Becoming SuperMuso – the only way to fame?

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 ), landed a couple of weeks ago.Ndu

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 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.AfrikaCD

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?


Shwabada – at last, a film about music that talks about music

I’ve been talking to director Nhlanhla Masondo on & off for close to the four years it’s taken him to create Shwabada: a film on the music of Ndikho Xaba, which premiered at the Encounters Film Festival in Johannesburg yesterday. It started at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival around 2013, where the film-maker, who cheerfully admitted he had no cash for the project, asked me how I’d researched Xaba for my book Soweto Blues, and where there might be additional archive beyond what he’d already discovered. It ended with a filmed conversation about Xaba’s music, some of which found its way into the final film. So I’m by no means a disinterested reviewer.

1280x720But still, when you hear about a planned music documentary, you never know how it’ll turn out until you see it. There are too many potential pitfalls that other films about musicians have endlessly repeated, from parades of solipsistic talking heads using the subject as an excuse to recount their own past glories, to sensation-seeking tales of messy relationships and addictions that detail everything except the music. Perhaps most shameful in the telling of South African music history is the way Kippie Moeketsi’s heritage of intelligent political nationalism, militancy, and massive talent have been consistently underplayed in favour of a few lurid tales of drunken nights.

Thankfully, Masondo’s work steers clear of those pitfalls. Intelligent, unobtrusive interviewing keeps his talking heads focused on the music and the experience of music-making with pianist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Xaba. His clear director’s focus keeps the narrative line – how Xaba became the kind of music-maker he is – clean and compelling.

One questioner at the Encounters post-show Q&A asked Masondo whether he’d considered another ‘story’: that of Xaba’s struggle with advancing age and Parkinson’s disease. The director said he hadn’t: this was a film about a musician and music – “We will all get old, get cancer, get Parkinson’s…even though I regret that I didn’t have the resources to make the film earlier, when Baba Ndikho was still playing and could recall his memories more easily…”

It was the right decision. Musicians are simply human beings like the rest of us – except for their creative vision and talent. They get old; so do we. We have intermittently messy lives; so do they. It’s the creativity, and what they do with it, that makes them more interesting than most of the rest of us are.

Masondo’s documentary begins with scenes and memories from the areas where Pietermaritzburg-born Xaba’s clergyman father was sent to minister, as well as historic images of Zulu music-making: the wellspring from which his playing and composing started. We follow him to Dorkay House in Johannesburg, into the cast of Sponono, across America, and finally back to KZN again, now in the company of his musician/poet wife Nomusa.

Masondo employs the voices of scholars and fellow-musicians as well as the memories of Xaba and Nomusa. There are images from the archive and the family album, and wonderful footage of historic concerts in Chicago and elsewhere. And despite the very variable quality of some of that old footage, it is essential to the narrative. Masondo manages the transitions between different kinds of filming beautifully, often using the music as sonic thread to sew different visual fabrics together. The existence and character of these events is something most South Africans are completely unaware of. Long before American scholars ‘discovered’ our traditions, community audiences in Chicago were digging mouth-bows and isiZulu chant married to soulful saxophone, poetry, and tabla beats. It’s farsighted music that would not sound out of place today on a stage with Tumi Mogorosi or Malcolm Jiyane and which, thanks to scholar and player Sazi Dlamini at UKZN, is finding its way back to the ears and hands of young musicians here.


What’s most interesting is the way musicians rooted in historic South African jazz and traditional music – bassist KB Maphumulo; guitarist Madala Kunene, pianist Theo Bophela – discuss both the perceived avant-garde nature of Xaba’s music, and the seamless way that any player with intelligence and a willingness to let go can take their own ideas into it.

A long time ago, percussionist Thebe Lepere discussed with UK magazine The Wire this apparent paradox: that approaches to music considered daring or unusual in the West are often simply one part of the fabric of musicking back home. There is an African avant-garde, but African communities see no point in building exclusionary genre walls around it. Said Lepere: “Initially…I found it a bit hilarious. Here were all these musicians talking and theorizing and making a big intellectual deal of this music, whereas in Africa it was a common everyday thing.”

Labels like ‘avant-garde’ or ‘difficult’ are laid on music from the outside. Often, they are linked to the conditions of musical production and reception in different societies, and to status, class and race. George Lewis, in his account of the work of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself, notes how the racial elitism attached to the term avant-garde in the US meant that musicians of colour were rarely admitted to the genre by critics – even though their music took as many risks and challenged as many conventions.

Perhaps a little more of that context – political in the broadest, not the party-political, sense – might have been illuminating.

There’s definitely another political ‘story’ in Xaba’s life. Bophela alluded to rumours he was involved in underground activities when quite young, making it clear, however, that asking such questions at the time was very uncool indeed. Footage of Xaba’s solidarity concerts in the USA show him wearing ANC T-shirts, and we know that he taught instrument-making for a time at the ANC college in Dakawa, Tanzania. But that’s a whole different movie, and certainly not this one.

Rather, what might have been underlined more strongly is that the decision to step outside the commercial music mainstream was a political and not simply an aesthetic one, and that the inclusive ways Xaba makes music and deals with others has political as much as spiritual dimensions. When I interviewed him for the radio documentary series Ubuyile in 2000, he recalled “I will never forget my experience [at the SABC Studios, with producer Michael Kittermaster, who told us] ‘Look, I don’t want you going anywhere with that tune. Just stay on that thing: kat-ting, ka-ting – that’s all I want you to do.’ That’s when I said to myself: enough is enough. I’m not going to be involved in this degenerative artistry.”

We heard some of the story of the ensuing meshing of politics and aesthetics, of a collective, community context for music-making, and of the commonalities between South African and African-American liberation politics, particularly in Nomusa Xaba’s recollections. But today, in a world where solidarity is almost outlawed by prevailing ideologies, that’s an incredibly powerful story thread that merits a slightly fuller unwinding for those who don’t know it.

Nidikho and Nomusa Xaba 

That doesn’t, however, detract from the achievements of Masondo’s film. Within a tightly disciplined frame he has managed to tell a previously untold story very well indeed. There is both beauty and power in the changing images of Xaba over the years that we see. Shwabada deserves many more showings – the next will be at DIFF – because Masondo has created a documentary space that gives full agency to the most important people in any film about music: the musicians.

SAMA 22 Jazz: let’s hear it for the big-band

The ZAR Jazz Orchestra’s SAMA win for One Night in the Sun is both welcome and long overdue. Long overdue first because bandleader/co-arranger, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt has been generating SAMA-worthy material as composer, player and arranger for more than a decade: with small groups and projects such as Language 12. All the tracks on the SAMA-winning double CD are Wyatt’s compositions or co-compositions, some with this year’s SBYA for jazz, singer/trombonist Siya Makuzeni.

ZAR Jazz Orchestra: Marcus Wyatt and Siya Makuzeni

Long overdue second because the artists the album features represent some of the best of the younger generation: Makuzeni, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti and bassist Romy Brauteseth among them.

And long overdue third because the big-band and arrangements for that format – as I noted in the sleeve notes I wrote for the album – are an essential strand in the DNA of South African jazz, from Peter Rezant and Tete Mbambisa to Chris Columbus and Chris McGregor. Yet they are comparatively rarely acknowledged in sponsorships, awards or performance opportunities.

The reasons are not hard to understand. A big-band demands adequate time to compose and arrange, a big stage, excellent sound engineering and, of course, wages for a dozen and a half players and other important role-players. (For this album, those who attended the live recording will be aware of the vital role taken by conductor and music director Janine Neethling.)

Yet big-bands matter – and not simply because they sound good. They offer challenging composing opportunities and scope to paint with a vastly enlarged palette of instrumental colours. They offer players experiences of a kind of discipline, collectivity and improvisatory context very different from the small group.

The sound, of course, is also very good indeed. Listeners can lose themselves in it as Tshepo Tsosetsi’s saxophone weaves around Makuzeni’s voice and Wyatt’s horn, becoming more and more richly immersed as contributions build to the triumphant, multilayered full ensemble polyphony of a number such as You Were There.

Because of the heavy resource demands of a big-band, some earlier, far more loudly trumpeted projects came burdened with over-elaborate agendas. They were created to frame a big name or two, or demonstrate welding disparate music genres together, or something else that would help fill the house at some high-priced casino venue or other. The agenda of One Night in the Sun was far more modest: good musicians who gel when they work together and whom fans already value as stars (but without the hype); good compositions; and a setting before a warm local audience at the accessible, decently engineered Radiopark Auditorium (thanks, SABC).

We need to remember, when we talk about ‘developing local music’, that development is not simply a matter of airplay – at whatever percentage. Development is also (and in the long run more importantly) about extending musical possibilities: growing original repertoire, the skills of musicians and the ears of listeners. One Night in the Sun scores strongly on all these counts. More projects and winners like this, please? And more airplay for the results, even outside the specialist enclaves of late-night jazz shows?