Carol’s Musings

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

Abavuki Celebrates a Brotherhood of Afro Fusion marimba/brass style

“Wake up and let’s go!!” motto determines how a 20 year old brotherhood-in-music reacts to its artistic challenges of the day. This Xhosa-speaking group, calling themselves ‘Abavuki’, from Cape Town’s oldest ‘township’ community of Langa, have lived and supported each other’s musical growth with undying loyalty. Let’s just say, they are Brothers at heart and mind!

Abavuki concert at 44 Gallery on Long, CapeTown, 12 June 2021

Abavuki say their style is unique, in that they play the traditional African instruments (drums, percussion & marimbas) along with brass (trumpet, saxophone and trombone) , vocal harmonies, and the occasional dance jive, that Abavuki ‘shuffle’. Infectiously energetic, these young men, now in their mid 30s, present a vibrant and contemporary Mzansi sound that is also mixed with kwaito, jazz and Latin American rhythms.

A viral pandemic has not reduced their vigor honed by a past decade of overseas tours performing in music festivals in some 13 countries including China, Algeria, and Germany. Even a two month cruise gig in 2010 as the Resident band on the Viking Line ferry operating between Sweden and Finland. These multi-instrumentalists and multi-award recipients have journeyed from busking as young teenagers at Cape Town’s popular V&A Waterfront (sometimes without a permit) to full time musicianship joining other bands as the professional career and financial needs called for their individual participation.

Coming from some rough neighbourhoods of Langa, all was not easy to make some survival money as a young teen. “Some of us started playing informally with local bands, such as The Little Giants, and Jika. We were first African drums, brass plus vocals and took to the streets with this unique sound. As we got booked more and more, we added dance, then marimbas,” explains Sabu Jiyana who went on to study traditional African music at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music. “We had fun busking and made a lot of money at the Waterfront, like one hundred bucks (Rands) a day for each of us was a lot of money at age 13/14!”

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Sabu Jiyana – credit www.rauschenbach.de

So how did they afford to get their marimbas and these brass instruments as teenagers? Luck found them: A marimba-maker, Andile, in Langa needed to test out his marimbas before delivering to the customers. So he gave some to the teens who profited with busking on streets and at the Waterfront.

“Andile organized gigs for us, but didn’t pay us, but said we would eventually get our instruments. We called ourselves ‘Abavuki’ which means ‘wake up early’ and go busking, which is what we guys loved doing! Andile called us one Sunday saying he had a gig for us for R700 at the Switching On the Lights in downtown Adderley Street as part of the Christmas celebrations. At that point, we kids had never played together with marimbas. So we all frantically rehearsed together in the Railway Station toilets! We were given only 10 minutes to perform, at the corner of Wale and Adderley.”

That was in 2001. Their luck continued to grow.

“That’s when we met Beverley who lived nearby and heard us playing. She offered to stick with us and help us get gigs from then on. We were 13/14 year old kids, and we thought everyone would take us to London and other places, like what happened with Amapondo who were famous at that point.”

Beverley Gough managed Abavuki from that time until she passed away in 2019, much to the sadness and loss felt by the group who called her a Mother to them. In 2002, the group met a couple from USA who tape recorded them. “We still were ‘borrowing’ Andile’s marimbas until one day, after the recordings and when we had the CDs in hand to sell at our gigs, Andile took our marimbas away. We couldn’t gig or sell the CDs!! “

Never deterred but always driven, Sabu explained how they would find marimbas and ‘steal’ them, make some money from them, and then pay the owners for the instruments. “We had just reassured the owners that we were ‘borrowing’ the marimbas!”

So what is so unique or special about Abavuki? It’s their style, they explained.

“ There are marimba ‘groups’, but we call ourselves a band because we are a brotherhood, like family, we’re brothers. At the time, there were only two bands that played marimbas with brass, one of them was Amapondo. We came along and changed the game… We made a decision to not be ‘a marimba band’, but a band that uses marimbas. So you would think someone is playing a bass guitar when he would be playing a marimba using 3 sticks. When Kim plays soprano marimba, it will be highlights or cues for the brass to play, for instance, while the tenor marimba will carry a melody.”

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Kim Masala (left); Sabu Jiyana (right) on 12 June 2021

This certainly seems to bring out the versatility of this wooden marimba. “Instead of playing chord progressions and your own thing, you’ll play an actual melody on the bass marimba or tenor marimba while mixing rhythms.” So far, according to spokesperson, Sabu, the Abavuki songs have not been scored or archived for younger players to study. Why not?

“We found that if a teenager listens to the music and really catches on to it, he or she will learn it. Some local projects for kids eventually disappear, money disappears due to corruption, etc. Some kids join for the wrong reason, maybe to get money quickly. But our young man who has joined us was serious about learning our music, so we have taken him on. Covid has interrupted a lot of what teaching we wanted to do in the schools in Langa, like Thambani Primary School and Langa High School. And not everyone takes African music seriously – they like their kwaito and stuff. But we’re on a mission…..”

The ‘mission’ has been tough during COVID lockdown, now a year and one month without playing together as a brotherhood, just surviving with individual gigs here and there. Some South African musicians have used this period ‘off’ to compose more songs for later recordings and concerts. Has Abavuki?

When we started as a 14 piece band, we had three fundamental goals to achieve: getting instruments; recording albums; and traveling internationally. We’ve achieved these and continue to develop these goals with more instruments. We’ll do a different album than previous tours. Regarding developing songs, a band member will throw out an idea and we’ll all work on it together. Noone dominates.”

But then COVID hit!

“Covid became frustrating because we were used to being together and making music together. We would get rusty on our instruments. However, we would share ideas, but get discouraged by the whole environment. It’s been tough. The idea of our 20th anniversary launch tomorrow [12 June 2021] is to say to organizers that ‘we are still here’. “
https://youtu.be/K91i06QJIAA

And Yes, they are here! The future sees these jolly musicians push forward with more exciting compositions and local and world tours, COVID-permitted. It’s simply amazing how they have stayed as closely knit together as the audience witnessed on that June 12 evening of 20 years celebration! In all their credits, they never fail to give tribute to their deceased band members: Gaz Matsila and Thulani Mtyi. And always to Beverley Gough, their band manager (2001-2019).

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Abavuki in 2019; credit: Paul Reichle

View Abavuki in action here, and check out that Abavuki dance shuffle that is their signature act! https://www.abavuki.com/videos?wix-vod-video-id=44fb17ff082e4aed819404c9dcd912aa&wix-vod-comp-id=comp-jzsgxhd9

Albums ‘Decade’ and ‘Africa Got Soul’ and other Abavuki albums are on Spotify, Soundcloud, and other digital platforms. See their Facebook page:
http://www.facebook.com/Abavuki

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Reedman McCoy Mrubata – a life with jazz accents made visual

Petite in stature, but ferociously melodic on stage, he blasts a soprano saxophone entry with his able quartet, then mellows into a tenor sax ballad, switching adeptly into a flute solo that rounds out his first set. By the end of the evening, the audience would have danced to a mbaqanga jive or a ghoema ditty, all very South African in tone and intent.

McCoy Mrubata, a son of the Cape Town soil, never fails to deliver what rhythms and sonic pulses have grown in his bones for almost 60 years, as he turns a youthful 62 in June. And he’s videotaping just that!

“I drink green tea, always, in the morning with slices of ginger, some honey and lemon in my cup,” he smiles, proud of this steady ritual, which (he says) helps tone down some hand arthritis creeping in. One would certainly not suspect such an affront to his seasoned dexterity.

Based in Johannesburg for most of his life, and raising four children there, McCoy greets multitudes of fans when he travels to perform in Cape Town. Sometimes, hiding is in order! Thanks to hosting by Jazz in the Native Yards, his three performances end of May brought the hordes: to the cozy (but far too small for this gentle giant) basement whiskey bar of the Athletic Club & Social and the Alliance Francaise, both in central Cape Town, and then to the outdoor Sunday afternoon hustle at Gugulethu’s popular Kwa Sec. Indeed, maintaining Covid-19 protocols were strained amidst the lack of larger economical venues, but fans will be fans. “I am very careful with the protocols for myself,” McCoy admits, “and I encourage others to do so.” His quartet swung, soloed, and supported with amazing facility, delivering some of the best and tightly executed performances for many: the improvising wizardry of pianist Lonwabo Mafani excited many; the energetic ‘talking drums’ of Tefo Mahola cast spells; and Wesley Rustin’s expert plucking on double bass – all well synced with this wind and reed man. https://youtu.be/E6IrOyNPk8o

Pianist Lonwabo Mafani at Alliance Francaise May 2021

But what is jazz to McCoy? See his interview with John Perlman at
https://youtu.be/aNt38hyF6s4

McCoy boasts a large repertoire of his own jazz compositions performed over the decades, beginning with his early days growing up in Langa learning the flute, and then saxophone, under the tutelage of Madoda Gxabeka, the Ngcukanas brothers, Winston Ngozi Mankunku, and many other Langa musicians. “It’s important to always include songs by our earlier jazz legends where I grew up. You see, I was just a few blocks from Ezra Nqcukana, then down the road was Winston’s house, and over there lived Louis Maholo!

Living under Apartheid and faced by the 1976 uprisings in the country, McCoy made music his passion and traveled to Johannesburg to join the other early greats during the 1980s, forming his own bands, like the Brotherhood in 1989 with guitarist Jimmy Dludlu and the now late pianist, Moses Molelekwa. In 1992 he began touring with Hugh Masekela’s Lerapo band and formed a decades long friendship with pianist Paul Hanmer with whom many recordings have emerged. Other stints with Norwegian groups, residencies in Switzerland and tours elsewhere produced a list of albums. In 2015 Brasskap Sessions Volume 2 won the SAMA’s best Jazz Album category.

That same year, his stint in Switzerland with three different bands resulted in a double CD recording in Basel: McCoy Mrubata Live At the Bird’s Eye. Gobble up McCoy’s experiences at http://mccoymrubata.com

McCoy’s cultural philosophy focuses on intergenerational learning, in society, family environs, and with his musical collaborators. The Brasskap sessions series is a platform for the young, the old and the legends to interact musically and draw positive energies from one another. When asked how Brasskap Vol 3 differs with Volumes 1 and 2, McCoy replied, “Not much different. I don’t want to dig around to try to find something else new. I didn’t want to go the Marrabenta route of music from Mozambique in the song, ‘Xhai Xhai’, for example, but preferred to add a Caribbean twist with Andy Narell on steel pans playing that song with South African young musicians. “

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How does he filter acceptable quality from the many young musicians coming out in the last decade? How does he choose whom to groom, to capture? “So many are coming to me! Brasskap 2 featured Sisonke on baritone sax, then Vol 3 with Mthunzi Mvubu on saxes and flute. Then, when I heard drummer Lumanyano Mzi, who heads his Unity Band, he knocked me out! My producer Luyanda said yes, get him on! I love Lumanyano, he’s a great band leader, has a wonderful sound, and is very proficient to work with.”

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McCoy Mrubata with Unity Band 2017

Baritone saxophonist Gareth Harvey is another young gun McCoy employs to arrange his compositions occasionally to ensure excellence in output. “When I was recording in Cape Town with his Unity Band earlier in 2018, I asked Gareth to arrange my songs as well as Unity’s compositions. It worked out well.”

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These days, one can see McCoy more often with a Sony video camera on a tripod than with a saxophone. He’s making his own documentary, a selfie, with a self-taught approach including learning and using Final Cut Pro, his editing tool. “The purpose is to show my upbringing in an urban township of Cape Town, even though my ancestry comes from Heuwu village in the Cala area of the Eastern Cape. Then explain the musical journey I’ve had, again focusing on intergenerational relationships.” For instance, during his recent studio recording session in Cape Town with the legendary ‘Mama Kaap’ singer, Sylvia Mdunyelwa, also a long time resident in Langa, he filmed her with his tripod setup. “It was so emotional: she was crying as she sang, because the lyrics of my song were written by her own son who works with me!”

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CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – 1997: Nelson Mandela singing and dancing with South African jazz singer Sylvia Mdunyelwa at his staff party at Green Dolphin Restaurant, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Getty Images)

Inspired by recent tours within the United States, McCoy was able to share his music as therapy. In 2018, he told this writer: “Paul Hanmer and I are finishing 30 years celebration of working together, touring USA just as a duo for 3 weeks in different cities. We did a live recording in Princeton which includes a video and DVD and produced it on Paul’s and my respective labels. We, also, gave short courses, workshops, and master classes. “

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Paul Hanmer and McCoy Mrubata

McCoy returned to Philadelphia in 2019 to contribute to a conference on music and trauma. He admits he was writing his story of how he grew up, the trauma of the 1976 uprisings and violence during the Apartheid era. “My songs are with spoken word and instrumentals. Also, while at Berklee, we were doing music therapy sessions.” Other tours have taken McCoy to Kuwait (in 2019) and Algeria with Greg Georgiades, a South African who comes from eastern Europe and plays the oud and different guitars. A master performance with other South Africans brought McCoy together with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York in September 2019 which kicked off with a composition by trumpeter Feya Faku followed by other South Africa Songbook specials.

Back home, his project with bassist Lex Muchana, called ‘The Summit’ operates in Soweto to bring ‘home-grown’ sounds into various communities, homes, centers, and local venues. “We host ticketed concerts in our houses.” This strikes a similar cord in what Cape Town’s own Jazz in the Native Yards is trying to do in communities to reach various audiences around this large city. Another local project McCoy started to support youth musical development is the “Strings Attached” program involving young string players from Daveyton, a quartet of 1st and 2nd violins, viola, and cello playing with a backline. Currently, he is an ambassador for a number of youth development causes, including the Kasi Angels Foundation which provides shoes for children and youth and other items that encourage learners to attend school.

“I will continue to record in video form my performances with musicians, record my travels, workshops, how I and my family live, my neighborhood, and my life in general, so as to educate people about my passion for music and its role in inspiring a wholesome personal development.”

This major musical Legend has loads ahead to offer. Stay tuned at http://mccoymrubata.com


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ItrDL6Q-oU
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOJxZmgnpkA

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Are ‘jazz jams’ about Community? and are they worthy?

New in town? Want to meet the jazz ma/fraternity? Think venues abuse jammers? Are jazz jammers only learners on ego trip? Help audience development? Nurture talents?

There’s a mystical, vibey world of sounds out there which grabs musicians and patrons alike, causing a migration of smiles in anticipation of ‘something different’. What do you do / where do you go… after an eventful weekend of festivities, lunches, brawly evening braais, or just reading a good book? And you just want to chill but don’t want the music to stop?

The Monday night jazz jam!

In Cape Town, the jam has remained popular and busy, bringing eager young and less young musicians and patrons together for informal interactions, networking, and general camaraderie. Travelling to large cities worldwide, and you’ll find a musician’s jam on some day of the week, without fail. But finding a suitable home at a cozy venue for CapeTown jazz jams has proved problematic, for whatever reasons, as venues keep changing, or closing down, or……..

A recent Facebook discussion among jazz enthusiasts and musicians has been addressing the ‘worthiness’ of the jazz jams, thanks to jazz photographer, Gregory Franz, who posed the key question on his FB page posted on 3 May, 2021: https://www.facebook.com/gregory.franz.92

We know that music jams are not for financial gains on the day but
what are your honest opinions/experiences about music jams???


A little history: In the 1990s, Cape Town’s jazz jam was at Val’s in Athlone (in daytime a coffee shop run by the entrepreneurial lady, Val); it closed and the jam moved not too far away to Swingers, a daytime gambling joint and nighttime restaurant and other music club + the slot machines. Here, for over a decade, many happy Monday night musical jams groomed the jazz students who eagerly took to the stage with the seasoned greats from both South African and international jazz communities. But Swingers decided it wanted something different, so the jam moved again, blessing several venues with shorter stints: at Lyra’s, a restaurant/bar on Rondebosch’s Main Rd close to the University of Cape Town and accessible for students; then at another restaurant/bar on Claremont’s Main Road, albeit short-lived. The popular Mowbray Sports Club brought hordes of students nearby. A few venues had popular night jams, like Long Street’s vibey Carnival Court, and Athlone’s Blue Chip. After a long lull, the V&A Waterfront’s Comedy Club generously reserved its Monday evenings just for live jazz. However, it was too far and expensive (transport) for students to travel. Then, Covid shut this down!

When the Covid pandemic’s strict lockdowns hit, patrons visited the YouTube programs from home, or just sat pouting, trying to adapt to the impersonal world of the digital sonic entertainment. After a year of that misery (or joy for many), musician Dan Shout and his supporters put an end to the silence, and found Fat Harry’s restaurant in Kenilworth pleasing and accommodating for Monday night jazz jams. It follows strict covid protocols for distancing, but is booked out each Monday several weeks in advance.

Now to the question above:::::::: Responses varied. Here are a few quotes.

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Business Aspects

Mr. T: I think the state should subsidise them in a similar fashion that it does higher education. Venue owners currently have to deal with “small” things such as where musos will sit, what they will eat/drink that won’t compromise the experience of paying patrons. As much as I understand the frustrations of cultural workers who have given up on the state, I still do think we have a chance with the state.

Mr. G: Jam sessions are often poorly organised and chaotic. If there was more structure as I’ve seen done overseas and musicians make the effort to entertain their paying audience with a proper performance, then it can work. Jam sessions are hugely important to the development of a musician but now that it’s also used as a commercial vehicle, it’s often disingenuous and rarely serves the audience well.

Mr. G: To answer the question directly – it’s a good way for players of improvised music to get together to exchange ideas informally while playing together. This was after all how all music anywhere in the world started and evolved. It would be fair for the proprietor of the establishment to expect to make some money by selling food and drink but, to expect people to pay a gate fee when the jammers are playing for free isn’t so cool.

Jam sessions have their place in the music scene as long as the musicians are not exploited. Abdullah Ebrahim has repeatedly said that there is a need for our local musicians to take care of business. A pat on the back, the transitory approval of the crowd and the fact that you have a following isn’t good enough. The level of success obtained by jazz musicians wasn’t built on the fact that they attended jazz jams. We know that crowds are fickle.

Quality Filters

Mr. T: Jam sessions are where we grow, get better, where we are told we need to get better…they are Quality Filters. I always think of the story of Charlie Parker getting a cymbal thrown at him. Traumatic, but a learning experience. Having said that, I think the jam sessions in CPT are too neat and cordial. Perhaps it’s a generational issue. But some of us need to be told AT A JAM if we’re playing crap.

Mr. B: The jam scene in CT is pretty much useless. As is the music scene in general. Too much ego, too much competition. I’m referring to jams in general.. .I often find them a bit frustrating. I prefer strawberry jam.

Mr. M: Is there a place for impromptu type stuff in jam sessions? Where one musician starts something on the top of his head and other jammers follow? I enjoy this vibe but i never see it happening. A few years ago I attended a jam session where this happened, but it was ended abruptly to switch to jammers doing standards. I questioned the owner about why they stopped the impromptu vibe and the owner and her clique took major offence, even mocking me. But ya, according to our experience, can this unrehearsed impromptu jams work?

Nurturing Talent

Ms. M: Jam sessions are extremely important for the development of young artists. They allow us to find our voices and personalities within the music. They also push us to become better artists as we try to keep up with our peers. However, because they are so central to our growth, they can also become a toxic space for cultural identity. Things like elitism and patriarchy easily manifest in these spaces and set a tone for the jazz community in which they exist. So it’s really important that we fundamentally cultivate these spaces as learning grounds in all aspects, knowing they will influence the art much further than initially expected.

Mr. G: I’d rather hear a set from a band playing their own thing or a rehearsed set of something original – covers I don’t mind, but played by the regular booked band. I do however 100% acknowledge how important jam nights are for the nurturing of talent.

Mr. S: Without jam sessions you don’t have a true jazz culture.
Mr. G: What do you regard as being the true jazz culture?
Mr. S: I am not sure I can put such a description as one particular thing. But I do believe that a place where musicians congregate off the clock to experiment and test themselves against their peers is an essential part of it.

Mr. D: As a classical musician who swapped over to jazz, Alvin Dyers’ jam sessions were a hugely important step in my musical development. That jam, along with the ones I’ve attended at Smalls and Smoke in NYC, influenced the way that I have run my jams at Lyra’s and now Fat Harry’s Reloaded on a Monday night. I prefer a very structured approach, which means jammers may only get to play one tune, however they have an enjoyable experience doing that. The rhythm section also isn’t punished by having every second sax player jump up to jam on a blues or Cantaloupe Island for 30 mins, which also gets boring for the audience. The fact that I’m seeing a greater number of high school kids attending my jam than ever before, I believe, shows how comfortable and safe they feel to take their first steps in front of a live audience without rehearsal or often even having met the players before. I find the pros and university students very patient and welcoming with no egos at all. There is also some incredible, young university talent coming through.

Mr. J: Jam sessions had and always will be a platform for up and coming, even seasoned, musicians. It’s about choices, and if musicians feel they want to move on, they had the stepping stone. Many of our jammers had moved on to greater heights musically; many of us know who they are. It’s been rewarding to see how those musicians had grown to be examples to others. Yes I do know some venues had abused these sessions, but in the main our objective was to give the musicians a chance and I will encourage this type of program if it is conducted in a structured way as Dan Shout has indicated.

Mr. D: You nailed it! If one doesn’t like the way a jam session is run, go to another one. If you feel you’re being exploited, then you can choose not to attend. I do find it ironic that often, those who complain about not having work don’t attend jam sessions. You have to play, to play!

Inspiration

Mr. J: Jam sessions are a great way to experience playing blues or jazz, learn new tunes etc and it’s fantastic to be able to jam with people who you don’t usually play with as well. I stopped going to them when I felt my playing was moving in another direction. I wanted to spend time working on a more electronic, psychedelic sound with electric guitar and to experiment with loops with acoustic guitar. But I encourage my students to go to the jams and to learn and absorb the experience of playing with more experienced musicians. The Sunday night meetings at Carnival Court were some of the best jams…There were some like-minded non purist elements there that made those ones special. You could really express yourself there.

Mr. G: Jam sessions don’t really help to build your career, but in a limited sense, it’s a good way if you are new in town to make yourself known to fellow musicians. Quite often jam sessions are used as a vehicle for abusing musicians by getting them to perform for free. The same goes for talent contests. Jam sessions do not pertain only to jazz. In my teens living in Silvertown, there were many aspiring guitarists, pianists, drummers, singers, saxophone players, etc who visited our house on a Friday night, some coming from Surrey Estate, Wetton, Wynberg, Guguletu, etc. Many who brought their instruments with them were invited to play. This was the spirit of the jam session. Most of these chaps were never heard from again after they entered their twenties. I formed a long-lasting musical relationship with some of them, although I was essentially a music hobbyist.

Mr. L: I’m on a quest for the endless jam.

Mr. K: Jam sessions are great. Amazing you can get a bunch of people and play without rehearsing …great music. Also gives the young ones a stage experience.

Social Interaction/Networking

Mr. R: It was great back a few years…it’s good for nurturing new talent or for music students to get heard… Now, most of the jammers are gigging musos who come after their paid gig to make a noise and show off, sometimes intimidating the youngsters who come on stage to sing a song. There is no real performance…seems they come coz they don’t wanna go home yet.

Mr. G: Mr. R, that is jamming! In our twenties after a gig the chaps used to look for parties where there would be jamming musicians. That’s when I met all the Schilder Brothers, the Moses Brothers, Aubrey Kinnes, Billie Dollie, Monty Weber, Ben Masinga, Winston Manunku, Danai Dhlovu, Victor Ntoni, Richard Tembo, Jimmy Adams and a host of other musicians. It was loads of fun but as we got older and got married we got into trouble and started cooling down.

Mr. D: But ABOVE ALL (and I’m truly amazed that no one has mentioned this yet in this thread), jam session are about a sense of COMMUNITY. When I started my jam again, I felt like I was back with my jazz family again and I realised how much I missed everyone during lockdown. Fat Harry’s has been fully booked days in advance for 2 months now, so there are definitely some people who still appreciate a well-run jazz jam!

Mr. D: I’m not sure if I speak for everyone, but have a strange tendency to book people I’ve heard play before, checked out their style, vibe and chops. In my case, this is from jam sessions.

Mr. G: Ben Sidran in his book “Black Talk”, if I remember correctly, makes the point that people from West Africa didn’t have a literary tradition. There wasn’t a written notation system for their music. It was therefore important that everyone be heard. There would of course be some who were better than others at expressing themselves. This tradition carried on among the slaves in America. People would get together and make music often on makeshift instruments socially. Anyone could join in the music making with those not being up to scratch falling out along the way. These sessions were the fledgling moments of jazz and jam sessions. Eventually this music migrated to a formal environment with orchestral instruments becoming available after the civil war. The banjo which has its roots in Africa was already in use. Jam sessions are part and parcel of the jazz scene but there has been a tendency by some to intellectualise about them.

Ms. M: yes! So true. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of jazz has taken away from its Africaness rooted in community and learning. I’m hoping as we reintegrate into a decolonized society, we can begin moving back to the true art form.

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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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Yonela Mnana’s piano is the people’s instrument!

The piano, throughout its history, has remained a social instrument, a means of convening purpose, beauty, and message around it, from its European origins to South African townships. A pragmatist in curating his musical realities, jazz pianist Yonela Mnana exudes a profound confidence as he proves that piano harmonies and song can move listeners from quiet reflections to bursts of joy. His recent live concert at Gugulethu’s Kwa Sec jazz venue outside of Cape Town did just that as previously locked down fans welcomed his not-too-frequent visits to their village.

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A member of Sisonke Xonti’s band at Kwa Sec, Gugulethu, March 2021

Blind at birth, Mnana has molded his delicate fingers to express musically what freedom means to him. Well versed in South Africa’s apartheid history and how the piano played a role in developing the Black township sound of marabi, principally in the mining communities of Johannesburg and surroundings, Mnana continues to seek outlets of expression with his chosen instruments – his piano and voice, particularly in pursuing his PhD degree at Johannesburg’s Wits University in South African Solo Jazz Pianism where we can expect further clarity about this captivating instrument.

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With trombonist/singer Siya Makuzeni at 2019 Capetown International Jazz Festival

Born in the Transkei 37 years ago, Mnana schooled at Polokwane’s Siloe missionary boarding school for the blind, and furthered his life skills in Pretoria’s Mamelodi, absorbing a wealth of different linguistic and cultural influences along the way. Adding exposure to African and Western choral styles of music, kwaito, R&B, soul, and other popular music, Mnana’s grooming for local and international stages had found purpose. Currently, he navigates the Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban jazz club circuit with fellow musicians and friends such as Ariel Zamonsky, Sphiwe Shiburi, Sisonke Xonti, Mthunzi Mvubu, Nhlnhla Mahlangu, Lindiwe Maxolo, etc.

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With Sax legend Barney Rachebane at Roving Bantu, December 2019

Besides some collaborations with overseas groups, Mnana continues to perform, compose and teach choral works with various youth groups, including Soultee, the South African School Choral Esteadford and with Ezibeleni’s Vivacious sounds at its school for special needs in Katlehong . Baba was his first album released in 2016 to wide acclaim with mixtures of various soul, gospel, and jazz styles learned over time.

Following his journey, one discovers his admirable traits: his love for the common person, the grassroots, and the power of choral works to inspire the social collective to care and find identity. Careful focus on solo jazz piano, the subject of his current doctoral research, also indicates his curiosity with improvisation, but in a very personal way, attending to honest fundamentals attached to the South African musical idioms. Just as Chopin dared to take the elitism of the piano of his day out of the higher echelons of European society and into the more social salons of the serious listener and commoner, Mnana’s piano explains its arrival in the shebeen raves of South Africa’s townships where song and dance flourished along with whiskey and other antics. The piano became ‘the people’s’ instrument, moving from the Euro-centric Grahamstown of newly arrived settlers in the 1830s to mining communities of African workers in the early 1900s who sought a collective musical release from the drudgeries of underpaid and often dangerous work.

I wanted to know more…. about what makes Mnana tick…… We chatted during his brief concert tour in CapeTown end of March 2021…..

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CM: Why ‘jazz’ ??
YM: Freedom is struggle. Improvisation or jazz wants to free us from the establishment, that which holds us from moving. So jazz is about struggle; it is freedom.

CM: How does piano contribute to this freedom struggle?
YM: A century after settlers carted their pianos to Grahamstown, the piano became the proponent of marabi music in the 1930s in South African townships where it became a household item and personalized as a means for entertainment in the most radical version. We have given it, rather, a purpose which reaches the ordinary person, I think. The other thing is that people like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton , the way they used the piano in the bars in America, is the same way we use it with marabi.

CM: Yes, the boogie woogie and marabi were similar, weren’t they, in how they grew up?
YM: Not only in the corporate business but, in fact, these players were the hosts. The pianist was closer to the shebeen Queen who could hook you up to a drink or any other delicacy you wanted. Just the placement of a piano in the ordinary house, and the wretchedness surrounding it, was like a pilgrimage, trying to get back to our older self in a way. As students, there is a tendency to look first to the American music, those DVDs and CDs, and study those documentaries, rather than taking that music as a barometer of good music. They might mislead themselves by holding that American music as a standard, rather than looking inward, or being interested in our own people close to us, that have walked in those spaces where we have walked. They become colonized in their thinking, are taught ways of thinking about the content, and end up judging themselves as less competent against those foreign standards. So, we have to change these lenses and perceptions of ourselves through our teachings.

But, in contrast, the piano is a geographical thing, and not like a wind instrument that is very mobile. The piano is something you go TO …. In the same way you would go to the temple, or to the bedroom. There’s a specific psychology which you have to assume when you sit at the piano. You can pick up your wind instrument and blow any time. But for me, ‘going TO’ is a way of adapting because you get to play different pianos in different spaces, while remaining as the same person. You improvise, not because you play the same notes but because you have to find and be comfortable with whoever you are. For South Africans, there is the intent to cope with whatever comes their way, in whatever regime is happening. I’ve been to other Universities and theaters with different pianos and I like to reimagine other persons that have gone through that vibe. So pianists have to go where the piano is. There’s a wrestling, a battling, a desire to own it and make it ours.

CM: That’s an interesting way to look at it. But doesn’t the piano seem a bit elitist, restrictive as to who can go to it? Is it really social?
YM: I think we’ve taken away the elitism and brought the piano back to the people, like into their houses and communities… I don’t even think our houses were solid at that time. We had been taught that piano was something people had to learn in school. But for it to be played in the marabi shebeens was like a DJ going with his CDs and playing in these houses.

The piano became the instrument of the people!

CM: Talk more about this social aspect, and in the African context …
YM: I’m curious to hear more stories around that because we can begin to understand the kind of identity we’ve always had versus the hope we might have with this piano. The pianists now are trying to craft their way forward …. The old cliché: You can navigate when you know what happened in the past.

CM: Along that line, the social nature of the piano, you’ve done a lot of choral work with choirs, and even human rights and struggles involving women’s issues. Let’s just talk about the choral. How do you see the piano enhancing choral work in the African context?
YM: You know, the voice is the oldest instrument of all time. Choralism comes from our ceremonies, although the kind of humanity that subsumes it now is not the same as in the past, so it becomes another version of ourselves.

We’ve always had choral groups throughout time. But there a distinction – taking the themes of Black Mambazo – between a ‘vocal group’ and a ‘choir’. I know my harmonic understanding stems from my being in a choir during school. I’ve been a voice WITHIN those voices. If you think in terms of harmony, playing with chords on the piano, it’s all about voicing. So it’s harder to separate the piano from the voice, or voices, and choir. Abdullah Ibrahim took the harmony from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and played it as it is, without having to do all those voicings that Americans tend to do. It was like hearing the Church in the piano. So it was dualism between the piano and choir. A ‘vocal group’ is separate from that.

CM: Like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory ‘live together in perfect harmony’…… and the piano has the advantage of not just playing one note, but two plus.
YM: Yeah. Choirs plus piano equals harmony. That’s the common factor, really. And because most pianists tend to be composers, that’s why they tend to voice on the piano and voice for the choir. That’s just one dimension I can talk about.

A second point is that some choirs tend to sing a lot of Western stuff, with orchestration. So now, I prefer to re-orchestrate, that is through a kind of ‘reductionism’ of the piano. Most of the choirs here in South Africa that I have worked with get to hear just the piano, meaning they rehearse just with the piano chords. But when they rehearse with the orchestra, they wonder, what is this strange sound? So when I accompany the choir with my piano, I get to better hear the person singing, even if singing off key, and concentrate on helping that person rather than disappointing them. So now that I get to know the music, it’s easier for me to try to transpose and voice with them. Drum magazine journalist, Todd Matshikiza, of ‘King Kong’ fame in London was always being commissioned to write choral music, even a piece for Queen Victoria when she visited the then Rhodesia. Gideon Nxumalo and Chris McGregor also wrote for other instrumentations. I think for me, the choir is much more available to me then other instruments whereas other artists maybe found inspiration in writing for different instruments.

CM: I was wondering about your use of the term, ‘solo’ piano, because I think of the piano as being a social instrument where you play harmonies WITH others. The ‘solo’ again strikes me as being for your upper echelon of society in the European context where one plays for certain Nobility, etc.
YM: You say you studied piano privately, right? Alone. I see playing piano solo is the highest form of communicating with yourself; it’s a testing point of destiny. So it’s 360; we start by playing for ourselves, in the public which is the hardest, because you become exposed. Like with the marabi pianist, he never played with a lot of instruments; he played with himself. Like with the choir, when you play by yourself, you’ve got a lot of sounds on your hand. You have time to consider, and the chance to harmonize, to use your range, and you have the chance to be as silent or as loud as you wish. Without having to work towards specifics, like ‘We’re going to retard the music now” or “we’re stopping briefly here”, or…… Solo gives a carte blanche , like an open blank canvas, presenting a big big challenge. But this time, instead of playing for the King, we play for ourselves. I think with solo, it’s the best way of re-appropriating ourselves, to find our identities, to say “Today, I’m going to give myself my own time, my own freedom!”

CM: It’s often said that pianos cannot ‘bend’ the sound, like a guitar or other stringed instruments can. But when you played on the keyboard – now I’m shifting to digital – you could bend a sound electronically like you did yesterday at the Kwa Sec performance. What’s your take on digital or electronic music and what it can do, keeping to your love of the original sound of the piano?

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YM: For me, it’s really more of experimentation than anything else. I’m not a ‘piano perfectionist’ or purist in that sense. We South Africans don’t really have the luxury of choosing. But we have the ability to adapt to the situation we have. So, if the keyboard is in front of you, just see how far you can go!! For me, it’s a question of experience.

CM: So do you see hope for the keyboard? Would you like to experiment more with it?
YM: I haven’t thought about it like that. We’re forced to deal with what we have. For instance, some say we don’t provide our children with good nutrition. But our parents don’t buy lousy food because they wanted to kill us. They buy what is available at a cost they can afford. And yet, we still live on!

CM: I’m thinking of piano and dance, like when pianist Sibusiso Mashiloane dances or stomps with his feet, giving rhythmic beats when playing the piano. Do you dance when you play?
YM: I don’t think of it that way. There’s a thing with the pianist and their bodies. What happens with the body is….there’s no specification… but there’s an unfolding relationship with the piano as we play it all the time. There’s times when you’re quiet; other times when you really have to move. I saw that with Bra Andile (Yenana) and can hear it with Art Tatum because they play by themselves. That tapping is also another kind of freedom – not only the freedom to harmonize but the freedom to dance with it, stomp, bend your body. I mean, what Keith Jarrett does with his body is amazing! It’s beyond playing. You come to understand how you feel by looking at your body. So you find watching the pianist moving lends credibility to what the pianist is playing.

CM: You said you enjoy teaching children in the township.
YM: At the school I was with, the students are mostly singers. So I had to get them to see there’s more to music than just singing, and give them opportunities to explore musical styles, scales, etc. Many had finished school and were active in their Churches, singing more as a stylistic living and less as an art form. Already, these students are great observers, so I show them the status quo, the basics, and try to inspire. I think my presence is enough and the way I play. You have to be clear – you can’t teach people something you don’t know. But they tend to believe you better when you’re on the stage performing.

CM: When you finish your doctorate, you’ll continue performing, but will you be teaching at tertiary level?
YM: You know, I prefer to stay at school level. University students are chasing their own degrees, are arrogant (chuckle!)….whereas at school level, in the township, students concentrate more because they are limited in what they have to work with. They’re not privileged. So I have to enrich them with what they have. I wouldn’t mind having one or two lectures at University level as a staff member – I might have to go there because I need the money!

CM: Actually, I can’t see you there either. I see you more working and enjoying the grassroots level.
YM: Yeah yeah, I like it there! You see, the system – at tertiary…. You’ve got 45 minutes, and you’ve got to sign the register…..and go to staff meetings! No no no. I prefer teaching in the townships…..

CM: Where is this school?
YM: Outside of Alberton, in Katlehong. The schools around us come for instruction in afternoons. Our space offers much more a sense of community rather than an ‘academic’ environment as we encourage students to learn more from each other than with a top-down kind of education.

CM: Your social causes, particularly work with women and gender-based violence, have featured in your activism. What about the need to work with men around these GBV issues?
YM: For me, it’s not the issue of working with men per se. Rather, we work on important issues with the male students informally, outside of classes. We talk and laugh, then challenge, like “If you must fight, then why not fight among yourselves, rather than beat a person less stronger than yourself?” Practical stuff. At my school, we try to be less ‘top down’ in our communications; there is less of this ‘othering’ among students, meaning the way they relate to each other in the two genders. I think it’s much more balanced than what happens in society. If we can just foster these good behaviours, it might spread to others. Instead of being political and spewing manifestos, you know? We are encouraging the students to rise to their best levels of themselves because many come from squatter camps and from other horrible conditions. They learn to relate to each other as fellow humans and less as coming from different levels of society. Music brings a type of cohesion – like Ebony and Ivory, standing side by side!

CM: But a lot of that has died off, unfortunately….society is very different now….
YM: Yeah, but I think consumerism has caused that. You have a desire to be successful for yourself, to be higher than someone else. To have something that someone else doesn’t have. So these are the causes – we’ve lost that communal aspect of surviving and growing with each other. And even praying for each other.

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As I thanked my musician friend for his time and thoughts, he concluded gleefully: “We can now use the hybrid chat by phone…and even go “beyond the masked” conditions facing us! Indeed, there will be the beyond…..

Last December 2020, Mnana premiered his newly composed children’s mass with his Vivacious Sounds choir in their concert, Regenesis: A New Beginning at Soweto’s Morris Isaacson Center for Music for children. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3K7_MFiRdQ Here, he offers how a bebop and swing solo piano in a R&B vein can enhance African choral harmonies.

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Jo Kunnuji Mentors on YouTube “African Music Conversations” and fuses Jazz with Ogu traditions in Avale album

The COVID pandemic has not stopped some artists from ‘performing’. Beginning 2021 with aplomb, Nigerian trumpeter, story teller and composer, Jo Kunnuji, has developed some fascinating informational videos about African music through his African Music Conversations YouTube channel. He confidently proves that jazz can fuse with some traditional music he grew up with in southern Nigeria.

In his 14 minute introductory video, Kunnuji asks ten questions about what ‘African music’ is all about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVo6DbFRhWU These include such areas as how to describe the differences and similarities of musical instruments in the Southern African region, how people changed their musical practices over the past centuries, and the early writings on African musical traditions. He cautions, and rightly so, that early interpretations of African musicality tended to be Euro-centric, but that scholarship now, including his recent ethnomusicology studies about his own Ogu music of southern Nigeria, is under covering key rudiments of African musical traditions apart from Western thinking. His present post-doctoral research, particularly with musician practitioners, as seen in these Conversations, deals with reimagining African musical traditions, while considering the marginality of ethnic minorities and its implications for their music.

About six years ago, I sat down with the then Masters degree student, Kunnuji, to discover his love for ethnic appreciation of one’s cultural expression. http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2014/11/10/carol-martin-interviews-nigerian-jazz-trumpeter-jo-lanre-kunnuji/

Now, his continued research at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music, and occasional trips back home to work with Ogu music, have molded his abilities to adeptly interpret just what constitutes “African Music” as he journeys through the rich polyrhythmic styles fusing the traditional with contemporary improvisation. His eagerness to teach and share his findings has resulted in clearly articulated and informative YouTube videos which could well excite high school and college students in South Africa and beyond to look further, as cultural curricula become more and more ‘decolonized’. He’s honest, factual, and determined; indeed, one goes away with a better understanding about the deeper aspects of the diverse African musical landscape.

Kunnuji’s motivation for presenting his Conversations channel on YouTube is explained in his Intro video #1 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt1ejHlTdqY and Intro video #2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXoMmlUHfMU.

A riveting conversation with trumpeter and lyricist, Mandisi Dyantyis, talks about music and identity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2RzV21tzXE (14 min) This is followed up with a second video with Dyantyis at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po1xsbA0M2g (21 min 33 sec) which speaks to: “Music is for communicating. How are we going to communicate without music? It’s about language.”

Thabisa Dinga, a professional musician and dancer, shares instructions and performance about how to play the Xhosa musical bow, Umrhubhe.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3WS-q2p0pk (12 min 15 sec).

Zinzi Nogavu narrates how she discovered her African voice and, more specifically, umonbelo, a Xhosa traditional singing style. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWaqM4kjwmc&t=28s (15 min 15 sec) Having grown up in Cape Town and studied at UCT, she admits to her lack of exposure to culture and African instruments which she has had to discover for herself.
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Kunnuji’s 2019 album, Avale, attests to his expertise in how to fuse jazz improvisation with more traditional Nigerian musical styles. ‘The Jo Kunnuji Experiment’ is an impressive array of musicians from diverse musical backgrounds, including an indigenous Ogu band (Gogoke) from Badagry in Lagos on mainly percussion and vocals, and seven South Africans making up the horn section with jazz harmony.

Songs fuse Ogu beats with vocals, jazz improvisation, gospel, pop, and soul, making this album very listenable and certainly danceable in the tradition of African movements to sound. Kunnuji uses video effectively where possible. Watch his album promotional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWlVYsVqAHg

Kunnuji describes Avale as combining familiar modern jazz practices with polyrhythmic turns, percussive undertones, syncopated instrumentation and enchanting vocals.

The beginning track, ‘Avale’, sets the pace for the rest of the album with a melodic fusion of improvised sax and vocals backed with mixed percussion and the trusted Ogu rhythm. ‘Pentho’ presents female vocal harmonies backed by an improvised trumpet and keyboard solo complemented with traditional horn harmonies. ‘Mautin Adokun’ is a contemporary ballad lead by Kunnuji’s melodic trumpet and enhanced with soft piano and drum accompaniment. A vast contrast with the West African sounds and rhythms – a reprieve in the album so one can catch one’s breath. The piece strikes of a memorial to that which was… the late Adokun Mautin was the Secretary of the Gogoke Band.

In ‘Adura Fun Afrika’, South African vocalist, Thandeka Dladla, sings the Lord’s Prayer in both English and an African language. In the background, Kunnuji’s trumpet improvises with blues, giving this song a gospel feel. He is reflecting about the need for peace and stability in African regions torn by gender-based violence, femicide, and xenophobia. Lastly, back to some West African percussive styles, an improvised baritone sax brings syncopation in ‘Awa dagbe’. Clear fusion. It’s all about pleasant melody, vocal messaging, beats which urge movement, and honest interpretation that the traditional styles can combine with contemporary jazz and soul in profoundly moving ways. A gem of an album!

The Avale album is available on Spotify.

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Sibusiso Mashiloane’s Solo Piano Unveils Native Hymns about Origins

Unlike his previous four albums, jazz pianist Sibusiso ‘Mash’ Mashiloane’s new album, iHubo Labomdabu (released this January 2021 by his own record label, Unlockedkeys Records ), exhibits how solo piano can pull out layers of rootedness as he explores what nativeness means musically. This exploration continues his journey articulating stories of ‘home’, following themes begun in Closer to Home (2018), his third album, which was nominated for a SAMA Award for Best Jazz Album in 2019. Mash seeks to understand the rudiments of South African musical identities in order to decolonialize his own (and certainly the listener’s) mind about Africanness. For this, his current Ph.D. study focuses on ‘ home’ music, and what constitutes the fundamental roots of musical expression in his African context. It’s about soul, rhythm, and emotion rippling through a divine connection.

The album cover suggests this connection by showing Mash sitting with other dark figures, but all highlighted with yellow halos around their heads, presumably realizing their human meaning and purpose blessed by the Divine. His pursuit of nativeness falls also during the now globally recognized annual Black History Month of February celebrations which incorporate not only the historical realities of the early American slave societies but from this, the emerging global call to address all forms of Black colonialization and liberation still operating in our contemporary world.

Solo piano often means pure ‘heart’ playing, configuring sounds driven by feelings in the ‘now’, often reflective and whimsical, but always ‘ in the present moment’. To Mash, therefore, no song can be repeated in quite the same way. Which makes this album very textural and even ephemeral, each song touching the listener’s soul and emotions directly, like a contemplative oracle.

The tracks in the album cause spikes of alertness, calm, care, and wonderment, about that daunting wilderness we all face at times, and particularly in the time of the COVID pandemic.

‘Sabela Uyabizwe’ starts off the album with an aggressive, repetitive left hand phrasing that holds tight the somewhat auspicious undertones expressed by right hand chords that fall into each other. This is not something subtle but alerts to what is to come. Like the post-romantic impressionist painters Monet and Renoir, who experimented with form and colour, Mashiloane paints his songs through the senses, with textures familiar to such impressionist composers like Saint-Saens or Debussy who would please at his rhythmic African twist. One hears in his songs a tidy wind, the forest of chirps, rain cascading on rocks, or sees a foggy window obstructing nature’s beauty, or the stumbling of people wearing torn shoes (reminiscent of his days witnessing township living). There’s images of child’s play or dance (in “Ihubo Lasekhaya”) and dissonance ( in “Uthando Olunameva”) to arrive at my favourite piece on the whole album, “Colour of Peace”, a masterful song, so thoughtful, with calculated notes, and a highly meditative and soothing progression of chords and runs. Here, one can see how Mash considers himself multi-ethnic in the African sense, having grown up with influences from different parts of South Africa. That Peace is universal.

In “World of the Free”, there’s a familiar liberatory message as Mash starts and ends with a harmonic melody, but in between is a restless piano scurrying in and out of discordant runs, accompanied with a bluesy attitude. All resolves into “Choices of Life” as the album ends with caution, returning to that left hand which fingers a query: Is there hope imbedded in Mash’s future, one wonders? He winks a ‘ yes’……

Without knowing the songs’ translations into English, one can simply hear and imagine, with eyes wide closed, how sound connects with the visceral, with rootedness, and then with Spirit which is Beauty. Mash intended this. He speaks to a spirituality he is experiencing through his sometime one-note finger play on the keys. He is known to carry this spiritual thread into his teaching and mentoring, namely at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban.

Clearly, such mastery on the keys can only continue his climb to musical gianthood.

His album can be bought on all digital platforms. Follow his journey at http://www.sibumash.com.
See other AJR reviews: http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2018/11/04/sibusiso-mashiloane-moves-jazz-closer-to-home-cd-review/ and http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2017/11/06/earthy-grunts-of-zulu-blues-a-journey-with-pianist-sibusiso-mash-mashiloane/


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Pianist Thembelihle Dunjana dreams in debut double album, Intyatyambo

When young musicians issue their debut albums onto the fan stage as a double album, they speak certainty and confidence. How ambitious is that?!

For pianist, vocalist, composer, and teacher Thembelihle Dunjana, her December 2020 released album entitled Intyatyambo showcases songs composed and recorded diligently over a 12 month period, but sometimes awkwardly during the COVID pandemic. Her ‘home’ band of fellow colleagues from university days at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music all stuck together in musical solidarity, patient to allow this enthusiastic pianist/vocalist creative space to cast her sonic spell. It’s one of those oxymoronic expressions that the horrible blessings of the viral curse during year 2020 allowed time and [enforced] spacial lockdown for quiet, methodical song writing, collective revisions with loyal band members, and recordings at various Cape Town studios.

Grant Van Rooyen (left), T. Dunjana, Tefo Mahola (rt)

Influenced by kwaito and hip hop, as a complement to her love for the more traditional jazz styles of South Africa’s improvisations and other influencers, such as American pianist McCoy Tyner, her double album seeks this confluence, through vocals and instrumentals. Album #1 deals with R&B and Soul, expressed through harmonic overlays of her vocals accompanied by her trio of zealots including drummer Tefo Mahola and electric bassist Grant Van Rooyen. Album #2 resonates with South African instrumental styles of improvisation, with the characteristic ‘jazz’ heard in the 4th and 5th chords in the lower scale register, or what Dunjana calls ‘trading fourths’.

I preferred Album #2, an instrumental album, which showcases Dunjana’s journey with chords, rhythms, and piano runs, all which allow her four band members to express their own wizardry, including two seasoned soloists of note: Tshegofatso Matlou on a lilting alto saxophone and Muneeb Hermans on trumpet.

Muneeb Hermans

A wandering bluesy expression in Dunjana’s piano meets a neat and clean concordance with her fellow actors. Her two takes of “Ngexesha” display this along with Mahola’s ‘talking drum’ sizzling with drum rolls which characterize his artistic vigour. In the first take, Hermans’ trumpet leads the tune, with some effective muted overdubbing, whereas in the alternate take which ends the album, Dunjana’s piano runs take over with a sax introduction and more of a ‘traditional’ jazz feel. Either way, Dunjana’s compositional skills display different horn and piano textures, all which thrill drummer Mahola to react accordingly. “Emlanjeni” has abit of an emotional crescendo affair between piano and drums that drops into a pleasant bebop with melody and some distinct blues sounds. One can tell Mahola and Dunjana have a ‘thing’, having grown up with tight coordination in reading each other’s soul vibe. This lovely composition of 10 minutes left me understanding better….

T. Dunjana – credit Gregory Franz

There’s a story line to the brief Interlude of “I Wonder Where” with lyrics followed by the longer instrumental Suite which seems to question. It speaks of a freedom. Mahola’s drums chat away and seem to know things. This seems to be his song.

In the trio’s video discussion about making this double album https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYzGvFYzYeo&feature=youtu.be Mahola admits he tries to include “that soft, warm 1-4-5 chordal texture” which, to him, pervades South African music. Van Rooyen likes the simplicity of South African jazz sounds which allows the listener to think about what they’re hearing. One can obviously hear on the albums how both colleagues appreciate working in “Tembe’s classroom” – learning and growing together. Band members concur that in Dunjana’s teaching, mentorship, and performances, she is truly living her dream. This double album certainly confirms just that.

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Songstress Adelia Douw Hits High Notes in European Musical Theater

There’s a secret to musical success, and it’s sometimes called ‘talent’. The natural kind. From the table-decorated patio of a wine estate restaurant, breathing fresh breezes under small sun-blocking umbrellas, one hears the rich, clean tones of a female vocalist supported by a mentoring trumpet and backline players. Sounds follow the eye’s gaze piercing the rich green hills of South Africa’s ‘Wine District’, renowned for its gorgeous mountains and abundance of wine estates boasting various items of attraction, such as cheese production, live wild game viewing, etc. That afternoon, of 12 December 2020, the Muratie Wine Estate outside of Stellenbosch hosted a stunning afternoon of jazz with ‘Adelia and Ian’, accompanied with delectable offerings of the Estate’s Melck wines and a whopping menu of culinary fancies, not to mention the great weather. https://www.facebook.com/muratiewine/posts/10157322701560458

Adelia Douw Quintet with Ian Smith (trumpet) at Muratie Wine Estate 12 December 2020

Adorned in colourful African dress, Adelia took to the stage with flare in what one could only describe as a ‘wow’ two sets of impressive vocal pitch and control. She and her band of equally capable musicians (Blake Hellaby on piano, Sean Sanby on bass, Kevin Gibson on drums) led by trumpeter Ian Smith, swung through South African tunes and jazz Standards which clearly delighted the maskless audience celebrating a break from COVID haunts. But it’s when Adelia slinked into Nina Simone’s tender, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, this writer perked up her ears, enthralled that this beautiful young singer could hit those very high notes. Where did all that vocal control come from?

On the cruise ship in 2019

Young singer Adelia Douw, now 27 years old, grew up in one of Cape Town’s more dour, crime-rough townships of Delft, joined the Delft Big Band of teenage and maturing musicians being groomed by master trumpet man, Ian Smith (Virtual Jazz Reality band), and flew her musically endowed wings onto various world stages.

Ian Smith’s Virtual Jazz Reality Band



All Jazz Radio caught up with Adelia before the concert:

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Starting at age 3, Adelia Douw’s vocal chords entertained. She grew her talents by joining the church choir and participating in school concerts, church plays and community activities. As a teenager lead singer with the Delft Big Band, under Ian Smith’s tutelage, she performed both domestically and overseas, gradually migrating into a residence with smaller quartets and trios on the jazz scene with the likes of Smith, pianist Andrew Ford and other jazz legends. No one musical genre characterises this charismatic songstress; rather, this past decade has groomed her to sing, act, and dance through jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop musical theatre.

Her CV reads like a delicious tapas menu of successful performances, from winning the Capetown International Jazz Festival’s youth scholarship in 2014 to study at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College Summer Program, to attending various jazz festivals in Europe, to two 6-month contracts leading musical productions on a German cruise liner in 2018 and 2019.

My first contract was around the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. The second took me to India, Dubai, and around southeast Asia – Hong Kong, Vietnam. My work involved theater production, all in German, which meant spending two months in Berlin learning the material and language, then working for six months on the cruise performing. I was a lead vocalist in the theater shows with a cast of 20 people – 8 singers, then dancers and acrobats. These were quite big German productions! All this gave me lots of experience, gave me chops, I learned a new language – German – and lots about musical theater.

We joked that she was becoming a German.

I fell in love with Germany. I think Europe is just gorgeous. I never liked America… it’s too much like South Africa….with so much American influence here!! I love the old history and buildings of Europe. And Europeans love South Africans, too. The entertainment Director on the cruise I worked with was amazed with my solo performances ….. He, an American, asked me: “How do you get these Germans to do these things without you even speaking German that well? …….. You’ve got such a stage presence I’ve never seen on any of these ships …. We’re very much lucky to have you here….but please, don’t stay here forever!”

Any young creative seeks guidance, or at least, a ‘wing’ to hover under while learning the ropes. Besides her ever-mindful and faithful mentor, Ian Smith, and several fellow musicians, like Blake Hellaby and bassist Shane Cooper, Adelia made friends and found mentors during her European tours and residences. Who nourished her talents there?

I worked closely with my musical leader on the German cruises – Tobias Cosler – who is a well known pianist in Germany. He wrote a song for me and I added the lyrics, in his album, ‘Without Control but Free’. Also, I wrote a song with Ian Smith.

Her very busy schedule these past six years has left Adelia with not only voluminous amounts of materials and experience in singing, acting, and dancing on large stages, but also with a zest for the quiet, for listening to the body, for just resting up. The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed her movements considerably, keeping her home in Cape Town, but was Adelia affected negatively by this?

I saw my fellow musicians writing. But for me, I am creative when I am busy on projects. During the lockdowns, I just welcomed the time to not do anything under pressure, and just rest up. On cruise ships, every day is a performance, and you’re always busy, smiling, on stage, rehearsing, etc. So I could just relax at home and do nothing – just read, meditate, and exercise. I asked myself: “Why am I forcing myself to write?” I’m just going to listen to my body, avoid any stress, and take it day by day.

Adelia was honest. She could afford to be, and just wait out this pandemic period until she could return to a German home which awaits her. Finding live gigs within South Africa, in the meantime, has been like a celebration, to be able to play again with her band. Has she composed her own songs at all?

I do compose, but I haven’t performed my original music yet. I am my biggest critique, and sometimes don’t complete a song. Even my friend, bassist Shane [Cooper], encourages me. I’ve done a lot of collaborations, like with my pianist Blade Hellaby….and have been writing in all genres. But for now, I’m focusing more on R&B and jazz vibes, but that will move on. I want people to listen to my music for years to come.

So what will year 2021 look like for this well seasoned diva on the European stages?

I’m planning on moving to Germany as the State Theater in Hamburg is very interested in me. I’d like to get established in the live theater scene in Hamburg, use it like a ‘Broadway’ base, and then go around the world with musical theater from there.

Well, there’s musical theater and there’s musical theater. Adelia has her preferences, and will continue to audition for roles as opportunities emerge. What are those preferences?

I like ‘The Colour Purple’, that Quincy Jones musical produced by Oprah. Also, ‘Hamilton’, and the ‘Tina Musical’ in Hamburg – the story of Tina Turner. I auditioned for that Hamburg production, but because I was lockdowned in South Africa, I couldn’t travel back to Germany. Last July, I was going to fly to the UK to audition for West End, but that theater got cancelled. So, I’m very into the musical scene.

See Adelia Douw live at the Artscape Youth Jazz Festival 2015 singing ‘Good Morning Heartache’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eg5JliynDQM&feature=emb_logo and various other performances on the cruise ship in 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swZ6Q6O-eak&feature=emb_logo

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Pianist/Composer Dave Brubeck’s Centennial TIME OUT TAKES of unheard 1959 recordings

In celebration of the late jazz piano master, Dave Brubeck, who would have turned 100 years old on December 6, 2020, his family and promoters have launched unreleased recordings from his 1959 studio sessions for the Columbia Record album, Time Out, which was the first jazz album ever to sell a million copies. The alternate takes on seven songs, now issued by the new Brubeck Editions record label, give the listener familiar with Brubeck’s music, a joy ride through these timeless and memorable compositions…which is why this newly released album is entitled Time Out Takes. Enhancing the CD album are the extensive liner notes written by Brubeck’s children (the males all being musicians) and commentators, such as Professor of History and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Douglas Brinkley , and multi-Grammy winning producer, Kabir Sehgal.

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Brinkley gives anecdotal stories quoting the then President Bill Clinton’s chat with Brubeck who was so surprised to learn that “Blue Rondo a la Turk” was his favourite song on the Time Out album, that he challenged the President to ‘hum the bridge’ which was in 9/8 time. Apparently, Clinton hummed it correctly!

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Sehgal remarks about the 40-minute recording session of “Take Five”: “There were many takes of this song, as the band struggled to gel over the 5/4 meter. The song was supposed to stand on its own as a drum feature. Little did they know it would become on the most celebrated anthems of jazz and American culture.”

A highlight of these alternate recordings is the band members’ chatter as they arrange and rearrange songs in the first three recording sessions. Listening to the last track, “Band Banter”, steers one’s curiosity to understand how these four men created, explored, and even became frustrated and impatient over just getting it right – the sound, the rhythm meters, the technique – but always with Brubeck’s gentle coaching. This is a fascinating 4 minutes 35 seconds of aural exploration.

The polyrhythms in unusual meters as 5/4 (like in “Take Five”), 9/8 (like in “Blue Rondo a la Turk) and 6/4 time (like in “Three to Get Ready”) are all there in characteristic Brubeck style with his famous quartet of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, the drummer Joe Morello, and the bassist Eugene Wright, who was Black and challenged to move with the band in those apartheid spots of southern United States practicing racism and segregation towards people of colour. Brubeck conscientiously refused to perform there.

As multi-instrumentalist son Chris Brubeck has said, “These newly discovered recordings feature wonderful performances that are every bit as compelling as their famous counterparts!” ‘Family Insights’ in the album’s Liner Notes reveal their deep love for the musicians:

“Throughout our lives, these honorary uncles encouraged us and were an important part of our extended family…, the melodic lyricism of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, the intense swing and technical brilliance of drummer Joe Morello, the deep, dependable bass grooves laid down by bassist Gene Wright and the undeniable inventiveness of our father’s piano prowess — polytonal, polyrhythmic, swinging and playful. His compositions were fresh, the odd time signatures “game-changing”, and his tunes served as a springboard for innovative solos.”

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Joe Morello-courtesy Jazz Times

Pianist son Darius Brubeck remarks in the Liner Notes that his father
“could invent rhythms that hadn’t been used in jazz. ‘Three to Get Ready,’ with two bars of 3 /4 followed by two bars of 4/4, is an alternation of waltz and swing that implies a humorous dialogue between styles…. I would have chosen this version of ‘Three To Get Ready’ even then because Dave’s solo is so adventurous and compositionally advanced. The ‘dialogue’ becomes an ‘argument’ with overlaps and interruptions and flashes of virtuosity leading to reconciliation.”

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Darius Brubeck

Remarking about Dave’s composition, ‘Strange Meadowlark’, cellist son Matt Brubeck recalls: “I recall my father listening to birdsong and pointing out little scraps of tunes to me as we took walks together when I was young.”

Drummer son Dan Brubeck says he fell in love with drummer Joe Morella’s ‘Take Five’ with its” 5/4 Krupa-like drum solo, while showing off some of Joe’s incomparable left hand and bass drum technique. Daughter Cathy Brubeck Yaghsizian’s dance antics during her brothers’ and Dave’s rehearsals won her cudos in father Dave’s heart, and a song named after her, ‘Cathy’s Waltz’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has suspended some, but not all, well-intentioned centennial live concerts, events, symposia and exhibitions planned to mark Brubeck’s legacy during 2020 and 2021. Check them at https://www.davebrubeck.com/calendar. Darius writes about a dazzling start to year 2020 in establishing the Brubeck Living Legacy, a family-run charitable trust, and setting up an exhibition of Dave’s works in the legendary birthplace of jazz, New Orleans.

Siblings Darius and Dan had even contracted a bad case of the COVID-19 virus while performing Brubecks Play Brubeck concerts in the U.K. (at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club). However, the Brubeck siblings, who are scattered between Canada, Connecticut (USA) and England, worked closely with two authors, details at http://www.davebrubeckjazz.com/Centennial/Books : about Philip Clark’s new biography, Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, and Stephen Crist’s Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, focusing on this significant and popular jazz LP of all time. It was Crist who informed the Brubeck family that he had discovered outtakes from the Time Out sessions while researching archives for his book. Besides the new Brubeck Editions recording label being established, it has produced two albums in 2020: the Time Out Takes album, and Brubeck’s last studio album, Lullabies, recorded for his grandchildren.

What will some Brubecks be doing to celebrate December 6? Chris and wife Tish will be listening to Dave’s orchestral and jazz recordings along with reviewing other music associated with Dave’s career for consideration as next releases for the new Brubeck Editions label. Darius writes:

“If this year hadn’t been so crazy we would have planned a party at my parents’ wonderful house in Wilton Connecticut but we’ll have to settle for a family toast across continents, oceans and time-zones to Dave’s 100th on Sunday.”

Available for purchase and download from major platforms: http://Time OutTakes (ffm.to) including Amazon, and MVD Entertainment Group for CD, LP, and Digital. Follow the twitter news on Dave Brubeck http://@TheDaveBrubeck) / Twitter.

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Bongani Sotshononda’s Marimba & Indigenous Orchestra Meets Jazz: Live in Cape Town

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?

Dave Reynolds

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.

Fancy Galada

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.

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Jazz Meets the Political: Women instrumentalists Seek Harmony in 2020

Regina Carter, Nubya Garcia, and Lakecia Benjamin speak political swing, Afro-European identity, and social healing as bandleader instrumentalists moving musical boundaries during the turbulent year of 2020.

Regina Carter’s Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground (Tiger Tune/eOne, 2020) talks Jazz and Social Justice

BeBop and Swing meet demographic shifts as jazz violinist Regina Carter playfully addresses the 2020 American political theatrics. Her Freedom Band eloquently splashes humour, remorse, and hope onto the palette of electoral uncertainties as a few States vie to ‘win the election’. It’s a screamingly awkward political process – with that complicated Electoral College determinant. But Carter presents a bouncy album, with pride, choosing well-known American songs to match with a State, such as Colorado (‘Rocky Mountain High’), Louisiana (‘You Are My Sunshine’), and Kansas (‘Home on the Range’). Other songs merely portray a ‘Pennsylvania’ or ‘Wisconsin’ temperament.

Her excellently placed band members, who represent their State on the album, play in ‘swing’ style that jazzes up the current reality. New Orleans pianist, Jon Batiste, adds his flavour of cat-calls, and ‘do ya dig it’ quips that liven up the album as do the masterful John Daversa on trumpet and flugelhorn (talks about his Florida Everglades), Harvey Mason on drums (on Kansas), Kabir Sehgal on bass and percussion, and Alexis Cuadrado on double bass.

The opening piece, ‘Welcome’, layers a patriotic ‘America the Beautiful’ over Carter’s narrative plea of appreciation for the ethnic and cultural diversity she grew up with her in her native Detroit. The rest of the album swings with hope – as long as you VOTE! Her rendition of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ mesmerises. ‘On Wisconsin’ expresses at first a carnival bounce and moves to a more remorseful tone, then resolve, with the violin mimicking the band laughing. Cynicism? Lost hope? Carter ends with ‘Faygo’ after her favourite faygo pop snack at her corner store.

Carter first gained attention with her Straight Ahead, an all-female jazz quintet, some 25 years ago. Her career has spiraled with inspiration for many female jazz artists as she has taught, performed, won awards, and composed and arranged her works with a multitude of colleagues. This is a fun album: occasionally carnival in tempo, sometimes serious in ballad, but always reverent to that fabric in a democracy – the VOTE!

She and her drummer husband, Alvester Garnett, are using this time of 2020 lockdown to explore their creative musical juices together. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDZ7C5xodmc Noted for her instructional capabilities, she shows how improvisation works during her Kennedy Center performance, with Cuba-born percussionist, Mayra Casales: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8nagXne3pU The National Jazz Museum in Harlem hosted an interesting discussion in September 2020 about Carter’s album and voting challenges:
“Jazz and Social Justice: Regina Carter: Swing States, and Getting Out the Vote” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8A-JVlCgiw

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Nubya Garcia explores her roots in Source (Concord Jazz August 2020)

Out of London’s young and exciting jazz scene comes saxophonist Nubya Garcia with her debut album, Source, which journeys through her family histories, folklore, afro-diasporic connections, and global outlooks where she calls home: from London to Bogota to British West Indies. The album speaks to our capacity to overcome challenges, both individual and collective, in our modern day realities. Her trio of Joe Armon-Jones on keys, Daniel Casimir on bass, and Sam Jones on drums, with several vocalists, faithfully carry her sonic messages through the moving themes and heartfelt stories she seeks to evoke.

The title track, ‘Source’, being the longest on the album, gives evidence to Garcia’s mood and tones, quiet to fiery, as she moves between reggae, soul, and improvisation. She talks of family in the soft ballad, ‘Together is a Beautiful Place to Be’, recalling her dear late stepfather. In ‘Stand with Each Other’, three vocalists accompany various reggae rhythms and celebrate their collectivism – a female solidarity in the wider community. Latin rhythms in ‘Inner Game’ pleasantly move her temperament into ‘La cumbia me está llamando” to celebrate her abstractions from Columbia’s traditional music, chants and rhythms. Still excavating family histories, ‘Before Us: In Demerara & Caura’ presents an emotional longing for understanding Caribbean sources.

Born of a Guyanese mother and Trinidadian father, Nubya Garcia completed her studies at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music in the UK, and has explored musical horizons widely with the contemporary septet, Nerija. Even her 2017 debut EP vinyl, NUBYA’s 5IVE sold out on vinyl within 24 hours. Presently, Garcia also boasts DJ skills through her popular radio residency on NTS, and continues to play a growing number of live sets across Europe. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPGxhQw80PQ&feature=youtu.be (10 min 57 sec) at New York City’s Winter Jazzfest 2018.

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Lakecia Benjamin pursues the mystical healing of the Coltranes

Lakecia Benjamin’s latest album, Pursuance: The Coltranes (March 2020) boasts an impressive array of musicians who complement Benjamin’s sizzling alto saxophone. These include bassist Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, the bass clarinet of Marcus Strickland, singer/guitarist Me’Shell NdegeOcello, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s scats, and violinist Regina Carter. The song presentations alternate between compositions of John and Alice, giving an audio feel of how these two masterful legends seemed to influence each other. Watch her trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwWVAgQXJuU&feature=emb_rel_pause

While saxophonist John Coltrane needs no introduction, his wife, Alice Coltrane, born in 1937 in Detroit, was one of the few harpists in jazz history, along with her remarkable proficiency on keyboard and organ. She recorded many albums as a bandleader, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Impulse! and other major record labels. She replaced McCoy Tyner as pianist with the John Coltrane quartet, married John in 1965, and continued to play and record with the band until John’s death in 1967 which left her raising their four young children. Always experiencing a strong connection with the Higher Being, she journeyed a spiritual life in India, adopting her name as Turiyasangitananda (Transcendental Lord’s highest song of Bliss). As Founder and Director of The Vedantic Center in 1975, she later established a spiritual community in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California. She passed away in 2007.

The Coltranes’ respective compositions were chosen by Benjamin to express a common spirituality readily adaptable to our present day healing needs. Apparently, Benjamin listened to Alice Coltrane first while at school. Notable of Alice’s chosen songs are: ‘Walk with Me’ with a gospel tone set by violinist Regina Carter; ‘Going Home’, a classical slow gospel ballad mellowed by Strickland’s bass clarinet and Brandee Younger’s harp, perhaps as Alice would have played it; ‘Om Shanti’ moves with backing vocals in a smooth groove of soul searching bordering on rock with expressive chops of bassist Me’Shell NdegeOcello.

John Coltrane’s songs include: ‘Central Park West’ with the scatting vocals of Jazzmeia Horn; the swinging bebop ‘Seedya’s Song Flute’ featuring Ron Carter on bass and Keyon Harrold on trumpet; ‘Spiral’ with its samba upbeat chats between Benjamin’s and Steve Wilson saxes; ‘Alabama’ which follows Alice’s ‘Om Shanti’ in similar soul pursuits. Here, Benjamin’s concept of ‘Pursuance’ with the fast-paced bass of Jonathan Michel comes to fruition as both composers become one and end the album with acknowledging that to find God is to find Him, and subsequent healing in Oneness, in sound. Watch the band’s concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in March 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZ3Ixe3b82U

The listener should have reached the edges of Nirvana blessings if he/she made it to the end of this album. It’s a fulfilling journey in sound, resounding, uplifting in spirit, and deeply respectful of two sonic-breakers of earlier years. Benjamin’s interpretations and delivery with fellow resonators excels.

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Singing jazz violinists: a journey with Johanna Burnheart, Yilian Canizares and Iva Bittova

German-born Johanna Burnheart and Cuban-born Yilian Canizares are two jazz violinists who sing along with their strokes, a whiley combination of both visual and audio sensations that have been pleasing their audiences far and wide. Czeck violin folklorist and vocal improviser, Iva Bittova, wows audiences with imaginative tones, textures, and temperaments mixed with many musical genres. Listening to their offerings makes for a dizzying journey in sound and emotion.

Techno Meets Improvisation ala London Scene

Johanna Burnheart’s childhood classical training in violin allowed her to tour European countries with an orchestra, honing her musical skills to make her eligible for further training in her native Berlin. There, she fused its techno club and house sounds with the electronic scene which explains how she has approached her instrument using jazz improvisation. Her musical influences have come more from horn players, singers and the mix of jazz and electronics, all which lead her to join the London jazz scene. London and Berlin remain her chosen havens for composing and performing with other notables in the electro-jazz milieu. Her debut album, simply titled Burnheart, contains 8 tracks with Burnheart also on synthesizer, David Swan on Wurlitzer/synthesizer, Jonny Wickham on double bass, and Boz Martin-Jones on drums/shaker.

The album is an exciting mix of rhythm, percussion, rings and bells, and soft electronica, all overlaid with an expressive violin that skillfully complements with syncopation: in ‘Mensch’ with a bit of wailing and sad, discordant questioning. Emotion exudes with a nervous violin, off-key at times, overlapping textures between the synthesizer, drum wisps, and double bass. This is a beautifully constructed piece. In ‘Forever Dance’, the syncopation between violin, bass and synthesizer runs create a bouncy, danceable samba feel. Her voice overs harmonize mournfully in an interesting re-arrangement of the classic Jay Livingston’s, ‘Never Let Me Go’. She scats in ‘Silence is Golden’ along with syncopated rhythms between voice, clapping and percussion. This song is full of different textures, electronic whistles and calls, like the rest of the album which is sure to please.

Its upcoming launch on October 30 on social media platforms is on November 30 at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Stellar performances can be viewed on YouTube videos, recommended for getting a better taste of what this young up and coming musician is producing in the London world of musical fusions. At the Ropeadope Festival: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj7dxf2zNw0&feature=emb_logo

Plucking violin and scatting with singer, Appolonie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHOPwcrUv18

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Modern Pride Calls out African Ancestry

Hailed as one of the impressive virtuosos from Cuba, violinist/singer/composer Yilian Cañizares brings zest and sonic modernity to a content-laden album that reflects her pride in her African ancestry. Now a Swiss citizen, her roots remain strong, as portrayed in her November 2019 released album, Erzulie.

Erzulie, the goddess of love, came to Canizares in a dream and steered her spirit to produce music that honoured her Haitian/African/Cuban heritage. She evokes the legacy of ‘Cimarron’, the runaway slave, while acknowledging the oneness of the human and divine that runs in her veins. The album pulls the listener into her story of African survival, from suffrage to liberation in colonial worlds. She seems to look at contradictions between slave and European culture in ‘Contradicciones’ which starts off with a distinct Gaelic dance rhythm and moves into a bluesy query with African percussive beats. Spirit whispers pervade her piece, ‘Erzulie’, as Canizares adopts a contemplative tone in her vocals which are multiplied. Perhaps she is receiving the message.

Her violin is earthy and often slides into an electronic rock style, like in ‘Cimarron’, a fast paced percussive piece where Canizares’s scat holds the rhythm with African overtones as she honours the slave longings for freedom. A rock guitar is heard in the background. ‘Gloria mia’ evokes a spiritual tone with soft slow vocals with a meditative Cuban percussion sound.

The song tracks seem to move into a celebratory mood in ‘Libertad’ with highly effusive and happy vocals, spoken word, and fast percussion as freedom is announced, followed by ‘Yeye’ which speaks for itself. Canizares has crafted an emotionally pleasing but truthful musical story about her realities, both with her vocals and lyrics, which predominate on the album, and her violin which seems to play a supportive backdrop. Even the master of Cuban music, Chucho Valdes, took Canizares under his wing of discovery and support as has Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, a frequent musical collaborator. Canizares can best be viewed in exciting videos of her various performances with Sosa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZXRUlBHWvc And with Haitian guitarist Paul Beaubrun: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDq740FggsI

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A Study in the Art of Tones, Textures, and Temperaments melded with Imagination

Another violinist, singer, and composer, from Moravia, Czech Republic, is the indomitable Iva Bittova who combines folklore, jazz, rock, and opera through an emotional, expressive violin and vocal wizardry, the latter which includes moans, chirps, yelps, and deep throat noises. Her mission is to wed sounds of nature with cultural expressions including Moravian folk songs. Having recorded 8 solo albums, her repertoire of singing while playing violin focuses on a vast compendium of improvised rhythms and various vocal tones, textures, and theatrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyHeMva_lPE&feature=emb_logo (5.58 minutes)

Hers is not a ‘traditional’ singing voice, and hardly mellifluous, but a ballsy, high pitched quivery expression, sometimes employing a weird mask-wearing, or clicks and howls. Her violin plucks while the horn section provides melody, resulting in a bouncy improvisation with voice blurbs and screams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBz63_1eJx0 (6.58 minutes). It was during a ten year period (1970-1980) when she put her violin away to study drama and play roles in film, that she learned how to use her voice in different ways.

The now 62-year old Bittova had settled in 2007 in upper New York State where she continues to compose. In January 2008, she and her sister, also a professional musician, performed their first concert together to sold out crowds in Prague to celebrate their love of music. Bittova’s classical loves include the aria of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni as well as Janacek and Bartok for their inspiration in folk music. Hers is a unique, nameless, yet recognizable sound, and a magnificent study in the art of tones, textures, and temperaments melded with imagination. Check her website for details: https://www.bittova.com/about-iva-bittova/ including her Filmography credits and an extensive Discography.

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A Cultural/Knowledge/Arts & Music Hub in Gugulethu: Lumkile’s Book Joint

A knowledge hub is flourishing in Gugulethu, a community outside of Cape Town, and it’s filling up with books and other excitements! Lumkile’s Book Joint welcomes literary and arts enthusiasts to enjoy the various events now being planned (yet not launched officially until January 2021) and advertised on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Lumkiles-Book-Joint-100902251589038.

Blacks Tempi (left), Zami Mdinga, Lumkile Mzukwa (right)

His three car garage attached to his house has become an indoor living room that breathes books on limited wall shelves; more books are in storage. Upon arriving at NY22, House No 32, one parks on the sidewalk of this narrow residential street. Lumkile greets me with hands caked with flour. The smell of scones baking is soon followed by their steaming hot presentation with coffee as we sit down to chat. Lumkile Mzukwa, otherwise a senior manager during the day with PRASA inter-city railways, exhibits his enthusiasm for creating a cultural renaissance, the likes to which he references “The Harlem Renaissance” which was a telling intellectual, social, and artistic explosion of African-American culture centred in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, during the 1920s. A long table with benches is surrounded by couches for reading or discussions or meetings that may emerge. Two year old son, Ziniti, runs his toy car along the book shelves, passing notable titles of books that could fit on the ‘twenty best’ or the ‘ten best’ books of the year somewhere or sometime ago.

Twenty eight years ago, the young Lumkile started collecting books, buying his first new book for Rands 35 in 1991, The Theory and Practice of Black Resistance to Apartheid: A social-ethical analysis, by Mokgethi Motlhabi.

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Fast forward to our past decade, Lumkile wants to ‘burst the bubble’ around formidable individual libraries. One immediately sees how his impressive collection has focused on content and knowledge about important, ground-breaking events, people and leaders, histories, and political domestic and international issues of note. These are timeless books, appropriate resources as references and for analyses in any discussions about weighted issues of the day.

“This is the kind of library you would get in Obama’s or Clinton’s house, or Christopher Kitchen’s home. Captains of Industry would have this type of library. So my Book Joint is an example of quality collections, not just the ordinary. It gives an example of what Black people can aspire to, and collect, and get excited about, seeing one of their own with such a passion. Now, we have a tangible example of what it means to collect books and to make your own personal library. It’s something we will forever talk about in terms of relating to our children and each other as individuals”…..

How will this cultural hub unfold in Cape Town’s Gugulethu post COVID-19? On one Friday evening recently, I enjoyed a ‘Tiny Desk’ sort of musical concert with home-grown Gugulethu jazz trumpeter Blacks Tempi and his quintet. That next day, the Book Joint sponsored a book sale.

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We talked about the high cost of buying books. Why would someone buy a book when The Book Joint has it? How could books be shared? This would be a perfect opportunity for a book club. Many ideas were flung about. But it’s a private book collection.

“My Initial concern is that books get stolen. People who enter this space get excited and want to take a book to borrow. And if borrowed, the book would be misused. I have stories of losing my books. Practically 95% of them were bought from the second hand shops, like CAFDA.”

So what activities would work to promote a culture of reading and cultivating knowledge? A book club? Reading sessions? Theme days? Musical events? Vinyl discussion evenings? Afternoon jazz and wine sessions? Talks and presentations with various leaders and intellectuals?

“Yes, the list is long. These activities are innovative and impressive. But for now, it’s planning and ideas in the making that preoccupy my team and me.”

And what about the sustainability of the Book Joint?

“I need accountability, and am happy to take donations. But I still want this private. I want to build a top story to expand the space, but I don’t have an NGO mindset yet for the Book Joint. We are planning now: There will be daily activities, like a Monday business talk, Tuesday Book Joint tunes with something like creative art and paintings, Wednesday Black lecturers’ night, Thursday Taste of Jazz; Friday for eating meat/braai and socializing to include inviting a leader for a chat, like Thabo Mbeki, or a Friday food fair to taste various foods displayed by people. Saturday a book sale. Maybe Sunday afternoon live jazz and wine or listening to the old jazz vinyls. The jazz events could take a life of their own with partnership with Jazz in the Native Yards.”

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As Lumkile talked, my thinking kept coming back to how that Elon Musk book on the shelf could be used with, let’s say, five people, without the book having to leave the premises. How do you work with a book?

“Yeh, I think part of it is to think about what does this space mean to the people looking from inside in, so whatever we do , we tune it right, so that we cater to what people want to see. Do you want people to see this space as a formidable club for sharing a book, or do you want them to see the Book Joint as a diverse space, to play tunes, buy books, talk and hold discussions with important people? On the top floor, I envision, for instance, a bean bag corner and a coffee depot where small groups can to chew and chill on a book. It becomes a social, cultural, intellectual space working all the time, oozing impressions: book sale, book review, live music, vinyl listening, certain people known to come around.”

The Future?

“I hope to have a Book Joint movement across the country to promoter affordable book sales and reading culture. We have started with hosting book fairs right here. Our second sale day last week was bigger than the first one, and this shows interest is growing for books. All events are listed on our Facebook page, and we’ll have another sale at end of October. CAFDA and other book sellers bring their books for sale. I want to be able to present “100 best books” in X, Y, Z themes. Books today are written referencing what is already known from past writings. There’s nothing new. But I want my daughter or son who is coming off of matric, for instance, to be able to access the writer of a contemporary book, to be exposed to his or her insights. But for somebody like me who is well read, Nadine Gordimer is enough in terms of the whole South African landscape.”

“We will officially function when we launch the Book Joint – in Jan 2021. Our team wants to make sure we have ongoing activities now till then which government can see, as a build up to the launch. A Brochure will give details about how to enjoy the Book Joint – day activities, talks in the evening, etc. How to pay for these activities and have a membership – all this information will be there.”
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More questions remain than answers as we watch this space grow, exciting the locals and visitors with a myriad of activities in this truly African hub. Check the Lumkile Book Joint Facebook page. And just maybe Lumkile will have a self-published version of his 39+ poems for sale!!

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SanDance! A vibrant journey into Africa’s original dance culture

The recent (and still ongoing until August 31) Encounters Documentary Film Festival, only available virtually within South African internet borders, featured SanDance!, an remarkable film about San culture and dance in Southern Africa. Read excerpts of Michael Britton’s review and interview with Director Richard Wicksteed. Then read Carol Martin’s reflections about the film. Your free ticket at https://encounters.co.za/film/sandance/ and film trailer at https://vimeo.com/richardwicksteed

I praise the dance!
By Michael Britton

Photo credits: Kevin Rack
Full article at https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/482/207579.html

SanDance! is billed as a journey to the heart of Africa’s original dance culture, but it’s much more than that. It opens a door onto a segment of African culture that is in danger of dying out. Music and dance are combined, adding to the overall level of enjoyment of this film. In the film music score, two of South Africa’s most versatile musicians, Pops Mohamed and Dave Reynolds, play an array of instruments, from ancient African to functionally contemporary. The soundtrack is too beautiful to ignore, but very easy to overlook when you get caught up in the stories.

The film’s voice-over tells you that 130,000 San people live in tiny communities scattered across six vast southern African countries, speak about 12 different click languages, and keep themselves culturally strong through one of humanities oldest and most universal passions – dancing.
Vibrant San dancers and healers are seen preparing for the annual Kuru Dance Festival, which is always held at the time of the August full moon, at Dqae Qare San Lodge, outside Ghanzi, in Botswana. San groups from Botswana, Namibia and South Africa come together here to celebrate and share their cultural heritage of storytelling, song and dance.

SanDance! touches briefly on tragedy and injustice, and hints at past genocide in doing so. The hunting parties of the colonialists, both in the Cape and in then German South West Africa, where the hunted were the San, remain an untreated and festering sore in colonial history. Writer and film director Richard Wicksteed says,

“In the 1970s, the South African military forces, operating in Namibia and Angola, needed trackers in their war against the liberation movements. Thousands of Namibian and Angolan San were forced to leave their hunting grounds and settle in military bases. The men were conscripted as trackers and forced to fight, and sometimes die, under white officers.”

That the San and their culture have survived, and still survive despite families and communities being torn apart by forced removals and war, is testimony to their resilience.

Richard Wicksteed with San dancers

Richard Wicksteed has spent decades filming and working with the San, making at least 10 films of varying length. With a level of acceptance and trust from the San, Richard makes no political judgements and points no fingers. However, successive governments of SADC States have dismally failed the First People of this region and neglected their historical and cultural heritage. However, what lies at the heart of this beautiful film is the future and the importance of the dancing and healing.

Richards asks, “What happens if the dancing goes?” Elder dancer Letshogo Ikaegeng replies,

“Our history will be over. If our children don’t learn … if we don’t maintain the culture in our life, we may as well be dead. If we don’t continue to dance, our spirits will not travel to the spirit world and we will be condemned for denying our ancestors.”

The ancient truths are universal, so it did not surprise me to find that a technique shown to me decades ago by a Buddhist Qi Gong instructor, is echoed in San culture. In the film, a San healer says:

“The spirits they come and they tell you, there is a light coming! You must catch it, pour it into your eyes, you must catch it, pour it into your eyes because you can start seeing everything.”

As he says this, he scoops a handful of air first into one eye, then into the other eye, in much the same way I learnt in that Qi Gong lesson.

The trance healing dances are key in the film. Says one elder, “You must dance these songs. If you don’t, then people in your village may get sick. If you do the healing dance, the village will be good.” With only three days to the full moon, Richard explains the rehearsal intensity of the Xuu-Khwe-II dance group. Later that night, for the important and powerful lion healing dance, they decide to rehearse deep in the wilderness, close to the wildlife, close to their ancestral spirits. As Boemo Vivian Pekenene says:

“This song is for the lion, we repeat its lion name because we worship lions for our ancestors. As San, we live in the bush with lions. When I start to sing, my body temperature rises, I can feel shocks and vibrations in my body, and I will connect with the spiritual world. When I start dancing, I will be filled with happiness”.

The next morning, the dancers discover paw prints from seven lions in the dance area that night. Did they hear the call of the dancers?

When I interviewed Richard Wicksteed, I asked him about the highlights of the years spent making the film. He spoke about the power of the trance healing dances, before adding,

After the Mababe group had done the lion healing dance, I left a couple of the guys at the fire to do a bit of yoga to help me sleep. Then I heard a sound, like something jumping down to the ground. I had a powerful torch, so shone it around. And there was a lioness. Not quite between me and the camp, but I’d have to pass uncomfortably close to her.”

Which he did, shining the torch on her the entire time. The next day, an elder told him “The lion was not there to eat you. She was there to thank you, for bringing us together to dance.”

The stories don’t stop. The film is a rich source of powerful insights, often told with a playful or mischievous smile. But most of all, it enlightens those with the heart to hear, and uplifts those with the soul to see. Like this. “Inside our eyes, we have two spirit eyes. And then two on our nose. The eyes on the nose communicate with the upper eyes, then we travel with the spirit wind.”

Watch SanDance! – for the dance – for the music – for the story – for the pleasure.

***** Carol Martin’s Reflections *****

I don’t think it’s about ‘survival’ of culture, but about changes, transforming in newer realities, adapting to earth shifts (like climate changes) and administrative protocols. The San’s spirituality, if true to self, should carry through these transformations, and I think the film portrayed this well, particularly for educating our more globalized world. Yes, the San will ‘survive’ but present us with totally different voices that build on their past histories. The real issue is: are the children learning about these past histories, or are the histories silently archived? Or perhaps a better question would be: HOW are the children now retaining worthy values imbedded in past histories and applying them to their present realities? Dance certainly can do that…. But …. Will / can the dance of the San, alone, impart solid values and customs which have held their societies together? And HOW do we know that the San groups’ spirituality is actually being transmitted to the young dancing children?

I prefer to get away from this dichotomist thinking, of thinking about ‘loss’ of culture, or ‘gain’ of something else, but look at a human continuum of thinking and behaving that allows a people to come even close to surviving and ruling over their collective needs. I refer to some Native American First Peoples, like the Navaho Indians, who have ‘lost’ so much of their original lifestyles, but have managed to establish a lifestyle that avoids the State from [continuing to] trampling on their land. Case in point: Some USA States allow for tribal ownership of lands. Arizona State has a law that requires permission from a First People’s tribe if a developer wants to build a hotel on lands under tribal ownership. The tribe then reaps the financial benefits of that enterprise. So, much of those ‘gains’ are from casinos and tourist spots, for instance. Trick is: Have those worthy values and customs of Navaho ‘culture’ been retained and transmitted? In some places of the Navaho areas, community radios broadcast in Navaho language! (I made some recordings as I drove through those areas of northern Arizona/southeastern Utah).

I don’t know the answers unless I research. At least, I know the questions to ask!

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Every Month is for Women Jazz Musicians: the South African case

A number of young, world-traveled, South African women musicians have been emerging and tuning our ears to a decade of exploratory sounds and beats that excite what ‘South African jazz’ is becoming. Thanks to current recording technologies and available studios, the 2020 Covid-19 Lockdown has been able to fortunately convert some of those unemployment blues faced by artists without paying audiences into albums, some debut, and some not so bluesy but innovative. Women artists continue to be faced, also, with recurring themes in their industry of sexist portrayal, male hierarchical displays, and even gender-based violence issues. Let’s see what some leading South African women jazz artists are doing or saying….

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Thandi Ntuli
After her successful Exile album (2018), and debut album in 2014, The Offering, (see http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2015/02/26/cd-review-by-carol-martin/) pianist Thandi Ntuli has followed up with Live at Jazzwerkstatt recorded and produced in Switzerland and released in March 2020. During her residency with jazz artists in Switzerland, Ntuli was able to gain more intercultural experience by navigating her new Swiss colleagues’ sounds, particularly with a string quartet that she had barely played with while in Switzerland. This album is a bit of a surprise, combining different genres of Spoken Word, Electronic and World Music along with pointed lyrics. Her story talks about Exile, Black Love and its disappointments, but also a New Way, and Rainbows. Her bold exploration of orchestral arrangements augers well for what South Africans can envision and execute on popular stages. Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pquueFbolyc

Here, she is discovering and applying a classical feel with strings, horns, and woodwinds performed by her European colleagues. But South African bassist, Shane Cooper, revs up the spirit with his bass slaps and beats, adding Afro-rhythms for the eager clapping hands of the young audience at that recording. Reworking songs from her Exile album, this compendium of orchestral jive does convince that Ntuli has been well on her way to compositional heights and meaningful collaborations.

Siya Makuzeni
Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz 2016, singer and trombonist, Siya Makuzeni, pulls on board a seasoned sextet in her 2016 released Out of This World album which includes the Bank’s 2017 winner for Jazz, Thandi Ntuli, on piano and keyboard . Besides playing trombone, Maluzeni also uses her vocal lyrics pedal to loop, sing and scat, portraying often wild, emoting sounds from her six compositions. A seventh song is Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Through the Years’, arranged by another Standard Bank winner, Afrika Mkhize. Makuzeni has been known for her vocal acrobatics ranging from howls and high pitched whines to mellow, lower register yowls which fuse her Xhosa sounds with some basic other roots of bebop and improvisational contemporary jazz. Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guUhDVFRUKE And her journeys…….

http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2016/07/05/ancestral-routes-in-jazz-a-journey-with-siya-makuzeni-standard-bank-young-artist-2016-for-jazz/

Amanda Tiffin
Singer, pianist, educator Amanda Tiffin’s Facing South album haunts with lyrical, thoughtful ballads meant to storytell and warm the ear with soft Latin and South African rhythms and tones. Songs are collaborative: Brazilian Guilherme Ribeiro on piano, accordion, vocal/body percussion and Dutch double bassist, Hein Van De Heyn, now homed in Cape Town, contribute their specific wizardries to guitarist David Leadbettter and Tiffin’s mix of lyrics and harmonies. Opening with ‘Peregrino’ , a Latin clap percussion with guitar/piano harmonies sets the stage for this delightful mix of the musicians’ own compositions. A syncronicity between Tiffin’s vocals and Ribeiro’s accordion in ‘Akkerman’ and ‘Hermato’ proves how expert these musicians can join their sounds at the right pitch and with believable emotions. The Tiffin/Leadbetter collaborations span over decades in Cape Town as one can hear in “Waiting for Stillness’and ‘Desert Road’. Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jf7IuiieE6M And the delightful Portuguese lyrics with piano and guitar in ‘Pes na Areia’ (footprints in the sand) solidified with a subtle samba spark. This is a perfect album for any Lockdown – or liberation of spirit!

Shannon Mowday
Norway-based South African saxophonist, Shannon Mowday, gives an honest expose of what a female musician faces in the industry. Watch this 14 minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsU2YUQeotc, courtesy of the Cape Town Music Academy (CTMA)( www.ctma.co.za). Capetonian Mowday specialises in saxophones and woodwinds as well as being a composer, director, educator and a mom. In her 4th of 5 very personal and insightful videos produced by CTMA, she talks about some frustrations and stumbling blocks she has experienced being a woman in the world of jazz when all she wanted to do was to play music. As Mowday was researching album covers of lead female saxophonists and musicians, she discovered the fantasy-orientated, sexist, and pictorial vulgarities of women posing (sometimes in compromising positions) with their respective instruments.

She wrote recently on her Facebook page on June 18, 2020:
“I’m working on my album cover and just for fun searched up some images of ‘saxophone covers’ from yester-year. WOW!!!!!!….and one ‘wonders’ why there are so many connotations of female saxophone players or how many ‘battles’ we have to fight before we have played a note…. Really??????? Whilst the ‘giants’ of jazz were doing their thing and being all creative and such and setting the ‘blueprint’ for jazz -this was the ‘image’ created for a woman with a saxophone….Yeah!! let’s have that ‘Me Too’ discussion again!!!! This is a really special site with so many more of all these horrors…….. https://flashbak.com/sax-appeal-48-sexy-saxophone-album-covers-385460/?fbclid=IwAR2rgRP9qL8UDqKNGM7TpyH4jpv85SpRfaH5hLudlfWncnvkTuOXxQA-IeY

Check out another CTMA video referred to by Mowday, with Amanda Tiffin talking about “Gender Dynamics in the Music Industry” (CTMA Moments with Masters). https://youtu.be/NSsRfpA_PbQ

For more info on Shannon Mowday: https://shannonmowday.musicaneo.com/ and follow her on Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/shannon.mowday.1

Francesca Bioncoli

Italian-born singer Francesca Bioncoli who has made Cape Town her home, presents her debut album, Ikigai, which rings out mellow and lyrical expressions in her love-lorn messages. “Everything changes and evolves, I am the ocean that crashes on the rock” in Hunter; Bioncoli’s voice overs in most songs offers vocal conversations: “when the wind is blowing, it is hard to breathe” in Wind. This album is listenable, casting a pop-ish sound, but with little change of rhythm. …… Listen on Spotify.

Others….. to follow….. Stay tuned!

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eFringe Song and Dance at NAF2020: PART IV

As performance access ends today, July 16, a final wrap-up sees more varieties of music and a bit of physical theater. It really has been a joy, even if ‘virtual’, to witness new talents, youthful zest in the arts, and heady contemporary themes in this year’s National Arts Festival 2020. Here are a few brief reviews:

“JAZZ IN THE THEATRE” FEATURING: MUNEEB HERMANS at 44 ON LONG (PTY) LTD
A favourite Cape Town-based jazz band treats the ear to original compositions from band members, under trumpeter Muneeb Hermans’ direction. Hermans has made his way around several countries performing, including gracing the prestigious Carnegie Hall, and has a lot to show us. Saxman Justin Bellairs stuns with his runs; pianist Blake Hellaby, a master at improvisation, always creates that mood, particular a classical-Ravel sound in his 3 ½ minute solo (at 07.50 minutes); Hermans’ trumpet spills forth influences far and wide as this capable musician controls but doesn’t dominate his entourage. It’s a pity that, somehow, the sound amplification of bassist Steve de Souza did not do justice to his solo playing. Nevertheless, this recording is a good example of how the Theater on 44 Long run by music/arts-lover, Esra Overberg, has become a popular central venue in Cape Town’s art hub, and will thrill future audiences, if covid-allowed!

Yolisa Ngcola (left); Asive Ngcebetsha (rt)

FROM MAKHANDA TO KOFIFI: MAJOR DUO
Who would have thought two teenage school girls with violins, swinging out familiar songs of South Africa’s 1950s, would add zest with classical African sonic twists? Asive Ngcebetsha and Yolisa Ngcola, music students at the Diocesan School for Girls in Makhanda, present a delightful mix of Tsaba-Tsaba and Kwela rhythms of Sophia Town days. One cannot just sit and listen – the gals allow for lots of body movement in this 20 minute session. For sure, their engagements will feature prominently in future Festivals and other schools events in the country!

“JAZZ IN THE THEATRE” FEATURING: CHADLEIGH GOWAR at 44 ON LONG (PTY) LTD
Here’s another gem of a “Jazz in the Theatre” concert at 44 on Long in Cape Town featuring bassist Chadleigh Gowar and his very youthful band. Gowar has gone far in deploying lots of rhythm and harmony in his compositions which are rich in Cape jazz songs ranging from the indigenous ghoema to Afro-soul with that gospel influence to other bouncy improvisational styles. The staccato guitar of Lee Ludolf kicks off this set with Gowar’s obvious talent on his electric bass. These are happy musicians, smiling and hearing each other with an eagerness to please. With two keyboards, not commonly seen in jazz bands, which include a synth and organ, the band produces a versatility of sounds, mostly in the upper registers. Even the production crew can be heard singing to refrains which, ‘normally’, an audience would engage in. Gowar is a favourite rising Cape star, having played with a slew of musicians of note. Watch for more!

FRAGMENTED SCRIBBLES
Dancer Smangaliso Siphesihle Ngwenya is a videographer, editor, writer, and choreographer who makes a profound statement in his Fragmented Scribbles that haunts our virus-ridden world at the moment. He presents a solemn solo dance in a narrow empty kitchen choreographed to convey a sense of emptiness, a void, that becomes body-talk. Ngwenya’s sleek moves in a confined space capture moments of endless embodied conversations that occur in one’s body, mind and spirit. One hears the primeval: indigenous sounds brought out by a dirigidoo, steady beats of Native Americans stomping, chanting. This is body-talk, or what the artist calls ‘embodied language’, with conversations made by various contortions of the body. Ngwenya has embarked on an illustrious arts career, from journalism to physical theatre, with different dance groups, like Vuyani Dance Theatre. His freelance art and writing are, indeed, begging for more audience conversations.

NOWHERE PEOPLE with the KINSMEN and featuring guitarist Vuma Levin
Indian classical, mainstream jazz, avant-garde, World fusion and South African Jazz come together in a far too short performance by the Kinsmen. Sitarist Dhruv Sodha holds this performance together with Tabla player Shailesh Pillay. The saxophone output of Muhammad Dawjee could have been either upgraded or eliminated, with harmonies sounding more like scales practice. Having the extraordinary talents of guitarist Vuma Levin, who featured ever so briefly, hardly elevated the group, whose style seemed to be, indeed, experimental and ….. going….. nowhere. Even Levin seemed to struggle with theme and purpose. I’m afraid, the group’s event was appropriately named.

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Musical Electronica, Alternative & Film at 2020 National Arts Festival (NAF): PART III

These selections below mark how this year’s National Arts Festival (NAF) is promoting an understanding of how electronica and film/drama is influencing contemporary (aka ‘urban’) African music and South African and African jazz and musical drama.

FUTURE NOSTALGIA SOUNDSYSTEM with ATIYYAH KHAN AKA EL CORAZON These series of video and audio recordings by music and arts journalist and DJ, Atiyyah Khan (El Corazon) and her co-producer visual artist Grant Jurius (Futurist), explore new ways of listening to music using various technologies, including reviving the vinyls of old and electronica. Eight themes, each around 1 hour 20 minutes long, explore Black Music in South Africa, Decolonisation, Islam and North African music, Futurism, and Beats and Global Sound systems. Through regular events over the past seven years in Cape Town, they have aimed to create safe spaces not only for black artists but for black audiences as well. This duo presents the unusual and the often misunderstood, covering an impressive variety of sounds, instruments, and styles from African countries. I found these themes particularly moving:

ROTATIONS OF BISMILLAH by El Corazon: This session explores and deconstructs what is meant by ‘African’ music and connects deeply to the Islamic musical traditions on the continent. Tracks include various field recordings and records from Gabon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Niger, Guinea, Gambia and more. This zine with 24 tracks brings archival material (assembled from collaged record covers) and poetry, with Khan telling her story about why she has sought, as an independent journalist, to deconstruct this music into an understandable form. Throughout the session themes, the tracks are labeled at which minute they start in the audio tape. This makes it easy to follow and know what is playing.

BLACK MUSIC UNDER APARTHEID by El Corazon: Sixteen tracks present the historical gambit of how musicians expressed their music during struggles under Apartheid, and include key recordings from Legends such as Kippie Moeketsi, Tete Mbambisa, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dudu Pukwana, and others. Khan is thinking realistically in her presentations how the after-effects of Apartheid still continue to this day.

In the SHADES OF JAZZ session, co producer Grant Jurius, aka Futurist, narrates how he has been influenced to bring his love of hip-hop together with jazz. He shares the music of home musicians, such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Robbie Jansen, Sethima Bea Benjamin, Moses Molelekwa, and the UK/South African collaboration of Shabaka & The Ancestors. Watch paintings emerge of these legends as the music is presented.

Nyege Nyege Festival 2019

NYEGE NYEGE: THE IRRESISTIBLE URGE TO DANCE – A VIEW ON CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN MUSIC

Music “ incubators” gather some fascinating mixes of African musical traditions, from Islamic histories to dancing themes to contemporary electronic and digital sounds inspired by both rural and urban spaces. These are listening sessions (each about 30 min) and also videos of the various artists from around Africa who belong to Nyege Nyege, a collective based in Kampala, Uganda. You’ll hear “psychotomimetic appeal” as electronics take over speeds, melodies, and rhythms experienced in the Singeli scene of Dar es Salaam, or the Nairobi-based GENGETONE. ACHOLITRONIX of northern Uganda is hypnotic and engaging, thanks to its producer and DJ, Leo Palayeng, along with curator, Otim Alpha, who arranges the dance music for ceremonies. Malian DJ Diaki’s style of balani awakens the spirits from the dead, using laptop, mic and drum machines. Moving to the videos, Duma presents sounds from Nairobi’s flourishing underground metal scene with the duo music makers pushing the boundaries of grind, metal, electronica and industrial through their own experimentation. Harsh tones of frustration, if not anger, emerge as the rapper stomps over corrugated iron sheets. Lady Kenyan rapper, MC Yallah, based in Uganda delivers a fast-paced performance enhanced with her over-sized Afro hair and red eye glasses, and three sassy, energetic female dancers with attitude. Then enter HHY & THE KAMPALA UNIT with a masked, synthetic percussionist dressed in Covid-19 protective gear, accompanied by a trumpeter, all making polyrhythmic Ugandan futuristic music. This is a whopping inside view of Africa’s urban youth expressing themselves and warning about the future.

Stacey van Schalkwyk

Point of Humanness, a Fringe offering with the NAF, is a visual worthy of pure uninterrupted focus as ‘humanness’ unfolds: in dark moods (ashes), watching a paper boat float on nature’s stream (drifting), an adult engaging in child’s play, time-lapse photography watching nature update itself, and movement in dance being the catalyst for healing. The viewer is asked to reflect on what humanness means in each of these visual moments. Be ready to engage on the Point of Humanness Facebook page!

Music composer and flutist, Stacey van Schalkwyk, wrote some of the narratives which carry visual moods, humour, and wonderment as these five videos tell stories about how earth and humans can create joy and channel connections that establish more loving community. Poems were written and performed by Kizito Mukasa and Chantal Snyman. Van Schalkwyk’s son, Yashin Naidoo, adds value through his cinematographic choreographies and rhythmic percussion. Camera shots of dramatic flora (colorful autumn leaves) or wild fauna (a wolf face, a hopping toad) pull the viewer into familiar realities of what we earthlings can experience, appreciate, and protect in nature for mutual healing. Dance is seen as strength in movement, making humanness invincible and able to break out into a unique freedom of purpose. Even poets and musicians in this performance recorded their respective sounds on their cell phones during this age of Covid virus-produced social distancing. Point of Humanness is a poignant reminder of how fragile yet sustainable our physical universe is if we just stay aware of all the healing modalities around us.

The Silence of Texture – Cara Stacey
This is a visually sonic treat as we watch visual artist, Mzwandile Buthelezi, draw to indigenous sounds of Cara Stacey’s nyungwe-nyungwe, umrhubhe, and umtshingo instruments, while guitarist Keenan Ahrends plucks out both indigenous musical styles and jazz improvisation. Some melodic, some less harmonic, but all songs produce a texture translated onto the painting-in-process. Buthelezi doesn’t skimp on form; rather, unidentifiable shapes and movements fill the easel’s paper. It’s gentle and solemn. The sound of his charcoal crayon moving on the paper is like breathing onto the musical instruments. Ahrends makes some effective impressionistic runs as Stacey’s instruments stay contained, including modernistic piano classical strains that surprise. The music finishes; the painting takes shape. This is another multi-media artistic gem for the festival!

OTHER MUSIC FROM AROUND SOUTH AFRICA

Sindiwe Magona, center

The delightful Kwathi ke Kaloku (Once Upon a Time), presented by the Cape Town Music Academy (CTMA) in the eFringe lineup, is a celebration of Xhosa children’s literature and indigenous music by award-winning author and storyteller, Sindiwe Magona, and renowned local musician, Bongani Sotshononda and his United Nations of Africa band. Kwathi ke Kaloku presents two of Magona’s well-known children’s tales, “The best meal ever!” and “Stronger than lion” to the live soundtrack of enchanting instruments, like Sotshononda’s marimba, young percussionist SISONKE GODLO’s kora and kudu horns. English subtitles are shown in the video. Two dramatists act out animal characters as well as both child and adult characters who struggle with realities of poverty, abandonment, and the exigencies of power. Stories of struggles in the animal kingdom are told, like a mouse confronting and overcoming the challenges of the lion, so that the children can fall asleep hoping their mother will return with food when they awake. Written by Mogona, who also guides the narrative aurally, these stories unfold lessons in hope and bravery, touching to all that view it. This is certainly a top-listed offering of this year’s eFringe musical dramas.

Pleasant enough, fast-rising Afro-soul star, Ami Faku, from the Eastern Cape, boasts a number of awards and spotlights as she combines traditional Afro soul sensibilities with modern pop. Her delivery of soft ballads and upbeat pop swing with a pleasantly husky voice expressed believable emotion. Faku introduces each song with an explanation of the why’s and what’s – very helpful to those who do not understand isiXhosa. Hers is something to watch, and her debut album, Imali, worthy of acclaim.

Nthato Mokgata (aka Spoek Mathambo)

VUKAZITHATHE (MASKANDI DOCUMENTARY)
Do those Maskandi kicks in the comforts of your own home, but don’t scare the cat! Get a visual feast of the South African landscape in this film as Nthato Mokgata (aka Spoek Mathambo), Standard Bank’s Young Artist for Music, narrates the history of Maskandi music from his home area in KwaZulu Natal. While the Cape has its Ghoema, KZN has another very danceable expression which, Mokgata says, heals himself and others, not just medically but spiritually. In this film, he has now risen up with a new energy and spiritual purpose, joining forces with fellow maskandi artist, Bhekisenzo ‘Vukazithathe’Cele. The film follows these two Nguni artists of two different generations, cultures and musical traditions, Mokgata considering himself not only a filmmaker in this case, but also an alternative hip-hop musician. They are seen joyfully bantering about life and music, in general. It’s a delightful romp through beautiful rolling hills, life stories, and the power of healing.

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JAZZ/MUSIC PERFORMANCES AT 2020 NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL (NAF) : PART II

More exciting ‘virtual’ stage and video performances are still offered, up until July 16 with your ticket/s. Here’s a few more that rocked my boat!

Ziza Muftic album My Shining Hour

Ziza Muftic’s Shining Hour concert was just that – shining with her clear, crisp vocals and lyrics, speaking of stories from her Balkan past and South African present where she has lived for several decades now. Folk tunes turned into vocal scatting, or what some would call ‘jazz’, have influenced her own style of compositions that mark Muftic as inventive, thoughtful, and impressionistic. Taking from her second album, My Shining Hour, this performance highlights her various musical influences, like Johnny Mercer and Chick Corea and others who borrowed from other musical cultures. Muftic skillfully flavours her own compositions with twists of Eastern European folk mixed with South African jazz styles. For instance, ‘Kwela Gontsana’, composed by saxophonist Sydney Mnisi in memory of a beloved late musician, was given a lyrics interpretation by Muftic about her own Bosnian upbringing. The bluesy ‘Love is the Drug’, a take from the 60s’ rock version, finds Muftic’s broad lower register voice slinking through these darker toned messages reminiscent of the sassy Billie Holiday or an angry Nina Simone. In ‘Unfinished Story’, Muftic inserts compelling bossa rhythms that accompany her intricate scats which, at times, seemed to lose their melodies, but which found resolve with intensive piano runs of Roland Moses. An abrupt finish of the song said it all. Her album is available on all digital platforms.

Loyiso Bala, singer, Swing City

For a type of Rat Pack swing and blues of the 50s and 60s, the entertaining Swing City with three vocalists, Loyiso Bala, Nathan Ro, and Graeme Watkins, and a Nigerian bassist, Amaeshi Ikechi, along with three horns, added musical value to the ‘jazz’ lineup. These dapper and well-suited-and –tied musicians on stage, with their shiny black and white shoes, exuded the flashy dress code of ‘that era’, and the attitudes that went with it. Their narratives were not without the occasional sexist gibe: ‘Guys, wearing a suit on stage now is like…..a woman not wearing a bra….”. Another quip followed, keeping to what boys do….

Their dooWA dooWA gave a charming rendition of what the ‘swing’ era sounded like, mixed with their joking around. Clearly these swingers were having fun, and would get you off your couch; “Dirty boogie” gets you jitter buggin’, shoes or no shoes. “Fly Me to the Moon”…. That sailing song beyond the seas…. ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ . It became a sing-along. The vocalists rather humourous, yet natural, ad lib banter in between songs kept interest levels and smiles high. Their theatrics improved into the program, now that the audience was used to the boyish antics. Great for a rainy day! They even added a maskandi beat to an oldie, and sang an Afrikaans song which swung into ‘De Alabama’ klopse. Thanking the non-audience for listening: ”And thank you all from the heart of my bottom.”

Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, Sisonke Xonti, presented a Part II performance for this year’s Jazz Festival which featured another slew of first-class band members. Blind pianist and vocalist, Yonela Mnana, who is studying for his Ph.D. in music, stole this show! Mnana’s obvious emotional connection between fellow musicians and his piano helped him to sound out images that supported Xonti’s, at times, wailing sax and at other times, his softer improvisations. Xonti doesn’t ‘do’ smooth jazz or Standards. He believes in giving his musicians space to play their own compositions as well as his own. Just listen to percussionist Tlale Makhene at the finale with Mnana’s chants…. It’s like a send-off to another joyous world! Pure unadulterated improvisation!

Black Lives Matter themes

One of the most powerful messaging about contemporary (and past) issues of racism came with Making Grace Amazing, a mix of film, music, and performance art portraying slave histories. This engaging 30 minute visual is curated by Neo Muyanga, a musician and installation artist known to traverse African idiom and voices, Jazz improvisation and new opera. Various impressionistic props are shown to depict a slaver’s ship – with sounds of water drops, oars rowing, seagulls squawking as a ship enters the harbor; then an artists’ picture of young black descendants of slaves. The ships’ journeys are plotted on a world map; blood red lines between Europe and both Americas; sounds of a steady one note stroke on a cello with clinking of chains, and a trumpet. Black youth march through a huge empty concrete structure and characterless spiraling staircase. Neo’s own vocals are superimposed over the gentle playing of a euphonium and trumpet as the troupe march back and forth. The instruments play the popular gospel song, ‘Amazing Grace’, while the troupe sing another song, walking chained to each other. Angola to Rio. One dramatic scene looks out to the wide ocean, then a photo is superimposed of the inside of a Christian cathedral with Christ on the cross at its center. A gospel choir sings over the calls of seagulls, again. Opera singer, Tina Mene, and the Brazilian multidisciplinary troupe, Legitima Defesa, exquisitely map out challenges to contemporary racism, sexism and class in societies of today.

With vocalist/rapper, J’Something and three horns, Mi Casa has stormed South African audiences with their urban house band boasting lively dance beats and important lyrics. Black Lives Matter chants and messages were delivered seriously and in timely fashion, considering the issues of the day.

East Londoner violinist and vocalist, Siseko Pame, delivered important social justice messages: When he picked up his violin with a soulful and impulsive energy, one could understand why gender-based and sexual violence, and neglectful attention to human rights issues drove his musical emotions. A 2018 SAMA award winner for Best African Adult Album, Pame shows guts and avoids a silence of complicity. Singing in isiXhosa, along with vocal backups, and a backline, his emotions are convincing as are his facial expressions seen through the close up camera lens, a special feature of this year’s video recordings at NAF. Truly a front row seat! Pame confirms today’s difficulties, and urges all to stop spreading the Covid-19 virus, as in his song “Prayer Works for Me”. His tribute to Jabu Khanyile’s popular song “Mmalo We’, a danceable and melodious hit, offered a reminder of other songbirds, like Vusi Mahlesela.

KoraX, led by vocalist, guitarist, and flutist, Bongani Tulwana, another melodically gifted band, messaged joy and hope in these uncertain times. Few jazz musicians play flute, or at least feature the flute as a prime instrument. Just when I get excited with a lovely flute (my bias) ballad introduction on a song about hope, Tulwana switches to acoustic guitar. But that’s OK….His music stresses harmony and story telling with a gentility and empathy for those stressed and challenged with life. His facial expressions, again thanks to up close camera shots, confirms these emotions about others’ sufferings. One hears the styles of the late Zim Ngqawana, and the very prominent Feya Faku, with whom ‘KoraX’ Tulwana has performed, and such influences have certainly rubbed off on him, creating his own sound that moves and endears.

Vinnie Mak, aka Xola Vincent Makeleni from Gauteng, is a soul and blues singer from an early age. His powerful vocals are full of emotion, with chilling wails and cries dramatically captured on his sometimes contorted face and body. Limping along through his set, Mak hustles his husky voice into convincing refrains of sadness, guilt, and abandonment. After 18 minutes of this set, it became hard to listen to….as the pain and anguish seemed all too real.

OTHER MUSIC

As part of the Eastern Cape Jazz Showcase series, vocalist Vuyolwethu Nyangwa approaches her music with zest and pride in delivering Ubuntu messages in keeping with her traditional African identity. Her performance was convincing and spirited, her deep broad voice chanting, bemoaning, and emoting in moving ways. Camera closeup shots effectively showed the determined facial responses of her band members, full of feeling. It’s not just the instrumental music, but the dance and body movements and storytelling that round out the sound and message.

Another offering in the Eastern Cape Jazz Showcase is bassist Mlungisi Gegana who features a just-met young pianist, Chester Summerton, and drummer, Thulani Funeka. Playing from his second album, I am Who Am I, this self-made bassist proudly exhibited confidence and mellowness in his songs without overreactions or too many subtleties. Basically, a very pleasant listenable set full of rhythms and melodies.

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VIRTUAL JAZZ PERFORMANCES AT 2020 NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL (NAF Makhanda): PART I

Couch festival? Digital watching ‘live’ jazz, dance, curated theatrical videos? What? Fans of South Africa’s annual National Arts Festival (June 25 – July 5, 2020) might have given up on this year’s ‘festival’, brought digitally to our homes by COVID-19 sponsorship. COVID is saying: think creatively, out of the ‘norm’, see and react differently when emotions, anxieties, and uncertainties take over self-worth. Same for the Arts. Watching a variety of offerings this June/July, with an eagerness to figure out ‘how did they do that’ or find a particular awe in the lighting effects accompanying a dancing figure, I resolved to just let it happen….and this is what I discovered!

(Inspite of the streaming issues which the NAF techies had to iron out fast, which plagued viewers like myself from the start of the Festival presentations.)

Did I need the social solidarity of festival crowds whistling their appreciation? Or rubbing shoulders with the artists during a break, or rushing to an event with ticket since it was a once-off viewing? Digital viewing on a television or computer screen certainly didn’t provide these, but did surprise with other advantages:
* That camera close-up capturing the emotion on that pianist’s face when soloing, or how those bandaged fingers of the double bassist didn’t alter delivery;
* Being able to get up and dance to a performance, even spilling the popcorn far and wide, and not worry about kicking the seat in front of you;
* Viewing a performance after it went live, in case you missed it because you took an important phone call about a sick aunty in Mpumalanga (tickets allow viewing anytime up to July 16)
* Seeing LOCAL and highly talented South African artist’s creativity spread worldwide, thanks to wobbly w.w. streaming, and knowing cousin John and family in New York are also watching.
* Listening to stories of South African life and seeing hills and valleys and homes and people working and enjoying cultural ceremonies and…..
* Being moved by the mixed media: using music, photographs, video tapes of movements and interviews, and interesting lighting effects – all brought interesting angles to stories or musical pieces otherwise hard to pull off at a live gathering.

So, here’s what made me very content with this digital festive wizardry…and what I highly recommend for viewing (up to July 16). Let’s start with…. JAZZ REIMAGINED…brought to us by the Standard Bank Jazz Festival of NAF….

Sisonke Xonti (sax) & Shane Cooper (bass)

Tenor saxophonist, Sisonke Xonti, the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, shines with delight with his debut album, Iyonde. After a solemn beginning, Xonti’s performance with his seasoned band of close friends jumped into the core of improvisation with pomp, clarity, and purpose. ’15 Sandile Str’ song displayed his compositional skills, also mastered by Shane Cooper’s double bass solo and Keenan Ahrends’ guitar. Xonti’s rise to jazz heights has been tempered by study, exploration, and determination to find identity and joy in music. He allowed his fellow musicians freedom to interpret, as could be heard with Ahrends’ soulful guitar solos. Watch Xonti’s exquisite solo around minute 40 of the video. Vocals by Keorapetse Kolwane take the listener on another journey; hers is crisp, steady, hitting her notes exactly. The perfect piano accompaniment of Bokani Dyer, with shades of the late, great Bheki Mseleku whose style has influenced these band members, reigned throughout. We await Xonti’s next album for sure.

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (left) with Ramon Alexander

Pianist Ramon Alexander’s quartet with Byron Abrahams on tenor and alto saxes, Valentino Europa on bass, and Annemie Nel on drums took us on a very pleasant sonic journey through Alexander’s beautiful compositions with lilting harmonies complemented with Cape Ghoema rhythms, soulful balads, and thoughtful nuances of Cape Jazz.

Alexander offered tributes to his late brother, to his active mentor and musical guru of Cape Jazz, Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, and to several other late Cape jazz musicians, including saxophonist Robbie Jansen. His compositions spoke history and touched notably on local influences, funk, gospel, and bluesy elements. Abrams and Alexander each soloed effortlessly, diligently supported by the whispy drums of long-time collaborator, Annemie Nel, knowing full well they could capture any audience to join their rocks and swings anywhere.

Zango (left) with Mashiloane (right)

South Africa meets Mozambique presented a stunning duo between Durban-based pianist, Sibusiso ‘Mash’ Mashiloane, and multi-instrumentalist Mozambiquan Cândido Salomão Zango, (aka ‘Matchume’), known for perfecting the style of the Timbila, a marimba-style instrument. Mashiloane’s body becomes a barefoot ankle shaker tapping on his ancestral spirits who, by the way, are listening. The performance consisted of a pre-recorded video of each artist telling their stories of growing up within cultures which they found seemingly similar. They then shared those sonic commonalities – and here’s when you could get off your couch and stomp with them. A gem of a performance!

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LINDA SIKHAKHANE’S ISAMBULO (revelation) performance was a highlight of this festival that showcased just what solid hard work and collegial friendships can produce. Young Umlazi-born Sikhakhane, playing soprano and tenor saxophones, with a tight band of loyal musicians, delivered emotion, surprise, and rich texture in his compositions. It was breathtaking, thanks to Ndabo Zulu on trumpet, the fiery Afrika Mkhize on piano, the thoughtful Benjamin Jephta on double bass, the energetic Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums, and the steady Gontse Makhene on percussion.

In the introductory song, ‘Cause of Life’, Sikhakhane expertly controlled his soprano sax’s long notes with a calming vibrato that did not sound like wailing. Then, the energy erupted with drummer Mazibuko’s aggressive style and pianist Mkhize at one point jumping off his seat with cataclysmic runs. The percussionist Makhene slowed things down to end the piece. What an introduction, followed by a melodic song with Sikhakhane on tenor sax accompanied by trumpeter Zulu holding the sonic reigns. Bandaged fingers didn’t stop bassist Jephta from delivering some soulful solos, further supported by the rich togetherness from the sax and trumpet duo. Sikhakhane understands what improvisation is all about, even admitting that during the time of COVID, one must improvise and be flexible with one’s life and purpose, while faced down by the vagaries of pandemics. The last song, written for the band’s name, ISAMBULO, which means ‘revelation’, revealed each musicians’ talent for mastery, insightfulness to sound and feeling, and general all-round enthusiasm to deliver the best. I’m going to watch this concert again!

van Wyk (left), Motuba (center), Mogorosi (right)

One of the most moving and conceptual projects in the NAF’s jazz offerings is The Wretched, a sonic interpretation of the psychologist and revolutionary intellectual, Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. Jazz vocalist Gabi Motuba along with drummer and scholar Tumi Mogorosi and avant-garde sound-scape artist Andrei van Wyk take the listener on a roller coaster sound journey, with an interesting mix of voice overs and spoken word muffles of historical contexts between the oppressed and the oppressor. Electronica leads this performance thanks to van Wyk’s psychedelic interventions with haunting rumbles, whines, choral wails, and politicians’ quotes made inarticulate, if not inconsequential. Any resultant cacophony is understandable. It’s about injustice. Focusing on the paintings of ‘the wretched’, enslaved, infringed humans – in crowds and as portraits – elicited sad, if not angered, emotions in the viewer. One remembers Franz Fanon’s own words: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” This performance was mostly engaging for its chilling revolutionary energy that the wretched of the earth will rise and find justice. On the technical delivery side, however, some spoken narratives were recorded way too faintly requiring increasing the computer’s volume considerably. When the instruments accompanied, the spoken word became drowned out. Yet, this unsettling performance masterfully portrayed Fanon’s own sense that neglect of the past follows into contemporary themes: ”This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.”

If you’ve arrived ‘late’ to the Festival, you can still catch a live webinar this Saturday, 4 July, at 8PM with Moderator, Dean Flanagan, who zooms in with Sisonke Xonti, Michael Bester, Lana Crowster, and J-Something. Click on this URL to join. https://zoom.us/w/98231447712?tk=vXofdPzw0WruUqkmFs0a8jHfgy4A5RVF75Ath0PQlVI.DQIAAAAW3wzwoBZiSW15Ui1QZlJiT0lGTkc0bk8yWFJRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA&pwd=cllwK29FSzJOWC94UlFHM1VQT25DZz09&uuid=WN_dJ6qx_n_Sjubb7hXXCKTow

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Jazz from Denmark, China, Ivory Coast, Korea and U.S. Speak diversity: CD Reviews

on the tender spot of every calloused moment by Ambrose Akinmusire (2020)

A timely release by Blue Note Records, considering the racial unrest that has exploded visibly world-wide, American jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire voices complexities of black life in America, unpacking it and breathing through his trumpet some beautiful, shape-shifting art to the ear. This album is a stunner, boasting 11 new original compositions on this, his fifth Blue Note album. It unpacks the feelings of ‘otherness’ in a racially distraught America , but, unlike the seething emotions that underlie his previous albums, this one simmers as he examines the past “with pondering eyes and not a furrowed brow”. This is a study of blues in a contemporary context, with songs that celebrate while admitting defeats, as in ‘Reset’, and the chilling ‘Blues’ and ‘Hooded procession’ which ends the album with a depiction of names of those who have suffered from racial injustices. Released as a CD in May 2020, the album will be available on digital platforms and on vinyl in August 2020. Hear some tracks on Spotify.

Peace in the World (2020) with Guo Gan (China) & Aly Keita (Ivory Coast)

This album is a gem. Well-known Guo Gan, thought to be the ‘grand Master’of the Chinese Erhu (a two stringed instrument), had studied in France in the early 2000s obtaining his Master’s degree from the National Music School of Fresnes in Paris. Recognized world over, he has performed with key orchestras, and casts his “sonic perfume” on classical music, jazz, ballet, opera, and contemporary soundtracks. Teamed up with Aly Keita from Ivory Coast, a seasoned player of the West African balafon, a musical ancestor of the xylophone and marimba, the melodic and dreamy sounds, soft and contemplative, will enthral and spin the listener into peaceful depths which the world needs now. Keita uses different sized calabash resonators to produce special sounds. Both Guo Gan and Aly Keita learned their instruments from their fathers. The Keita family practiced the griot profession (an art of storytelling) through their balafons and singing.
Peace in the World, first issued in 2016 is re-issued now for obvious reasons. It’s sure to help pacify the otherwise stressful social and political upheavals emerging in this infamous year of 2020. The album is released by Felway Records, Italy.

Racing A Butterfly (2020) by Anne Mette Iversen Quartet +1

Danish bassist/composer/bandleader Anne Mette Iversen had a touching encounter with a butterfly while jogging in southern France. “It was the fun, the enjoyment, the playfulness and lightness that was so beautiful and which nature displayed so naturally, that made me feel that I really ought to celebrate those sides of life more than I have previously done in my music.” A New Yorker since 1998, her well-established band of John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Peter Dahlgren (trombone), Danny Grissett (piano), and Otis Brown III (drums & cymbals) playfully maneuver themes always tilting toward that flitting butterfly, gently and melodically. The horns mesmerize with their chats, faithful to the composer’s wishes, sometimes exchanging opposite runs, sometimes joining in “parallel flying” along with this silent insect. This album will mellow, soothe, and even amuse. Just listen to the butterfly’s silence!

Iversen has eleven recordings available as a bandleader, including one as composer and artistic director for the Norrbotten Big Band with whom she served as Composer in Residence in 2016. She tours regularly in Europe and the U.S., and is active with the musician’s organization, Brooklyn Jazz Underground, in New York, also the name of her recording label which has released this album. Check Spotify and muse with Iversen’s butterfly!

Lion’s Den III: Arium by South Korean Rhy Dongju (2020)

Growing up in South Korea with a classical pianist mother, Dongju moved his ear and musical awareness from classical to traditional Korean to contemporary performance art to different genres of jazz, rock, blues, and World. His guitar training took hold, as did many opportunities to travel, compose, join orchestras, and hone his own styles which cross cultural, racial, and religious borders.

He started Lions Den Records to do just that, Arium being his third album on the label. His compositions depict personalities and art forms, such as ‘Picasso’, then rocking in ‘Elvis’, and a dramatic ‘Rachmaninoff’ with a bit of orchestral samba lift-off. As he says about his Label, “We promote different styles of music (Progressive, Contemporary, Classical, Jazz, Rock/Metal and World Music) with over 30,000 radio stations and more than 2,000 music magazines, reviewers, DJs and internet radio station / potcasts through our contact network system.” Ambitious as young Dungju is, he’s definitely someone to watch. Listen to track excerpts from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeqVR6woAMc

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Latest jazz albums for your Lockdown walks

Listen to some hearty jazzy funk and blues, if you’re down with the COVID lock, and find joy in spotifying or youtubing a few of these artists, local and worldwide. All Jazz Radio receives loads of albums sent for broadcasting, so here are a few briefly reviewed for your tastes – some Japanese, Croatian sentiments, choral harmonies, South Africans crossing African boundaries…. Don’t get locked down!!

Don Laka PASSION (2020)
Away from making music for some 8 years, jazz pianist Don Laka is back with his album, Passion, which is filled with rhythm and melody. At age 60, it’s like a new turn for Laka’s creative bent, reflecting on nostalgias of old, soft and thoughtful, like in “Passion”, along with a contemporary smooth style in newer materials, like in “Take My Hand, I Will Walk With You”. Laka has let his South African rhythms spill out in the ghoema-styled “Domans Dance” and jivey sounds in “Thula Mabota”. You might find yourself dancing by the seaside on this one, during your Lockdown walks!!
[Buy on Raru: https://raru.co.za/music/7411029-don-laka-passion-cd ]

Shunzo Ohno RUNNER (2020)
Renowned Japanese trumpeter and composer, Shunzo Ohno’s 18th album as leader promises orchestral-like delights within a short 30 minutes. His four piece “Epic” uses trumpet, clarinet, and cello which paints dramatic moods and soft colourful visions of universality. This is followed by a stunning title track with electronic guitar, two bassists, drums, and clavinet as an ode to the perseverance of marathon runners. The final piece sounds out a duo of trumpet and bassoon – all unusual configurations for a jazz album.

Ohno is no stranger to collaborations with key American jazz musicians from the 1970s, and brings to this album colourful musical landscapes. Because of his own bout with physical damage to lips and a throat cancer that left him having to improvise ways to play trumpet, a documentary was made about is journey, Never Defeated: The Shunzo Ohno Story , available on YouTube. When the 2011Tohoku Earthquake devastated Northern Japan, Ohno focused on helping to revive music programs for children affected. His story and music reeks of perseverance we all need to get us through this present pandemic.

Thana Alexa ONA (2020
This self-produced album expresses what it means to be a woman. Croatian-American Thana Alexa discovers the wild woman spirit in her and tells us how she sets it free. “Ona” means “she” in Alexa’s native Croatian tongue and that title track begins the album with choral chanting, drumming and foot stomping that feel primordial and real. Her lyrics are carefully logical and assertive; some spoken, some sung, all bellowed with convincing honesty. Her contralto voice is persuasive, aggressive, determined, with powerful political messages in “The Resistance” , suggesting we revolutionize our minds, and then rise up in the dramatic “Pachamama” featuring violinist Regina Carter. Thirteen vocalists feature on the various songs, along with guitar, piano, bass and drums, the latter played by her multi-Grammy husband, Antonio Sanchez. Her musical moods rarely settle down because the subject matter is serious. Her interesting vocalizing in “Teardrop” explodes with a spirt of twangy electric guitar blues that repeats that assertiveness. The album ends with a satirical resolve in having fought the worthy battle to gain that freedom so elusive in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. The control and tightness of musical output is impressive and nothing short of bold as Alexa uncovers the truth of life. Watch her YouTube videos looping her vocals with multiple Grammy-awardee drummer husband, Antonio Sanchez. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ot_QihxE2w4&feature=emb_logo

Simphiwe Dana  BAMAKO

Here is a gem for some jazzy swing, pop, choral chanting, and joyful lyrics.  Like with Thana Alexa’s female chorus, South African Simphiwe Dana has crafted songs that carry conversations, often witty as in “Bye Bye Naughty Baby”.  Soft beats from West Africa with cora runs soothe the soul with Bamako vocal inflections in “Masibambaneni” between a male and several women vocalists.  Here, Dana has crossed African sonic borders.  Her album starts with “Usikhonzile” which sets a stage of gentle, chatty messaging which thematically runs throughout.  Rhythmic lulls with lullabies hum about Dana’s own convictions as she stereophonically massages the listener’s ears and heart. 

Dana’s intended exit from the music industry bodes sadness for fans who will find solace in this, Dana’s last recorded album.  She says her popular single, “Uzokhala”, is exactly what the doctor ordered in these depressing Covid-19 times.  As a single mother, Dana will look for other outlets that treat talents better than musicians are treated, she is reported as lamenting.  Catch this album fast for its delightfully melodic, if not melodramically lyrical, resonance with Xhosa and West African musical styles.  Bamako is sure to give ear and mind health during these strange Corona virus lockdown protocols.

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Singer Maya Spector Knows the Honey and the Heartache: A CD Review

Need soothing sounds during a Lockdown walk by the sea? Or a lullaby during visual contemplation on a red apple? Maybe you’re considering distancing (and not socially this time) from a relationship that hurts. Or just turning off all radios and TVs and listening to your soul sing through someone else’s pulses. Honey & Heartache just might be for you.

This debut album by Capetownian singer and song-writer, Maya Spector, will resurrect memories of a poignant experience you once had with someone, or just remind you about the quirky randomness of life.

Spector voices experience with life’s challenges, having grown up with rich international opportunities for wide travels and country residences, thanks to her American diplomat father and musically endowed Capetownian mother. Spector mingles Jazz with Soul, if such labels can be adequately justified, and tells her stories, sometimes intimately, about loves and painful separations. Her earlier hit single, “Eyes for You”, made waves among fans, hinting at more heart-throbbing songs to come on this album.

And heart-felt they are, thanks to Spector’s glassy clear vocals and careful pitch that doesn’t pierce, but rather convinces one that her stories are true. Hers is a pleasant duo of engaging melody with emotive lyrics that feel, search for, and exude pain and resolve, all carefully controlled by sometimes happy, sometimes sassy, sometimes bluesy inflections in her voicings.

Her official video entices. https://youtu.be/seoRxv3hx8M. Like the album, it pulls you into her light-heartedness with a mellow swing and then moves into darker passages as her voice makes melancholic pitches, straining to hold back tears.

As the album reaches ïts middle with “Anchors Away”, she queries: Do I stay or go? Am I loosing love and drifting? What is the sky saying? I’m floating. Then, a “Bittersweet” goodby. One hears trumpeter, Tumi Pheko, wail in the breakup. The album ends with a formidable vocalizing of the popular South African lullaby, “Thula Baba”, based on the children’s story, “Goodnight Moon”, which seems to resolve Spector’s quest for who she is.

Band members are well known session artists from Cape Town’s music arena. Graham Ward (worked with Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, and Ray Charles, among others) on drums and percussion proudly did the digital mixing through his Wardwide Music. The young pianist Nobuhle Ashanti and versatile bassist/pianist Nick Williams take turns at keyboard, with Williams mostly on bass. The rare appearance of master teacher and Cape guitarist, Alvin Dyer, is welcomed, although not obvious on the songs as Spector and her own backup vocals carry this album’s weight.

As a global citizen, Spector has also performed in musical theatre, with notable performances in ‘Langarm’, ‘Rent!’, ‘The Silence of the Music’, ‘The Man of La Mancha’, ‘Jimbo’ and ‘My Fair Lady’. Her lyricist talents certainly developed there, as did her exposure to other political and cultural societies in Asia, the United States, and in South Africa.

Her catchy, sing-along tunes will linger on after a seaside walk.  Tune up to her album release soon on the various digital music platforms.  You won’t regret one second of sound!

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Kristjan Randalu and Dave Liebman Revisit Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: CD Review

Fans of classical/jazz fusions, who also might like Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, will love this album. Remember his Pictures at an Exhibition , written in 1874 for artist and architect, Victor Hartmann, who died a year before? Or, if not a fan, but an enthusiast of interpretive music, the listener will experience the sonically versatile choreography of two masterful musicians reshaping Mussorgsky’s piece. Estonian-born pianist Kristjan Randalu, and American soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman of jazz note, plunge unabashedly into musical theatrics. Imagine these two wandering at night through an empty gallery, aurally revisiting and rebrushing the works of art with sound textures and discordant and harmonic rhythms according to the light changes cast on the pictures.

Mussorgsky Pictures Revisited, released recently by Budapest Music Center Records (BMC), offers reworked gems of Mussorgsky’s originals, while holding true to his stories. Five ‘Promenades’ with different key scales are interspersed to provide a continuity of themes, while breaking up the moods and lyrical textures of the musical interpretation. Slow, methodic and careful styles feature in the first five tracks of this duo’s exploits, but in the sixth track, ‘Les Tuileries’ (Parisian gardens), melodies become abstract with a wandering piano, punctuated by a free improvisation of the saxophone. While a bit chaotic amidst a social order, this sets the tone for the rest of the album. Imagine viewing pictures of characters and scenes in Paris depicting life, fantasy, ballet, Parisian catacombs, castles, and competitive women at the market.

Then, gentility enters. Liebman pitches his soprano sax high enough to sound like a lilting medieval wooden flute as in ‘Promenade IV’ after which the sax morphs into a frantic and amusing self-explanatory run in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens’. Where did that come from, one wonders? Keeping to the Parisian bustles, the duo sonically paints women hustling in the market for gains in ‘Limoges – The Market’, and a solemn visit to the catacombs casts a dark lighting change in ‘Catracombae’. The album ends with one of the longer pieces, ‘The Heroic Gate’, depicting victory, finality, even relief. The music has burst out of the frames.

The 42 year old Randalu , known to break some rules, but with humble precision, hails as one of Europe’s stellar talents of improvisation, and boasts various awards: Jazz Album of the Year at the 2012 Estonian Music Awards, the 2007 Jazz Award of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the 2014 Music Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, and the 2020 National Culture Prize in Estonia.

Liebman, well known in improv circles for some five decades, starting in the 1970s with various bands including Miles Davis and Elvin Jones, has built his career around teaching, writing, composing, and performing. His autobiography, What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist, covers his fascinating career, which also includes founding and acting as the Artistic Director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ) existing since 1989.

The stylistic genius of this duo makes this album undeniably a collector’s item.

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Nduduzo Makhatini joins Blue Note Label album and thrills Saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane

Modes of Communication – Letters from the Under World, soon to be released on 3 April 2020, is probably one of the more unusual offerings by this new Blue Note Label composer, producer, and pianist, Nduduzo Makhathini, who proudly becomes Africa’s and South Africa’s second jazz artist to sign on to this oldest running New York-based American jazz record label.  The first artist was our own Mama Kaap, Sylvia Ncediwe Mdunyelwa who signed on in 1999 under Blue Note South Africa label for EMI Records. 

Having listened to his previous 8 albums, produced in South Africa, I excitedly but delicately tuned my ears, in anticipation for that something ‘new ‘ in sound and tempo. Makhathini had already explained his spiritual purpose in bridging the trans-Atlantic cultural realms of music, and specifically jazz, between African spiritual traditions and the African-American musical experiences.  http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2019/10/19/pianist-nduduzo-makhathini-african-ancestry-meets-diaspora-jazz-a-trans-atlantic-connection-through-the-blue-note-jazz-label/    This purpose had brought him and other South Africans to launch the ‘South African Songbook’ with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra in September of 2019.

This album enraptures. A thoughtfully crafted synchronicity of horns holds together choral harmonies without sounding big band-ish; each horn is allowed an individual freedom to express a song’s theme in solo improvisation. The three saxophones and one trumpet, when playing together, or rather sometimes digitally mixed together, are actually having a conversation, sometimes in 4/6 time; sometimes in a lilting ¾ time. This is when we hear saxophonist, Linda Sikhakhane, on his tenor and soprano saxes with trumpeter, Ndabo Zulu, not far away.

Logan Richardson

They are embellished by the very seasoned American alto saxophonist, Logan Richardson, who claims an impressive list of recordings on the Blue Note Label with other illustrious Grammy awardees, such as Pat Matheny, Max Roach, and a host of post-bop and some newer-age artists.

The young Logan had studied at the New School for Social Research in New York City where much later, in 2019, the young Sikhakhane completed his Bachelors degree in Music, thanks to a SAMRO Overseas scholarship and transfer of his University of KwaZulu Natal credits towards the USA Bachelors.

See him perform at age 22 years before traveling to USA: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=14&v=2jPfiPg2sfY&feature=emb_logo ) which won him his SAMRO scholarship. Now, five years later, Sikhakhane has returned to his South African home to perform and rub off his talents onto his peer masters, as well as reflect and figure out what’s next. Even in 2017 during his studies, he managed to have his debut album, Two Sides One Mirror, produced by Nduduzo Makhatini’s label.

Makhathini’s journey of discovering and composing African ancestral themes means he is taking other young musicians along who have a like-minded spiritual bent on what guides and enables us. Besides Sikhakhane, drummer Ayanda Sikade shines in this album, with fast rhythms in undercurrents that scurry around Makhathini’s lower register piano chords which in themselves sound quite daunting. The opening track, ‘Yehlisan’umoya’ sets the mood, with Makhathini’s wife’s vocals, with calls to the ancestors:

It’s a long journey that we have to walk
Help shine your light
You who live in our dreams
Send us your guiding stars
Open all doors
To relieve us from all sicknesses
And our spirit can reach a hiding place

This happens to be Sikhakhane’s favourite song on the album. The horns have a masterful synergy, thanks to the composition style of Makhathini, in ‘Unyazi’ and ‘Umlotha’. One hears the distinct style of Richardson in the discordant ‘Umyalez’oPhuthumayo’ which matches a restless piano. ‘Úmlotha’(ashes) is one of the most moving pieces on the album which features trumpeter Ndabo Zulu showing his metallic expressions. ‘Beneath the Earth’ features Makhathini’s praise vocals followed by a chorus of wife Omagugu and their three children. Vocalist and co-author, Asanda Msaki , adds feminine texture to this Spirit-calling piece. The album’s notes say that the tune is also based on the musical style amahubo, an art form found in Zulu praise and lament songs, or ‘Zulu hymns’ as it is sometimes described.

Catching up with saxophonist, Linda Sikhakhane , before the album release, we remembered our chats in the then Grahamstown in 2018 when he was performing at the National Arts Festival’s Youth Jazz Festival. His days with that popular jazz education annual retreat go back to 2007 when he was a very young teenager. His ride with music explains his joyful nature.

Linda Sikhakhane at NAF 2018

“My family comes from northern KwaZulu Natal, so the reason I was attracted to the modern Jazz, like the music of John Coltrane, was because our traditional music is parallel to what modern music brings to the table. That’s why the music of Madala Kunene, for instance, is also so relevant to my ears.”

This album is special to the young Sikhakhane; he considers himself very fortunate :

“It really connects America and South Africa, especially to have Logan Richardson from USA play with us. Being on the Blue Note Label is special for us in Africa. It’s time for us to shine. This album is like a bridge for many of us. The whole world can now see what’s happening in South Africa and hear the roots of jazz coming from the likes of our past legends, like Ezra Nqkukana and Bheki Mseleku and many others. We have an important archive with so many important recordings, so we see the afterlife of the music itself as a way of healing through these sonic energies. That’s our contribution to the Blue Note Label, I think.”

And what’s in the future for this young man?

“I was accepted for a Masters program at the New School, but the plan was rather to come back home and figure out how to finance such schooling. It’s a Masters in Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. But since I’ve come back, I need time to reflect on what I’ve achieved so far.”

When the Corona virus safari ends its own journey, Sikhakhane and his peers will be able to get back to financing their art with live concerts. In the meantime, he has been writing film scores with a design company, Pacinamix, which had also assisted him with his New York finances. As a result of his past collaboration with the UK’s Shabaka Hutchings, he was scheduled to perform at a Hutchings-curated music festival in the UK recently. But worldly pursuits for this eager young saxophonist will have to wait for now, but will certainly find their place in a new world after Corona. Just watch!

Download his album, Two Sides One Mirror (2017) at CD Baby and Amazon. It features: Sakhile Simani on trumpet & flugelhorn ,Sanele Phakathi on piano, Nhlanhla Radebe on bass ,Omagugu Makhathini on vocals ,Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums ,El Hadji Ndong on percussion.

Producer : Nduduzo Makhathini
Engineer : Peter Auret & Luyanda Molao
Mastering : Oyvind Die Berg

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Drummer Clement Benny slithers with octopus grace in his debut album By Way of Introduction

Drumming takes skeleton control as homo sapiens moves stiffly, sometimes in contorted ways, to carefully maneuver sounds across the drum set. However, jazz artist, Clement Benny, wants to do it differently, and his debut album, By Way of Introduction, presents his own sound with a fluidity and grace that pleases.

Born and bred in the Eastern Cape, Benny arrived in Cape Town just in time to join the independent music school, MAPP, for several years to obtain an initial musical footing, after which he joined the growing UCT Jazz Studies crowd in the mid 1990s. Exciting times brought Benny in contact with a set of musicians now renowned for their 20 years plus experience in transforming South Africa’s jazz music. Hence, his choice for his album of pianist Hilton Schilder with whom Benny toured Reunion Island, and who remains a vast influence on his life; saxman Buddy Wells whom Benny first met through a music competition in 1997 and whom he continued to play with through UCT study days. Others on the album, double bassist Dave Ridgeway and guitarist Allou April were all emerging dons during that early era. His studies under Cuban percussionist, Efrain Toro at UCT, sustained his undying thirst to learn more and more about the drumming craft. Very humbly, Benny admits this as his future mission… to keep on learning.

We talked more deeply about his musical vision and his album.

CM: You’ve got 9 tracks on your album with interesting mixtures: some ghoema, some mainstream be-bop, lovely ballads, some lamentations, a little bit of minor keys. What‘s the album all about?

CB: I’m not much of a composer, but I’ve worked with these young composers at the forefront of what jazz is about. And also with Khaya Mahlangu and Africa Mkize – these incredible musicians. But I didn’t want this to sound like a drummer’s album, because I’m still busy practicing. I’m glad I did the last track on the album, ‘Drum Speak’, as you will hear my solo with me falling over my own self and making ‘mistakes’, although Miles Davis said there is nothing like a mistake in jazz! The nice part of the album was that the tracks were all recorded basically live in studio and once. My band members were simply happy with the spontaneity of our collaboration and sound. The only edited track was the Spoken Word one, ‘There I Were’, which featured an amazing influence in my life, the Reverend Robert Steiner whom I had met in my favourite sports bar, and he became my good friend. He being part Italian, I asked him to write me a poem about what it means to become a God. That’s what that song is about – There I Were – which is also a play on words leading to the title of my album, By Way of Introduction, where I’m introducing myself as a digital debutante!

CM: That Track, ‘There I Were’ …. it sounds like a lamentation, it’s sort of funereal, yet sounds celebratory in a melodic sort of way.

CB: Well, it’s a bit of intellectual music because it’s inside me, and we hear music in beats of 3s as waltzes, and in beats of 4, and then the counterpoint between the bass and the sax searching for the beginning of this song. I didn’t mean the song to be confusing, but I trusted the band would find a solution. And if you meet the Reverend Steiner, you will find him a very relaxed, approachable man. He’s very serious about being the best version of oneself.

CM: Yes, it’s a very moving piece. I also found your album cover rather intriguing with a drummer, arms flying about, but in the shape of an octopus. And then a written form “@seven of nine”. What was that all about?

CB: The seventh daughter of nine refers to a character on Star Trek, and I thought a name like “Seven of Nine” was an unusual way to call someone. And then, when I was studying with Efrain Toro, he made reference to the 9 colours of the rainbow, that we can only see seven primary colours, but not the other two. He told me a rhythm is only up to 9 beats and homo sapiens really doesn’t function beyond that, just as we have 88 keys on the piano, but we actually only consciously hear two. This is how playing divisions of 7 inside a metre of 9 becomes actually 7 bars. So to me, it’s really an intellectual reference to how I came up with the Seven in Nine on the album cover. Again, a play on words….a bit of math… At a time when musicians talk about technical terms like ‘reharmonization’ and ‘modulations’ and ‘inversions’ ….. For me on drums, I can understand the 7 of 9 rhythms where musicians on other instruments may not know these rhythms. It’s like your body rhythms are ordered, are like the planets: they don’t crash into each other, but rather carry a rhythm!

CM: (chuckle)…..OK! You’ve also got on your album cover an octopus figure. I’m beginning to see between your Seven of Nine and having been influenced by Star Trek, maybe there’s an octopus message in all of this! It’s an interesting design but what were you thinking? What reference does it have to your music?

CB: I remember as a kid walking on the beach in East London on very jagged rocks, and I’d see a little octopus in the water, then it would just disappear before I could catch it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal move that gracefully and when you see it in water, it’s like watching a beautiful ballet, a beautiful dance, so serene. I was thinking of how can I sit at the drum set, thinking of that slithering octopus, and try to get my bones, my skeleton, more liquid. I mean an octopus doesn’t have a skeleton like ours, does it? Yet it holds itself together. I was imagining how to move, to be more liquid, more fluid, and graceful behind the drum set. When I approached my dear friend, Terence Visagie…… He knew I was a Salvador Dali fan. I told him I needed something abstract and silly with a poignant message. That we should all try to move like that.

Clement Benny-courtesy Milestone Studios

CM: So Terence did the design of the cover?
CB: Yes. I told him I wanted it to be very colourful, with purple and orange to be the theme, with an octopus playing the drum set. You take a drummer like Virgil Donati who plays like an octopus. At the end of the day, and after watching a lot of YouTubes of musicians, you have to find who you are and explore, is it enough what you’re doing. There are ten year old kids who are playing drums more than I could ever imagine of myself. So I have to have that feeling that I’m OK, and that I have to do what I have to do. And always learn more.

CM: You’ve summed up the temperament of this album with this liquidity, this graceful serene dancing. It certainly comes through when you’re drumming. In fact, I was amazed, from a sound standpoint, at how subdued your drumming was. It makes sense now, because of the flowing melodic nature of the songs in the album. Anything else about the album? Any other album to come out in the near future?

CB: You know that I’m a reluctant band leader, so am not hopeful about having another album out soon. To be honest, there was a group of people who approached me to help fund an album, but I must calculate what that means. I’m still having a debt to pay off for this present album which is why I haven’t gone out to make hard copies of it yet. So money is playing a big role. But I also think the next album I would want to do would be more of a concert album.

CM: You mean an album recorded in a live concert?

CB: I’m talking personnel, configuration, orchestration. I’m also thinking of how the drum set could be presented in a more musically creative way. I remember walking into one of my first classes with Efrain Toro and playing what I thought were complex, four way Cuban rhythms for him. And he says, but where’s the gravity? What brings everything you’re playing back to the center, back to its core? I really didn’t know the answer, and so ….. Well, I love playing music and whatever people want to hear. But, I do gravitate away from that music where the drum set is there to be just a wall paper, I suppose.

CM: Yes, well, that was certainly fulfilled in your Tune Recreation Committee work , and in Marcus Wyatt’s Language 12, and very differently in Abraham Mennen’s album, ‘The…..Story’….

CB: I remember what a privilege it was to play at the then Mahogany Room in Cape Town with these incredible young guys, like Mandla Mlangeni and Nicolas Williams, and others. How fortunate I was to be able to play with musicians as old as my Dad and as young as my son! Those days! In my next project, it’s still a mixed secret for me to unravel, but that will come if I keep studying, and practicing and be open to learning from others. And then the next idea makes up your mind for you.

CM: As you say, you allow your bones to wrap around that fluidity, in that caring environment, or spirit, to help you produce what you should be producing; what comes from within, from your talents. This album is a nice beginning.

CB: One thing I would like to change about my approach is to work more with commercial musicians. I wonder, can I do pop work now? I grew up playing pop /funk music, and didn’t really know what ‘jazz’ was until I met these other jazz musicians, like Errol Dyers, Fred Kuit, other musicians at UCT jazz studies. Then listening to Coltrane and Monk and others. But still, there’s so much to learn, even on my principal instrument!

CM: Where do we buy your album?
CB: Streaming on line. I haven’t made hard copies. You can find the album on Spotify, Apple Music, and You Tube.

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Bassist Sean Sanby’s steps out of the candlelight into creative spaces: an album review

As viral clouds permeate our unsuspecting Sapien world, a sonic light of hope shines into our being. Bassist Sean Sanby wants us to realise our own potentials in his ambitious debut album, Out of the Candlelight.

“Most of the songs were written in high school, like in ‘Take Me Somewhere’, and during and after College,” he says during our chat.

“I had just gotten my driver’s license and was studying for those stressful exams; I just wanted to escape to somewhere, even though Cape Town where I come from is such a beautiful place. You know, in High School you rise in the food chain, but then when you enter College, you get knocked down to the bottom of that food chain and have to make your way up again. Like being thrown into the deep end, and needing to go somewhere…”

This song certainly took this listener off into ghoema beats and Moses Molelekwa influences. It appropriately ends this story-filled album.

After graduating from the University of Cape Town School of Music in jazz studies, and touring a bit with his band, even venturing to China for an 18 month tour with Matilda the Musical, Sanby became excited to find an explosion of original music in Cape Town among his peers. It was time to crack open his many compositions for public consumption. His sound is influenced not only by the great pianists, Molelekwa as well as Bheki Mseleku, but by Sanby’s childhood romps around South Africa with his family, camping as ‘Starscrapers’, a song describing a fairy-like twinkling of stars in open spaces. Other influences touched Sanby as he performed in various festivals like Italy’s Achevia Jazz Festival where he wrote ‘Letters Home’, a slow, whimsical nostalgia of missing home. This piece, as well as ‘Take Me Somewhere’, showcases the close synergy between Muneeb Hermans’ trumpet and Jesse Jullies’ tenor saxophone, both swinging with Cape rhythms and styles.

Other young musicians featured on the album have their time to shine: Bradley Prince on guitar, Brathew van Schalkwyk on piano as in ‘Give Me Time’, and Damian Kamineth on drums. They all grew up with Sanby as a Cape brotherhood that has allowed for collaborative experimentation over the years as they share their musical thoughts. “Dreamers” which enters half way in the album opens a waltzy dreamy temperament as the musicians dream up big ideas that might happen. Sanby believes in dreams; it’s part of pursuing that light of progress from the candlelight. “Rise and Fall” seems to give space to the musicians who effectively take turns at exploring that timidity that comes from moving in and out of sonic opportunities. A well-composed piece.

He gives about equal play time on the electric and acoustic bass. “I prefer to play acoustic bass on those African-inspired songs, like ‘Out of the Candlelight’, ‘Letters Home’, and ‘Take me Somewhere’. The acoustic bass has that natural sound, a wooden, weighted African sound and feel to it. The electric bass is more agile and allows me to paint more colours. You can get away with a lot more.” For instance, there was more chordal playing in ‘Starscrapers’ which, he felt, was not suitable for the double bass.

“I find it’s fun to adapt songs to either the double bass or electric bass. I sometimes bring to a live gig one of my basses to see how the song might come out differently because the instrument changes the feel and flow of the song. I explore what is the best way for the song to sound.”

The album was recorded and mixed in a few days, and as expected, has a different feel from his live gig launch where drummer Kamineth shows his soft and aggressive approach to the sonic life, as in the bouncy ‘Give Me Time’. Sanby’s upcoming album has songs already plugged in for “a more focused album”, he says. It will include more musicians collaborating, and should be a must-hear for fans wanting more from this spirited group of Cape Town friends.

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Guitarist Michael Bester pulls tension in debut album, Now Not Yet

Bluesy and jazzy guitar moods of Cape Town-based guitarist and composer, Michael Bester, delight the discriminating ears in his debut album released late 2019.

This guitarist, songwriter, composer, arranger and musical director, as well as proud new Dad and frisbee enthusiast, has made Cape Town his home where he cultivates his growing creative bents. After completing Jazz Studies at Cape Town’s UCT School of Music in mid 2000s, Bester took time off to travel and perform in UK, China, and the USA. One hears in the album with its zingy title, “Now, Not Yet”, various influences from these past times as well as a mix-and-match of emotions and separation from family to pursue wider sonic exposures. He calls it ‘tension’.

Michael Bester, guitar; Stephen de Souza bass; live album launch 27 Feb 2020

Hard work pays off. Thanks to winning the 2008 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship for Instrumentalists, Bester could study in New York and perform as a session guitarist. Before that, and now, Bester has recorded and performed with several other bands, like Mango Groove, and with various individual artists at musical festivals, such as with Lira and Loyiso Bala. In 2013 he won a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Award) for Best Film Soundtrack for ‘Semi-Soet’, along with co-composer Andrew Baird.

Creative leanings found a turning point: After completing his Masters Degree in Contemporary Music Performance and Production at the Berklee satellite campus in Valencia, Spain, in 2017, Bester has concentrated on writing and performing on home soil. That year in Valencia changed his game:

This year in Spain had a profound impact on my artistic identity and my
composition process and much of the inspiration for the writing of the
music on the album is thanks to that experience.

The album presents very listenable pieces with mixed ballads, bebop, improvisational chord runs, and contemporary blues. Yet, as the title hints, there is a tension in his compositions that depicts how things are and how they could be, if we could just grasp those things that we are constantly striving to possess or achieve. One hears how Bester might be tempted to swing into a grungy twang and loud rock with his electric guitar, as he has in others’ albums, like in Blake Hellaby’s latest #Not Jazz, but he harnesses that.

I feel that the compositions on the album represent where I am at in my own growth and development. I am equally inspired both by very simple and very complex music, and can find great beauty in both. My goal is to write music that is beautiful and accessible on the surface, but complex underneath.

Talented band musicians on the album are: Zeke le Grange (saxophone), another SAMRO awardee Kingsley Buitendag (piano), the ever steady Stephen de Souza (upright and electric bass), and the beat man himself, Lumanyano “Unity” Mzi on drums. The opening song, “Twenty Four”, gives all musicians a chance to dissect and be heard, followed by two slow thoughtful ballads: the self-explanatory ‘’Until I see you again’’, and ‘’Born Again’’ with lots of guitar conversation in single notes and clear, clean runs from le Grange’s sax. Tempos change as more blues make statements in ‘’R-Train Blues’’, a memory of a bad trip on New York City’s R-Train, with de Souza’s boppish acoustic bass plunk plunks up the scales. ‘’Influence’’ carries Buitendag’s repetitious piano with haunting undercurrents of mood and blues while Bester’s bluesy twanging guitar tells another story. Again, that tension. Breaking up melancholic chords, Bester introduces another mood, slowly and carefully, in ‘’A Different View’’, which bordered on monotony, in high contrast to the punky, almost rock, of the previous song. But this did not distract from the important finales in ‘’Family Matters’’ where the mood picks up with le Grange’s talkative sax, and the bass and drum bebop nicely, keeping pace.

Bester ends his album with ‘’The Way Forward’’, a piece with mood and time changes, in keeping with the album’s title, perhaps, signalling what tension will ride the waves as we continue our search for meaning. All instruments go on high alert with a surprise ending.

This album should go far in alerting us to what stories may come from this talented guitarist in South Africa’s contemporary jazz. It is available for purchase on https://michaelbester.bandcamp.com/
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Bester features in Luna Paige’s Iluminar production of ‘Her Blues’, a wonderful musical stage story of early African American blues…with a female twist. It was a sold out and popular offering during the 2019 Woordfees festival in Stellenbosch, and in high demand currently for its originality in portraying African American women jazz artists of those early 1900s smoky blues houses.

Her Blues Trio plays on Friday, 28 February 2020 at Stellenbosch’s Drostdy Theatre and in other venues during March, and features vocalist Luna Paige, Simon Orange & Michael Bester on guitar. Tickets at Computicket. http://www.iluminarproductions.co.za/all-events/

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Pianist Blake Hellaby doesn’t want to cheat the listener with long solos: His #Not Jazz album (2020)

“I play what I feel, not like with formal jazz,” warns pianist Blake Hellaby, as he explains to his album launch audience which packed Cape Town’s Waterfront Radisson Red hotel concert room. Just released album, # Not Jazz, explores its title’s irony about asking listeners to just chill out: “Zone out and chill; just allow the groove of the music to sway you!” We did this night, as we explored what is becoming a ‘Hellaby sound’ of note.

Composer, writer, and producer from Cape Town, Hellaby has diligently navigated through domestic musical idioms with South African bands (Standard Bank Schools Big Band), musicals (King Kong: A Jazz Opera), and festivals (National Arts Youth Jazz Festival), and to international sites (Oslo Jazz Festival, Berlin’s Young Euro Classic Festival). During his youth, playing in church and at community events, he sometimes faced a criticism from schoolmates of playing what they considered less serious soft, ‘smooth’ jazz. His live gig brought smiles and laughter at this reference; yet, the band’s execution of Hellaby’s version of ‘jazz’ awakened listeners to his skillful use of hard core funk, be-bop, grungy blues (thanks to Michael Bester’s guitar solos), and rock, all loosely packaged in a soulful improvisational style which Hellaby is making his own. His album, he notes, is “an attempt to find the fun and lighter side of jazz and instrumental music.”

And that’s the truth – Songs played live or digitally take the listener on Hellaby’s musical journey. The digital album is mostly instrumental, whereas his live performance on Thursday, 30 January, contained vocals, including his singing wife, Leigh-Ann, with whom he cut his debut album in 2016, New Beginnings, and vocalist Jesse Julies. “I wanted to add that contemporary element, to have the lyrics resonate with the pop music.”

In fact, Hellaby cut two digital albums – one instrumental, one with lyrics – and he intentionally mixed the two approaches during the live concert to give variation to what pop-jazz can sound like. Often, album song productions do not match live performances which unearth those sonic vibrations in one’s seat, live concerts risking an overabundance of amplified sound compared to the soft and easy-listening reverberations in a digital album. A sound engineer is challenged if Hellaby wants that easy, chill-out, yet funky sound at a live gig. Again, drums can overpower. Just a reminder.

The story line to the album reveals Hellaby’s playfulness: “A bunch of guys get together from Thursday to Sunday. The songs tease out their late night experiences and move into a chill on Sunday afternoon. “

This is a very listenable album producing a mindful, relaxing chill, particularly suitable for go-slow traffic jams. All the band members stand out: saxophonist Zeke Le Grange, currently studying in USA, shines with consistent clarity of runs and expression, particularly in “S.Y.B. (Shake Your Booty)” as does Ryan Truter’s guitar solo. Michael Bester’s bluesy guitar provides tone, feeling, and sense of purpose as he slides from bop to blues to slow rock. Listen to his twanging “Call-In” gospel blues. Stephen De Souza’s bass guitar and Lumanyano Mzi’s drums keep the various rhythms steady with mellow, yet strong supports. The advantages of digital mixing, as heard on Hellaby’s various keyboards in “Come Over” with organ, piano, and synth improvisations, is that percussion can be controlled. Mzi’s energetic drumming eloquently exhibits his enthusiasm in live performances, but becomes pleasantly subdued in the album, while driving the beats. In this, the album excels for its effective balancing of musicians’ techniques and styles to produce even outputs of melody and message.

Hellaby’s mixing of piano, keyboard, and synthesizer offers sly, whimsical, and bouncy sound journeys, particularly in “Trippy” and “Sunday Chillin“. He starts and ends the album with pleasantly punchy but brief groovy solos, stating his storyline honestly and purposefully. Songs in between speak of emotional conflicts, realisations, and maybe, better clarity, as after a long weekend party. ‘Jazz’ is a chill, a soulful experience that should relax our weary selves in this age of conflicting noise and message so that we can live and love a bit better. Hopefully, the listener will have been changed a bit.

The album is available on these links: https://bit.ly/3b1HFfL

 

****LET’S HEAR MORE ABOUT THE ‘HELLABY SOUND’ JOURNEY****

(An interview with AJR Carol Martin)

CM: Explain your sound. You’ve got synths and piano overlays…. And much more.
BH: All piano sounds were coming from my computer. Then I played a piano on top of the computer sounds…. I had connected both keyboards via MIDI into my computer, and assigned them to a patch, so that I could control from my laptop. I have a 500 GIG library of samples patches of sounds on my external hard drive which can give a much better sound than what my keyboards can give. For this live gig project, I wanted to set a tone standard of the sounds I wanted. It’s the smaller things that make a big difference. So I had a synthesizer, Rhodes, organ – all coming from my laptop. It was a practice in coordination!

CM: So you seem to be benefiting from the technology out there while adding your own techniques.
BH: It’s not that I’m trying to do something new, but no one is doing it in South Africa, outside of the pop music. There’s lots of this in pop music in Johannesburg, particularly among the pianists. These musicians are so good at it, they study sound design, and make a lot of money, too. Look at guitarists – they spend so much money on pedals and this and that to get the right sound – but I’m simply inventing, just adding backtracks onto the sound.

CM: It’s an interesting concept, about #Not Jazz.
HB: The Title #Not Jazz doesn’t connote a negativity, but a search for a different sound. Like Reza [Khota] is looking for a physical sound on his guitar. For me, it’s preparing backtracks that give that live feeling, along with real bass and drums. A live performance without those backtracks is empty. If you go see Beyoncé perform, it’s insane – her performance is filled with backtracks…and the fans go wild!  I’m trying to get that overall experience of sound along with the visuals on the big screen.

CM: Some of your songs talk about your childhood and youth growing up with music… A picture of you in your childhood projected on the screen would have been interesting….
BH: I wanted to do this, but ran out of time. I first wanted to make sure my backtracks worked, and the band worked, and that I got the right sound….for the live performance. That took a lot of tweaking.

CM: ‘Jazz’ is a funny term. It conjures up all sorts of ideas and opinions, depending on one’s ethnic and locational background. What aspects of contemporary ‘jazz’ were you trying to avoid?
BH: Three things: First, elongated solos: Do I really want to listen to long drawn out solos after melodic band presentations in a song? A 12 minute solo? Gosh, my drive in town is only 15 minutes! My listening hours are usually when I’m driving, or late at night when everyone has retired for the night. You take someone like Bob James who, on one album, his band’s solos are usually only 16 bars, but the song might take up to 8 minutes. His arrangements are beautiful. I just didn’t want my solos to wander off into something else…like over a 12 minute period. Just too long!

The second thing I wanted to avoid was…..the way I designed the album was to leave you wanting more. Like a bait. Some songs are just introductions and short, so they can be expanded upon in a live concert. Then the third thing was what I learned from Bruno Mars’ album, 24K Magic, which blew me away. It just caught me, it was so cleverly done, and musically capturing. But there were no solos! I don’t watch his videos, but just listen. He’s so alive, his band is like a bunch of Berklee College students! They’re super talented and arrange the songs. It hit me there were no solos in his album. With jazz, we do the intros to the song, then break up into solos. I didn’t want to do that!! I didn’t want to cheat the listener from hearing the whole band, with short solos, and a unity of sound. I felt that the way we are trained as jazz musicians, we get away with reducing a song to a bunch of solos. This is cheating!

CM: So you think there’s too much solo improv……
BH: It’s not the solo per se, but I wanted to put together short snippets like Bob James does. The really good producers, the guys that dive into mixing the albums in pop music, the huge amount of effort they put into this……… So I’m respecting this craft in a completely new way. This has challenged me to arrange songs that bring out a unified band, and not rely on long solos.

CM: I notice that your songs bring out the talents of each musician.
BH: That’s why I wrote everything down that I wanted the musicians to play, so that it would allow for each musician to do short solos.

CM: In telling your story on the album, why did you order the songs as you did?
BH: It’s a story from a Thursday to a Sunday, with a group of friends starting off grooving on a Thursday with “Retro-duction”, which is an old-school R&B sound. Then I moved into “Trippy” which goes from hard core to smooth jazz. I was influenced by one of my favourite songs, “Tonight is the Night” because it has that old-school happy beat. The idea is that on the weekend, the guys have too many drinks and then start to mellow out. Then “High Road” is like moments of change during the night’s activities, then a wake up to “Shake Your Booty” which is also old-school that leads into “Funk Your Life”, again an awakening. The break comes with “2-1” and “Hodge” which gives a transition into Sunday to just chill. Hodge is the official change of mood and is a dedication to bassist Derrick Hodge.

CM: Why Hodge?
BH: I had been transcribing songs to include backtracks for a friend musician, Lwanda Godwana. I had never done anything this hard before. Then I took a look at Hodge’s Dances with Ancestors album and song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOC8ToQJyVw  which used jazz improvisations that didn’t sound like jazz. There was so much overlaying – double bass, electric bass, and a sub bass, with an overlaying of drums. This was so welcome to hear. I thought, wow, this is what jazz could be. It was a confirmation of the journey I was about to embark on. So I took this technique using a guitar for ambient sounds, then bass pedals adding more ambient sound, and the drums were recorded once. The drums had about 12 effects creating chords and streams coming in and out.

So that transcription started me to do this more and more, not asking what chords were the musicians playing, but what were they doing? Trying to rebuild synthesizers. That’s what I tried to do in my own song “Hodge” with layers – it’s the longest song on the album and the most jazzy track.

CM: So back to the album story…”Searching, Found, Forgetting” is in the middle. What was that all about?
BH: That was written as part of a Suite which is a classical, gospel Suite not yet produced. This particular song came out as a pop song as I was writing. I was feeling poetic at the time. It was dedicated to people who craft, yet are not accepting who they are. We search and think we’ve found what we want. Then we keep searching, forgetting what it is that we are searching for! And this cycle of searching continues, and we still forget what we learnt. That’s why there are overlapping melodies in the song.

Then songs “1-2” and “Hodge” provide a break. That moment goes and we lead into “Come Over” which means come over to the house, like on a Sunday, and let’s party with some smooth grooves. That’s where the album ends with “Sunday Chillin’”. You know, have some jazz on in the background, and that’s the story. That’s it!

CM: So, what’s next in your projects? How are you going to market your ‘Hellaby sound’?
BH: There’s another digital album with more pop lyrics which we did simultaneously. People can buy these on Apple Music, etc.  We are doing videos for marketing to create awareness, but not to make money, yet. One video is for a pop song; another video is for a jazz song. I feel the albums need to create awareness on as many platforms as possible, first, so that listeners are ready for the live gigs. This instrumental album is on line to buy, but I probably won’t print the CD until if we travel and need CDs for marketing. If we can get the videos out on mass media, TV, etc., they will create the awareness we need.  https://www.facebook.com/gregory.truter.9/videos/471048573576848/

CM: Any teaching? Further studies in the future?
BH: I love teaching, and had one class at UCT last year. I prefer the University level as I can talk to my level. I want to do my Masters and eventually a doctorate so I can lecture. I don’t want to do this for the paper, but to learn more, to push myself more.

CM: What would you study? Who are your musical ‘gurus’?
BH: I want to study jazz piano, particularly George Duke, Kenny Kirkland, and Bob James. Each of them have something I want. Kirkland has that cool, smooth groove, and James is such a cool, calm piano player. I get caught up with my piano playing too much sometimes and rumble on! James plays softly, with so few notes. My favourite pianist here in South Africa has been Bheki Mseleku who’s like an African Joe Sample to me. I’ve only listened to his album, Coming Home. Then there’s Moses Molelekwa……….

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Breaking Bread with peer duo: Keenan Ahrends and Sisonke Xonti

Mankind has always explored ways to bring people (e.g. strangers) together for amusements, discourse, and perhaps wallowing in mystery. From amphitheaters of the early Greeks, to jousts which hurt, to musical bands on a stage with glittering lights and fake smoke jets to wow the audience – all achieve one motive: to make people ‘feel good’ and escape from some horrors of everyday life!

On a more positive note, one could say that ‘breaking bread’ connotes a kinder, more compassionate way of interacting with one’s fellow sapiens, that feeding one another food for nourishing body and mind sustains integrity and societal cohesion.

That happens at a smallish house, at 373 Koeberg Road in Rugby, a suburb of Cape Town: The open plan kitchen becomes the social hub with its fridge packed full of beer and stove top covered with pots full of ‘traditional’ African dishes. That’s for the hungry, at R80 a plate, after the first set of the musical duo of Standard Bank Young Artists guitarist Keenan Ahrends and 2020 awardee saxophonist Sisonke Xondi, both graduates of the University of Cape Town’s School of Music, Jazz Studies.

Both young men played songs from their respective albums: Ahrends Narratives (2017) which is a delightful mix of home-grown Cape ghoema, grungy blues rock, free jazz, and bits of traditional South African music. Xondi’s Iyonde album (2018) presents layers of emotion and discourse about some of his life experiences. Both musicians are featured on each other’s album.   https://youtu.be/Sq_G9_yDPTo

Back to breaking bread… It’s about having the experience. One must pass through this sociable kitchen in order to get to the listening venue, a long oblong space with cushions (no chairs) and one couch for the elders with unbendable knees. It’s a cozy, meditative space that leads to a patio where the ‘stage’ faces more cushion seating. No amplification, strictly acoustic sounds pleasantly passing over heads silently awed by this improvising duo. During the long break between sets, one engages in vibrant conversations, meeting new people, and chatting with the cooks-owners of the venue, all animated with spirits flowing (both liquid and heartfelt) as the DJ plays his choice of vinyls that complement the human vibrations of the evening. I watched the men hosts take our drinks, while the ladies dished out generous plates of samp and beans topped with pulled, roasted brisket of meat, red cabbage and grilled zucchini. Thobile Ndenze, one of the managers of these Sunday evening events, explained how it all worked: food, live acoustic music, informalities, with an intergenerational buzz and relaxed, appreciative patrons – all produces a contagious vibe.

A graduate of the University of Capetown’s College of Music, Ahrends has immersed himself in musical open markets for absorbing jazz expressions, particularly from Norway where he studied at its Academy of Music and collaborated with those artists, and from parts of South Africa through his peer friendships. Similarly, but on a different musical course, Xonti veered from his study of law to pursue jazz more seriously – “musicians seemed to be happier people than lawyers”, he was quoted as saying in one interview.

Xonti was named Standard Bank’s Young Artist in Jazz 2020 and is seen collaborating with various bands both in Cape Town and in Johannesburg where he has spent a long residence. Influenced by John Coltrane and the late South African legend, Ezra Ngcukana, from his home area, Xonti mixes fast, clean improvisational runs with textures of emotions, from wailing to soft slower ballads, carefully adapting to his feel of the now.  https://youtu.be/ksxhGwIZgG0

I think I made several friends at Breaking Bread, a wonderful venue for intimate house concerts, and the music certainly nourished my weary soul on this Sunday night, making the week ahead sure to succeed.

Stay tuned to Breaking Bread’s Sunday eve activities at:
tel: 079 601 1313;  https://www.facebook.com/Breaking-Bread_za-724261124589796/

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Journalist Struan Douglas explains The Story of South African Jazz, Vol 2 (2019): A Book Review

This is a journey through musical histories of South Africa’s eras of social, political, and even spiritual changes. One’s fellow passengers are the musicians as the ride runs through various urban and peri-urban African communities to mega-cities, like Johannesburg with its surrounding mines which absorbed a myriad of African dance and musical expressions from miners. The passengers chat loudly and excitedly, remembering days gone past.

eThekwini-born writer, freelance journalist, and musician Struan Douglas

This Volume 2 of journalist Struan Douglas’ three book series entitled “The Story of South African Jazz”, self-published by his www.afribeat.co.za website, takes us on a slightly different wagon train: It’s not just about Douglas’s own personal interviews with musicians and arts promoters, found also in Volume 1; Volume 2 has musicians talking about other musicians, eras, and influences. These include memorable and humourous experiences at joint gigs, having to defy the Apartheid police enforcing the Group Areas Act as musicians dodged road blocks on their way home in early mornings; stylistic musical joys that older jazz legends brought to young enthusiasts; sorrows upon reflecting on the pauper status of dying musicians; humour ….. tragedy…..Life itself of a musician.

According to Douglas, the Story of South African Jazz Book Series in three volumes responds to one of the real tragedies around the time of the deaths of rising star,  Moses Molelekwa and his wife, in 2002, when an unfortunate lack of communication existed between the different sectors of the jazz industry. The fall away of the record industry from about 2004 started to open up and integrate other professions such as writing, technology and film into the industry. Volume 3 is currently being written.

Albeit, in this 357 page Vol.2, Douglas can give only brief snippets of mini-stories, anecdotes, and quotes about the lives of a myriad list of musicians. Fascinating unknowns are given: When Alice Coltrane met Bheki Mseleku  at the Newport International Jazz Festival, she gave him her husband, John’s, saxophone mouthpiece; When Mark Fransman talks about how Zim Ngqawana cast a healing spell on him one night at Zim’s gig, causing Mark to vomit out an emotional repression he was carrying. 

Laced with anecdotal narratives about collaborations, the book presents the chronological eras of South African jazz when artists searched for creative spaces touched by the spirit of their times. From an inherited colonial landscape and the soundscape that went with it, to the alienation brought about by resulting raw social, economic, political, and spiritual divisions, to finding some sort of rewarding cohesion in rootedness, South African jazz boasts colourful remembrances that ooze into contemporary and very youthful styles of expression. This book explains that, as in the author’s Prelude (p.8)::

“The power of jazz is typically a journey through loneliness, sadness, pain and broken-ness to that place of acceptance, forgiveness and realisation.”

Douglas’s jazz is African and multi-cultural, displayed in musical cycles, or rays – from 1950s swing to inxiles and exiles of the 1960s, to anti-apartheid liberation movements of the 1970s, which also saw departments of music open jazz doors in educational institutions. Democracy fomented mindful consciousness for change as Mandela’s era took hold and morphed into what we hear now – from Khoi, Malay, Afrikaans and carnival sounds of Kyle Shepherd’s diverse Cape to the visionary, electronic improvisations of bassist Carlo Mombelli.

Volume 2 is about lives telling about lives. “Life is one long composition” says Cape musician Mac Mckenzie, and is echoed by other ghoema ‘captains’, like Hilton Schilder, whose ancestral accounts explain their natural gifts and accompanying pains which slave histories have thrown their way. Pianists Abdullah Ibrahim and Kyle Shepherd echo the dance music of the Bushman. The Langa-based Ngcukana family dynasty form meaningful bands with the Kippie Moeketsi’s of the Johannesburg jazz scene.

Jazz has movement. Douglas traces musical migrations: how Mozambique’s marrabenta style absorbed into Johannesburg’s marabi music; how the mines, a backyard to South African flourishing musical styles, produced dancing miners. Douglas shows how music moves culturally into the foods and other arts, as the Roving Bantu of Brixton, Johannesburg, is trying to do with its African cuisine and visual arts. The playful, carnivalesque Balkanology of Marcus Wyatt’s Bombshelter Beast exudes a gypsy freedom of expression. Excelling talents wander from Cape Town or Johannesburg roots to Berklee in USA or to the popular Bird’s Eye Club in Switzerland or to Oslo’s Music Conservatory for further jazz training and networking. Sonic messages from abroad fuse with a rootedness of South African jazz; bonds are made which go international as well as intergenerational.

Douglas moves his African narratives into the final moments of the book: leave ancestral rooted-ness behind, and meet the business market and wallow in the challenging and sometimes cut-throat industry of the Copyright Law, Labels, Recording contracts, and royalty deals. The reader feels like it’s been a very long musical journey, hipcupping along the way, occasionally surprised or at awe, sad yet happy to see a musician’s resolve to continue. South Africa has run a jazz marathon which continues to expand and speed up, if the music industry allows it.

Volume 3 just might have an answer to that……

A Listening Session takes place on Thursday 5 December prior to Vol 2 book launch which happens in Durban on 6 December at Curiosity, hosted by Durban Jazz Xpression.

In Johannesburg, the launch is on 12 December at the Brixton Roving Bantu Kitchen. Cape Town dates in 2020 to coincide with the 30 April International Jazz Day 2020.

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A Healthy Live Music Ecosystem is Needed for Innovations: An Interview with Dr. Cara Stacey

Musician, researcher, and composer Cara Stacey gravitates between the strange and wonderful sonic worlds of classical string ensembles, kinetic ‘music’ on machines, traditional southern Africa mouth bows, and beyond. On November 23, she performs with one of the five bands featured at the upcoming South African Jazz & Classical Encounters Festival at the impressive Spier Wine Farm’s Amphitheatre, newly refurbished. There, will be a splash of the best South African jazz and classical artists in a blaze of contemporary music. On piano and traditional southern African mouth bows, she is joined by long time colleague and Stellenbosch composer, Matthijs van Dijk, and eclectic jazz artists, Reza Khota on electric guitar, and Bryton Bolton on double bass. They call themselves the Night Light Collective. See them at 3.15pm on Saturday!

Traditional bow player, Cara Stacey: credit P. Burger

Originally a classically trained pianist, with Masters degrees from Edinburgh and London, Stacey’s real love migrated to research, play and make southern African musical bows (umrhubhe, uhadi, makhweyane) thanks to long residencies in eSwatini (formerly, Swaziland) where she spent her childhood upbringing.  The makhweyane, a one-stringed gourd-resonating bow, was the subject of her Doctorate which she is now turning into a book.

Makhweyane bow

Stacey became easily enamoured with other out-of-the-box inventions and musical innovations picked up from other country influences, such as in Brazil, Peru, and Iraq, the latter where she delved into pre-1500s Islamic inventors in the field of robotics. Her one-year post-doctoral research as an ethnomusicologist at University of Cape Town (UCT) led her to put flute music to a water-based instrument she built, based on 12th Century Baghdad mechanical inventions.  All this, quite different from her earlier research with traditional African bows. 

She left her teaching at UCT last year to move to Johannesburg where she currently lives, teaching bow ensembles, composing, freelancing with live gigs, writing songs on commission, and preparing her next albums with songs recorded to date. Her UK record label prefers vinyl and digital productions.

For anyone wanting alternative sounds with a very different mix of familiar and less familiar instruments, Stacey’s first album, Things That Grow (2015,) features UK-based Shabaka Hutchings, and offers kinetic/machine-like bumps with the wind instruments of traditional flute and mouth bow rhythms. Her latest album, Ceder (2018), offers an acoustic duo – Stacey on piano with Peruvian flutist and composer, Camilo Angeles. Both albums offer the unusual – some frantic, some familiar rhythms; some wily, some bizarre sound phrasings; a dentist’s drill; some familiar mouth bow overtone sounds of rural southern Africa, sounds of animals and birds, the list goes on. Beware: on Ceder, your dog’s ears will be affected, if not dancing! The titles of the pieces to be performed at Spier are enticing in themselves: Stacey’s visual-score “Luhlata njengetjani” and Dijk’s “How to Sit Underwater”.

Tickets for the Spier Festival on November 23, 2019 are R380 from www.quicket.co.za . The Night Light Collective performs from 3.15pm – 4.15pm.                                        

                                              ++++++++++++++++++++++
I caught up with Dr. Stacey who presently resides in Johannesburg to find out more about what makes her musical spirit tick.

Your contemporary music – what to expect at Spier

CM: The group you are playing with at Spier – Reza Khota, etc. Did you choose this group?
CS: It started as a string quartet led by Matthijs who has a strings background. We were all close friends, united in our particular musical experimental tastes. I’ve worked with Bryton Bolton and Reza Khota in my own capacity – we have different musical backgrounds. We had played in Makanda earlier this year, and with Lungiswa Plaatjies we played at the  Johannesburg International Mozart Festival last year. We basically workshop and experiment together. Our music will be diverse and from our own compositions.

CM: What sounds can we expect from your group, given your own eclectic preferences and training?
CS: With that ensemble, I play indigenous southern African instruments and these musicians all offer me good rhythms. I’ve gained a lot of experience from people who have written in ways I would not have played on those instruments, but can do so in this ensemble space. So I don’t see it too different for myself. And because Matthijs and I come from a classical training, and from the original ensemble, I would say it’s more of a ‘new music’ ensemble. We do quite a bit of improvisation, but it draws more on the contemporary classical type of musical language, so I will play piano in that vein in the ensemble. In my solo capacity, I like to do different things. And in my research I do different things as well.

Musical Kinetics

Stacey’s prototype of medieval perpetual flute with water-based mechanics

CM: What made you gravitate towards the kinetic arts and use of machinery in sound? You were influenced by some Swiss inventors, I believe?

CS: I had two residencies: One in Basel, Switzerland and the other in Brazil through the Africa Center in London. I am also a post-doc Fellow at UCT drawing musical connections existing pre-1500s across the Indian Ocean. It was quite different from my earlier research where I worked with musical bows in Swaziland, now called eSwatini . And I work a lot in performance-based projects whereby composing is a way of creating new knowledge. It was a departure from my other projects as I was all of a sudden surrounded by archaeologists looking at very early African and Asian histories. My task in that project in that year was to build this water-based instrument that had been designed in Baghdad in the 1200s. Sometimes academia can be that way. It’s an old manuscript that laid out the sounds of music.  https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2019-03-19-magical-flutes-links-to-early-islamic-robotics

In my research, I noticed how many kinetic and mechanical items were passing my way, and while I was resident in Switzerland, I came across Swiss kinetic artists like Jean Tinguely (d. 1991) in a huge museum in Basel honouring his work. Then, when I went to Brazil, the strangest coincidence happened: a Swiss man who had lived in Salvador where I was, had brought musical ideas about all sorts of design things, and made these kinetic musical instruments. So he influenced me with kinetic principles while I was building this Iraq prototype machine – it was crazy! I’m super ignorant about these things, and one year is definitely not long enough to grapple with such a design. I managed to build this plastic prototype of that machine which lives under my desk now!

Making of Things That Grow album

CM: In your Things That Grow album, there are songs that sound quite dark. What influenced you to compose those songs?
CS: The album, released in 2015, was midway during the PhD when I was getting ready to head back to eSwatini to do more research. The process of making that album was an interesting one. My Masters before that had focused on innovation with southern African bows. I knew most of the bow players around, so I often see the fusions or new forms people make in their performances. There’s often a spoken word component, or the bows take on a certain role in any live ensemble, particularly in traditional rural performance, for instance – all very innovative in their own ways. I wanted to challenge myself in the use of those roles. So I was lucky when living in the UK to have an innovative partner at that time, Shabaka Hutchings, who is a fantastic musician and improviser. I wanted recording sessions with open minded improvisers , mostly jazz musicians, to try to break down some of those roles which traditional instruments tend to take. So I composed different things and just booked the people I respected. They walked into the studio, we tried a lot of things which I didn’t like. Everything was an experiment. I had written a variety of notes, a folk song, something for the drum kit, whatever. I threw out what I had written, so about half the album is improvised. I just drew on the talents of others, and we played combinations of trios and duos. There’s a couple of tunes that are groove-based and you can hear that. ‘Fox’ is my favourite song with a clarinet melody to fit over this mouth bow pattern, so it was all quite experimental. Since I was applying the rural African bow, I had to work out all the sounds that I liked, but try not to replicate music that wasn’t mine.

Experience with African Music – Overtone Sounds

CM: When we talk about ‘African’ music, it really is so varied and eclectic from one side of the continent to the other. What’s your favourite African area in terms of the music you’ve studied?
CS: It has to be eSwatini because of the long time I’ve spent there working with traditional players, composing with them, and doing research on their instruments. I also listen to a lot of archival and old recordings and different contemporary stuff. Then my studies in London focused strongly on different African music, particularly West African as well, like classic ensembles from the 60s and 70s. So it’s difficult for me to pinpoint areas, but I would say southern Africa and West African because of its lyrical styles ….and how they integrate indigenous instruments which is what I’m interested in.

CM: Which music do you gravitate towards in South Africa with its explosion of different forms of musical expression now? In general.
CS: There’s so much!! I’m generally multi-tasking with so much work – I try to stay on top of things, especially dance music, but it’s so incredible out there – so much innovation all the time. It’s easier for me to watch indigenous instruments as I’m in that scene, and I know a lot of the people doing innovations. These creatives are largely under-supported. We’re trying to uplift all the players of those instruments, and at the same time support each other as working musicians. For instance,
Cândido Salomão Zango, also known as ‘Matchume’, from Mozambique is a key link for me with Mozambiquan musicians.

Machume Zango at PNTGM

The eSwatini rural area is important for me. Moving back to South Africa was so confusing! In eSwatini I had a much closer connection with Mozambique – this changes one’s perspectives on a whole range of political, social, and cultural issues. I guess I felt a sense of international connection being outside of South Africa which is a powerful country of influence in the region.

CM: … and an African reality. When you’re talking about the ‘Africanness’ of local music, you’re crossing into an African spirituality, aren’t you? Like what journalist Struan Douglas writes about, or pianist Nduduzo Mhakhatini advocates in his compositions…..
CS: I can speak about the instruments I know best: When I spent so much time with these older musicians in eSwatini, iaged 80s to 90s, they exposed me to lyrical, poetic things that I would never have had contact with. Even where I grew up in eSwatini, I was relatively disconnected with that rural cultural experience. The way eSwatinis use their language is so artistic, like poetry to me. Different to urban slang, you learn through the language and music. This is a different world dealing with spirituality and culture – of these artists being outside of the cash economy. And this is such a different way of being an artist compared to my life, for instance.

CM: I hear in your music the repetition, the chant, common in traditional music. There’s also a low register in the music, like the American Indian music has this low earthy rumble that calls out to the ancestors. Is this the attraction of mouth bow music to you?
CS: As an ethnomusicologist, I know there are a bunch of us who are strong players who think about music from a performance and composing perspective. Some are also doing a more traditional type of research; others maybe more innovative research which brings those two things together – performance and composing. Because of that, I’m exposed to so many types of music from around the world , being in that academic scene, which means that music we listen to globally is almost always popular, commercial music, whether it’s jazz or classical. There are certain structures of the music that we are familiar with. So it takes an effort and skill for people to hear and construct music in a completely different way. For me, bow music has opened me up in a lot of ways because of the way the instrument is played and structured, and the overtone nature of the sound. You listen and create or compose in a completely different way to, like, if I was writing a jazz tune, or for a string quartet. Many different structures and modes of listening: People don’t hear, for instance, the integration of traditional instruments in a pop song; they don’t hear the form of those instruments.

This is why I’m drawn to different types of instruments. If you listen to people like Colin Stetson, he uses that dance, overtone quality in the saxophone. I think people in South Africa are starting to think outside the box in terms of how to structure music. Stetson deals with these deep cycles that, to me, are similar to southern African bow music, but his is a fundamentally different structure to the music. It’s closer to, say, classical minimalists, some other composers that create organized sound that we are not always familiar with. And there are lots of communities around the world that do that in very different ways. I’m lucky in that I go to conferences and have colleagues well versed in making music people are otherwise not familiar with.

Running Concert Series in One’s Home Town

CM: Talk about your concert series in your communities. There’s a whole topic of concern about the ‘lack of venues’…. The venues are there, but the business angle needs to be worked out, to get owners on board with a good business model.
CS: My colleague, Nicola du Toit, and I do a live music series called Betwixt https://betwixtmusic.co.za/  and started it when the ‘Straight No Chaser’ club closed in Cape Town. So now in JHB, we put on live performances in different places. But getting patrons there is so stressful. Basically, doing live means loosing money! When I started the concert series, I realised how hard it was to get people to attend. We had created a model where it was really affordable , and there were add-ons to encourage people to come. But it made me realise that it was on me as well, to go out and spend my money at gigs, and support artists I respect. Musicians can get despondent at audiences, but I think, having been on a number of international residencies where I have met people who are dealing with similar issues in different parts of the world, it is on us to support each other.

CM: That’s very generous of you. I know this is a theme of students at jam sessions – they’re coming out with a real solidarity
CS: It has to be that way. It is so hard to find space for artists to do what they would creatively want to do with live audiences. Audiences do love the arts and will try, but even the musicians wouldn’t come to our gigs. I’m more peripheral in my musical tastes, but I support my male friends’ gigs. However, they never come to mine! I think that for there to be a healthy live ecosystem, there’s lots of responsibility all around. I did a residency in America in 2016 with many musicians from all around the world, who had albums out and had performed a lot. Every one of them also ran a concert series in their home town. So that made me think that I need to contribute something locally, since I move around a lot with live performances. Everyone was involved in creating space for other musicians, as well.

See www.carastacey.com

See www.carastacey.com

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Jazz meets Classical: a Festival of Contemporary South African Musical Encounters at Spier Wine Farm

The Spier Wine Farm will come alive on Saturday, 23 November, with a very special music festival meant to bring authentic jazz and contemporary classical maestros to Spier’s renovated outdoor amphitheatre, long missing the eager arts crowds it hosted years back. The inaugural South African Jazz and Classical Encounters Festival will groove with three seasoned and well-established jazz bands and two classical groups, all known for their interpretive encounters with sound, instrumentation, voice, and rhythm. The brain child of music entrepreneur and former owner of the Orbit jazz club in Johannesburg, Aymeric Peguillan, in association with Shirley de Kock and Associates, this Festival brings not only musical icons to the stage for seven hours, but also opportunities for patrons to enjoy the natural surroundings of Spier and its refreshments on offer, such as casual dining or pre-booked picnics.

Peguillan’s PEGS Music Project (www.pegsmusicproject.co.za) has ambitious plans which reflect his own passion for South African jazz. French-born Peguillan met the jazz experience early in his youth, and ventured on listening journeys to hear and meet musicians playing American jazz standards. Professionally, he has juggled this musical passion with humanitarian development assistance work with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders in English) in various African and eastern European countries stressed by civil war and other disasters.

“After many years working with MSF, I was sent to South Africa in 1994 to head up its office in Johannesburg. I resigned two years later in 1996 and ventured into teaching, the film industry, and some advertising. But my love of jazz pushed me to open up a live jazz club in Troyville for several years and there I met a lot of South African musicians.”

Johannesburg remained Peguillan’s base as he moved again in MSF circles in Geneva and Swaziland. The jazz bug bit again.

“My wife and I raised our two young children in Swaziland, but I returned to Johannesburg, left MSF, and opened The Orbit jazz club in 2012. This was my ultimate passion, to have a premier live jazz venue where the musicians would feel comfortable meeting and playing with each other, and where patrons could experience the best in live music and cuisine.”

Most unfortunately, the Orbit closed down in 2018 after a winning streak of some six years. Life moves on.

“Concerning the upcoming November 23rd Spier event, I was inspired by wanting upmarket and interesting places for quality music festivals, annually, instead of the current options of big convention centers. Growing up in Europe, my experience of festivals was hearing great music in great places, like in an old church, or in a vineyard. Also, I like the mixing of the performing arts, which is what another PEGS project is – When Ballet Meets Jazz. This mixing of audiences and bringing people together, who love the performing arts, is what I like. The Spier event is also, I think, in line with nation-building, for people who would not normally sit together…. this sort of thing.”

Marrying the best of classical and jazz in a South African context is what November 23rd is about.  The schedule is tight, opening the doors at 13:00. The Kyle Shepherd Trio opens the event and features pianist Shepherd, Shane Cooper on double bass, and drummer Jonno Sweetman, a group that has played and grown together over the years. Following this act is composer/arranger and musician Matthijs Van Dijk as part of the Night Light Collective with pianist Cara Stacey, double bassist Brydon Bolton, and guitarist Reza Khota. These artists are known for their ‘cross-over’ creations with contemporary music of a South African vein. Stacey also plays southern African musical bows, such as the umrhubhe, uhadi,and makhoyane  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZqhW-H2MAg&list=PLIDnYe90LHghhFtaCKyBYPs5oslirN_02

Award winner Van Dijk has performed in several musical genre groups, from a rock band to chamber orchestra.

Trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committee has stellar jazz artists: Reza Khota, bassist Nicholas Williams, drummer Clement Benny, and pianist Afrika Mkhize. They tell stories. http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2019/01/26/trcs-afrika-grooves-tells-artists-stories-mlangeni-and-mkize-discusss/

Violist and composer Jan-Hendrik Harley takes to the stage next, with his 11-musician contemporary group Ensemble, Je Ne Comprends Pas, which promises to woo the audience with some breath taking compositions, from chamber music pieces to electro-acoustic.

Lastly, the refreshingly lilting, wistful vocals of jazz trumpeter, Mandisi Dyantyis, supported by saxophonist Buddy Well, pianist Blake Hellaby, bassist Steve De Sousa, and drummer Lumanyano Unity Mzi will surely please.   http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2019/02/14/trumpeter-vocalist-mandisi-dyantyis-emotes-stories-in-somandla-a-cd-review/

Bookings are essential through Quicket at R380 for the day.
Spier Amphitheatre, SPIER Wine Farm, R310 Baden Powell Drive, Stellenbosch.

The schedule: (Doors open at 13:00)
14.00 pm to 15:00 pm – Kyle Shepherd Trio
15:15 to 16:15 pm – The Night Light Collective
16:45 to 17:45 – Mandla Mlangeni’s Tune Recreation Committee
18:00 to 19:00 – Jan-Hendrik Harley Ensemble Je ne Comprends Pas
19 :45 to 20:45 – Mandisi Dyantyis Quintet

Facebook: Jazz & Classical Encounters at Spier
021 809 1100, 078 398 62 50
info@spier.co.za, or aypeguillan@gmail.com

Shirley de Kock Gueller shirley@gueller.com / 071 318 1495

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Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini: African ancestry meets Diaspora jazz – a Trans-Atlantic connection through the Blue Note jazz label

He’s back home, with another mission, after participating in the elegant kickoff concert with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York City, celebrating 25 years of democracy in South Africa after Apartheid’s end. Jazz pianist & self-professed healer, Nduduzo Makhathini, was one of five South African instrumentalists and three vocalists to present their compositions at this illustrious opening evening on 12 September.

Nduduzo Makhathini receiving SAMA 2017 award

Nduduzo Makhathini receiving SAMA 2017 award

He had also signed onto America’s premier jazz Blue Note Record Label four months prior to the official announcement at these celebrations. American jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and South African-born Seton Hawkins (Director of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center) heralded in this ‘first’ collaboration between some of America’s most experienced jazz musicians in this LC Jazz Orchestra and key South African jazz musicians known for pushing creative boundaries.

Wynton Marsalis at 2019 New Orleans Jazz Billboard

Makhathini’s exploration of music as one form of the healing arts focuses on ‘inner-tainment’ (coined by his late Mentor, Zim Ngqawana) which directly contrasts with contemporary jazz struggles ‘entertaining’ still fragile audiences seeking some sort of spiritual release in music. For him, the passage across the Atlantic Ocean to Lincoln Center remains an important milestone: an opportunity to celebrate and draw up links between the African modes of healing through music (or African cosmologies) and the African Diaspora in America who, he thinks, may have lost spiritual and ritual connections with the African Ancestors.

When I noted how rigid and vibe-less the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra seemed when performing the works of (and with) the South African musicians on stage, important clarifications were made by Makhathini:

“The Atlantic was on my mind in this event. I see Jazz as a music of people in displacement. Even early South African jazz had to navigate around the pains and restriction of Apartheid South Africa; yet South Africans have all along been very aware of American jazz, but not visa versa. “

Makhathini, in fact, admitted that his jazz studies syllabus at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) borrowed heavily from American jazz history, and that there were few references to early South African musicians, like Chris McGregor and his Brotherhood exiled in Europe.

“There were no linkages, such as when Coltrane died, South African Winston Mankunku was emerging as a premier jazz musician at home. Similarly, pianist Bheki Mseleku influenced me during my Durban studies, yet he didn’t find that recognition or space to grow his music in South Africa, as he did find during his long exile in London.”      https://www.osirispod.com/podcasts/burning-ambulance/burning-ambulance-nduduzo-makhathini/

While South Africans found solace in some recognition abroad during internal displacements of apartheid, it has been only in the last two post-apartheid decades that artists have emerged from South African training institutions to find voice and patronage at home venues.  “While this creative emergence of South African jazz explored various types of fusions, rhythms, messages, and even healing vibrations from their cultural histories, the African Diaspora has not pursued these connections as forcefully,” says Makhathini.

Why? Makhathini feels that due to slave histories, “the Diaspora may fear that reconnection with ancestral pasts”, most likely because different spaces and cultural environments have been created in the New World. He has made it repeatedly clear that, based on African spiritual cosmologies, African performances invoke spiritual connections, adding chant, ritual, and body movement (dance) to express the communication. His superb interview with USA-based Burning Ambulance podcast (noted above) clearly details his philosophies. His study and admiration of Randy Weston’s legacy has taught the importance of reviving trans-Atlantic linkages between the various musical cultures, also.

Hence, Makhathini considers these trans-Atlantic meetings very reconciling for him.

“At the Lincoln Center in New York, rehearsals with their Jazz Orchestra were important moments. I would stand up and start to dance to get the orchestra to understand the vibe behind our South African compositions. My aim was to expose a deeper mode of remembrance.”

His albums, Ikhambi, and Listening to the Ground, contain fusions of how music becomes healing, how healing connects with listening in the African oral tradition, that one listens THROUGH sound, not TO sound. In Ground, it’s about ‘talking to the ground’, and listening to the Ancestors’ messages. 

Ikhambi album cover

So how can these spiritual and healing connections of Africanisms be infused into the Blue Note jazz label, now celebrating 80 years in the record industry in America?

Makhathini explained how African music uses echoes, drawing on repeated messages from the fundamental roots of African oral tradition. “The Yoruba traditions of Nigeria and even the roots of Cuban music cast echoes of ancestral vibration”, exemplified by Nigeria’s noted Afro-jazz fusionist, Fela Ransom Kuti in the 1970s whereby his notorious Lagos shrine housed the collective echoes of Yoruba tradition.

By joining the Blue Note Label, Makhathini hopes to bridge these trans-Atlantic waters, as a healing metaphor, to create culturally rich musical linkages between peoples of African ancestry who travel over those waters, not as forced migrants or slaves, but as collaborating professionals. The Label’s President, Don Was, seemed to echo this sentiment in his invitation letter to Makhathini: “You embody the artistry that has distinguished the label for the last 80 years and your presence on the roster is proof that the Blue Note ethos is alive and well!”

Makhathini has gleefully accepted:

“I hope to bring that echo of the past into the Blue Note label, so that a voice that has been silenced for a long time can be heard. When playing recently at the Blue Note Club in New York City, I saw the potential for this bridge. Naturally, I’m surrounded by healing vibrations. Healing gets channelled in my music. In my album, Ikhambi, I make concoctions for healing through the musicians themselves and their instruments. When we think about healing, we think of drum, chant, dance, and letting go. There must be a functionality of music in our lives. “

Ikhambi was recorded in the UK in 2017, with one South African (drummer Ayanda Sikade) and others from UK bands, some members who had played with Bheki Mseleku. The album’s songs are meant to restore that spirit of “family beyond kinship”, and connect with the Diasporic feelings, perhaps, of ‘not being at home’.

We enthusiasts, critics, promoters, and supporters are encouraged to watch carefully as this 21st century jazz-induced ‘inner-tainment’ unfolds under the sails of the Blue Note Label. May favourable winds curate Makhathini’s  exciting and transformative journey through trans-Atlantic waters.

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Italian jazz pianist Giovanni Guidi stuns with atypical styles

Visiting Italian jazz pianist, Giovanni Guidi, sent highly improvised sonic waves through Cape Town’s jazz centers recently, leaving in his path networks, some confusion among listeners, but deep respect for choosing stellar musicians to accompany his journey.

G Guidi-courtesy Clement Puig of ECM

Youngblood Cultural Center in central Cape Town came alive again as Guidi  soloed through his first set, and settled listeners into his style. His is more than a sonic journey; he transports, through a matrix of emotional jolts, intellectual explorations, reality checks, and rhythmic changes, to land back on terra firma of the familiar kind. 

This 35-year old has achieved enormous successes, having performed and mentored with some of the great jazz musicians of Europe, notably with Italian trumpet aficionado, Enrico Rava, to name a few. Guidi’s style is hard to describe – he leaves chordal harmonies aside to evoke emotions of disturbance, then resolve. With body swaying over the keys, Guidi connects his sonic messages from lower register rumblings to treble crescendos, crashing into a more subtle tone of a familiar tune which leads the way. His take on such standards as ‘My Funny Valentine’, or ‘Over the Rainbow’, morph out of a cloud of delusion into gentler refrains, thus bringing some relief to the ears. Like silence after a heavy tropical downpour.

In the second set, fellow musicians admirably plucked to Guidi’s free style intros to familiar tunes. Each artist had freedoms to solo and explore: Dutch bassist and Cape Town resident, Hein van der Geyn, could occasionally lead and add percussive beats; Rus Nerwich’s tenor sax could squeak and squeal; Lee Thompson’s trumpet had permission to run away; and drummer Jonno Sweetman whispered and enunciated multiple rhythms, depending on the band’s mood. The piano was not always easy to listen to, but the complementarity of other instruments brought sense back to purpose.

Likewise, an unusual duo concert with legendary Brotherhood of Breath drummer, Louis Moholo-Moholo, now approaching age 80, brought respecting listeners to Langa’s Guga S’Thebe cultural center. Understandably, Guidi had been influenced in his early years by this South African band-in-exile and the improvised styles of pianist Chris McGregor during their 1970s-80s hay days. But the aging Moholo struggled to keep up with the zesty Guidi piano this time, with sounds merging more into a monotonous clackety-clack routine. Still, Guidi’s piano held its own with familiar standards fading in and out of chordal outbursts.

It seems this young, talented pianist wants to explore more….with South African artists…. and find out what makes the South African sound so special. While his Italian Cultural tour was brief this trip, Guidi hopes to spend longer time on South Africa’s soil in the near future and possibly record with his favourite artists, many identified so far

Guidi’s latest recording, Avec Le Temps, exemplifies where he is taking his music with his jazzahead! 2019 quintet:   

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Going ‘Native’ in Cape Town Brings Music back to the ‘Hoods

This article was published in the anthology of stories, “Writing My City: Ordinary Capetownians on Their Extraordinary Home”, by the City of Cape Town, 2019.  The book was launched at the Open Book Festival 2019 this September at the Fugard Theatre, with thanks for the collaboration with The Book Lounge and City of Capetown Libraries.

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The smell of corn cobs and boerewors on the braai, from which oozes charcoal white smoke, meets the nose which points to sniff out other table stalls of second-hand books, and textile and ceramic craft items splashed with colourful designs. People are buzzing about the Kofififee mobile kiosk as ‘Thaps’ churns out cappuccinos or hot chocolates. There’s a slight warmth in this winter air as one saunters through the yard to enter the auditorium of Guga S’Thebe Community Center in the heart of Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township off the National Highway N2. The yard with mosaic wall art bustles with musicians and patrons rubbing shoulders as both place their drink or food orders at the auditorium’s ‘snack’ window. ..or buys an affordable late lunch of curried beef and veggies with fluffy rice from the ‘food pot’ table.

It’s 4 o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Once inside the auditorium, the high roof with a few art works on the walls frames the seating area for some 120 plus people. The ‘Wine Shaq’ table offers a variety of independently distributed wines from the Cape Winelands – always ‘local is lekker’ in attitude and taste. One carefully nurtured wineglass will last through the first set as patrons take their seats. The band numbers five well-seasoned musicians. A hush falls as the gig begins…and the experience continues…

This is Jazz in the Native Yards, bringing the music back to the ‘hood’. The Natives are at home! The patrons are also multi-cultural, coming from various demographics of the wider municipality. The home legends are being heard…and remembered.

The 2019 South African Music Awards (SAMA) voted ‘Neo-Native’ by pianist Bokani Dyer as the best jazz album. Dyer has been exploring what it means to be ‘native’, he coming from a mixed family of Botswana African and Zimbabwe European cultures but brought up and groomed in South Africa. Cape Town pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Hilton Schilder, brought out his ‘Alter Native’ album in 2017 as a statement about his musical and cultural roots combined with modern jazz influences. Another SAMA nominated pianist, Sibusiso Mashiloane, states in his newest album, ‘Closer to Home’, how ancestral and contemporary African musical traditions can wed nicely with contemporary improvisational styles in sound. The Native is back! These artists are examples of bringing their music back into those neighbourhoods from which they have learned much of their craft.

Jazz in the Native Yards, while proudly endorsing the otherwise unfortunate apartheid address for township communities resident in ‘NY’ numbered streets, is enthusiastically spreading its philosophy of taking those ‘hood musical styles to other ‘hoods. After all, Cape jazz and South African jazz emanated and developed their unique sounds from many back yards during apartheid restrictions on township residents’ movements. In turn, this provided relief – comic and musical – for both artists and patrons in weathering the debilitating effects of racial, economic, and political separation from the country’s wealth and opportunities.

Jazz in the Native Yards traces its ancestral footprints to the 1960s when impromptu live jazz sessions took place every weekend in Cape Town’s townships and elsewhere. Back then, jazz enthusiasts listened to Josh Sithole who made the penny whistle famous, even on street corners of major cities. The Nofemele brothers played The Manhattan Brothers covers with unsurpassed flair. The Ngcukana brothers from Gugulethu performed with their father Mra and the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim, and became a regular feature in the community yards.

Then, a change in access evolved: Post-apartheid Jazz clubs moved more to town centers, requiring enthusiasts to leave their home areas, and find often expensive means of transport to evening events which also charged fees higher than what true jazz fans from marginalised communities could afford. This restrictive gap in access to the quality legendary music has now been revealed: many arts and culture promoters no longer wish to dominate live jazz through another form of exclusionary, middle class opportunity to hear quality music.

Ironically, as these town ‘clubs’ started closing down for various management and financial reasons in the past 10 years, the call from communities became loud and clear: ‘We want the music here, with us!” Thus, live jazz started brewing again in Native Yards and communities throughout Cape Town’s metropolis; in restaurants, in a bakery, at an artisanal ginnery or beer brewery, at cultural centers , like Langa’s Guga S’Thebe, and even in musicians’ homes. Those opportunities to preserve the proven legacies of jazz giants like Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Robbie Jansen and Cups Nkanuka, were taking hold, partly thanks to appreciative and discerning younger musicians who saw value and integrity in preserving musical histories. These well-trained musicians also wanted live platforms to strut their stuff.

Since the Native Land Act of 1913 defined separate development with the later enforcement of the Group Areas Act in 1950, non-white South African citizens found themselves in unattractive and unsustainable economic and social conditions, unable to break out of their township confines to pursue a more progressive life. Instead, undesirable forms of behaviour plunged them into gangsterism, drug peddling and alcoholism.

In contemporary times, Jazz in the Native Yards seeks to avoid a downward spiral by grooming human creativity, especially among the youth from marginalised communities. Its projects were born in 2015 and JiNY developed a social movement that encourages the use of live jazz performances as platforms for diverse musical voices to be heard and seen. Young and older musicians can ‘meet and greet’ each other on these platforms. For instance, Marimba specialist, Bongani Shotsoananda from Gugulethu, often comes to afternoon concerts at the homey ‘Kwa Sec’ house where weekend gigs feature a variety of South African and international bands. Another legendary jazz pianist, Tete Mbambisa, and Langa singer Ncediwe Sylvia Mdunyelwa, pop in to see what the younger ones are doing. Sometimes, these venues hold workshops before the live performances, further adding to the artistic excitement.

It’s about ‘Experience’, says Koko Nkalashe, one of the founders of JiNY. “We want to create spaces and opportunities for more social cohesion for Western Cape residents, a positive ambience of backyard performance venues for residents and visitors alike to get to know and understand South Africa’s diversity, rather than just focus on its marginalised communities. “ These spaces, safe but simple, grow paying audiences who thereby offer opportunities whereby artists can actually earn an income rather than rely on free or sponsored concerts.

So where does one ‘catch’ these audiences? JiNY has ‘Routes’: musicians can perform at centers which have sizeable data bases of patrons, like the annual Stellenbosch Woordfeest as part of the musical program; then a Sunday afternoon at the Delheim Wine Estate pulling in residents from Franschoek and surroundings, then continue on to Khayalitsha’s Isivivanda Center ; then on to Mitchells Plain’s Alliance Francaise Cultural Center (still in progress). That’s the ‘Eastern Route’. Patrons and fans who live along the way can catch quality performances and be able to afford paying for the experience.

The ‘Central Route’ comprises of Gugulethu’s Kwa Sec which is a private home space for smaller crowds; then to Nyanga Arts Center (still in progress) which receives supports by the Belgium government….. then on to Langa’s Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center for larger crowds, and continue on to the Alliance Francaise in central Cape Town CBD or to an arts and culture gallery on Bree Street.

All of these routes seek to engage the moneyed class and less economically endowed residents in experiencing together the fruits of musical achievements of the younger and older legends coming from these communities. Adding to the Experience are people’s video snippets on social media, selfies with musicians, and other pictorial stories which show patrons’ excitement. Clinking wine glasses, rattling coffee cups, audience members dancing, and an inside fire roaring to keyboard runs – people experience joyful fun and amusement in the vibey arena. And when the experience is good, you sure will want to return and find your new-found friends at the next gig….and on and on it goes. Socializing, appreciating, learning, seeing, asking questions, understanding, liking, tasting, telling others – the experiences expand.

Performing in ‘Native Yards’ does not benefit just local musicians and local patrons. Word spreads, rippling through social media, radio, print media outlets, and country Embassies. When South African musicians work on projects overseas, namely in Europe and seldom in USA, international visitors, musicians, and music business promoters hear about the ‘hood happenings, and know where to go. Fundors like ConcertsSA, the Italian Consulate, Swiss promoters, and others, enable music students and their teachers to collaborate and spread music in the ‘Hoods.

Indeed, the Legends listen from their ancestral heights in pure delight!

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Sound and space need better coordination: Zoe Molelekwa tests Youngblood Gallery

Take the wall paintings and sculptures made from metal, wire, and wood, and put together the sound of a solo baby grand piano and what do you get? Visual art meets musical vibrations producing a soulful push that is once meditative, and gently soothing in this creative space. Then add an able drummer, bass guitar and amplification and the whole sonic experience crumbles. High ceilings of this otherwise delightful gallery simply do not permit loud percussive instruments to work. Framed visual art pieces can survive on well painted or brick walls with some clever lighting effects, but sounds depend on spacial air to carry the vibrations which is why wind instruments and human voices resonate kindly in cathedrals and in lofty no-ceiling structures.

Zoe Molelekwa at piano with Buddy Wells on sax

Youngblood Arts and Cultural Development Gallery on Bree Street in central Cape Town, while a space for experiencing awe and wonderment at the visuals on display, finds it challenging to provide a decent sound for a variety of instruments. Pianist Zoe Molelekwa handled his solos delicately on the baby grand piano, so rarely available for concerts in public places. Thank you, Gallery, for this. His repetitive phrasing, almost chant-like, and soft touch of chords splitting apart into runs made for easy and thoughtful music to the ears.

When his capable band members chimed in, the upped volume with bass amplification drowned out both piano and bass guitar. Buddy Well’s enduring saxophone could rise above the cacophony of sounds and carry the tune well. High ceilings simply don’t do justice to the music. Then again, why amplify so loudly in such a small space as the Youngblood’s foyer?

Also, musician training – to talk clearly and loudly into the microphone when introducing a song or message – requires attention of the artist to mic deficiencies. It was such a pity that one heard little this evening inspite of this aspiring young musician’s attempts to present his hard-worked compositions.

A pleasant arrangement of tables and chairs by the bar provided nourishment and a cosy atmosphere for diners to view the stage just before the show started. But the coffee grinding machine humming during a solo piano just doesn’t work; the meditative mood set by the pianist was shattered as wine glasses or cutlery falls. Bars near the seated audience need to shut their noise, not shut down, during an act. Simple.

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In contrast, Guga S’thebe Cultural Center in Langa provided, again, a pleasant, sound-perfect experience when young Molelekwa and his band took the stage last Sunday. Molelekwa’s piano solos were delicate, almost Pythagorean in healing , as head hung low , he massaged the keys with a depth of soul, even longing, as he ended his afternoon concert playing one of his late father’s songs. We could hear his microphone introductions clearly, in spite of his somewhat timid, perhaps shy, voice timber.

https://youtu.be/JcIqlanLZFw

Molelekwa and his drummer Bonolo Nkoane, his bassist Grant van Royen, and saxman Buddy Wells warrant applause for presenting the soulful compositions of young Molelekwa who seems to be well on his way to emulating his late father Moses Molelekwa’s creative jazz-bending styles. Caution, therefore, is required in choosing the right sound system for spaces unable to cushion those floating vibrations that easily distort.

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Jazz Pianist Zoe Molelekwa brings his “unconsciously South African” repertoire to Cape Town: an Interview

All Jazz Radio caught busy Zoe Molelekwa for an interview about what makes him tick with his music and life in general.

With all your current training and family influences, I was just wondering – everybody finds their own style as they grow into their music – so what’s your style? You’ve been influenced; you’ve studied, and probably done a lot of experimentation as well. What kind of sound do you feel comfortable with ? What turns you on in playing music?

Zoe Molelekwa – credit T. Visagie

Being around my father growing up, and absorbing the music he was playing, was a time very short-lived. I grew up in Soweto which was very culturally rich with music all around. There was so much to pick up from everyone. My one real experience that made me want to listen to jazz was from the old man who lived across the street from where I lived – I grew up with my uncle, on my mother’s side of the family. This man was always playing his LPs, but I could never know who he was playing. So, he challenged me to get to know my father’s music and CDs, and the older music on these vinyls, and how people were approaching this music . My formal music training started with the recorder in the First Grade. Then, I took up violin, then alto saxophone and just listening to different music. The music that attracted me most from South Africa was the mirabi and mbaqanga variety.

How did your family support you in pursuing music?

I had to work for a year after my high school.  Growing up on my Mom’s side of the family, they didn’t want me involved in music. So I worked at Exclusive Books for a year after my high school. There, I became very interested in stories, music, and art. I was always listening to music on my headphones, so the store asked me to make a playlist of music to play in the store. People in the store would come and ask me who was playing a song, and what’s the album called, this sort of thing. Some actually would buy the album and show me that they had bought it!

That’s when I started meeting musicians I had heard on radio, through their albums and interviews, and even seeing them at their performances. The first musician I met who helped me alot was Lwanda Gogwana, the trumpeter. He heard my father’s music being played in the store, and started to befriend me, asked me if I wish to pursue this music, and what my plans were.

Uhadi Traditional/Synth Modern – Lwanda Gogwana Expands Xhosa jazz

Then I was introduced to the pianist, Themba Mkize, who helped me find places where I could study music, and recommended University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN).

Wonderful. OK, I thought on your grandfather’s side (Moses’ father), you would be groomed as well.

Actually, I hardly ever saw my grandfather growing up. I saw him maybe four or five times when I was very young. This was not out of choice. Then when I was ten years old, I ran away [from my mother’s family side] because I felt suffocated. I really wanted to have an experience with music at that time. I was playing drums with my father when I was three or four years old. I would walk into his rehearsals and pick up the drummer’s stick and started beating. Then I got my own drum kit. When I was picked up from school, I would ask if my father was rehearsing at Kippies. If yes, I would ask to fetch my drum kit so I could rehearse with him. That’s the kind of environment I grew up with, and when I no longer had that, after my parents’ death, [when I was just six years old] and into my teen years, it really was challenging for me. But the exposure I had at that early age made me continue to listen and try to absorb all the sounds that I loved. So when I finally got an opportunity to study or express myself, I had a certain foundation already.

When you met up with Mkhize and Gogwana who encouraged you to continue in music, was your family still not supportive?

They were….yet in a sense they weren’t. I mean, to them, music was not considered a viable career for me. I think also with the circumstances surrounding my parents passing on, and the kind of environment that the music scene can operate in, they were reluctant about me being a part of that, of knowing what that environment actually is. It’s funny because even my mother was an artist, and her father was a great actor and musician, James Mthoba, who acted in various productions at the Market Theater [and was artistic director of the Theater], was a pianist in the film Sarafina, and worked with other actors, such as John Kani. So it was weird for me to experience this, knowing that there’s so much cultural heritage that we have at home that I could actually take so much from. It would also help me on my journey. But they weren’t so supportive so it ended up being that way.

Your mother’s father, did he support you?

He passed away when I was very young so didn’t know him. I tried to be around people I’d like to be like, like musicians. When I was studying privately with Themba Mkize, and I actually lived with him for a while, that’s when I met pianist Nduduzo Makhatini who became another great influence for me.

Nduduzo Makhathini

He was performing in Soweto with his band when I was on way back to JHB as my UKZN semester had just ended for the holidays. Nduduzo called me and asked me if I’d like to come with two tunes and rehearse with his band. The gig which followed was the first time I had performed my music live! I had been composing and attending performances, just trying to get to know how other musicians prepare for their performances, and what makes the music sound so great. So when I think about how I would present my music, it would come out as though I, too, am trying to set my own path in this music.

Where are you studying music now, and is it your full time love?

I’m in my 2nd year at UKZN Jazz Program with one more year to go. It’s not my only love but where my passion lies. I envision my performances to have many experiences which include visuals, sound, and words – I’m a poet as well – because I find words can express things we can’t feel in sound, or see in pictures. That’s the ultimate vision, but primarily, I’d like to be a full time musician, perhaps work as an arranger, or a film scorer, but also be involved in art entrepreneurship in the long run.

In what way? The entrepreneurship…..

I think my being around some of the great musicians to whom I and my peers look up to, and getting a sense of how to look at ourselves not only as musicians, but also as a business, teaches us how to make a living. I’m seeing certain things not known to musicians, that could actually really help in their careers. In the immediate sense, that’s how I’d like to be of help. Maybe have my own label. But for now, I just want to be a great musician and a great human being!

What are your other interests?

I enjoy art and also writing…. Literature. I experiment a lot; I write essays, I write short stories; sometimes I write poems . I’m thinking a bit broader to write novels…

What about some jazz journalism?

People have told me I should consider archiving or journalism – something more serious and worthwhile. I’ve been very busy just archiving my father’s works, trying to put all the content together and package it in such a way that it could be used by those hungry for the music.

I like your mention of stories and poems…. Not everyone can write, but it sounds like you have a facility for that. If you could spend a whole day in a library, what would you want to read?

I love History, African history. In earlier days, I read the Classics – Edgar Allan Poe and George Orwell. I like philosophy, many different schools of thought, Eastern philosophy, some Buddhist and Zen books. I practice Tai Chi – I’ve adopted this as a habit to keep me balanced about what troubles me.

I see you have a meditative style when you sit down at the piano, like at Guga S’Thebe during Hassan’adas tribute to your father’s music. Where do you think you fit into South African jazz? Where do you feel comfortable – with free flow, traditional, contemporary styles….?

I like the traditional – it’s like the foundation of the tree. In those earlier times, there were different things – socially, politically, and economically – that were influencing not only the way people were living, but the music which was being written for a certain purpose . I might fall under not just the traditional, but maybe the contemporary, African . There are influences, such as kwaito , deep house, hip hop which I’ve come to like. My father’s music was traditional, but also progressive…. I try to have nuances that are unconsciously South African because that’s where I come from.

Sunday, 25 August at Jazz Sessions, Masque Theater, Muizenberg, at 18.30 hrs. R120.

And at these sponsored by Jazz in the Native Yards: (see poster) 
Wed 28 August at Youngblood, 74 Bree Street, at 7.30pm
Friday 30 August at Alliance Francaise, 155 Loop Street, at 7.30pm
Sunday 1 September at Guga S’Thebe, Langa, at 4pm
Sunday 1 September at Selective Live, 189 Buitengracht St, at 7pm.

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Tradition and improv find musical foundations at Rootspring with Amathongo

An evening at Rootspring, a tall house originally built for an opera singer, just meters to Muizenberg’s False Bay beach, is guaranteed to swallow patrons into a vortex of known and unknown musical originality – wedding the traditional with improvisation that produce acoustically pleasing and sometimes surprising sounds. There’s also an experience to be had as the nontraditional seating ranges from movable chairs and large stuffed cushions on a bouncy floor made for dancing, to pillows on the stairwell to enhance the view onto the stage as well as the sound – in last Saturday’s case – of the five-piece Amathongo group.

Hidden away on the razed wing of the large main room is a wooden stove firing much welcomed heat on this wet wintry Cape Town night. Patrons arrive early to chat with friends and peg their seats, and perhaps open that bottle of wine they’ve brought and hope the cork doesn’t break into the bottle. When the gig starts sharp at 7pm, a hushed silence welcomes the incredible sounds and rhythms that break out for the first set.

https://youtu.be/cICllz9zfBE

Amathongo, an ethnically diverse group of musicians, entices you to connect with ‘ancestral spirits’, which is the isiZulu meaning. In keeping with Rootspring’s philosophy of promoting musical creativity, Amathongo describes itself as an evolving world music project, unique, South African and original. Its use of improvisation is also deeply rooted in traditional African styles. The sound strongly features traditional Southern African musical bows and other traditional African Instruments made popular by singer Madosini with her varieties of Uhade bows, and Pedro Espi-Sanchis on traditional flute. Get ready for a journey that beckons the listeners to explore their own ancestral roots!

Hilton Schilder outside his home in CT- credit Franziska Lentes

What makes a concert exciting is to see how each musician projects sounds within a classical musical scoring that allows for free flow solos. Pianist Hilton Schilder, known for his allegorical stories around the Cape ghoema music, most recently on his album, Alter Native, brings a spirituality to his piano. Coming from the legendary Cape Town musical Schilder family, Hilton has mastered traditional instruments that are home to the khoi/san roots of the Cape.


The keeper of the ancestral soul of Amathongo is Madosini on Xhosa bows, who centers the musically emotive storytelling within the group. All add their vocals to her isiXhosa praising and healing chants. Madosini is also the comic, with body language and facial expressions that jerk suddenly, waking up the otherwise meditative audience.  https://youtu.be/Gemr9gru72U

Madosini’s fellow singer and percussionist, Lungiswa Plaatjies, adds vocals and rhythms which enchant. Seasoned by her uncle, Dizu Plaatjies, professor of African indigenous music at University of Cape Town, ‘Lulu’ as she is called, became lead female vocalist of South Africa’s famous Amampondo group with her uncle. Their album, Ekhaya, became a popular eclectic, Xhosa-language version of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. Lulu has also reached music heights by being the first South African female musician to play the imbira and incorporate it into her compositions.    https://sarafinamagazine.com/2019/05/14/a-conversation-with-lungiswa-plaatjies/

One of Rootspring’s visionaries, guitarist Johnny Blundell, adds strings and box percussion that makes Amathongo sound eclectic with raps of folk and jazz.

Pedro with Madosini

But the eyes stare at the antics of Pedro Espi-Sanchis, known as ‘Pedro the Music Man’ from his long-running children’s television series in the 1990s. Rarely seen with Amathongo lately, Pedro proudly presents his kelp pipe flute, stringed guitar on tortoise shell, and a gourd-cased mbira.    https://youtu.be/XUFgqiCIYDk

Born in Spain and raised in France, Pedro has pleased audiences in South Africa for over 30 years through performances, education with young audiences, and storytelling. He can leave kids (and adults) spellbound as he shows how found objects can make music – paw-paw leaves, kudu horns, cow-bells, calabashes, seaweed, and more. It was the latter that he played on this inspiring Amathongo evening at Rootspring that excited – a Lekgodilo flute made from kelp pipe. Go down to your friendly Cape Town beach and find some black rubbery kelp pipe, cut it properly, and start blowing! Pedro shows how     https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=89&v=AN1OAXyjf9c

According to this instructive vimeo, the flute produces a lydian scale which becomes chromatic after the 6th degree. It is here where the roots of Jazz, i.e. improvisation, started from early times.    https://vimeo.com/8274470

Johnny Blundell, who also comes from an illustrious musical family in Cape Town, has visions and supports to make Rootspring one of the most eclectic, original, and progressive musical venues in greater Cape Town. Well-marketed with its newsy email Newsletter, it tells well in advance the types of bands booked for the month ahead. Sign up! http://www.rootspring.co.za  Become a Rootspringer!

Tickets are at www.quicket.co.za and include a pensioner price as well as pre-booked dinner wraps as a meal for those wanting a munch during the concert interval. Glasses are provided for your bring-your-own drinks or wines.

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Alma Café hosts ‘alternative’ cross-over music, and Alternative Folk prove it!

A wintry, rainy, cold August night in Cape Town is totally forgotten as 51 patrons fill the intimate Alma Café in Rosebank to capacity, to enjoy an unusual fanfare of music, plus a burger meal with dessert. It’s not every day one can hear Cape Town’s musicians perform unique compositions in different formats of sound reflecting their genre preferences. The Cafe’s family-run business on a tiny slip of road called Alma Road boasts two guitar-playing musicians – country folk guitarist father Richard Tait, known for his creative trouser patchworks and monitoring the sound system, and guitarist son Jono Tait – and mother Raita managing a kitchen which very efficiently delivers meals before the gig begins. After enjoying the first course meal, the stage takes over.

The Café listens to the stage, but allows for plenty of talk time before and during the gig intervals when the dessert is served. The patrons have come out to enjoy the eclectic music from ‘Alternative Folk’ in this small venue with no loud, blaring amplification, or need for ear plugs to protect sensitive ears. One’s bring-your-own-bottle of wine on the table, with corkage fee, kept most comfortably warm.

Ronan Skillen on tabla with Jono Tait

Jono has chosen one of South Africa’s top percussionists, Ronan Skillen on tabla and shakes, to present an Eastern flavour to Jono’s own folk guitar. It’s not often a musician presents his intimate health issues on stage, but Jono unabashedly introduced one of his songs which is based on his dealing with depression challenges brought on by his own Bipolar Disorder. The song asks us to learn how to ‘slow down’ from the pressures we face in life. This moving piece leaves the listener quite spellbound at such honesty from a sometimes troubled musician. As a comrade in support, Ronan accompanied his guitarist in style and various rhythms that never overpowered.

The colleagues cracked jokes with each other while tuning up their instruments for the next song, allowing the audience to chime in.  Musicians are known to feel at ease at Alma, often rapping a bit with the audience who return the joviality.

This set the stage for the next half, after a serving of dessert and coffee, as part of the meal offerings. Another ‘alternative folk’ takes over – a lady duo, both illustrious in their musical journeys. Singer/guitarist/educator Nicky Schrire has explored all sorts of musical genre, from her jazz studies at University of Cape Town to contemporary folk, singing her songs about Paris and back home, ‘Love Letter’ about Cape Town.

She and her childhood friend, cellist Ariella Caira, known for her sterling band membership with the all-female string band, Sterling EQ, combine their musical DNA and present soulful and inspirational ballads in expert unison. Their synchronicity reflects their individual journeys around the world, both performing and studying, in the worlds of jazz, classical, folk, and ‘alternative’ sounds in music. Nicky made the point that “love songs have already been taken care of which is why I focus on things, items, and not necessarily ‘love’ “. Her five years living in New York, plus collaborations with a multitude of domestic and international artists, has helped her combine her original jazz exposure with innovative sonic realms touching on a bit of Celtic and folk, embodied in her own compositions as well as interpretations of other’s works, such as the Beatenberg pop song, “Never Let Me Go” and her “Ingrid Yonker Suite” which blends folk, cinematic and art song genres. Also, think Joni Mitchell.

https://youtu.be/V9RiIacH0rc

With a voice that can move from emotion to theatrics, Nicky describes herself as “trained in jazz but a troubadour by choice”. Besides an engaging stage presence, she projects humour, wit, an assertive personality, and storytelling abilities (both verbal and written) that are educative and highly entertaining. Her marketing skills cleverly explore the visual, using for instance the popular Woodstock-based Popsicle Studios’ video productions in Cape Town.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJbm3No_4qA  Even Cape Talk radio’s John Maytham Show produced an interesting podcast discussion with Jono and Nicky about the nature of ‘Alternative Folk’, which also highlighted the types of venues artists prefer to perform in.  http://www.capetalk.co.za/podcasts/144/the-john-maytham-show/235674/alternative-folk-at-the-alma-cafe 

This evening ended with all four ‘Alternatives’ joining their sonic spirits to delight and haunt our understandings about our contemporary music-scape!       https://youtu.be/d9Vs5sP2r3M

While many venues face fluctuations in patronage among cash-strapped fans, an intimate and friendly venue like Alma Café hopes to draw all those daring to venture into different sonic worlds for an affordable evening’s experience, rain or shine. Their listings can be seen on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/The-Alma-Cafe-159089414146612/  

 

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Percussionist John Hassan Revives the Moses Molelekwa legacy through another Jazz in the Native Yard Experience

In February 2001, the South African music world was shocked suddenly: a young brilliant pianist, Moses Molelekwa, and his manager wife, Flo, were found dead in their central Johannesburg office. The Cape Town fans and musicians held an unforgetable mourning gathering at Good Hope Center to mark this untimely passing of an unusually talented artist at age 27.   Last Sunday, 28 July in 2019, a day after a national public Memorial for another extraordinary Legend, Johnny Clegg, the Cape Town community came together to honour Molelekwa’s legacy, with an added delightful feature of Molelekwa’s son, Zoe, at piano.

Moses Molelekwa – credit Shadley Lombard

The Tribute, conceived by percussionist-composer John Hassan of the South African Afro-Latin band, Hassan’adas, revived appreciation for a notable period in South Africa’s jazz history when young guns moved their artistry through the 1980s apartheid hurtles into the 1990s new political dawn.

John Hassan -Credit T Visagie

Moses was there, fired up by both family supports and the times to ‘find himself’ as his first 1994 album, Finding One’s Self, suggested. At age 22, his mastery and level of maturity with improvisation and technique were shaking heads. By the time he released his second album, Genes and Spirits in 1999, Moses had toured and mentored with other legends, such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Cuba’s own Chucho Valdes. Then, dead at age 27.

There will be more to applaud about Moses and his musical legacy when the very tall son Zoe returns to perform in Cape Town next month. His parents’ deaths left 6 year old Zoe to the care of Moses’ musically innovative father, Jerry ‘Bra Monk’, who made sure little grandson Zoe would grow up in the finest of musical traditions through the Moses Molelekwa Foundation, established to provide learning opportunities to young musicians. Remarkable stories abound.

A Jazzy experience before the concert: Traditional beer, beaded watch bands, and books for sale

It needs to be mentioned, again, that events sponsored by Jazz in the Native Yards aim at giving patrons an experience of jazz which which they will marvel at for days/weeks after. Always get to a JiNY concert early . This Moses Molelekwa Tribute concert on Sunday was held at the popular Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center in Langa township, 15 minutes from Cape Town’s CBD.

As you walk into the Center, wall paintings, murals, and a wide range of hand-made beaded and sculptured items meet the eye, splashing colourful artistry that seems authentic and honest. Tables are lined up with these artistic varieties seeking to not just welcome patrons to the musical event, but engage them in tasting, viewing, and maybe even buying some of the enticing offerings coming from the township artisans. This is how ‘the experience” begins: The delectable smell of Waga’s Fries draws one into conversation about how a ‘special’ variety of potato can be turned into a healthy snack; it’s grown as a project at the Cape Town University of Technology Belville campus garden by horticulturalist, Wanga Ncise.

Waga Fries with promoter Wanga Ncise

Taste the fry, slightly brown and crisp, and coated with tasty herbs and bread crumbs, and you’ll see why a potato can be transformed before your very eyes! Snack in hand with this crunchy fry, the eye feast continues through the tables: beautifully beaded watch bands with red watch faces to die for; cloth earrings and jewelry. I liked the traditional beer keg on the second-hand books table! Now that entices one to read, neh?

Finally, entering the open courtyard of Guga with its mural walls and drinks ‘n snacks kiosk beckoning, one finds another table of home–made curry stew with rice and salad. If the weather did not call for sprinkles, more artists’ tables would distract and beckon from this courtyard.

The music starts. Hassan has rightly provided a space for two young musicians to kick off the event: Pianist Nobhule Ashanti and trumpeter Keitumetsi ‘Tumi’ Pheko.

Zoe Molelekwa- credit T Visagie

When 24 year old Zoe sits down at the piano for a few songs, a deafening silence spreads through the audience of some 110 patrons, with photographers slowly inching close to the stage like cautious chameleons to get that careful shot of Zoe’s head hung low over the keys, his dreadlocks obscuring his good looks. His rendition of his father’s classic “Spirit of Thembisa” stayed true to form.

Hassan’s band then explodes into Latin and Molelekwa tunes, with several songs taken from Hassan’s own Afro-Jazz repertoire with Hassan also playing guitar. Stellar musicians make up his band: Lucas Khumalo (bass guitar), Trevino Isaacs (piano), Nathan Carolus (guitar), and the cream of Cape Town’s jazz scene comprising of drummer Kevin Gibson, and saxophonist Buddy Wells (saxophone). Hassan tells how he and Moses were once flatmates in Johannesburg which is why Hassan is passionate about remembering his dear friend’s legacy.

“We are starting with one show in Cape Town and hope to take the show to other provinces in time. The idea is to bring Moses’ son Zoe and musicians from the Moses Molelekwa Foundation to join us in future performances.”

Tributes are usually to the artist in passing, but they allow for the sponsoring promoter, Hassan, to also promote his own music. “The object of this project is to celebrate Moses’ music. It is not a benefit concert but rather a tribute to Moses Molelekwa” says Hassan.

Criticism might be cast as to the balance between a tribute and self-promotion, but Hassan’s contributions and passion certainly got the audience enthused, appreciative, and dancing with his bouncy reggae “Peace and Love”!! He has educated and re-engaged listeners to be aware of the unusual, yet forever resounding sounds of the genes and spirits of Moses Molelekwa, an artistic gift to South Africa’s musical and cultural legacy. Such awareness raising will continue with Zoe Molelekwa’s upcoming tour which will focus more on his father’s music and on Zoe’s own growing library of compositions and favourites. Stay tuned for more on the Molelekwas!

Zoe Molelekwa Trio performs at several venues in Cape Town, hosted by Jazz in the Native Yards (all gigs are R100): 

Wed 28 August:  7.30 pm.  Youngblood, 70-74 Bree Street

Frid 30 August:  7.30 pm.  Alliance Francaise, 155 Loop Street

Sunday 1 September:  4pm.  Guga S’thebe, King Langalibalele Dr, Langa.

Jazz Sessions has scheduled the Masque Theater, Muizenberg, on Sunday, 25 August, 2019, 18:30 hours. Tickets R120. Information: 021-788-1898 or https://www.facebook.com/UllaJazzSessions/

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Jazz in the Native Yards Brings Joy with Music Coming back to the Capetown ‘Hoods

There’s a slight warmth in this winter air as one enters the outdoor patio where the band is set up, with listeners seated in the garage space looking onto the patio. This is No 52, NY138 named ‘Kwa Sec’ in Gugulethu, a ‘township’ outside of Cape Town center.

Sisonke Xonti sax; Jono Sweetman drums; Shane Cooper bass-credit: T. Visagie

People are buzzing with loud chatter which drowns out the MC with the mic, who is trying to introduce the band and settle the crowd. If one hops quickly inside the house, more buzzing and smell of freshly brewing coffee meets the senses as ‘Thaps’ (Thapelo Mahloane) churns out cappuccinos or hot chocolates at his Kofififee mobile kiosk.  

The eyes wonder onto a bucket of ice at the ‘Wine Shaq’ table which offers a variety of independently produced and distributed wines from the Cape Winelands/Stellenbosch area – always ‘local is lekker’ in attitude and taste, says its wine connoisseur, Nomhle Zondani. Hailing from Langa, Zondani travels the various routes of this promoter based at Kwa Sec, Jazz in the Native Yards, pleasing pallets thirsty for high quality but lesser known wines.

One carefully nurtured wineglass will last through the first set as patrons take their seats. The band numbers five well-seasoned musicians. A hush falls as the gig begins… or rather, the Experience continues…..

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It’s 4 o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti and his illustrious and long time band members, are bringing the music back to the ‘hood’. The Natives are at home! The patrons are also multi-cultural, coming from various demographics of the wider municipality – radio and media journalists, fellow musicians, regular fans, local leaders, and foreigners working in Cape Town.

Credit: Gregory Franz

During the set break, raucous joviality explodes as old friends chat about nothing, or strangers are introduced. Some patrons who announce this is their first visit to Kwa Sec are immediately embraced and coached on why they should come more often. The energy in the space becomes electric. Ubuntu is speaking. There are no barriers here – colour, nationality, profession, status in life – it doesn’t matter. It’s the pumping rhythms in song that brings hearts and spirits together, laughing and just enjoying life and being there.

Ezra & brother Duke Ngcukana 1987-credit: Tony McGregor

Home legends are being acknowledged by this youthful band as it swings into songs of late jazz dons, like Zim Ngqawana and Gugulethu’s own, Ezra Ngcukana. It’s Youth Day in South Africa, June 16, a national holiday celebrating how Black youth uprisings in 1976 against the then apartheid government’s attempts to enforce the teaching of Afrikaans in their schools changed the course of history. But sordid memories seemed subdued amidst the joyous celebration and networking around song and artistry.

JiNY Co-founders: Luvuyo Kakaza (left), Koko Nkalashe (right)-credit: Nikki Froneman

Jazz in the Native Yards, while proudly endorsing the otherwise demeaning apartheid address for township communities resident in ‘NY’ numbered streets, is enthusiastically spreading its philosophy of taking those ‘hood musical styles to other ‘hoods. After all, Cape jazz and South African jazz emanated and developed their unique sounds from many back yards during apartheid restrictions on township residents’ movements. In turn, this provided relief – comic and musical – for both artists and patrons in weathering the debilitating effects of racial, economic, and political separation from the country’s wealth and opportunities.

Jazz in the Native Yards traces its ancestral footprints to the 1960s when impromptu live jazz sessions took place every weekend in Cape Town’s townships and elsewhere. Back then, jazz enthusiasts listened to Joshua Sithole who made the penny whistle famous in kwela jazz, even on street corners of major cities. The Nofemele brothers played The Manhattan Brothers covers with unsurpassed flair. The Ngcukana brothers from Gugulethu performed with their father Mra and the legendary Abdullah Ibrahim, and became a regular feature in the community yards.

Then, a change in access evolved: Post-apartheid jazz clubs moved more to town centers, requiring enthusiasts to leave their home areas, and find often expensive means of transport to evening events which also charged fees higher than what true jazz fans from marginalised communities could afford. This restrictive gap in access to the quality legendary music has now been revealed: many arts and culture promoters no longer wish to dominate live jazz through another form of exclusionary, middle class opportunity to hear quality music.

Patrons at Kwa Sec Sisonke Xonti gig-credit: T Visagie

Ironically, as these town ‘clubs’ started closing down for various management and financial reasons in the past 10 years, the call from communities became loud and clear: ‘We want the music here, with us!” Thus, live jazz started brewing again in Native Yards and communities throughout Cape Town’s metropolis; in restaurants, in a bakery, at an artisan ginnery and beer brewery, at cultural centers , like Langa’s Guga S’Thebe, and even in musicians’ homes. Those opportunities to preserve the proven legacies of jazz giants like Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Robbie Jansen and Cups Nkanuka, were taking hold, partly thanks to appreciative and discerning younger musicians who saw value and integrity in preserving musical histories. These well-trained musicians also wanted live platforms to strut their stuff.

In contemporary times, Jazz in the Native Yards seeks to avoid a downward spiral caused by gangsterism, drug peddling and alcoholism. One answer is to groom human creativity, especially among the youth from marginalised communities. Its projects were born in 2015 and JiNY developed a social movement that encourages the use of live jazz performances as platforms for diverse musical voices to be heard and seen. Young and older musicians can ‘meet and greet’ each other on these platforms.

Bongani Shotsoananda at Kwa Sec- Oct 2018

For instance, Marimba specialist, Bongani Shotsoananda (from Nyanga) and trumpeter Blacki Tempi (from Gugulethu), often come to afternoon concerts at the homey ‘Kwa Sec’ house where weekend gigs feature a variety of South African and international bands.

Another legendary jazz pianist, Tete Mbambisa, and Langa singer Ncediwe Sylvia Mdunyelwa, pop in to see what the younger ones are doing. Koko Nkalashe, YiNY’s co-founder, says, “Thanks to ConcertSA we have also managed to bring more established musicians to our stages and the mix with overseas traveling musicians creates a beautiful mix of musical stories.”

Koko Nkalashe

It’s about ‘Experience’, says Nkalashe. “We want to create spaces and opportunities for more social cohesion for Western Cape residents, a positive ambiance of backyard performance venues for residents and visitors alike to get to know and understand South Africa’s diversity, rather than just focus on its marginalised communities. “ These spaces, safe but simple, grow paying audiences who thereby offer opportunities whereby artists can actually earn an income rather than rely on free or sponsored concerts.

So where does one ‘catch’ these audiences?

JiNY has ‘Routes’: musicians can perform at cultural centers and NGO spaces which have sizeable data bases of patrons, and at festivals, like the annual Stellenbosch Woordfeest as part of the musical program; then a Sunday afternoon at the Delheim Wine Estate pulling in residents from Franschoek and surroundings; then continue on to the Khaylitsha’s Isivivana Center, an NGO space ; then on to Mitchells Plain Alliance Francaise Cultural Center (still in progress). That’s the ‘Eastern Route’. Patrons and fans who live along the way can catch quality performances and be able to afford paying for the experience.

The ‘Central Route’ comprises of Gugulethu’s Kwa Sec for smaller crowds; then to Nyanga Arts Center (still in progress) which receives supports from the Belgium government….. then on to Langa’s Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center for larger crowds, and continue on to the Alliance Francaise in central Cape Town CBD or to an arts and culture gallery on Bree Street.

All of these routes seek to “cook up the vibe”: engage the moneyed class, suburbia folk and tourists, and the less economically endowed residents in experiencing together the fruits of musical achievements of the younger and older legends coming from these communities. Adding to the Experience are people’s video snippets on social media, selfies with musicians, and other pictorial stories which show patrons’ excitement. Clinking wine glasses, rattling coffee cups, audience members dancing, and an inside fire roaring to keyboard runs – people experience joyful fun and amusement in the vibey arena. And when the experience is good, you sure will want to return and find your new-found friends at the next gig….and on and on it goes. Socializing, appreciating, learning, seeing, asking questions, understanding, liking, tasting, telling others – the experiences expand.

Performing in ‘Native Yards’ does not benefit just local musicians and local patrons. Word spreads, rippling through social media, radio, print media outlets, and country Embassies. When South African musicians work on projects overseas, namely in Europe, international visitors, musicians, and music business promoters hear about the ‘hood happenings, and know where to go. Fundors like ConcertsSA, the Italian Consulate, Swiss promoters like ProHelvetia, and others, enable music students and their teachers to collaborate and spread music in the ‘Hoods.

Indeed, the Legends listen from their ancestral heights in pure delight! The ‘hoods are back!!

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Singer Florence Chitacumbi /Percussionist Mino Cinelu cause sonic bangs in Cape Town

They flew in and wowed the crowd at Langa’s Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center with their authentic fusion of African, Creole, Euro-pop, and Afro-soul . Sitting on his box drum, renowned French percussionist Mino Cinelu rattled his various arsenal of sonic weapons, standing and emoting over his hand-held triangle when he wasn’t furiously tapping out a myriad of beats on his 25 year old plus wave drum.

Mino Cinelu at Langa, Guga S’Thebe: credit Terence Visagie

 

Florence Chitacumbi at Guga S’Thebe,Langa: credit Terence Visagie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeper of melodies, Swiss-Angolan singer Florence Chitacumbi, and leader of this Reunion Tour in Southern Africa, added soulful and jazzy tunes which come from several of her albums with Cinelu. This duo, along with the versatile Swiss Guitarist Christophe Bovet, were ‘encountering the other’ as they shared their musicality with South African and Lesotho audiences during their intensive one week tour to conclude a dazzling International Jazz Month of April.  Multiple thanks go to local organizers, Jazz in the Native Yards and the South African Association for Jazz Education (SAJE), for these April performances. 

Credit: T. Visagie

The last concert on May 4 was properly framed in Cape Town’s beautiful Peninsula suburb of Kalk Bay which reaches another local area known for its artistry, Navy home, and calm waters facing a circle of mountains. Again, the Olympia Bakery shoved its machines to the side and made concert room for the trio, this time with an additional two South African guests: jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhatini based in Port Elizabeth; the other, Cape Town’s own legend, accordion/traditional bow/guitarist Tony Cedras who worked with percussionist Cinelu back in those 1980s New York City days. Another story!   The beauty of spontaneity in the moment meant that Cinelu could invite Cedras to the reunion at the last minute.

Tony Cedras

Both South Africans added flavour and transformed the Chitacumbi/Cinelu Afro and Creole rhythms with their own jazz subtleties, the likes of Bheki Mseleku, Nina Simone, and a host of others.

The colourful, sold-out concert saw people still inching into the venue, even sitting on the piled up flour bags ready for use by the Bakery the next day.

Chitacumbi, who led the band, boasted a wide repertoire of music, thanks to Cinelu’s rhythms that included Congolese soukous, Portuguese Fado (folk music) , West African influences, funk, blues, and jazz Standards. She has toured with a host of notables and cut three albums featuring well-known African and European artists seeking to build those sonic bridges between the two continents. But it was former Weather Report’s (and Miles Davis, and Sting) master percussionist, Paris-born Mino Cinelu, whom the whistling audience eyed non-stop. Cinelu was also reuniting with his old pal, Tony Cedras, known for his exiled days in New York arranging songs and touring with Paul Simon’s Graceland album. This visiting duo maintained an exciting and vibrant stage presence right to the standing applause end.

Thanks go to the people involved in promoting/producing and sponsoring this concert, namely Arte Viva Management, Slow Life Music Promotion, Pro Helvetia, Ville de Neuchatel in Switzerland, Foundation SUISA, and Loterie Romande without whom the show and its success would not have been guaranteed.

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Several histories were revealed in my interview (CM) with Florence Chitacumbi (FC) and Mino Cinelu (MC). Both have fathers from Africa or the Diaspora, and both were raised in Francophone/European cultures which explains Cinelu’s love for the Fado folk music of Portugal where his grandmother’s roots lay. Also, his interesting explanation on why the drum and percussion reigned more in Francophone Africa/Diaspora – read more below:

CM: Tell me how you guys linked up as a duo, since you both had lots of experience with other bands and tours over the decades.
FC: Yes, I had a band while living in Paris and I gradually felt there was still something missing. I knew Mino and liked his musical approach and rhythms, so I called him. We started collaborating in 2005 and we produced and album, Regard Croises.
MC: I’ve performed with many artists so feel at ease in both seats – with duos and larger collaborations. I just try to keep an open mind when meeting a new collaboration. And now Florence and I have a duo project that we were looking for.

CM: With South African jazz, what is so different to you personally compared to other African influences, such as the music of Francophone northern Africa?
FC: In Senegal, you find a lot of percussion or guitar, and in Cameroun, you find a good bass player, but not so much the piano or saxophone. But here [South Africa] , there’s a jazz tradition which mixes American jazz with their own sounds – the rhythm , the patterns, the scales, and different types of melody.
MC: Also, as you go north from here, there was less of the English influence which had strict rules about the use of the drum, but the French ex-colonial areas of central and west Africa allowed for the indigenous beats and rhythms and harmonies of those singers . In South Africa, the Africans under colonialism found a way to preserve their music, for example, in the boot dance of the miners. The same in Trinidad under the English when the people developed the steel pan and rhythms to go with it. So in the ex-British areas, the drums are not that well developed but there’s something else. So the non ex-English areas were allowed to develop the drums, and the singing, and other expressions.
FC: I find South African jazz really inspiring; they have something special – the melody, the styles of Bheki Mseleku, and Hugh Masakela… I saw Mkize and Washington’s gig in Langa yesterday, and I like the way they play that scale… it’s unique to South African jazz here.

CM: ….then you get to the Western Cape with the ghoema, and the Malay rhythms, and the Khoi instruments. … I wish the South African students could hear you, perhaps on your next tour here….
FC: It seems that maybe they are afraid of knowing their culture and roots….
CM: There is a trauma…. A psychological stress and anti-colonial phase students are going through presently, often not well understood by them. Whereas, African countries have been independent for long…
MC: People find a way to eventually express themselves…..

CM: You both have lots of African influences in your musical approaches, but you haven’t experienced much collaboration with Africans as such on the African continent, I mean in terms of performances. Why is that?
MC: You can hear in my first album many songs from Ivory Coast and Senegal. You have the talking drum, and the udu from Nigeria – I was the first to bring this instrument into rock music in Europe. I was music director for Saif Khaita, and was the drummer with Chris McGregor in Paris where I also met Dudu Pukoane.
FC: I was in Burkino Faso and Senegal, and last year I was at Jazz a Ouaga in Burkino Faso. Then we came here to South Africa last year….
MC: After touring with Sting, I just took the first plane out of New York, and spent one and a half months in Senegal and played with the drummers every Sunday. Just jamming. There was no TV at the time, or Internet…. I also went to the Ivory Coast to see the top guys there, and we started to jam a lot…

CM: We are more global and digital now so we don’t always have to be physically ‘there’ to collaborate. Yet you are doing a ‘reconnection tour’, not just with yourselves, but as you said in another interview, you (to FC) want to “encounter the other”. So, this means you want to be there physically, right?
FC: Yeah, one can’t stay in their comfort zone in home areas all the time. But when I say ‘meet the other’, I also mean to bring one’s own music to another audience, or another culture. We need to make the unknown interesting. When I meet up and work with Nduduzo [Makhatini] , I look forward to sharing our music with him.

CM: Why have you chosen Nduduzo? Of all the South African artists…
FC: I had met several artists, of course, like Zenzile Makeba. Then, last year I began talking on Facebook with Nduduzo and watching his page, and that’s when I contacted him about collaborating. I also know Afrika Mkhize very well… Then in 2004, I had contacted Darius Brubeck…

CM: Let’s talk about your audiences. What did you think of the audience yesterday [in Langa]? Their reaction was so different between your performance and Mkhize’s. You are perhaps used to revving up European and American audiences. What did you feel was different with the Langa crowd?
MC: Nice. People came out. It was good. People share the same passion and they were very thankful that we came. We don’t take that lightly or for granted. That humbles us. They were really listening and hearing something different. I like that. They didn’t want to miss anything. Our band was different to what they hear – we had no bass or piano, just a guitar, singer, and beat. In ours, there’s no safety net, no frills, just acoustic….

CM: [To MC] There are so many sounds from your percussion toys…. Back in the days of Miles Davis, the technology was different from now with a range of electronica…particularly the wave drum….Any comments?
MC: My wave drum is over 25 years old. I wish they still made this model, because the newer one is smaller and doesn’t fit my style as well. Zawinul [of Weather Report] asked me to join his new project and I was happy to be able to play with Weather Report, and to play with drummer Omar Hakim before the group broke up. Also, I have to rent my percussion instruments when I travel. I’ve got some made of wood – hard to find – to give that sound – like the shoe clogs people used to wear in Holland, or the stomping on wooden floors of verandas in old houses in the American South.

CM: Often, visiting musicians are flown in and out again, giving little time for making important connections with local artists and cultures. How could this be improved so that you are given time to workshop with students and others, and share your skills?
MC: It’s often the case. Promoters don’t realize that the hardest part for a musician is not the playing, but the traveling. Sometimes my conferences take a long time, and I go very deep in the discussions. This is all tiring. You have to open to people and cultures you’re visiting. I like to immerse myself into others’ cultures as much as possible when I’m visiting a place. We have to share our music with musicians we visit. This takes time.
FC: Definitely. At home in Switzerland, I teach at a music school in Geneva called ETM which is part of the government program – students can choose music as a subject with ETM . We also have a professional section for 3 years. Students study a 1st and 2nd instrument.
MC: I mostly have private students. I’d like to do more masterclasses in different countries, but I just don’t have the time. A dear friend of mine, Tony Gray, a bassist who is nephew of John McLauglin, and I are working on a collaboration to do a video program so I can share that as much as possible.

Catch both artists on a number of YouTube videos!

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Jazz Singer Ziza Muftic dazzles in her “Shining Hour” album and Life

Croatian-born Ziza Muftic stepped into an ambitious musical journey in South Africa when her parents migrated from a war-torn Croatia in 1992. It was terribly cold in Johannesburg that August, as she left her teenage sandals behind in the summery North. Her academic and professional success as a jazz vocalist confirms her gutsy approach to creativity, as she explored what she felt was still missing in her own Balkan musicality: a South African musical expression. Subsequently, she has performed with some of South Africa’s top Jazz musicians like Johnny Fourie, Reza Khota, and Marcus Wyatt. She was also asked to sing a finalist piece at the SAMRO 2018 composer’s finals, where the composition won in category.

Muftic is now feeling her shining hour. Shining Hour (2019) is her second album, entitled from songwriter, Jonny Mercer’s ‘My Shining Hour’ song of hope and high expectations, and follows on her first album, Silver Moonbeams (2015), with its Balkan rhythms, lyrics, and melodies. Her stories shine in delightfully pleasing and thoughtful ways as she handpicks from known songs and her own compositions.

She adds the spoken word to such standards as Bheki Mseleku’s ‘Homeboyz’ and the Beattles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ which continues in a sullen mood started by the opening Mseleku piece. Her low voice register breathes a kind of soft whimsical lullaby sound with inflections from her able band members that make this jazz album enticing and moving. She says on her album cover: “Music and thoughts collected on a journey from Bosnia and Croatia to South Africa. These tunes found this band and have become a part of our standard repertoire.”

Muftic searches with questions put to English lyrics: in the moody, sometimes sassy ‘what’s the colour of my Heart’, and in how ‘Love is the Drug’ tells about something familiar and is skilfully supported by Sydney Mnisi’s wailing tenor saxophone and pianist Roland Moses’s runs. Then, inventive mixes of Croatian lyrics and Balkan-style vocals with a South African context in ‘Kwela/Gontsana (Milena)’ reveals hints about the next song, ‘Unfinished Story’, where drummer Peter Auret holds a steady fast beat while Muftic scats her unfinished story. It seems clear how Muftic’s interest and research into Balkan styles are transposed with South African ethnomusicality, a theme she is pursuing presently.

Her skills in arranging come through interpretations of the Latin swing, as in the popular Corea/Jobim ‘Chega de Saudade’, and in her own composition, ‘Blue’, influenced by Pat Metheny, which has Mnisi’s flute solo querying Muftic’s unending searching and wondering.

The album ends with an inventive taster for what’s to come in the future: ‘Bosnian Flute Jam’ is just that, Balkan dance mixed with South African marabi rhythms. With a cross over voice the likes of a Carmen McCrea and Balkan mixes which would excite the Bombshelter Beast’s mixed bag, Shining Hour guarantees to hold the listener ‘s heart and ears in a tight embrace.


An interview with Muftic explains herself:

CM: You have absorbed so much of the South African experience, from being a teenage immigrant who quickly adapted to the local artistry back in the 1990s.
ZM: As I grew in this country, I realized that I had much more similarity with the way of living of Black people in townships than the squeaky clean middle class –both black and white – that live in the suburbs of JoBurg . This thing of community living, of not locking your door, and going next door to your neighbour if you needed some salt – we used to live like that in Croatia. There, we lived in flats with only one key, and my neighbour was always in my lounge. But now in JHB, we have several keys which we are always having to sort out which is for what……and there’s an alarm button, and a code for a lock, just to get into your own house! It’s like phases, you know…..

CM: You came to South Africa after your matric in Croatia, right? And was able to study music right away here. How did you manage with English?
FM: I had music credentials from my Croatian high school and a respected music school in Zagreb called Vatroslav Lisinski, and studied under one of Croatia’s well known divas, Lidija Horvat. It was then that I won a third place at a singing competition amongst young singers from all over Croatia. So when I arrived in JoBurg, I could enter university here right away. It was hard as I had to learn English just from living, so I just learned as I went along. I completed my BA in Music in 1996 focusing on Classical Vocal studies, and my Masters in Music in 2013, both degrees from Wits University. My Masters was in Performance and Research. My two recitals were late classical to contemporary, a program which covered music from Stravinsky to Django.

CM: You seem to enjoy mixing your Balkan musical heritage with the South African sounds. Can you tell me more? Particularly about that last song ‘Bosnian Flute Jam’ on your album.
FM: FM: I started the ‘mixing’ during my Masters studies. It was then that I picked up a well known Bosnian folk tune, ‘Ne klepeci nanulama’. Everybody knows that song in the ex- Yugoslav countries and everyone in my family sings it well. I added to it a standard South African jazz progression, and you know, long before I performed that song, I would just sit and cry in my studio. Because there was this soul thing I found with South African jazz, it filled something in me that I was missing from my Croatian side. So I put the Bosnian flute jam at the end of this album as a signal of what was brewing inside me and what will come next in future albums.

CM: You wrote your Masters thesis about Balkan music in South African music. Explain more.
FM: I used to go to Balkanology parties in JoBurg ages ago, where I heard this music that sounded like something from home. I was completely bewildered hearing this in Newtown in JoBurg , and found two DJs from Capetown!! So I chatted to the people that I was trying to find a theme for my research, so I just went back to that. There was no ‘soul’ connection as such, but there was definitely something like a ‘fun’ thing in these parties, and their dance was fun. It reminded me of these raucous weddings you’d see in the villages back home in Bosnia and Serbia with that familiar um pah n pah n pah. So going to these parties helped me decide about what I could write for my thesis.

CM: So how did you conduct this research from the parties?
FM: My Professors were so keen to do research on this because there is so little written about Popular music in South Africa (academic writing in particular). So I focused my ethnographic research on these parties. I took two different parties where you dress up in costumes and then dance to this crazy music of that period around the time of the war. The whole thing was actually a movement. So right about the time of the war, there were a lot of immigrants to – it started in Germany, I think. They displayed this nostalgia thing where they started playing a Romani music and a kind of Serbian cheezy pop that you would hear at 4 o’clock in the morning from people who were drunk-drunk from the wedding parties. So it became like a trend, you know. And then ‘Borat’ came out – you know with that Sacha Baron Cohen actor and his character from Eastern Europe who is a bit naïve. So I had these influences growing up. Then there was the film, The Underground , that turned the eyes of the world towards our country and culture, some of it ridiculing how naïve people from the village seemed as they carried themselves awkwardly into the city or whatever. You know how it is when people from the Western world will always look for something new to spice up this doof doof doof they have in clubs.

CM: What do you mean? You mean how the Bombshelter Beast emerged as a popular band…..
FM: What Marcus [Wyatt] has done is genius because that sound is Joburg right now, if you had the energy and it wasn’t so dangerous to walk around , like in Braamfontein, to absorb all the sounds . I enjoyed going to the Bombshelter beast gigs because of the experience …I mean every time I go to his gig [Bombshelter Beast] and hear that guy that raps in Sisotho and isiXhosa and other languages, and the girls that rap, and then there’s the umpah umpah umpah that comes out of the songs, and the band all running around in those onesies…..

CM: Yes, they are quite entertaining. So what was your thesis title?
MF: It is entitled, “Hopa!: Exploring Balkanology in South African Popular music culture”.

CM: Let’s talk about your voice. You’ve got a pleasing timber and register in your voice. Who has influenced you in your voice production?
ZM: I don’t listen to vocalists that much, but when I do, I examine things like sound and breath, and how they blend into music and how they phrase. Often, I get disappointed because the singers tend to over-sing those things, you know, instead of really interpreting the phrasing that is what the music is about. I find beautiful voices that aren’t doing enough with the music, and then I get a little bit bored. Today, take someone like Cecile McLorin Salvant, and the technique and the colour she has and the attention to the music – you don’t always get these details today in musicians. So when I listen to my own recordings, and I see there’s a little too much there, too much excitement, then …. But I would say people like Billy Holiday, Joni Mitchell , Janis Joplin, and Carmen McCrea are some of my favourites.


Ziza has performed with some of South Africa’s top Jazz musicians like Johnny Fourie, Reza Khota, and Marcus Wyatt. She was also asked to sing a finalist piece at the SAMRO 2018 composer’s finals, where the composition won in category. See the YouTube promotion of Shining Hour:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud0QSNZkdW4&feature=share

The album features: Sydney Mnisi on tenor saxophone and flutes;  Roland Moses on piano;  Peter Sklair on electric bass; and Peter Auret on drums

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“My Miriam Makeba Story” Resonates a Language of Truth for Simangele Mashazi’s own life story

This is a story, a collage of charming impressions about Miriam Makeba’s own life in song and politics-in-exile which have resonated with the young singer and song writer Simangele Mashazi’s own life journey, particularly after 1994 when Makeba could return to South Africa.

Simangele Mashazi

‘Sima’, raised in Newcastle, KZN, learned her vocals and groomed her  talents firstly during her church choir years with strong gospel roots.  She followed up with private classical vocal training sessions, but only studied music in a Ministry school when she moved to Stellenbosch. After experience on stage providing backing vocals to South African and European artists during European tours, her breakthrough came when casted to play the then late Miriam Makeba in the popular musical Mama Africa, a collaboration between the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Missouri (USA).  A stage career was developing.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – JANUARY 17: Miriam Makeba, January 17, 2008 at Palau de la Musica, credit Jordi Vidal/Redferns

The bug had bitten her: Sima became inspired, if not spellbound, by the wealth of talents and history Makeba passed down, and in particular, how Makeba spoke truth through her lyrics. However, in 2017, Sima chose to leave the cast to pursue teaching and further studies at Stellenbosch University in Linguistics.  But this hasn’t stopped her musicality. She delved into replicating that truth-through-lyrics by starting to compose My Story which introduces her as a songwriter and storyteller.  It also enabled her to write her own songs which are performed in the show: ‘Bashadile ‘ (Zulu for “They are married”) and ‘Still Miss You’, along with other known gems like ‘Phatha Phatha’, to lesser known popular songs, like ‘Suliram’, an Indonesian lullaby. For ‘Bashadile’, Sima says she was inspired by a childhood game where children would all stand in a circle, and then children in the centre would pick a partner to “marry”. “The ones left in the circle would then sing ‘Kusele mina ngedwa nje’, which means ‘I am the only one left, “Bonke bashadile” – they are all married.” The song wants to take you on a journey and let you fall in love with life.

Her backing band excels as one of the Cape’s most popular jazz bands, made up of Ramon Alexander on piano, Annemie Nel on drums, Bradley Prince on guitars, Chadleigh Gower on bass, and Muneeb Hermans on trumpet. Some might query why she chose a Cape jazz band, even though highly successful on the local scene, but which is ethnically removed from the type of music Makeba wrote.

Sima and Ramon with KKNK 2019 Award

Sima had known the band-leader and pianist, composer, and producer Ramon Alexander, also living in Stellenbosch, for some ten years, and experienced not only mentorship from him, but the band’s versatility with genres of music. Together with Ramon, Sima could comfortably mastermind her next passion: to produce her own show, ‘My Miriam Makeba Story’, about Makeba but from her own perspective. It worked. Both she and Alexander received the award for Best Music Production at the recent 2019 Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK).

Preparing the show became essentially a learning journey for this stage-seasoned singer about an icon’s struggle with politics and life, in general. As a student of Linguistics, Sima had learned in Mama Africa how language is a symbol of power, and how Makeba in exile spoke truth to power. In this regard, Sima’s humour and engagement with the audience started early in her performance, when she asked what was the name of the song she had just sung (the ‘click song’). Soft clucking sounds buzzed around the Artscape’s sound-perfect auditorium, imitating click sounds found particularly in isiXhosa. It seemed so natural; this was an African audience who understood these linguistic dynamics, at least functionally, and why Makeba sung the ‘click song’ to European audiences while she was in exile. Sima’s background in Linguistics enabled her to point out the differences between her isiZulu clicks and isiXhosa ones, making this aspect of her presentation quite entertaining. The music became a background to her story, however.

“We must re-imagine a multi language society and view multi-lingualism as a norm in South Africa,” Sima emphatically stated in our interview. ”Ideologies are attached to language which is why I’m eager to study Linguistics and understand the power of language for social change. This is why I liked the way Makeba spoke her truth. I can do also. She used her voice to instigate social change.”

For example, during her performance, Sima did not shy away from the pain of loss which Makeba had experienced, the latter unable to visit her dying mother because apartheid barriers would not allow Makeba to return to South Africa from exile. Sima had also suffered loss, of her two sisters, and was inspired to sing her own tribute song to that, honestly and reflectively. Also, in keeping with the themes of carrying the South African ‘sound’ to world corners, she honoured the renowned Capetownian musician, Tony Cedras, (who had sculptured and arranged Paul Simon’s songs before and during their Gracelands album tour) and his efforts to spread the Cape musical histories far and wide.

Sima says she’s not a social activist per se, or a jazz artist, but she believes in the power of the message and entertaining through musical stories. Audiences won’t find intricate musicality and technique in My Story, but a melodic voice well controlled, at times spicy, and one that can emote and engage feeling about her sonic journey. Be prepared to have an intimate evening of relaxing moods tainted with a storytelling charm.

On 11 June, 2019, the show will run at the Fynarts Festival in Hermanus  http://www.hermanusfynarts.co.za; in Pretoria at the Pierneef Teater on 13 July and in Johannesburg at the Foxwood House & Theatre) on 14 July. In September, the show will run at the Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom.

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April International Jazz Month brings Cape Town Jazz Mania, festivals and marathon hysteria

Is there festival fatigue?

Cape Town became festival city as the month of April, worldwide set as ‘International Jazz Month’, wound its way around major holiday periods of Easter, South Africa’s Freedom Day, and May Day celebrations. It started with the annual popular and globally applauded Cape Town International Jazz Festival at end March which brought in a myriad of talents and music genres, including exploring jazz styles outside of the conservative mainstream box. Then the Marathons – for bicyclers and runners – through the beauties of the Cape Peninsula terrain. The announcement that UNESCO has designated Cape Town as the site for next year’s ‘Global International Jazz Day 2020’ events brought awe to key stakeholders who were invited to start thinking about their events, alongside empathetic supports (but no money, yet) from the South African Department of Arts and Culture and Department of Tourism.   The 2020 Global Host City event theme befittingly applies to an African city like Cape Town:  “Tracing the Roots and Routes of African Jazz.”

But it was this past week in April: Cape Town, which is fast becoming a traffic jammed, stadium-attired, marathon- mania hub on Africa’s culturally rich continent, exploded with jazz talents: some international, some returnees, some surprises, and many stalwart locals who hold the jazz fort . The main issue at stake, in order to please and cater to the varieties of music lovers, is getting the live performance schedules out into the public awareness so that lovers can choose. Other than social media platforms used by artists and their promoters alike, the Cape Town Jazz Gig Guide https://www.facebook.com/capetownjazzgigguide/   tells pretty much what’s happening in and around town. The caveat is that artists and promoters must send in their listings for publication….. but many simply do not. Scheduled clashes occurred, especially when the annual South African Association for Jazz Education (SAJE) Jazz Festival was scheduled way in advance – for scholars and public alike. Stunning lineups happened; but with shockingly poor turnouts. Has Mania turned to Burn Out of public ears and wallet pockets, one wonder? Or was it the venue….at a Boy’s High School which some might think underrates the quality of the artists presenting, or…..?

Who’s On Top?

Promoters such as Jazz in the Native Yards (JiNY), Slow Life, Iluminar Productions, Arte Viva Management, SAJE, small schools of music, venue presenters, and radio presenters on community and internet stations, such as Bush Radio, Fine Music Radio, All Jazz Radio, and MetroFM, and many others, all have vested and honest sympathies to ‘spread the music’ to the wide varieties of patrons in this growing city and globally. Everyone is in the same boat, scrounging around for funding and venues; there’s no hierarchy amongst us; we all must work together! But sometimes, artists ‘pop up’ in our midst, at the last minute, without proper forewarning or marketing, for whatever reasons.

It makes sense that Artists in town for, let’s say one week, are slotted into various venues over the time period to avoid date clashes. A case in point was a gig at The Alma Café, centrally located in Rondebosch and popular for presenting a variety of live music through the week. Thursdays host its jazz night. The scheduled band of Muneem Hermans generously accommodated, at the last minute, a visiting artist, singer Ziza Muftic and her two other musicians, as it added uniqueness to hear this remarkable Johannesburg-based Croatian singer and South African-schooled artist launch songs from her just-released album, Shining Hour. That is a true collaboration in giving space —but where was the audience for this very worthy double-bill?

What Jazz lovers might have missed….

SAJE’s annual festival kicked off at the Reeler Theatre, a centrally located pleasantly acoustic space at the Rondebosch Boys High School, with a fantastic evening double-bill of musicians who would normally draw large crowds both domestically and overseas.

The Paul Hanmer (piano) and McCoy Mrubata (saxophones), both originally from Cape Town, are celebrating their 30+ years of friendship and jazz.
Seems hardly fair to enjoy only 1 hour of their vast repertoire, but their workshop interview about their brotherhood in jazz the following day tantalized one to run out and listen to their songs, at least digitally.

The Friday double-bill then featured a more international set of visiting Italian saxophonist, Emanuele Cisi, performing with Capetown-based Dutch bassist, Hein van de Geyn, and local wizards, David Leadbetter on piano, and Jono Sweetman, all expertly following Cisi’s own compositions, with a few Standards thrown in. How powerful is that for quality jazz? The patronage turnout was shockingly dismal.

Saturday evening at Reeler found music lovers swooning to some popular jazz Standards performed by the American duo of Darius Brubeck (piano) and Mike Rossi (saxophone). But it was that last song which Brubeck eloquently introduced: when he and the legend, Winston Mankunku, played in Durban in the 1980s during apartheid years, Mankunku chose to play the African-American spiritual song, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, a commentary on what he, himself, was living through, his musicality cut off by discriminating elements of the day. Brubeck was remembering.

Afrika Mkhize & Salim Washington at Reeler

Their moving tributes were followed by a higher tempo of saxophonist Salim Washington’s Quartet which swung into zesty South African tunes and highly emotional piano chordal flings of the otherwise shy Afrika Mkhize, himself a popular subject for the portrait photographers. Since the day, 27 April, celebrated Freedom Day in South Africa, it was appropriate to play Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” with spoken word reminders by Washington that Freedom has to reign amongst all.

A Township Venue Comes Alive

This concert was one fine example of collaboration between SAJE and the JiNY who handled the Washington Quartet’s travel arrangements to the Jazz Festival as well as offered one of its venues.  They performed again on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the SAJE Jazz Festival, their sounds resounding with an eager foot-stomping, whistling and whooing crowd of enthusiasts at the popular Guga S’Thebe Cultural Center in Cape Town’s oldest Township of Langa.

Florence Chitacumbi & Mino Cinelu: credit Terence Visagie

Rhythms sang throughout this packed hall, starting with the Afro-European group led by vocalist Florence Chitacumbi, with her percussionist supreme, Mino Cinelu, excelling on his wave drum, and French guitarist, Christophe Bovet. That double-bill requires its own separate entry, including this writer’s interview with Chitacumbi and Cinelu to follow. The afternoon went into evening, closing after 7pm with the Washington/Mkhize band rapturing the crowd for two sets. Happy patrons wobbled home exhausted, imbibed with such unique fanfare of sounds of that day.

One wonders if afternoon performances bring more patrons closer to jazz than evening concerts. It’s a mystery. Yet Saturday evening, May 4, sees Chitacumbi’s trio perform with South African pianist, Nduduzo Makhatini, at Olympia Bakery in Kalk Bay thanks to another willing collaborator, Slow Life. One expects there will be a full house of locals stalking these different Afro-soul and rhythmically gifted musicians to wallow in their eclectic mix of African jazz. Tickets at quicket.co.za for Saturday, May 4, 2019; 8pm or contact 082-892-0350 (Paul Kahanowitz).

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Jazz Trumpeter Keyon Harrold talks Black experience at CTIJF 2019

Two American artists of notoriety drew audiences wanting diversity, style, and message in the music. Both spoke to the Black condition in contemporary American society; one wooed the younger fans with his pizzaz which elegantly matched their heartthrobbing outbursts of “Cory, I love you!”  The other musician hailed from Ferguson’s steaming racial struggles. 

Briefly, a major draw card for the festival was New Yorker organist/rapper Cory Henry who ignited a packed-full Masterclass room of some 500 loving youthful fans, whistling and wooing in awe when Henry breathed one word or played one chord. Then complete utter silence when he opened his mouth to speak. Henry wanted to chat with this audience, and rightly so. His kinetic energy prevailed. We heard only one song performed at the end. But he made us all feel young again with his youth appeal, his experimental musical audacity on the organ, and his friendly acceptance of all. No attitude in this vibrant man!!  But he then disappeared….from press interviews. 

Keyon Harrold March 2019

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold, another jazz-hip hop cross-over draw card performed at the same time as Henry, both closing the 2nd day of the Festival in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Not only did Henry not show up for his press conference and scheduled one-on-one interview with me, but I missed his performance. A downer for this writer, indeed! But I had to choose. And choose I did…..

Keyon Harrold – one of 16 siblings, a brother drummer with Gregory Porter, a policeman grandfather who worked young Keyon into music education projects with hundreds of others, a policeman father who carried forward this young talent, to calm and educate the Black kids who were viewed as potential threats to the ‘established order’ of urban St. Louis and Ferguson – rose in ranks with such positive backing amidst horrors of being a Black male in middle America……

I interviewed and watched the performance of this soft spoken trumpeter, who hails from the civil strife in his home town of Ferguson, Missouri, known for its extensive police brutality. Coming from a musical family, Harrold has articulated his stance against injustice with truthfulness. His unadulterated views on police brutality (followed by questionable judiciary proceedings) towards African Americans and other Blacks from the Diaspora, shone through a surprising musical gentility during his performance. Harrold is humble, yet savvy with the ‘celebrity’ world, having befriended and doubled with actor Don Cheatle in the memorable (Hollywood) film, Miles Ahead, about jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. Harrold played the music; Cheatle mimicked on camera.

During his performance on the Moses Molelekwa stage late Saturday night, Harrold’s melodies and songs, backed by a stellar set of musicians including pianist Gerald Clayton (no stranger to Capetown stages), produced both memory and emotion: some wailing, joyful runs, pensive and sometimes mournful moods from bassist Burniss Travis, and other mixes of improvisation, rock and blues.

Gerald Clayton

His opening song set the mood for honouring memory: his mother’s voice message left on his phone applauding him for being strong in the struggle led into a soft blues ballad remembering her; she had passed on in December 2018. But when popular rapper Pharoahe Monch came on stage towards the end of Harrold’s moving episodes from his album, Mugician, the audience was set alight. The hip hop rap pounded on serious themes of injustice, warnings, and call for unity. The fans were on their feet, many seeming to know the rapper better than Harrold himself.

Pharoahe Monch

Harrold’s press conference revealed his experience and knowledge of the truth behind what it’s like to live, learn, and walk as a Black man in American cities. When asked about his social activism, he replied, “When I’m moved by something, I must write about it…. That’s my calling.”

When asked by Cheatle and producer Robert Glasper to play Miles Davis (who also grew up in St. Louis) behind the scene, Harrold quipped: “Technically, the music of Miles was in my DNA. I already knew it. I was already transcribing Miles and listening to so much of his music as part of my own development.” Harrold knew the technicalities of playing trumpet. In the comforts of his home studio, he played and recorded: “With only three valves to play on, I watched Don’s fingering, and had to go through some 7 types of possible fingers to get the right sound.”

Harrold’s social activism revolves around musical attitude and youth development. “I’m lucky that I’ve had such opportunity to learn, and that I try my best to give back as much as I can, whether it’s working in schools or in a community center.” He doesn’t shy away from telling the true story: “I’ve been blessed in life with a story (police brutality) that requires me to talk about it. My parents encouraged this. I’m touched by certain things so I feel I have to tell it and write it in my music. If something is going on, like the refugee crises or the Michael Brown killing, I have to write about it. “

What is it like to be invited to a festival in Africa? Harrold expressed his yearning as an African American, living in the United States, that something was ‘missing’. “But when I come here, I can find a way to complete what my psyche is missing. It’s such a pleasure to perform on this continent. Africa gave birth to the root of jazz, the soul, the rhythm, the intensity. The heart of jazz, for me, comes from the Black experience. It’s a homecoming to me, so coming here is very very special.” In a careful and calculated way, Harrold admits he will continue to fight against the “global matrix of anti-black sentiments”, and to be part of the solution, “to advance culture and the majesty of Black people”.

So how would you define your music, I asked Harrold sheepishly, knowing full well no one likes to be asked that question. Keeping to his polite demeanor, he shared: “ My music is not traditional, with trumpet, bass, etc. but sometimes rap, sometimes beats from the machine. It’s everything. That’s why I brought my man, Pharoahe Monch, with me. His music is a living kind of thing, so I use it.” Monch had brought the final performance of the Festival on that one stage to an utter frenzy, as security mustered up their wits to prepare for a jovial crowd of over 1000 people to exit the hall en mass, down the narrow escalators, almost single file, to exit the Center at ground level.

But I can’t stop here…. There’s more to tell about this creative thinker and grassroots activist. Wanting to look right into the soul of this artist, I asked: “What really moves you?”  Appropriately, he quickly replied: “You said it – ‘move’ is key. I like to use the word,’ vibration’. Blowing the horn, there’s a vibration for every note. So everytime I play the trumpet, I get moved, I can’t explain it. I just like to send out those vibrations, in the spirit of love and peace.”

Keyon Harrold is determined to return to South Africa, and is ever ready to workshop with youth, something he’s used to doing for several decades, with grace and a giving spirit. We were blessed to have his presence, even though short.  Watch this delightful video:;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_Yx-cWkYWo&list=RDEMjtGg6C4kL0ghpt3y2va-6A&start_radio=1

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BLACK EARTH, BLACK IDENTITIES, AND AFROFUTURISM ring messages at CTIJF 2019: Flautist Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble.

There are particularly moving and important themes in this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival offerings which attracted this writer immediately after assessing the artist lineup. Telling, indeed, about our increasingly destabilising contemporary world and how music is becoming reactive. Various artists from Black identities brought ancestral histories and current struggles for equality and justice to the fore, not just in their sound – we’re talking music, right? – but in their message.

Giving voice to the unheard profoundly resonated a truth, but with a sense of love and inclusiveness. ….cause we’re all in this together…… Particular focus, I found, was on the Black female, the feminine in nature and spirit, the Earth as being the root of soul that Mothers all, and on her-stories about chained freedoms. African American flautist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble breathed message and emotion into her flute as her two female percussionists led the rhythms which detailed African rootedness, torture of separation from a motherland, and resolve in making the new land listen and take note of beautiful identities which honour spirit, tradition, and caring for all humanity to better sustain Mother Earth.

photo credit: Lauren Deutch

Collectively, Mitchell’s purpose with poet/pastor/singer husband Calvin Gantt was to convey messages of peace, hope, and courage to the downtrodden, or what she refers to as ‘Afrofuturist fantasies’ wedded with social activism.

During her press conference, Mitchell giggled about how her teenage journaling was influenced by African American futurist and science fiction author, Octavia Butler, whose works had also attracted Mitchell’s mother to paint about futuristic fantasies, like black mothers with their babies sitting on Saturn. Butler’s stories inspired three of Mitchell’s music projects, one dealing with a black woman on a space ship who wakes up, and then must deal with extra-terrestrials she encounters. “ So my music reflects all aspects of life – the horrors, struggles, joys, etc. – and is not always at ease with sound,” Mitchell admits. Another off-putting moment for her band was their performance a day after the USA elections of 2016 and how the band had to stay focused after the shock announcement that D. Trump had won the Presidential election. Their audience was seeking refuge and the band felt it must not become overwhelmed by the heartbreak and distain of their fellow Black and white communities brought about by this result. As Mitchell explained, “I feel instrumental music isn’t enough for me; I feel I have to make lyrics about what’s going on in our humanity in order to provide some hope.”

Regarding the question of the worthiness of music technologies and how it affects creativity, her points again addressed social justice issues. “We focus too much on technology which is geared to making money. Rather, we should focus more on our humanity and the way we treat each other, recognize our human suicide, and support communities with ecological sensitivities.” This resonates with why she chose the flute: “As a child, I related to birds, bugs, and nature. The flute embodied this nature. My voice is the same range as the instrument, so using my voice is a way of leaving evidence that a woman was here, in music that doesn’t always celebrate women as it should.”

Continuing with her take on tech: “I try to embody or model in my music how we can bond together better, with different musical languages co-existing together. The Western way of doing things is coming to an end. Very few people benefit while many suffer. In this regard, I have explored electronics and am working on a CD as my first electronics venture.”

Likewise, jazz education at university level can be a bit exclusionary: “I think if you have a conservatory method, then you are automatically closing access to a lot of great talent which can offer other skills. You have to bring in the jazz musicians as teachers, and not just those who have academic credentials. I have seen students who audition for music school; some will prefer to show their improvisation skills; others will read their scores. Many schools will take the student who can read. This is a privileged position which many great musicians don’t have.”

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Mitchell’s Master class revealed talent galore in her 9 piece band, several being multi-instrumentalists and well educated in the industry. Mitchell herself boasts a number of awards and leadership service, including being the first Black female president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. But ‘leadership’ is not what she intended; rather creative messaging to get the truth out there.

In their festival stage performance, her Black Earth Ensemble presented some ambitious, highly rhythmic self-composed songs in their festival performance, filling the stage with their energetic repertoire. The band concluded with a highly emotional incantation in gospel style by singer Avery Young in “Save the Children”. The singer was actually in tears and received consolation from fellow singer, pastor Calvin Gantt, who proceeded to preach how we must save the street children of Capetown. While one can applaud such a noble message, it also strikes of typical American arrogance known too well to hosting audiences, especially coming from a first-time-visitor to Capetown, or for that matter, to ‘Africa’. Well, as I listened, I was always looking for the music amongst the messaging. Percussion (bongos, congas, and drums) can easily overpower vocalists and instruments. I’m afraid this is what happened. Yet, Mitchell’s mastery of the flute is jaw-dropping, as is her laudable attitude to make right what has gone horribly wrong in our world. 

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble 2018 album, Mandorla Awakening II:Emerging Worlds can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP7FRucsNKc

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Vocal chants and silent noise: jazz vocalist Gabisile Motuba evokes profoundly deep sonic themes and bends rules

Artists who invoke the philosophies of Franz Fanon or saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, and search for spiritual content in artistry in our otherwise violent contemporary world, resonate with an admirable depth for exploration. Young vocalist, Gabisile Motuba, supported by her drummer husband, Tumi Mogorosi, is a sound enthusiast who has delighted our Capetown stages with hauntingly alternative music which defies definition.

I think about the silence that occurs in violence, and how to survive staying silent while the scream that occurs on the other side is heard under this veil of silence.

Launching her new album, Tefiti – Goddess of Creation, this being her and her husband’s second album after Sanctum Santorium which was a product of her Swiss residency with ProHelvetia, Motuba presents a rare ‘classical’ feel to her musical idiom which is more choral ancestral chant than rhythm and blues. She has creatively wedded the string instruments of violin, viola, and cello in slow melodies with a voice that breathes out its message in unconventional ways. One listens and absorbs spirit-like sonic tones and pitches influenced by chanting, with softer and more mellow lower register strings harnessing this vocal repetition. Several songs on Tefiti have Tswana and English lyrics.

Completing her jazz music degree in 2013 at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria, Mamolodi-born Motuba embarked on an experimental journey to find her own voice. She doesn’t consider herself a singer, per se, but sees a range of soundscapes possible with breath, voicing, and strings. For instance, she explores ‘silent noise’, referring to how slaves sang their songs in quiet tones so as not to appear rambunctious or defiant to their owners. But their messages were stark.

Motuba draws inspiration from such vocalists as Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding and Concha Buika, and South Africans such as pianist Nduduzo Makhatini, trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, and saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu. Her and her husband’s European residency with Swiss musicians spiralled this young couple into unknown and continuing sonic journeys in experimentation within the ‘jazz’ idiom, begun during their studies at TUT. She admits:

Knowledge I gained wasn’t always through a conscious pursuit of what jazz is; rather, it was music I ran into or was introduced to by friends. A lot of us gravitated collectively towards the spiritual, into African spirituality. Not in a literal sense, but evoking a need to go deeper, an excavation of what this music is about, and not just performing for the sake of performing. This is why I gravitated towards the chanting style.

Thirsty for more insights, I caught up with Gabi between her various Capetown gigs.

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CM: Why strings? And why the cello in your compositions?

Gabi: I love the timber of the cello and viola with their alto sound I had been listening a lot to the strings compositions by John Shaw at the time, and also the British cellist, Jacqueline Mary du Pré, in her classical performances, and I was thinking of how to use these stringed instruments…. You know, how to navigate this ‘other world’ of the classics. I was focusing on sound, and realized why the viola is paired so well with the cello and violins. The cello has this warm and rich sound along with the voila’s lower register warmth, compared to the higher nervous pitch of the violin. The cello is a bit more sound-friendly for my vocal range.

CM: You trained in ‘jazz’, but your style and approach to music is not improvisational. It’s more like traditional chants, like a connection with the spiritual pursuits you hear in church, and also amongst First Peoples’ music, like the American Indian’s music with their ancestral male chants. You did mention that you’re not into voice techniques so I’d like to understand your thinking here.

Gabi: I don’t think initially it was intentional. The jazz department at the Tshwane University of Technology really allowed artist to experiment so I never felt I was trapped in the traditional aspects of jazz and their formations. My peers and I were able to explore music together beyond the jazz idiom, even when intensively studying jazz music. You can really plant little seeds and let the collective discussions happen. This is what I’m interested in.

CM: There’s a term we can use when trying to describe or go deeper into that spiritual realm, and that is exploring consciousness. That seems to be what you are doing, exploring deeper levels of consciousness and awareness of being, of existence. And sound allows us humans to go deeper, doesn’t it?

Gabi: Yes, tapping into awareness – the jazz idiom allows us to understand that this jazz music doesn’t only exist within the jazz idiom, but can bring friends with different expressions together to produce music. This has enabled many to look outside of jazz to connect and search deeper into narratives. For instance, going into academia, or fine art, or literary art, it allows us to find jazz outside of the standard stage.

CM: I’m intrigued because it’s all about sound, and what sound evokes in our being. You’re not coming with a message that I need to listen to. Rather, I’m led to find out what that message is, through your sound.

Gabi: Yes, exactly. It’s not pointing to a particular thing, but giving us an idea in a very subtle way, and in a way that the listener can really engage within their own parameters and understanding, with a sense of freedom.

CM: So who has offered you inspiration?

Gabi: Well, my husband……. Haha….. he’s, of course, my inspiration! I grew up with and watched Siya Makuzeni, and her approach to vocals and scat music, sound technique, and her sound. She helped me a lot with my own artistic mapping. I listen to a lot of people — particularly the generation ahead of me – those jazz practitioners like Nduduzo Makhatini, Zim Ngqawana, and that age group. They had better access to their older peers, like Zim Ngqawana, Andile Yenana, Herbie, and Mholo. I found landmarks to use for navigating and thinking through my kind of sound, along with my peers.

CM: Tell me more about ‘The Wretched’ project – what tonality and instruments are you using because you’re focusing on violence in the world?

Gabi: I’m excited to be with this collective which includes my husband improvising on drums, and Andre van Vyk on electronics soundscaping, and then me on voice. We are concerned with the chapter on violence that Franz Fanon talks about in his book, The Wretched of the Earth. We are reinterpreting his text through the sonic, looking at violence and how it manifests itself in our dark spaces. I think about the silence that occurs in violence, and how to survive staying silent while the scream that occurs on the other side is heard under this veil of silence. My voice in this collective is bizarre. The music will not be ‘enjoyed’; it’s loud and poses uncomfortable sounds because the topic of violence is not pleasant. This narrative is brought home ….. referring to violence in S. African society.

We’ve already recorded the project. Now, we’re deciding how to present it.

CM: It sounds like you and Tumi are musical activists in that you want to pursue the deeper themes, having compassion about our world, but want to bring forth the message that violence must be confronted.

Gabi: Yes, it’s this idea of violence against the ‘other’, the violence of ‘othering’ bodies, that we’ve allowed this ‘otherness’ to take up space occupied by people of Black decent. So it’s a very intensive and crazy subject and demanding….

CM: Well, it’s not crazy when you see how this ‘otherness’ is growing globally and coming under fire – with all this white supremacy raising its ugly head.

Gabi: By ‘crazy’ I mean that this condition [of violence] is unfathomable, and allowed to become possible. So we are addressing this, thinking through in The Wretched this idea of the ‘possible impossibilities’ of Blackness, and these impossibilities being violence in its different forms.
So the music becomes an artistic piece and engages with one’s imagination and opinions about what’s going on. It allows you to also expand your own thoughts, and be open to receiving this other uncomfortable message.

Motuba’s quest to deploy meaning in her music appears noble, gutsy, and perhaps unnerving, but ultimately transformative for our own soul-scapes.

Catch her upcoming gigs in Capetown organized by Jazz in the Native Yards at The Drawing Room in Observatory on Friday, 22 March (7pm), and at the Alliance Francaise on Friday, 29 March (7pm).

She and husband plan to tour their Tefiti album in Africa soon, then in Frankfort and Berlin in May.

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Pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab revives a musical era in Essence of Spring (2018): CD Review

Listening to Essence of Spring (2018), a remake from its 1969 debut, is like experiencing an intergenerational revival, as the Elder Legend performs with his younger proteges, but without copying the past. It’s a musical history of an era in which composer Ibrahim Khalil Shihab, formerly Chris Schilder, performed with the popular Pacific Express band. Fifty years onward, Shihab, now in this 70s, has resurrected those popular songs, fusing them in this album with more contemporary jazz compositions.

Album producer and fellow pianist and protégé, Ramon Alexander, joins in this stylistic revival, moving Shihab’s songs from a swing era, including favourite American Standards, to present-day Cape ghoema rhythms.

Ibrahim Khalil Shihab and Ramon Alexander

Shihab’s Quintet is performing Spring this March, first at next week’s Woordfees at Stellenbosch University, and then at the Capetown International Jazz Festival (30 March on Rosie’s Stage) . The album is a celebration of style, but not necessarily story. The listener enjoys a mixture of motown, dance swing and blues, Latin, some improvised free jazz, and of course, the local Cape ghoema so richly conserved by the Schilder family generations.  Key, here, is Shahib’s satin piano solos, rich and graceful.

There’s electric and acoustic which provide moods with textures along with Shihab’s pentatonics that suggest the bluesy-ness of an era. His famous “Give a Little Love” is, according to Gary van Dyk writing in the album notes, “one of the anthems” of South African music. Van Dyk’s ‘notes’ are themselves an enlightening review of the album, telling us about the ‘Why’.

The younger musicians shine, while staying true to the legendary: The subtle yet pleasantly rhythmic inuendos of drummer Annemie Nel feature throughout, particularly in the last piece, Shihab’s remake of a classic, “My Funny Valentine”. Hear a soothing Shihab piano interpretation with Nel’s drums and the slight touch of delicacy by Lionel Buekes’ acoustic bass. Saxophonist Zeke Le Grange fires through the opening song, ‘Spring’, with a bossa feel and runs, followed by Shihab’s piano solo. The sax harmonies continue with trumpeter Marco Maritz accompanying the vibrant ghoema drums in ‘BoKaap’, as Shihab celebrates contemporary Cape jazz styles. Le Grange’s imitative stance holds well with Shihab’s fast paced keyboards in the liquidy “Cancerian Moon”.

Different vocalists interpret other Pacific Express songs: in “Angel of love”, Heinrich Frans’s familiar vocals and scats offer convincing emotions along with Alexander’s piano supports; Deon Manchess croons out lyrics in “I Hear Music”, suggesting just relax and let the music take you far and away to find that dream and never be without a song!

Shihab is not afraid to wander across the ‘free jazz’ modalities, thanks to guitarist, Reza Khota, known for his improvisational voicings, as “In Pursuance”, and where Asia meets Latin in Shihab’s unsuspecting ‘Jing’an Park’ with a surprising but cute ending. 

See the IK Shihab Quintet at the Weltevreden Restaurant Theater in Stellenbosch on 2 March at 13:00 and on 3 March at 19:00

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