There is a moment on the 1962 Cold Castle Festival recording that sums up the cultural politics of the year. A rowdy audience receives Eric Nomvete and his Big Five (formed only days before the event, and featuring trumpet wunderkind Mongezi Feza). Into the catcalls and yells of “Come on, man – let’s go!” Nomvete’s outfit embarks on a startlingly simple series of chords that triggers a collective intake of breath. When the unmistakably Xhosa four-note pattern that anchors the number raps out, the stadium erupts. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6jetAovKbQ ) In Ndikho Xaba’s words, the music was asserting what the crowd wanted to say, less than two years after Sharpeville: “This is who we are.”
Something damn close to that happened this year at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Tumi Mogorosi’s Project ELO presented a set of sombre, gorgeous processional sounds, mingling the free textures of layered human and instrumental voices with a precise respect for musical space and silence. (“Silence is as important as sound,” Cassandra Wilson had reminded us earlier at her press conference.) Then the ten-piece thinned to five: Themba Maseko and Gabisile Motuba’s voices, Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s tenor sax, Thembinkosi Mavimbela’s bass and Mogorosi’s relentless drums for (Sometime I Feel Like a) Motherless Child. As jagged dissonance counterpointed a haunting melody, the song was transmuted into a blues for our 2016: the dislocations of poverty, racism and xenophobia; leaders erasing or laughing at their own broken promises – and people working together to create change and beauty. The crowd in a packed Rosie’s felt it, and, just as for Pondo Blues, the crowd roared.
That was the performance of the festival.
The music wasn’t necessarily “better” than the rest. Making music is not a competition with rankings, winners and losers. Transcendent moments from brilliantly accomplished artists – but reflecting very different visions and styles – were everywhere, on every stage. Mogorosi’s set, however, perfectly reflected the things that needed to be said.
The festival now showcases a majority of South African acts. That’s wholly fitting, because foreigners don’t travel to Africa to hear their own music, but to hear ours. However, if any doubters wondered whether South African jazz was strong enough to carry so much of the bill, this year provided resounding proof. The calibre of playing and composition from local artists left visiting musicians and journalists stunned. For the first time I can remember, the media interview slots for South African artists were solidly booked. Not only have South African musicians something to tell the world, but the world is now interested to listen. Events like Cape Town play no small part in that. However, there was too much going on to give a detailed hearing to it all, and my more detailed comments below focus on those acts and artists I listened to in depth, for a fair amount of time.
Some highlights must be mentioned. Two “legendary ladies of song” on Friday evening – Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka – and a third on Saturday – Vuyiswa ‘Viva’ Mbambisa – demonstrated once more that for a good singer, the experience and intelligence of maturity increase, rather than diminishing, what you can say with a song.
Pianist Nduduzo Makathini crafted a set that shimmered – sometimes literally, given the abundance of silver bells – with the spirits of the musicians it homaged, and especially Bheki Mseleku. Makhathini’s soaring keyboard runs sometimes sounded uncannily like Mseleku’s, and the lightness Mseleku so valued was also embodied in UK guest Eddie Parker’s flute. Parker took us flying in search of musical truth; the vast skill it takes to make an instrument sound that good was not employed for virtuosic display but rather as a launching pad for exploring space, sound and spirit.
Bassist Benjamin Jephtha, and pianists Thandi Ntuli, Ramon Alexander and Bokani Dyer are all well known to Cape Town audiences, having lived, studied and gigged extensively in the city. Their shows were full – in Ntuli’s case, the Molelekwa venue was barely big enough to contain her audience. None of them disappointed.
Two other veterans, guitarist Themba Mokoena and pianist/bandleader Tete Mbambisa delighted their respective crowds. Mbambisa crafted piano solos that merited a venue with better acoustics, but his Big Sound arrangements spoke powerfully both across generations and across the cavernous Kippies hall. Mokoena’s first plangent guitar notes in Rosie’s had audience thumbs urgently SMS-ing friends to come and discover this great player. “Who IS this guy?” a man sitting next to me asked. “He’s amazing.”
This year, the festival also offered more than usual ‘World Music’ – however you define what is often merely a convenient marketing category for non-Western sounds. The acts illustrated the dilemmas inherent in uniting elements of tradition with modern forms and instruments. There are two main ways. The first is accretion: add the elements together, but keep them relatively intact. For Indian writer and performer Amit Chaudhuri this approach is problematic: “ [For example], a …classical musician moonlighting with Western players: him soloing, representing some so-called immemorial tradition; them adding colour and representing the modern – neither category in itself static but becoming static in their meeting.” The second is transformation, which Chaudhuri finds in “moments of recognition…of diverse modes of contact; idiosyncratic disruptions of time, that [speak of] an ongoing process and networks of affiliation stretching in every direction.” The musical elements change in conversation with one another, creating something new.
Cape Town offered both approaches. The accretive extreme was Moroccan violinist Hicham Telmoudi’s trip around the musical styles and instruments of his country. It was, in about equal proportions, breathtaking and cheesy. Breathtaking was Telmoudi’s own violin playing – in which Andalusia was as present as Fez – and the intricately patterned conversations between multiple percussion instruments. Those latter evoked the spiritual power of the Gnawa tradition of black Moroccans, which has inspired countless Western musicians. Stuck on top, and adding the cheese, were synths and guitars reminiscent of a hotel tourist show. All the musicians were skilled, and, to be fair, many in the Molelekwa audience around me loved the cheese. But it occupied time when we could have heard more of the truly fresh, complex and intriguing music the ensemble also had to offer.
If, on the other hand, transformation and “idiosyncratic disruptions of time” are your thing (as they are mine) then Ilham Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions was also one of the performances of the weekend. In their press conference, workshop, and interviews, Ersahin’s eclectic outfit explicitly rejected the accretive approach. “Audiences hear ‘Eastern’ melodies,” said bassist Alp Ersonmez, “but that’s not what we’re doing. Sure, we have Turkish roots. They come with our genes. And we have our knowledge of Western music. What comes out is not a deliberate attempt to build a bridge between those two, but something effortless and different that happens within us and between us.” Imagine Gil Evans playing not Jimi Hendrix but Led Zeppelin, with a few darvesh mystics and Roma travellers jamming along: complex, clever, joyfully noisy music that made you want to move rather than to taxonomise the influences.
Among our own players, guitarist Derek Gripper is a much quieter transformer: re-visioning classical Malian kora music for solo guitar in a performance that commanded so much intense, respectful listening that you might have imagined Rosie’s was empty. It wasn’t. We were just bewitched.
Saxophonist Mark Turner should have been in Cape Town long ago; he has been a growing and respected force in US jazz for many years, with a distinctive playing style and composer’s approach. But he’s a musician’s musician rather than a self-promoting ‘star’ – “If you like,” he says wryly, “I’m the anti-Heroic Tenor.” In his workshop, he ceded space to multi-instrumentalist Dizu Plaatjies, clearly fascinated by the overtone sounds and overlaid patterns on display; on stage, he was very much inside the ensemble rather than leading from the front. “As a leader, I see myself as a facilitator. I write the music; I choose the musicians – and that’s enough. Sometimes, I may not even need to play to help that particular music come out …”
The audience, however, was very glad Turner did play. His current album, Lathe of Heaven, takes its title from an Ursula le Guin science fiction tale whose narrative underlines how ‘reality’ may not be as solid as you think it is, and one in which liminality, discontinuities, and lacunae in knowledge infuse the main character’s world. On the surface, Turner’s playing isn’t like that. It is a continuous, unwinding satin ribbon of sound that takes the listener on an extended journey; Turner’s sinuous lines were explicitly influenced by Warne Marsh and some of that reedman’s contemporaries. Look closer, however, and the ribbon’s surface is embossed and incised with details, and that’s where the spaces and questions happen. Yet, however modernist, tradition runs through the music’s veins. Sometimes, as trumpeter Jason Palmer takes buzzy-bee flight, facilitator Turner stands to the side of the stage, playing quiet framing choruses in precisely the way a whole horn line might have in one of those 1940s big bands. It’s cerebral music with only a few heads you might leave whistling. But the complexity makes you smile rather than frown in concentration, with passages of speed-merchant exhilaration (especially from Palmer, who for some reason kept reminding me of Mongs) and a sly wit – for example in the song title It’s Not All Right With Me. Our Poet Laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, once described Johnny Dyani’s playing thus: “a harmattan of colours/becomes an area of feeling/ where a rainbow of feathers/ peoples all space.” Mark Turner’s whirling, finely crafted details do that too.
Cassandra Wilson’s leaner Cape Town outfit still retained the edgy feel that made Coming Forth By Day such a startlingly fresh homage to Billie Holiday. Though Wilson showcased more of Holiday’s lyrical material (Moonlight, Crazy He Calls Me, You Go To My Head; there was no Strange Fruit), her consummate storytelling provided a knowing interrogation of genre, lyric and social context. Rarely has All of Me come across more savagely as an attack on a consuming relationship: “You took the best/So why not take the rest?” Unexpected delights were appearances by Capetonian Tony Cedras on accordion and bow, and violinist Charles Burnham (who as well as being a Wilson regular has worked across genres, from the String Trio of New York to James ‘Blood’ Ulmer). The stage lights struck sparks of blue electric fire off Burnham’s instrument, just as his notes struck fire in the music. The whole performance was an object lesson – at a festival where assertive female soul voices were prominent – about the importance of a singer’s intelligence and command of timing and phrasing, rather than her volume.
As an audience experience, the event, as always, worked pretty well. Tight timekeeping avoided slippage, so that it really was possible to dovetail visits to different gigs. The simple act of roping off areas around escalator exits avoided the dangerous logjams that bedevil Joy of Jazz. Frustrating clashes between acts that might appeal to similar audiences also served a more positive purpose: they helped to avoid stampedes.
The Kippie’s acoustic is as woolly, echoey and painful as ever; that’s a problem it seems impossible to solve. Surprisingly, on the first night Rosie’s didn’t sound quite as perfect as usual – but whatever the problem was, it had largely been solved by the second. Some audience members still treat the Molelekwa hall as a pub, yattering, phoning and selfie-ing their way even through performances shaped for careful listening – which may be great for their experience, but is highly oppressive for the rest of us, as well as disrespectful to artists.
None of the record stalls carried a full selection of current product. You could buy any Cassandra Wilson album – except Coming Forth By Day. Lathe of Heaven was equally invisible; so was much more. This may be a supply problem rather than the responsibility of festival or stallholders, but it is frustrating for would-be buyers, and downright stupid in business terms.
I’ll be back next year. And I won’t stop hoping or lobbying for Vijay Iyer…