change this situation.

The Pandemic Effects

CM: Regarding the Covid pandemic affects on artists, I’m trying to understand what a viral depression would sound like musically, other than the blues. Is there a certain type of chord, or run, that depicts depression?
NG: The album was recorded in Dec 2019, so Covid wasn’t a consideration when I composed the songs. During Covid, I just added the synthesizer to some parts as I had additional time to do this. I was fortunate to have a paid day job, yet time to work on productions, also. It was actually during this 2020 Covid pause that I recorded another album, Concert for One, that reflects my experience with the pandemic.

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That’s a completely improvised album, trying to make sense of this new life – with lockdown, staying at home, staying away from friends, and behaving in this anti-social way. I think we, as musicians, don’t think of chords or runs as a direct representation of something you can put into words. So, when I turned 50, Blessings and Blues was a celebration of stuff in my life with no Covid.

CM: Yes, you are sounding celebratory –
NG: The pandemic brings about questioning and a feeling of discomfort. There’s also this duality that as we retreat from these blues, other opportunities present themselves more. So I don’t think a pandemic album could be completely divorced from some joy or light shining…..

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CM: What’s in the future? Where are you going next, musically?
NG: I’ve never taken too seriously before about promoting my albums, so I’m spending more time now figuring out how to promote this latest album, how to put it on playlists and use social media. I compose music all the time, on my iPad, so I have lots stored on that. I’ll hope to release another album maybe later this year or next…

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