South Africa has never been short of songs. A multiplicity of language groups, storytelling styles and faith traditions have all contributed elements woven and re-woven over generations to sing of personal landmarks and community histories. As a modern music industry emerged, individual musicians drew on and added to this storehouse. Commentators, though, have tended to focus more on performance and performers than on material. Our classic modern songwriters – Victor Ntoni, for example, or Steve Kekana or Caiphus Semenya – have rarely been granted the status they merit, as our Kerns, Gershwins and Johnny Mercers, producing standards for our as yet unwritten Real Book.
Now, however, something interesting is happening. A younger generation of singers is both writing and sharing good new songs, and bringing fresh voices to older classics. Nicky Schrire covers Victor Ntoni’s Seliyana as well as penning her own clear-eyed narratives of life, love and singing; Tutu Puoane covers Schrire’s Sunsong alongside Kekana’s Take Your Love and Leave It. Siya Makuzeni, no mean composer in her own right, applies her voice to You Were There, co-composed by Puoane and trumpeter Marcus Wyatt.
As these creative intelligences interact, an independent contemporary song idiom is emerging, miles distant from the lip-glossed, pseudo-American, “lu-u-rve-you-baby” that big-label hegemony tried to impose on female singers in the 1990s. The sound is international in its awareness of nu-jazz and nu-soul trends as well as the US jazz heritage, and profoundly South African in its use of elements from our own traditional, jazz and pop histories.
Tutu Puoane’s Ilanga (SoulFactory/Jassics) contains both her own (and regular Belgium-based band members’) compositions, as well as covers of songs not only by Schrire and Kekana, but also jazz classics such as Body and Soul and Fascinating Rhythm, and Nina Simone’s Images. Puoane’s small group is augmented by the horns of Carlo Nardozza and the saxophone of Wietse Meys, as well as local voices Kabomo and Africapella. It’s Puoane’s most radio-friendly album to date, with 13 mainly short, often highly infectious tunes, including flavours of soul and rn’b on Change the World and Over You. But she doesn’t skimp on the improvisation, in styles ranging from the brisk, classic insouciance of Fascinating Rhythm to the extended, soaring polyphony of Home. Her carefully-judged diction and timing bring musicality and storytelling together – when did you last think about the lyrics (rather than the notes) of Body and Soul? Puoane’s skill and stature have matured to the point where her albums no longer need recommendation. If you prize South African singing, they should all be in your collection.
It’s that concern for a good narrative that unites Puoane’s and Schrire’s artistries. Schrire’s latest release is an EP, An Education (Wildsound), in duo with cellist Ariella Caira of quartet Sterling EQ. The label specializes in folk music, and the publicity describes Schrire as ‘crossing over’ into that genre. However, the crossover is invisible. The characteristics that made Schrire an interesting singer on the labels that claimed her for jazz – the bittersweet swing and ability to let a good line breathe and use ornament to enhance storytelling rather than show off virtuosity – are all still there, and the lean format is an excellent showcase for her songwriting. Caira is an empathetic partner, judiciously underlining and enriching textures and moods. The title track is typical Schrire with its gentle play on words, as it tells the story of a music graduate’s life, mired in “all of those Coltrane licks/ and ways to practice flattened fifths/ and how” (in life as well as music) “resolving gets delayed.” Essential listening.
The debut album from Ziza Muftic, Silver Moonbeams (SumoSound), suggests that she is very likely to be part of this new community of singer-songwriters whose material merits the attention of other vocalists. Muftic’s ten tracks include four covers: Oscar Peterson’s Nigerian Market Place, a Serbian folk song, the Bartok version of a Hungarian folk song – and another take on the Puoane/Wyatt You Were There, clearly headed for standard status. Muftic has a soft, smoky-toned voice and, like Puoane and Schrire, she’s a formidable storyteller, giving every word of her narratives the space to breathe. The Bartok – the title track – becomes a chanson for a dimly-lit café-bar given atmospheric texture by Roland Moses’s piano. Muftic’s own material is often gently melancholy, with a distinct Eastern European melodic flavour. But the mood is not unvaried: she swings sweetly on the Peterson, while The Score reveals a refreshingly astringent nu-jazz edge in both sentiment and harmonic structure, underpinned by neat horn work from producer Marcus Wyatt and drums from Peter Auret. What listeners need from a debut is a clear announcement of who the artist is, and Silver Moonbeams offers a skillful, appealing answer to that question.