Win a free CD and capture some steelpan and kora magic

“You should never just keep on delivering a product that’s working,” steelpan player Dave Reynolds asserts. But the problem with audiences is we often want to keep musicians in little boxes shaped by familiarity.

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Dave Reynolds

Probably South Africa’s worst example was Sakhile. The group had created a substantial fan-base, which was wonderful for gigs and record sales, but eventually came to be a straitjacket on the imaginations of principals Khaya Mahlangu and the late Sipho Gumede. Every time one of them tried to break free to pursue a new musical direction, commentators (and many fans) would present this as an issue of “fault” or “ego” – instead of acknowledging that it’s the player him or herself who is best-placed to decide when a new path or new partners are needed, and that isn’t a matter of ego, but of creativity.

But it should be refreshing – good news not bad – when musicians grasp the freedom to bring something new to what we know them best for. The results often surpass expectations.

Take multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, for example. For a long time, the CD-buying public has known him best for explorations of Khoisan sounds, often with infusions of digital mixing. But Mohamed had at least two musical identities before that: first, as an inspired crafter of pop hits (something we were reminded of recently when Matsuli Music reissued Night Express on vinyl: https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/night-express-2 ); second, as a spiritual kora improviser in the company of jazzmen such as Bruce Cassidy in many live performances and on the astoundingly beautiful 1997 duo album, Timeless. That was a decade ago, and we have not heard anything quite like it from him since.

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Or take Reynolds. Before he moved to Cape Town, Reynolds’ gigs in Johannesburg were often convivial affairs, memorable for infectiously danceable African rhythms, in the company of players such as guitarist Louis Mhlanga. Then, in 2014, he released The Light of Day, which still had some of that character but was also richly infused with what he called “ambient, meditational moments.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that musical fate has brought Reynolds and Mohamed together over the past five years; a partnership they have benchmarked with this year’s SAMA-nominated album Live in Grahamstown (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davereynolds1 ). “We’re both committed to a South African musical identity,” Reynolds says, “but we also both have ears and souls that search other African sounds – and we both play instruments that we weren’t born to – Trinidadian pans and Senegambian kora – but were rather called to.”

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Tony Cedras

They are joined by other musical travelers and explorers, Tony Cedras on accordion, drummer Frank Paco, and bassist Sylvain Baloubeta. It’s in no sense a solo project, “ Reynolds explains. “It’s a process of sharing to which we invite other distinctive contributors. We’ve got a particular interest in creative bass players – Sylvain is certainly one of those. And Tony is just super-talented: having him up on stage was a big moment for me.”

The result is an album that both reminds us of the improvising kora master Mohamed of Timeless and the Reynolds of those good-time Joburg jols – and offers several things we haven’t heard before: new tunes, and new sonic textures and synergies, particularly in the way pans and kora play off against that husky-voiced accordion. The playing is skilful and empathetic, and the recording draws listeners into the absorbing atmosphere of a live gig: “We’re taking people on an emotional, stylistic and instrumental journey,” says Reynolds.

The set also reminded me, irresistibly, of the quality that Tananas used to bring to their music: deceptively straightforward, hummable, almost folk-style, melodies that nevertheless serve as vehicles for some very sophisticated, adventurous improvisation. Mohamed is not a ‘classical’ kora player: he’s equally adept at giving the instrument the voice of mbaqanga. Reynolds is explicit about shunning the standard steelpan repertoire of what he calls “ditties” played straight, in favour of jazz improvisation. Cedras makes his accordion literally sing: rhythmic, celebratory and sad by turns.

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  • Now Reynolds is offering readers of this column the chance to be ahead of the SAMA curve and win a free copy of Live at Grahamstown. If you think you can sum up what South African music means to you in THREE WORDS ONLY. Don’t write to me: click this link http://eepurl.com/cPvdtf

complete your answer and details on the form there – and keep your fingers crossed.

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At the SAMAs 2017, ‘best’ means very little

It’s that time of year again. On May 26, the South African Music Awards will be presented, amid the usual display of conspicuously ugly consumption and conspicuous musical ignorance. There is now only one jazz award, and it receives scant publicity; it’s a sideshow as the latest flash-in-the-pan rapper takes centre stage.

Together with a situation where many jazz ensembles self-release, that’s had a positive impact. Now they are no longer seen by big labels as a springboard for major sales, jazz nominations and awards have been going to artists actually working and respected within the genre, rather than to assiduously promoted but far more nebulous talents.

However, the task for selectors and judges becomes harder – without catalogues, how does even the most enthusiastic appreciator keep up with the multiple small releases appearing across the country?

This year’s nominees are a rather more eclectic selection than those of 2016.

davereynolds1_largeUnsurprisingly, Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede features (as it does in other categories): a thoughtful selection of South African jazz standards, with a sterling jazz rhythm section in the formidable persons of drummer Ayanda Sikade, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. That last artist also appears in his own right, for the album Inner Dimensions with Umgidi and One Voice. Steelpan player Dave Reynolds and veteran multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed are listed for Live in Grahamstown.

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Completing the list are trumpeters Sydney Mavundla for Luhambo, and Darren English for Imagine Nation. Luhambo is perhaps the most straight down the middle South African jazz album in the selection in terms of its musical language, and Mavundla is an under-recognised player who honed his now formidable chops playing with every ensemble in town before assembling his own. The album demonstrates strong compositional talents too (and an unexpected singing voice reminiscent of Victor Ntoni) in the company of a committed ensemble including pianist Afrika Mkhize, drummer Peter Auret, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, reedman Sisonke Xonti and Swiss trombonist Andreas Tschopp.

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Tschopp’s presence on that album, as well as the all-American ensemble working with English raise another question: how “South African” (and in what sense) does an album have to be to qualify and win? Now that the quality of South African players takes them into all kinds of distinguished playing company across the world, is it not possible to acknowledge that at the SAMAs too?

There are precedents: in 2010 Adam Glasser’s Mzansi took a SAMA with an ensemble featuring both UK and South African players and Glasser himself, while SA-born, is London-based. Given that precedent, it’s surprising, for example, that the stunning (Swiss/South African, but majority SA) Skyjack album has not featured on any lists. The most perfect exposition of South African jazz composing I’ve heard this year came on McCoy Mrubata’s Live at the Bird’s Eye  – an archive recording with majority Swiss players, but an incandescently South African vision. The voices of our younger talents have never spoken more vividly together than on British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ Wisdom of the Ancestors, on which he is the only non-South African player.

There are other albums I’d have liked to have seen on the 2017 list. The omission of Siya Makuzeni’s sextet outing Out of this World is inexplicable – if the reason was the absence of hardcopy product (it’s currently only available as download) that speaks of a dinosaur attitude to the way the recording industry works today. It’s possible Lwanda Gogwana’s Uhadi Synth, and Gabisile Motuba’s Sanctum Sanctorium appeared too late for the entry cut-off, but if not, their absence is equally surprising. And I’d have picked Makathini’s Matunda ya Kwanza over Inner Dimensions – but that’s just an issue of personal taste.

Taste, of course, is why compiling lists is very different from picking “winners”. Playing jazz is not a zero sum game, and both the genre definition itself and the meaning of “best” are moot. Each of the musicians represented has their own story to tell; each story is different from, not better than, the others. If the SAMA list suggests a few new picks to jazz record buyers, it won’t have been in vain, even as it continues to tell us absolutely nothing about which player is “best”, or what in the jazz world that word might mean.

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Perfection: Allen, Murray, Carrington

Other news that seems to have gone largely un-noticed recently has been the announcement of the line-up for the Johannesburg Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival at the end of September. This year, it is a significantly more conservative programme than March’s CTIJF offered, packed with reliably bankable names that will certainly (and deservedly) attract audiences, even though we’ve seen them before. Established South African stars include Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Selaelo Selota, Tshepo Tshola and Caiphus Semenya, Thandiswa Mazwai and Tutu Puoane – but also vocalist Zoe Modiga whose recent debut album suggests a very interesting singer/composer on the rise, and Standard Bank Young Artist bassist Benjamin Jephta.  Stalwarts of the European scene include French vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou and Dutch pianist Peter Beets. From America come singer Nnenna Freelon, Ramsay Lewis and Roy Ayers, bassist Christian McBride, reedmen Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis, the Clayton Brothers – and, perhaps most exciting in the wake of their superb recording Perfection, the power trio of David Murray, Geri Allen and Terri-Lyne Carrington.

 

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Finally, congratulations to trumpeter Etuk Obong, whose playing takes him between South Africa and Nigeria (as well as outside the African continent) who has just been awarded a place and a scholarship to further his music studies at Berklee!