Heritage Day – a time to improvise as Kinsmen do

Happy Heritage Day – or, as capitalist Big Food has renamed it, National Braai Day.


Evidently, some South Africans are so terrified of engaging with how we differ, and bring different things from our backgrounds and experiences to today, that they’d rather risk death from overdoses of carcinogenic charred meat, alcohol, salt, and high fructose corn syrup. It’s a complete lowest common denominator cop-out: the fact that whole human race has, at some point in its evolution, consumed food cooked over an open fire, is trivial.

So it’s refreshing to have music to discuss today that engages thoughtfully and intelligently with heritage, as well as being a really cool listen. It’s even better when the release introduces musicians who are not the usual suspects.

Kinsmen photo
Kinsmen (from left) Dawjee, Sodha, Pillay

Water, the longest track on trio Kinsmen’s debut release, Window To The Ashram (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/kinsmen ) starts with soft solo notes dropped from Muhammad Dawjee’s saxophone. Shailesh Pillay’s tabla and Dhruv Sodha’s sitar join in, and the sound grows. The strands weave together into a full, complete melody, surging forward and buoying the listener’s spirit. It’s like raindrops trickling into rivulets that unite to form a strong, flowing river. Somebody who doesn’t know the group might be tempted to take those sonic cues of structure and instrumentation, plus the musicians’ names, nod knowingly, and say: “Ah, Mother Ganges…”

But water flows like that in every country – and such an easy, stereotyped label is about as far away as you can get from the intention of Kinsmen’s music.

“We have to start with the Indian-ness we have now,” asserts Dawjee. “And that’s a South African experience.”

All three players grew up in Laudium in Pretoria (see the Laudium video on their FB page at https://www.facebook.com/kinsmen.art/ ), and parental aspirations played an important part in how they related to music. Dawjee’s father was an enthusiastic amateur saxophonist (“He used to play on the balcony…as a kid, I was taken by the sound – it reminded me of elephants!”) By the age of six, he had started handling the instrument and demanding lessons. But his music teacher deemed him too small for a sax, so he started on clarinet, only later moving to the larger instrument. He was intrigued, too, by the sound of the sitar on his father’s Ravi Shankar album. Dawjee’s family however did not see music as a profession, so he trained as an architect, getting, he confesses, “terribly out of practice” on his horn during that time of intensive study.

Sodha’s family had enthusiasm for the idea “of playing in temple” and so he began lessons on tabla and then flute. His teacher had a sitar too “and I got fascinated by the sound of the instrument in Bollywood movies. The Internet too – at that time there were about two Google sitar videos and I played them over and over!” Sodha liked the idea that the sitar had no equivalents among Western instruments. Eventually he began taking two-month trips to India to develop his skills. “It demands commitment. If you stop for even a few weeks the grooves on your fingers disappear.”

Today, he remains influenced by classical Indian vocal music: “the sitar is always aspiring towards voice.”

For Pillay, “My folks tried to help us to do things they hadn’t been able to do.” His early music education gave him a general background in Indian classical music; only as he grew did the tabla “become really something for me.” By training, he’s an actuary, and he ruefully concedes that yes, he can perceive links between intricately counted rhythms and those actuarial numbers – “as well as,” (he rolls his eyes), “having to be the band’s financial manager!” Today, his drum listening is broader: he says he’s “mesmerised” by Sikh rhythm styles played on the jori drums.

The three established their musical collaboration via friends of friends. “We initially thought it would be a nice hobby”, says Pillay. “Yes,” adds Dawjee, “we never expected to have this. Then, about a year ago, something just clicked in our music.”

A conversation with Kinsmen is often like that: they complete one another’s sentences without any jockeying for dominant voice, and that’s apparent in the playing too. “We bring plans and preconceptions to rehearsals,” says Pillay, “but the emotions of playing together change everything…I can start a 7-beat and the others pick up on it: it’s not the melodic instruments that must always lead.” Adds Dawjee: “We workshop ideas and they’re mostly joint compositions. It never matters who brought the original idea – it couldn’t have gone where it did without the collective.”

For Kinsmen, the formulaic, Orientalised way Indian classical music is packaged for South African audiences is a concern. The three describe what they see in press releases: “exotic,” “unattainable discipline”, “ancient craft”. “I get frustrated ,” says Dawjee. “As a person of Indian descent in South Africa, I can relate to the music’s virtuosity, but not to all that.

“I was struck by what [saxophonist] Shabaka Hutchings was doing as a British person of African Caribbean decent, coming here to South Africa, exploring roots with a real openness about how he could attach to them. For me, that’s one thing that drove the cause of Kinsmen. Because those concerts don’t necessarily offer younger audiences something they can relate to. We’re South Africans now.” Adds Pillay: “Even though our training allows us to understand the music, the environment of those concerts is everything we’re not.” “Finding our identity,” sums up Sodha, “is central to Kinsmen.”

Much of that searching is expressed in the album’s opening track, The Calling. Sodha explains: “It’s one of the first pieces we collaborated on, and we always open with it. The way it opens signifies fear and mystery: a mood almost of sunset in a forest and all the animals rushing for safe shelter.” But that image also serves as a metonym, says Dawjee: “It’s the apprehension of what the music will bring…will instruments with different idioms find a common language? And through the tune we all had a chance to express our presence, and reach a sense of arrival – from apprehension to courage.” “There are no boundaries when we work together,” elaborates Pillay. “And there are no conflicts of style – even subtle ones. There are only three human beings there.”

In contrast, the second track, J, is melodically simpler: an innocently romantic theme with the mood of first love. That contrast is deliberate programming after the intensity of The Calling.

All the tracks on Window to the Ashram share a feeling of tales being told, and it’s that “exploration of narrative through improvisation,” says Dawjee, that locates the music in a jazz context, – although he concedes that the ‘jazz’ label carries at least as much bothersome baggage as the ‘Indian music’ one. He alludes to features he hears in the music of John and Alice Coltrane – “finding the gaps around one tonal centre”, and the sense of exploration. The way [bassist] Carlo Mombelli’s work on Stories was underpinned by a sense of unfolding narrative was also influential – “hearing that album was one of the things that got me playing again.”

Listeners to Mombelli and similarly thoughtful jazz composers will find much to appreciate here – although it is very different music. Kinsmen’s album leads the listener on a journey that takes in the lushly romantic, the controlled and meditative (Unsung Hymn), some remarkably catchy melodic hooks, and intricate rhythms. It explores improvisatory traditions from both its key sources, and, beautifully, gives each track the space it needs to breathe. Ideally Suited involves Dawjee and Sodha in a careful negotiation of dialogic space, something else reflecting Kinsmen’s musical priorities. “Initially,” says Pillay, “we thought we had to fill all those spaces – now we know we don’t.” (In those days, they were playing Simon and Garfunkel covers too…) “Now”, adds Dawjee, “we understand how important it is to articulate and shape the silences in the music.”

South African music drawing on here, jazz and South Asia are not new: many compositions of Deepak Ram and Surendran Reddy, for example, explore that direction too. And, of course, there’s the legendary collaboration that was never recorded: Ram’s recollection of his elder brothers, players of sitar and sarod, jamming with legendary reedman Kippie Moeketsi in the family garage in the Sixties. But there’s probably much more than that un-documented, and Dawjee has one example.

He recalls how his grandfather was one of those who started a marching brass band, the Muslim Brigade, in Laudium. Over the decades since, community attitudes to music have become more conservative, “But I wonder,” he says, “what and how did music enable the very diverse community of Marabastad to be, and think, and do…”


Like Dawjee’s grandfather, we are all not merely recipients of heritage but makers of it in how we choose to live. We can and should make conscious choices about the attitudes and practices we want to adapt, reject or hand forward to the future.

Please step away from the lamb chops for a moment and think about that.


  • Kinsmen have upcoming gigs in the next couple of months at the Groot Marico festival and in Cape Town and Durban – details on their FB page.

Aki Takase: fists and filigree on the Joy of Jazz piano

The late, unique, Dr Geri Allen’s piano chair in the Power Trio was always going to be a hard one to fill after her death on June 27th. However, the Standard Bank Johannesburg Joy of Jazz handled the matter particularly clumsily, continuing to use her image and biography on the festival website for far too long (her photograph was still on the lineup page when I checked just now, at 10:34 am on 19/09: nearly three months later) rather than acknowledging the dilemma. I’m probably old-fashioned about respect for the dead, but I find that extremely distasteful.

Pianist/composer/leader Aki Takase

However, Joy of Jazz has now announced the revised lineup, for a festival that runs from September 28-30 at the Sandton Convention Centre. Joining drummer Terri-Lyne Carrington and reedman David Murray on piano will be Osaka-born, Berlin-resident and eight-time winner of the German Record Critics Award, Aki Takase. Though a respected veteran of the European and US avant-garde jazz scenes, Takase is a new jazz visitor to South Africa. Her visit holds the promise of a fresh and daring keyboard presence, at an event where the 2017 lineup is dominated by names of unquestionable – but already known – quality. Allaboutjazz has noted Takase’s “uncommon knack for bringing something fresh to whatever music she cares to tackle.”

Also a leader and composer, Takase began playing piano aged 3, and studied classical music at the Toho Gakuen Academy. Her interest grew from classical to contemporary composed music and jazz; she confesses to being intrigued when a friend told her that “John Coltrane is like Beethoven”. Her early listening took in Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and more and eventually she thought: “Ah, maybe I can do something myself…”

In 1972, she moved to New York, working with, among others, Lester Bowie, John Zorn and Dave Liebman; nine years later she made her first appearance in Europe at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Audiences instantly appreciated her distinctive keyboard approach. She settled in Germany in 1987 and since then, often in company with husband and musical collaborator pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, she has been an admired and influential presence on the European free jazz scene. See the two playing Mingus at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uALFIaa4v60

“In the beginning,” Takase told an interviewer (https://soundcloud.com/underyourskin/aki-takase-interview-live ), “I was just playing what I wanted (…) Later, I knew there were some rules.”


Takase is a longtime collaborator with Murray: they first worked together on the album Blue Monk (Enja) in 1983. She has released more than 40 albums as leader, among them outings exploring the work of composers such as Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, and Ornette Coleman. But it is Thelonious Monk whom she acknowledges as her most enduring piano hero: “He is a genius, timeless…nobody delights me so much.”

Takase shares Monk’s gift for presenting audiences with the unexpected, and it’s not entirely clear why the Joy of Jazz press release chose to preview her work as “piano serenading”: a somewhat misleading label for a powerful and very physical presence at the piano, where jagged sounds from fists and flat hands crashed on to the keys can be juxtaposed with delicate, finely crafted melody. The UK Guardian’s John Fordham notes “some very attractive virtues: a fearless relish for treading close to the edge, formidable technique, deep jazz knowledge, a shrewd sense of how to balance abstract improv and song structure, as well as a sense of humour.” (http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/06/aki-takase-my-ellington-review )


Takase’s most recent work with Murray is the album Cherry-Sakura (https://intaktrec.bandcamp.com/album/cherry-sakura ), and much material is available online to sample the mood of their work together, for example the preview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flTuINIuhuw and the live performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOp4dEqTPf4 . We know from Grammy-winner Carrington’s many previous outings how she, too, can “tread close to the edge” in defiant rhythmic power, and next weekend’s performance is likely to offer new insights into and textures for the music of Perfection. It will absolutely not sound the same as the recording, but it will share sophisticated ears, daring ideas and instrumental mastery. That’s the most fitting way to pay tribute to the memory of Allen.

Terri-Lyne Carrington


Ancient Agents: joyous music from everywhere

You wouldn’t know it from almost nonexistent press coverage, but this decade is turning into one of the richest and most beautiful for new South African jazz. Alongside original ideas and visions, technical proficiency is high, thanks to improved (though still not ideal) access to music education. And doors and minds are open for all kinds of intriguing collaborations: across genres, continents – and generations, so that, for example, veteran South African giants such as Louis Moholo-Moholo, Thebe Lepere and Kaya Mahlangu can share stages with relative youngsters such as Mandla Mlangeni. (Late October, if you want to catch that one in Joburg.)

AA colour

AAnother, equally intriguing collaboration is Ancient Agents, whose self-titled album (https://www.ancientagents.com/releases ) launches on Sept 21 at the Orbit in Johannesburg, with other launch gigs scheduled. The quartet comprises tabla, didgeridoo and percussion player Ronan Skillen, guitarist Reza Khota and bassist Schalk Joubert alongside a Swede, Fredrik Gille, on frame-drum and the Afro-Peruvian box-drum: the cajon.

The album describes its sound as “richly textured acoustic world beat” but while that’s not inaccurate, it doesn’t tell half the story.

With so much percussion on board, many on the nine tracks are unsurprisingly groove-led for some part of their existence, but those grooves are dazzlingly varied: from the lilting Zimbabwe-style patterns of the opener, Clouseau’s Dream (www.ronanskillen.com/ancientagents/videos/ancient-agents-clouseaus-dream ), to tabla tals, to rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place on a Cape Town club dancefloor. The strings run a similar gamut: Joubert’s bass can walk, skank – and solo; Khota’s guitar can soar on wings of echoey effect, chime like bells, or get down equally dancefloor dirty. Sometimes that all happens in the life of a single number: Unearth starts somewhere that might be the Kalakuta Republic, segues into tough jazz impro, and then travels East. This isn’t the kind of ‘worldbeat’ that trances you to sleep – rather, its intricacy and variety compel careful listening. And because each player has mastered and owns the idioms of his instrument, the eclecticism unfolds in a way that feels natural and joyous, without even a whiff of pastiche.

The joy and fun in the music are important too. Groove-led music can sometimes feel relentless even as it drives your feet to tap. By contrast, Ancient Agents’ tracks, such as the appealing little folk tune Bokmakierie or the closer, You’re the Reason, are also just so damn pretty.

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Ancient Agents in performance

Music-collectors aware of a Tananas-shaped gap in their current collection would do well to give Ancient Agents the digital equivalent of a spin. It doesn’t sound ‘like’ Tananas – those players were, and these players are, such distinctive individual voices that would be impossible. But it lives in the same soundscape: a territory that has abolished musical border-posts, but is deeply grounded in and respectful of different musical legacies; a place that’s simultaneously nowhere and everywhere.

Celebrate Heritage Month by exploring the Xhosa jazz tradition

Spring and Heritage Month have arrived, so prepare for a flood of events linked to whatever the organisers think they can market as heritage. Sometimes this is done thoughtfully and creatively; sometimes it’s merely an opportunistic, apartheid-style, reification of “tribe”.

Rereading a 20-year-old interview I’d conducted with the late Bheki Mseleku, I came across his iconoclastic question: “If I’m abroad and I hear people talking Zulu, it draws me to talk – but then comes the question: what are we going to talk about?”

How you grew up, and the community you grew up with, form part of everybody’s identity – but only a part, and not one automatically exempt from questions. Culture changes. In South Africa, much now set in stone was actually very selectively re-designed by the colonialists for the purposes of social control: foregrounding authoritarian, patriarchal and often antagonistic relationships between people. Read Govan Mbeki if you doubt that. And as we live, and create, and enact our own personal and cultural relationships, we are making heritage that we’ll leave to our successors. It wasn’t all fixed centuries ago.

One beautiful example of this kind of cultural flux and growth is the modern jazz shaped in the Cape, primarily among Xhosa-speaking peoples: the sound celebrated in Andile Yenana’s Umngqungqo Wabantu project at the Orbit on September 1. The roots of Xhosa language and music track back to the Khoisan people whose sounds, instruments and collective music-making still echo today: ‘clicks’; flutes and bows; the heptatonic scale; the oscillating harmonics of a bow’s stretched string; a polyphony of human and instrumental voices, each cycling through its own


sequence of notes and beats (see https://meyoumankosi.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/a-lesson-in-xhosa-music-appreciation/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYj-55T6Uzs ) and adding its own “salt” to the tune. The most powerful of these performances and compositions come from female master musicians such as the late NoFinishi Dywili, Madosini (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEve7Yrw8iM ) and the Ngqoko singers of Lady Frere, so Yenana’s gendered situating of the tradition – and his drawing of melodic themes from ceremonial women’s song – was the right one.13. Songs of Nofinishi Dywili 2

But more modern influences are there too. Since many Cape music-makers learnt formal music at hymn-singing mission schools, you’ll also hear sonorous pentatonic scales, which immigrated and settled with Scottish missionaries. Add to those all the imported jazz records avidly consumed, since the 1940s, by afficionados around the region: discussed, dissected, emulated and offered to younger players as exemplars in spots like the original Monde’s Place. (It’s since had many successors, across the country.)

All of these streams came together to create an approach to both listening to and playing South African jazz that, from its earliest days, put up no walls at all between the more formal conventions of mainstream, and the joyous individuality-within-collectivity of free improvisation. (Listen to Yenana and Feya Fezile Faku discussing the Xhosa jazz tradition here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lk2LdoPmu9U That seamless, barrier-free musicality was personified in one of the first fathers of the music, the great Christopher Columbus Ngcukana.

Chris Columbus.jpg
Christopher Columbus Ngcukana

And that’s what we heard from Yenana’s project which – like the SA jazz community from its earliest days – staked no territorial claims to the sound, involving, as the press release put it “a band consisting of amaXhosa, moTswana, umNdebele, iSwati, and an Argentinian.” That’s how it needed to be listened to: not as one solid block of music, but with your ears constantly switching between Siya Makuzeni’s growling vocalese, Tumi Mogorosi’s intricately patterned rhythm underlays, Sydney Mavundla’s astounding ventriloquism with the plunger mute, Nhlanhla Mahlangu channeling Eric Nomvete through a very modern soul sensibility, and Yenana’s conversations with bassist Ariel Zamonsky. Listen to one and tune out the others; listen to two and how they play off against each other; let your ears, intellect, body and soul create your own unique blend from the ingredients.

There’s no recording of the project (yet – but this project must go on record). So here are a baker’s dozen more jazz sounds from the Eastern Cape – omitting some powerful albums such as Lwanda Gogwana’s Uhadi Synth and Feya Faku’s King of Xhosa which I’ve covered before in this blog – to kick off heritage month, offering an opportunity to start exploring the roots and shoots of the music. It’s nothing like a comprehensive selection, but I had to stop somewhere… (And if you think there are any disastrous omissions, write and tell me)

Eric Nomvete.jpg
Eric Nomvete

Eric Nomvete and Pondo Blues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6jetAovKbQ

Zim Ngqawana Qula Kwedini https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFQ9VrpuLhw

Dudu Pukwana/Mongezi Feza Sonia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5prnBpWN6E

Ezra Ngcukana and Friends: You Think You Know Me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQz1Ue9z6jQ

SiyaMakuzeni Sextet Moya Oyingcwele https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Pqk7sZAo8

Tete Mbambisa Umsenge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpI3TJcof-I

Titi Luzipo Nomazotsho https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwtvGYKM06c

Manhattan Bros
The Manhattan Brothers

Manhattan Brothers Jikele’maweni https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHBwyVVzW4

Chris McGregor & the Blue Notes in London 1965

Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes Ndiyeke Mra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-A2qXqqeB8

Winston Mankunku Yakhal’inkomo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rt-rlAHEE0M

Johnny D
Johnny Mbizo Dyani

Dollar Brand/Johnny Dyani Ntsikana’s Bell https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot5HZFNSeOE

Andile Yenana Blues for Moyake https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-_2gOaDHNI

Brotherhood of Breath Davashe’s Dream https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6un3uIaPBIE