Vuma Levin’s guitar frames challenging ideas

VumaMuch has been written about guitarist Vuma Levin’s quintet album The Spectacle of An-Other ( ), and the leader himself has been articulate about its meaning and motivation. Recorded in Europe, with a group also including reedman Bernard van Rossum, pianist Xavi Torres Vincente, bassist Marco Zenini and drummer Jeroen Batterink, it’s an exploration of identity, transformation, hybridity and liminality.

“These go hand in hand: nuancing African identity and empowering marginalized histories. It is a contradiction because on the one hand, you’re saying there’s no such thing as traditional African-ness, and on the other hand, there IS such a thing and we need to empower that. It’s a necessary contradiction to draw in…” he told Cape Town’s All Jazz Radio ( ).

The contradictions, he declares, were embodied in his experience long before they found their way into the music. Born in Swaziland to an exiled South African Jewish father and a Swazi mother, he grew up in a South Africa trying simultaneously to shake off the legacy of apartheid and grow a new, more inclusive identity: a complex, nuanced process full of recursions. His musical foundations were laid by his family’s catholic radio tastes, by Sacred Heart College; the National Youth Jazz Band; Johnny Fourie at the Tshwane University of Technology, and then conservatoire in the Netherlands. There, he encountered some of the kinds of expectations that inspired the album: that ‘revisiting his African-ness’ would neatly fit a set of almost pre-defined musical characteristics and presentations.

All that, Levin expounds far more articulately than I can paraphrase, to say nothing of some analytical album sleeve notes from Lewis Gordon.

But after the exegesis, what does the music sound like?

It’s a gentle, thoughtful excursion, nothing like as intimidating as the verbal warm-up might suggest. That is where its cleverness lies – because Levin manages to deliver, low-key and unassuming, precisely what he promises . The second of eight tracks, On The Frontier, for example, opens on one of our most hard-fought geographical frontiers in the settler advance: the Eastern Cape, with a melody that might have been penned by Zim Ngqawana. That spatial fixedness doesn’t last. Van Rossum’s saxophone explores across and between other frontiers: modern jazz; European Art music – and modern South African jazz, which has for a long time now spoken a language that may be unexpected for European conservatoire professors.

Given the music-education pedigree of the players, the calibre of the playing is unsurprisingly high. Perhaps less predictable is the fluidity with which the whole ensemble, with roots in various European countries, crosses communicative and headspace frontiers to work as a tight creative unit. That doesn’t always happen: the South African jazz idiom can harbour puzzles for newcomers. The late Joe Sample once told me how confused The Crusaders became when first working with Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya. In those apparently simple, catchy, almost pop tunes “at first, none of us could work out where one was!” he recalled.

There’s one of those catchy numbers on Levin’s album too: In the Interregnum signals with popcorn guitar and classic I:IV:V chords that it intends to head into mbaqanga territory, before negotiating joyfully between the traded phrases of classic South African jazz, and some modal inspirations from otherwhere . And Levin is a generous leader: for the first four tracks we hear rather more of his bandmates than of his guitar, although his voice is always very present as composer.

As a composer he has a neat musicological perspective on the history. By way of brief moments – a memory of a mood here; a taste of a texture there – he has crafted an album that references extensively the jazz lexicon developing in the ongoing process of our liberation: from the 1990s to now; from Rockey Street to The Orbit to..?

The Spectacle of An-Other demands listening time, but rewards it too; with skilled playing and some truly lovely melodies (like the closer, For Feya) with an ear-worm-like capacity for insinuating themselves into your memory.

Bokani Dyer’s music opens gates to the world

There’s something compelling about pianist/composer Bokani Dyer’s latest album, World Music (Dyertribe). Since it arrived, it has been in my player more often than any other.


Perhaps it’s because every re-playing reveals something fresh. The title throws down a challenge, but also accepts it. Instead of settling into a genre long abused as the marketer’s catch-all for anything not American, Dyer’s re-purposing, as he explains online ( ), stakes out a space for “anti-genre” music. The dozen tracks refuse to settle comfortably in any category.

The opener, Waiting, Falling, came to him after he’d been engaging with Bach, and there is something fugal about the way the quiet, contemplative theme becomes a braid of interweaving parts. The track that follows, Vuvuzela, employs John Hassan’s percussion and voice to take us into a joyous southern celebration that is not precisely African or Latin, or Caribbean, but owes something to the textures of all those musical sites. The ability to create a syncretic Southern rhythmic feel that sounds fresh rather than patchworked has long been Hassan’s strength, and Dyer’s composition gives him a joyful jumping-off point.

There’s more: neat writing for horns – in classic big-band style on Keynote, and with more African syncopation on Master of Ceremony – that allows Justin Bellairs and Buddy Wells to stretch out; stealthy, electric Miles-style, trumpet stepping (from Robin Fassie Kock) on Recess; a processional Sotho hymn rolling along magisterially under Keenan Ahrends’ guitar on Motho wa Modimo ( ).

Yet none of the tracks stays neatly with the feel announced in its opening bars. Constant transformations and transmutations take each tune into new stylistic and textural spaces before bringing it back home. The word “open” recurs frequently in the pianist’s discussions of this album ( ) and fortunately, Dyer’s team can not only follow through the gateways where he leads, but strike out in explorations of their own. Rhythm team bassist Shane Cooper (with whom Dyer has worked in Card on Spokes) and drummer Marlon Witbooi provide both rock-solid support and edgy original ideas; the voices of Hassan, Sakhile Moleshe and Lee-Ann Fortuin enrich the textures and take flight on the notes.

Bokani Dyer
Bokani Dyer

As for Dyer, his playing here is easy, thoughtful, intricate – and sometimes, especially on synthesizer, downright fun. As composer, he has created some very catchy, appealing melodic themes, so that while World Music is certainly music for ‘jazz’ fans – the skill and stretch of the improvisation ensures that – it ought to reach much further. The memory that kept nudging me was of the late Moses Molelekwa. Had he lived so long, he’d surely have appreciated this album, and recognized it as a conceptual cousin of his own work.

“Dying” theatre and “lacklustre” jazz festivals – it’s all opinion, right?

Two incidents this week, plus the wave of interesting entries we’ve received for the SA Arts Journalism Awards – whose judging panel I chair – made me think about how newspapers use their arts journalists.

First, there was Theatregate in last weekend’s Saturday Star. 48 Hours writer Tat Wolfen published a full-page story about the alleged decline of South African theatre. Illustrated with a gloomy photograph of the long-closed Alhambra, it was filled with un-researched generalisations as broad as a four-lane freeway: most viciously, an attack on a younger generation condemned in its entirety as ignorant and consumerist… If the phrases “these people” and “this bloody government” were not explicitly uttered, their apoplectic sentiments nevertheless suffused the page. A hyperbolic street placard – “SA theatre in crisis” – compounded the ill-founded alarmism.

The piece was an elegy for some mythical good old theatrical days from a writer apparently unaware of what is really happening in theatre today, and where it is happening. Community, mixed-media, improvised and more kinds of theatrical performance, alongside original new plays, regularly attract engaged, diverse young (and older) audiences to non-conventional venues – such as Maboneng – across the city, as well as to places such as Wits Theatre, the Market and the Soweto Theatre. If certain performances are not filling seats as they used to, the reasons are rather that:

  • New audiences have little patience with endless resurrections of moribund musical comedies – and who can blame them?
  • As for audiences still hankering after the all-singing, all-dancing, walking theatrical dead, glitzy, out-of-town casino venues have sucked their disposable income out of the city, something that has also impacted harshly on the mainstream end of the live music scene.

Change happens; get used to it. It is not the same as decline.

In part two  of his article, yesterday, Wolfen expressed wounded indignation at the criticism his piece received. But surely it was written as a provocation? There could be no other reason for such ill-informed rhetoric. And even so, doesn’t any arts writer – and more so the newspaper that employs him – have a responsibility to research and get the facts right, even if the ensuing comment flies randomly free? The impact of such a story, run so prominently, could be to deter potential theatre-goers and investors, intensifying the very trend it purports to decry.

That isn’t an argument for censoring Wolfen though. Rather, it is a complaint about how much of the mainstream media have all but washed their hands of responsible arts reporting. Sometimes, the arts reporting space is filled by a critic when what the story needs is a trained journalist with the skills to investigate and report – while the media house remains wholly ignorant of the distinction. Otherwise, a hapless general reporter is handed arts assignments with no training and no assessment of his or her specialist knowledge.

That’s what the eThekwini Jazz Appreciation Society seems to believe happened in the Sowetan’s coverage of last weekend’s Joy of Jazz festival. Their treasurer has sent a long ‘open letter’ to the paper, bemoaning writer Patience Bambalele’s characterization of the event as having a “lacklustre” line-up and a “lukewarm” atmosphere.

I’m inclined to agree with Bambalele about the atmosphere, though as I said last week, I think that’s more a reflection of the Convention Centre space than of the line-up. I disagree with her about that; while there were many over-familiar names, there was more than usual that was fresh and genuinely exciting. Such diversity of views about an event are an important part of the arts debate.

What is really disturbing about the ‘open letter’, however, is the route by which it found its way to me. It was distributed by Khanya: the PR agency for Joy of Jazz.

One of the more important roles of the media is to open up debates. Journalists like Wolfen and Bambalele both have the right to express their judgments. Readers have the right to respond. Newspapers, indeed, have a duty to offer the right of response where there is convincing evidence that a subject of some reporting has been misrepresented.

But it is a little disturbing when a news subject apparently orchestrates an attack on a journalist’s work, rather than simply replying in its own right.

Joe Bloggs sells fried chicken. A food journalist describes it as “lukewarm and soggy”. The aggrieved Mr Bloggs responds indignantly – but then he would, wouldn’t he? We’d take seriously feedback disagreeing with the journalist and praising the chicken if it arrived spontaneously from members of the public. But if it was written by sock-puppets and forwarded by Bloggs, via his PR agency? Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

The open letter casting aspersions on Bambalele’s work has two recommendations. The first is to employ more specialist journalists. Few would disagree with that – except the media house bean-counters who control payments to specialist writers. The second is to write more previews “in the leadup to the festival.”

That is a proposal that serves promoters and organisers far better than it serves the public. Advertisers and promoters love previews. It’s hard to write a preview that does not function as unpaid advertising – until the event has happened, no-one knows what will go wrong. Editors like them too, in the mistaken assumption that reviews of past shows are ‘old news’ and thus uninteresting to readers. Those readers (for whom reviews genuinely help to scratch the FOMO itch) are rarely consulted.

I’d certainly like to see more informed arts journalism from specialist writers in the papers I read. I enjoy reading considered reviews and detest the puffery of many previews. I’d love to see more real journalism about the arts, rather than opinionated thumb-suck. But more than any of those, I want to see the media guarding its freedom of expression – even when it annoys me.