Le Ngoma: now a memorial to Feya Faku’s stolen horns

During the Struggle years, musicians were cherished by their communities. They were cherished not for the money they made, or the bling they displayed, but because their voices spoke out for and from community experience.

That has changed. Personality profiles on the lifestyle pages and high-level cultural policy documents share the same view: music is a commodity to be bought and sold, so an individual can get rich or a value-chain can be enhanced. Ornette Coleman got it right: “It’s me they’re selling…I’m the product…” Lip-service is paid to goals such as social cohesion. But commodifying artists and their creativity is about as effective a tool as you could fashion to destroy social cohesion, replacing it with envy and greed.

So we don’t cherish our musicians any more the way we should. On August 12, Feya Faku’s home in Linden was ransacked and, among much else, his trumpet and flugelhorn were stolen. They were rare, specialist instruments acquired during his trip to the US last year: made by Adams; lightweight; and gilded to accommodate a skin sensitivity the trumpeter suffers.

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This is the second attack on his creative base that the trumpeter has suffered. Last year, shortly before he recorded his sixth and latest album, Le Ngoma (Feya Faku Music), a previous home was broken into and hijacked while he was in the process of selling it. He is still trapped in the time-consuming legal maze of claiming it back from the vandals, unable to realise its value.

Le Ngoma opens with a melancholy five-minute meditation on that experience, Vandalized, which sets the tone for an album dominated by memories and memorials. The dozen original tracks also include tributes to musical and university colleague the late Zim Ngqawana (Dirge), jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin (Miss Benjamin) and reedman Ezra Ngcukana (Nyaniso) as well as Faku’s regular tribute to those other musicians who have passed, Hymn For All. There are memories of Eastern Cape childhood (Barefoot Boys – a title, though not a tune, riffing on the Abdullah Ibrahim tribute to Mongezi Feza, Barefoot Boy from Queenstown), and of the community spaces where the music was nurtured (Peddy’s Place). There are echoes of church in the hymnal Zion, and of deep tradition in the closing mouth-bow Offtake.

The album was recorded in Switzerland, with saxophonist Domenic Landolf, pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck, bassist Fabian Gisler and drummer Dominic Egli. While there has always been a lyrical, minor-key melancholy about much of Faku’s music, the tone here is darker and sadder than usual, in regrets for friends – and values – lost. Landolf’s modal excursions on the melodies abstract and concentrate the essence of the emotions; Egli’s dense textures provide atmospheric wrapping.

As for Faku’s own playing, it underlines how severe a blow the loss of those instruments is. He comes from a line of Eastern Cape jazz trumpet descent that valued speed and showmanship, and Faku certainly has the technique to let those fly when needed. But what makes his trumpet voice his own is the level of control he can bring to those helter-skelter cascades of notes, and his understanding of space and restraint. In that, those Adams horns were his perfect match: offering just the right colour and mood in their tones, and (as was visible on stage) accommodating his individual physicality as a player in their heft and feel.

Le Ngoma is a sad album, but not a depressing one. Nyaniso mourns the passing of a great player, but also captures the instinctive groove that underlaid even the most abstract of Ngcukana’s excursions. The melody of Dirge is comforting in its stark beauty, underpinned by Gisler’s sensitive bass. Barefoot Boys offers jaunty exuberance; Peddy’s Place dances with the sparkling mood of every sunny Sunday afternoon session you ever attended. The centerpiece is the title track, with Faku offering a concise little rap in English and IsiXhosa: “This music…is not just mine alone…it’s for everyone in the world. I love this music”

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