The image of Cape Town and its music is very different from the reality.
The image is infested by a myriad stereotypes constantly recurring on postcards and album covers: merry, gap-toothed klopse players with banjos stepping out to a goema beat; the mountain and the sea; the giant, seminal shadows of Abdullah Ibrahim at the keyboard and Basil Coetzee on sax; the call to prayer; the tragic clearance of District Six; the brightly-painted plasterwork of the Bo-Kaap.
The reality encompasses all these, but a great deal more as well. The Western Cape coast was an ancient place of Khoisan settlement, central to the spirituality of those communities before ever the Cape Coast was on the horizon for European colonisers. The first full shipment of slaves offloaded at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company in 1658 comprised 174 captives from Angola. Slaves and political prisoners came from Madagascar, Java and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as well as Mozambicans destined to be shipped onwards to Brazil. Xhosa-speaking peoples were forced westwards by the British during the Third Frontier War. Seaports are by definition cosmopolitan places, but Cape Town’s cosmopolitanism was shaded by tragedy, displacement, and force long before the apartheid authorities razed District Six in 1966.
All those heritages – Asian, Khoisan, Xhosa, West and East African, and European – are reflected in the sounds of the city’s music, along with the ever-present rolling sea, and an emotional legacy that can shift from carnival to sadness as fast as you can spin on a tickey.
The result is both surprising and successful. Loven writes magically catchy tunes (the opener, Good News, is a positive earworm) that reflect both joy and melancholy. He’s a pianist with more than a little blues in his fingertips who doesn’t try to remind us of any of the classic Cape piano voices: rather, he brings who he is to the music.
We do get one number that offers a full-on goema beat, Inside District Six, but what makes the album most convincing in conjuring up the Cape is something more than that obvious marker of place: it’s the range of sounds and textures we hear on every number. On Roots, Loven reminds us that the piano is a thing of strings and hammers as well as keys and that there are Eastern as well as Western scales. African Piano explores the feel of classic 1970s South African jazz and pan-African multiple patterning. In a spine-chilling moment at the end, Wells’s saxophone harmonics reach back far beyond that history, to the overtone singing of the Xhosa-speaking peoples and the bow music of the Khoi and San.
The playing is superb. Each player is thoughtful and empathetic, constantly creating space for the others and the melodies to breathe, and that feeling of clear light and space, perhaps, provides the Northern accent in the music. Benny can lay down a tight goema pattern (Inside District Six) or push an intense melody forward (The Boiler) without ever over-acting the parts: on this outing, nuance and subtlety are his middle names. And Brauteseth gets a lot of room here to demonstrate who she is, with some marvelously solemn and sonorous work on Roots and some solos that sing on both strings and voice. Wells, as usual, judges his contributions perfectly for the mood of the numbers, recalling the emotional power of both Mankunku and Robbie Jansen, filtered through his own contemplative restraint.
“Do you think a Norwegian can play goema?” Loven asked me in correspondence about the album. Well, yes – but more than that, District Six captures the feel and sonic textures of Cape Town in a way that’s both personal to the composer and instantly recognizable to the listener.