It takes much more than good music to be a successful musician these days. Players are expected to play, compose and arrange – but also to organise gigs and market their music and their personal brand.
That seems unfair: very few good musicians have the rest of the SuperMuso skillset readymade. However the demise of independent record stores, the willful ignorance of the mainstream record chains (or should that be ‘chain’?) and the unwillingness of many media to devote space to music figures unless they are half-clad, half-stoned, half-witted or all three, means it’s the reality.
The groundbreaking SuperMuso was bassist Concord Nkabinde, who grasped the need for efficient self-organisation and marketing close to a decade before anyone else. (He’s since confessed that, at times, it left him very little space or energy for the serious business of creativity.) Not everybody can, or wants to, go down that path; many players simply want to think, create and play, and know that is their strength.
Today, we’re often in awe of trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, who not only plays some magnificent sets but is still there during the intervals hawking CDs via his Pebble, and even organising memorabilia such as artwork and T-shirts alongside. Equally energetic with social media and email alerts is pianist Nduduzo Makathini, whose new CD, Inner Dimensions (Gundu http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/nduduzomakhathini6 ), landed a couple of weeks ago.
Inner Dimensions is one of two transcendentally beautiful piano CDs I’ve listened to this week. What provoked the tirade above is that the other, Afrika Mkhize’s Rain Dancer (TuneUp https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/raindancer/id1042171276) has been available since last September – but, despite its quality, has a media profile as flat as the top of Table Mountain.
Inner Dimensions first. That sees Makhathini in the company of bassist Fabien Giannone and Drummer Dominic Eggli as the Umgidi Trio, alongside the 8-member One Voice Vocal Ensemble. It’s a lean, disciplined instrumental sound, framing something we have not heard extended so fully before, his lyrical writing for voices. Though some of the tracks employ vocalese to hymn-like effect, reflecting childhood influences the pianist has long acknowledged, others – particularly Amina, with its kalimba, kora-like rippling runs and interlocking patterns from voices and keys – take Makhathini into territory closer to New Music: something we haven’t heard from him before. Amina manages to be breathtaking both for its beauty and for the tension of ‘Can he pull all this off and bring it back home?’ Which he can, and does, with a smart segue into the next track, Freedom Chants. But it’s by no means the only gorgeous experiment on the album. Makhathini has created music here that is fresh and audacious but never loses his character; the music always has that sense of roots inspiration and listening to the ground.
Rain Dancer carries no personnel details on the sleeve, which is a pity, because empathy and cooperation among the players are part of what build the sound. The album comprises nine tracks: eight originals, and a re-visioning of Bheki Mselelku’s Beauty of Sunrise – it would be an insult to call it merely a ‘cover’. But there’s more than a whiff of Mseleku’s approach on other tracks too, particularly the rolling South Coast, a theme that spirals upwards and outwards, spinning a more and more transcendent vision as it grows until the waves, planets and stars are in on the dance too. That’s how Mseleku would have handled the tune as well, I think. For me, the standout track is Xhensa, which mashes up the growling and shaking feel of a traditional Xhosa old men’s dance with other kinds of traditions held dear by the older generation, such as the bluesy improvisational swing of old-style South African jazz. It’s invidious, though, to select single tracks; it’s the album, not a few of its parts, that reflects Mkhize’s vision and pianistic technique. There’s nothing show-off about that technique either – just a feeling that anything he wants to say through the keyboard, he can.
So why has so little been written about Mkhize’s magnificent debut as leader? What’s the solution? Lobby the media to return to serious arts coverage again? Or insist all our players take time out to become SuperMusos? And how much stunning creativity would they lose, if they had to spend half their days instead on DIY marketing?