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.

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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.

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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.

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