Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde and the death of the South African music press

Stats for this blog tell me that far fewer of you read the album reviews than anything else I write. So why do I keep on reviewing? Because there has to be a record…

Single narratives are dangerous. If standing over the stinking Bell Pottinger sinkhole observing the pathetic parade of ostensibly smart people snorting their poison has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that.

So the Gadarene rush of the South African press towards one narrative about music shouldn’t just depress us, as it has been doing for a while. It should seriously worry us. The Saturday Star 48 Hours finally jumped over that cliff last weekend, with a brash, shallow ‘lifestyle’ supplement replacing an already diminished, one-size-fits-all, syndicated copy-dominated, insert. M&G Friday and City Press #Trending survive. Both are now significantly smaller than they used to be, with many potential stories and some whole arts genres losing out every week, and consumer information fighting discourse and debate for space and often winning. Some dauntless radio DJs struggle on.

But the implicit narrative that’s coming to dominate is that music is a disposable fashion commodity (just like the couch on the decorator pages) with no ideas behind it, that players and composers have nothing to tell us (as they do not, when hurriedly interviewed by overworked, non-specialist reporters), and that South African jazz is virtually extinct. All this at a time when there have rarely been so many young, creative players generating riveting music.

The glib answer is that the other stuff happens online these days. The truth is, it doesn’t.

sisonk portrait
Sisonke Xonti

If you’re already a fan of, say, saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, you’ll know there’s an Iyonde album out, and follow it on Sisonke’s FB page. You’ll find more gig information than ideas and analysis; if we still had a music press, Sisonke would be posting links to interviews and reviews. We don’t, so he can’t do much of that. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t live in Joburg or Cape Town, aren’t on a club mailer, don’t use your data budget for random browsing, don’t even have a data budget – you’ll never know him.

Google can be unhelpful if you’re not a good searcher – and, even if you are, for much information about African and South African culture, history and people that simply never gets into the aether. Your arena of knowledge and choice is narrowed to what you already know. The voices of artists with something to say are silenced for your ears.

In a thoughtful reflection published earlier this year ( ), Oyama Mabandla reminded us that, even without words, music talks politics: it urges us towards humanity and ethics, hope, and the potential of people working together to create beauty. And that, too, in these days of betrayal, is why I continue to review.

Let’s start with Iyonde ( ), since it has already been invoked. Xonti’s parents apparently hoped he’d be a lawyer, but the music bug that had bitten him long before his teens (he started on recorder) wouldn’t let go. Starting out with Ezra Ngcukana and George Werner’s youth project, the Little Giants, and the Standard Bank youth jazz big-band, he qualified in classical saxophone through UNISA. His touring apprenticeship came with the Jimmy Dludlu band. Those names – the late Ngcukana, Werner and Dludlu – get far too little credit for the multiple jazz careers they got started. Now 28, with five years’ professional playing – with everybody from Lira and Hugh Masekela to Siya Makuzeni, as well as his own formations – he launched the Iyonde recording in April of this year.

The ten-track, all-original album features the usual suspects of the young Cape Town jazz scene: pianist Bokani Dyer; guitarist Keenan Ahrends; bassist Shane Cooper; drummer Marlon Witbooi, poet Dumza Maswana and vocalist Spha Mdlalose. In that city, there’s been a great deal of recent interest in the compositional approach of Bheki Mseleku, both scholarly and performance. The language of this album, with arrangements that spiral and soar outwards from initially simple motifs, and voice layered as an instrumental texture, will be both accessible and attractive for anyone who enjoyed, for example, Celebration. Both Xonti and Dyer, however, remain very much their own players.

Spha Mdlalose

Xonti has a full, rounded sound on saxophone – think a texture not unlike Duke Makasi – that manages to stay warm even on the spikiest solo. He’s never quite as spiky here, however, as he can sound with, for example, Makuzeni. Instead, we get a collection dominated by the kind of thoughtful lyricism that also suits the solo styles of Ahrends and Cooper. What shapes the Iyonde sound are the wonderfully seamless handovers between instruments, which render differences in texture and idiom between, say, bass and guitar (on Short-Lived Pt 1) or voice and reed (on Is this Goodbye?) irrelevant and create a feel wholly different from that old, head-solo-solo, formulaic ‘jazz’ process. Tightly empathetic headspace between the players speaks not just of work together, but also of a shared vision. That’s beautifully apparent, too, on Introspection – which, despite its title, is a sprightly piece of South African hard-bop modernism, with much harder-edged soloing. Perhaps the ‘catchiest’ number – and that should not be the only criterion, but it does help listeners remember an album – is Mdlalose’s song Is This Goodbye?( ) – certainly a track that merits airplay beyond the jazz slots, and one that displays the singer’s intelligent approach to lyrics as well as notes. Given the drought in media space for artists’ ideas, the album needs stronger sleeve-notes to introduce the tracks (at present, there are only thanks and credits), but that’s a minor carp. Overall, it’s an impressive and engaging recorded debut that more people should know about.

In coming weeks, alongside the usual reflections on current jazz news, there will be long-overdue reviews for Mandla Mlangeni’s TRC; guitarist Sibusile Xaba; the Keenan Ahrends Trio; Salim Washington’s Sankofa; Zoe Modiga; UK-based pianist Renee Reznek; the Indian-South African Insurrections project and anything else new I can lay my hands on. Because there has to be a record.

13 thoughts on “Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde and the death of the South African music press

  1. Please don’t stop reviewing. As a revered jazz commentator, your blog, your opinions and your knowledge are such a pleasure to read and matter. Don’t pay attention to the stats!


  2. Hi Sis Gwen, I too have felt the frustration of writing for a very limited audience, a handful of people actually read what we write so passionately about. But I too write and co-write ( I also post the writing of other people I relate to) on my blogs
    Our work is not popular but it remains crucial that a record is made of such Soul stirring moments, linking the personal, social, socio-political and sheer appreciation of the Art of Music and all art in general. What we do will be required by many generations in due time.


  3. Eish on point once again SisG – us music lovers are under attack as usual. Despite the increased availability of the sounds we smaak, there are less and less spaces for the writing and the love thereof. We’ve a crop of hot creatives who are producing amazing work, but it seems to be only their peers appreciating this output.Despite diminishing numbers of patrons, there was lots of evidence at Jazztown at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, of the sustainability of the music. The educational aspect is very evident and the kids were loving and lapping it all up. Couldn’t understand why the organizers included bands like ‘Goodluck’ and ‘Jimmy Nevis’ as part of the jazz programme. I mean I can see the need to sell more tickets and putting more bums on seats; but to turn down a group of the calibre of Tete Mbambisa, Barney Rachabane and three English musicians who all have track record of playing and recording with South Africans abroad, who are all educators as well, is simply baffling and bizarre. I saw and heard Sisonke in various settings at the Grahamstown Fest last week and also felt he had absorbed some of Duku Makasi’s full-bodied and well-rounded tone and that effortless phrasing that Duke made sound so easy. Gonna have to get my hands on a copy of his album soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Sis Gwen. We cannot thank you enough for your work and insights in this blog, including the album reviews. They are an immense and often unique source of information, analysis and critique for many SA jazz record releases . Kindest regards

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Indeed, Sis Gwen, your work does not go unnoticed, there are some of us aspiring writers who look up and to people like yourself for direction and guidance …I also reblog some of your posts on my own blogs


  6. Sis Gwen, Please never stop reviewing. Your blog and reviews have made an indelible mark in my life. You have introduced me to several artistes and albums I might never have found during my short visits to Mzansi. In the process, my listening pleasure have been greatly enriched.
    Thank you for your labour of love.


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