It’s about more than music: CTIJF 2018 preview

The first batch of artists for the 2018 Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) was announced on Tuesday, and, even on this showing, it’s clear the event will offer a festival recognisable as ‘jazz’ even by the most hardcore purist.

It’s misleading to look at the bill of fare for all five stages and whinge about the “lack of jazz”. Good music of all genres – with a few tempting morsels of jazz – happens everywhere, but the jazz festival mainly happens upstairs, on the Rosies and Molelekwa stages. That is made possible in business terms by the massive footfall those other multi-genre offerings attract to the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and plenty of audience members these days prefer to listen across the boxes.

Sometimes there’s an aberration: a jazz name predicted to attract a big audience will be placed on the Kippies stage with its difficult, cotton-wool acoustics, leaky sound from outside and grubby, grungy, noisy ambience. Maybe they’ll get that stage right in 2018 too..? We can hope.

Feya Faku

It’s never just about the visitors in Cape Town. The South African names are equally important and it’s an assertion of the depth and uniqueness of South Africa’s jazz tradition that our own musicians, as much as the Americans, can draw on elements from both history and tomorrow to craft distinctive – and instantly recognisable – South African stories. This year’s first crop of named artists are no exception, ranging from the measured, thoughtful, lyric beauty of veteran trumpeter Feya Faku ( ) to the “doorway between the waking and dream worlds” opened by bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta ( ).

MABUTA: clockwise from top left: Cooper; Bokani Dyer; Sisonke Xonti; Marlon Witbooi; Robin Fassie-Kock

Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti’s Iyonde bring a full, rounded saxophone sound ( ) and intriguingly diverse compositions. Nicky Schrire offers a jazz voice with superb narrative skill – however brief the songs, the storytelling never fails to move ( ). Guitarist Keenan Ahrends conveys in his music ( )what I’ve previously called “an almost magical sense of landscape, space and movement.” Another guitarist, Billy Monama, brings his Grazroots Project, which unites veteran guitar maestro Themba Mokoena with multigenerational partners including Lwanda Gogwana and McCoy Mrubata for a fresh take on historic South African sounds ( ). Pianist (and now an increasingly interesting scholar too) Nduduzo Makathini is so prolific a composer that he’s certain to offer a few surprises from his IsiZulu-inspired yet still many-voiced keyboard.

Louis Moholo-Moholo

And yet, despite all these riches, pride of place must belong to the man the UK Guardian has hailed as a “drum colossus”: Louis Moholo-Moholo ( ). Long a hero of the European free music scene, the 77-year-young Moholo still too rarely gets the big stages at home that his musical intellect and achievement merit. In Cape Town, with pianist Kye Shepherd, bassist Bryden Bolton, trombonist/vocalist Siya Makuzeni, soulful reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Abraham Mennen, he could well give us the set of the festival.

If one strand unites the 2018 visiting artists, it’s a kind of historical eclecticism: drawing on recognisable jazz traditions (and there will be a lot of New Orleans around) but in energetic dialogue with elements from across the genre board. Trombone Shorty’s Parking Lot Symphony ( )debut for Blue Note shares objectives with Monama’s Graz Roots – and, indeed, it would be wonderful to hear the two in dialogue about foregrounding historic music as fresh and relevant. Trumpeter Nicolas Payton is these days gathering as much attention for his challenging writing ( ) as for his playing, but his latest double, Afro Caribbean Mixtape ( )makes it clear that the horn still rules – this time, in some less usual company including DJ Lady Fingaz.

Trombone Shorty

Kamasi Washington’s bassist, Miles Mosley (Abraham), will be touring material from his own album Uprising: a release infused with the spirit of jazz-funk, with the groove carrying not a few unsuspecting good-time listeners into some tough, imaginative modern jazz territory ( ). That’s just one example of the way the juxtaposition of those elements can act as – to use Shane Cooper’s word – “doorways” into new musical experiences.

That approach is currently so pervasive – and so effective – that it serves as its own refutation of pianist Robert Glasper’s truly dumb-ass, sexist statement earlier this year that “women don’t love a lot of soloing [so you have to search for the] musical clitoris to give them entrance to jazz…otherwise they’d never cross paths with it.” Groove bunnies are everywhere, and of all genders – and, to be fair, Glasper did apologise subsequently.

But if you want to call him out on it all again, he’ll be in Cape Town too, in an outfit that brings together many of our favourite visitors from past years in a new combination: R+R=Now. His co-conspirators comprise trumpeter Christian Scott, reedman Terrace Martin, bassist Derrick Hodge, keys and beats master Taylor McFerrin and drummer Justin Tyson. With so many creative imaginations striking sparks off one another, R+R=Now is likely to be another gig of the festival – although, being female, I guess I’ll be expected to leave during the solos…

Mulatu Astatke

Two names remain that should have headed Cape Town bills years ago. The first is a veteran of equal stature to Moholo: the father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke. The 76-year-old vibraphone, congas and keyboard player gave a too-brief gig at Wits in 2010 with sidemen including Sydney Mnisi, Herbie Tsoaeli and Ayanda Sikade. He’s lectured extensively across the US and worked with international outfits including London experimentalists the Heliocentrics. His early recordings gave Ethiopia its overseas jazz profile. ( ) But he has also singlehandedly pioneered a modern musical vision based on East African traditions through recordings and scholarly work, and challenged the crude dichotomy which gives Africa credit for rhythm and Europe the prizes for everything else. When I spoke to him in 2010, he asserted ( ): “My aim is for Africa not only to be portrayed as contributing rhythm, but also contributing to the science of music.” Citing the Ethiopian Gamvo tribe, which has classified seven different voices, and the Derashis with their 12-tone music played on bamboo pipes, he said: “They’re the scientists of our music, living in the middle of five-tone territory. At Berklee we were told how Charlie Parker used 12 tones and diminished scales to develop bebop. But was it Parker or was it Africa?”

Vijay Iyer

An equally iconoclastic campaigner is long-demanded pianist (and more), multiple music award-winner, scholar and Harvard professor, Vijay Iyer. Iyer’s childhood musical education was on violin, and his first university studies in physics and mathematics; he is largely self-taught on piano. His musical collaborations have stretched from AACM veterans such as Roscoe Mitchell to hip-hop artists, through jazz, contemporary classical and mixed-media performances. Many have had an explicit as well as an implicit political discourse.  Iyer’s most recent outing, for ECM, is Far From Over, with a sextet including saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, cornettist Graham Haynes, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey ( ). If, like me, you relish subtle soloing that takes constant sideswipes at your expectations, this has to be another top pick.

Iyer probably merits the last words, reminding us about why even a commercial jazz festival can embody more than the priced consumption of performance. For him, jazz is “the history of a people, and the history of ideas, a history of defiance, a history of unity, a history of joy and transcendence — and also a history of responding to conditions of oppression and terror. So I always think about my relationship to that history as a South Asian-American, and I try to honour that history while still being myself.” ( )…“You know, when I talk to my students about it, I kind of frame it as a history of community organizing. Because it was about people coming together in pretty dire circumstances, and – sort of against all odds – creating beauty and changing the world. You know? That’s really what it was. So, when understood in that way, there’s a lot to learn about what we must do today.”



First news for CTIJF 2018

Wonderful news in CTIJF first announcement! Finally, Vijay Iyer is coming. Plus starring spots for the great Louis Moholo-Moholo and the father of Ethio-jazz Mulatu Astatke — and an on-the-pulse selection of other South Africans. More on the Festival website and a fuller preview in this blog soon

Sibusile Xaba and Billy Monama: guitar-fuelled time travel

moorish Kerar
1926: the Gnawa Kerar

It started with the Ethiopian krar harp. Or the Gnawa kerar or the Adalucian/Moorish guitarro. The Portuguese bought over their rebeca and rebequinha. Then there was the ramkie. Or the blik kitaar, or…call it what you like. All of them were fat-bodied instruments with necks and half a dozen strings or so, and the amazing and delightful capacity to play anything – and even change their voices when you pressed on the neck with a spoon handle, bottle, or the back of a knife…

It was that idiomatic flexibility – plus relative cheapness and portability – that made guitars an instrument of choice to relieve the tedium and squalor migrant workers were forced to endure in their hostels, and to share musical ideas among a community drawn from across southern Africa. It also made them a two-way bridge between traditional and modern sounds. The guitars brought home by migrants augmented the musical options for playing village music; concepts and idioms from those village tunes brought fresh interpretive possibilities to the modern ones – both mediated by the choices and skills of the player.

village guitar
A two-way bridge between tradition & modernity

It was never a one-way traffic then, and it isn’t now. Which means we need to be very careful about how we describe the playing of African guitarists, and the ‘modernism’ we ascribe to them. Things we tend to associate with the most avant-garde of jazz: the challenging use of dissonance and discontinuities; the edgy collaging of fragments; non-linear time and sonic space – all these also live somewhere in traditional music.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than by two contrasting, yet complementary guitar releases: Sibusile Xaba’s Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah (Mushroom Hour Half Hour) ( ) and Billy Monama’s Rebounce ( ).

Both volumes of Xaba’s double release were recorded in natural environments (Bronkhorstspruit and the Magaliesberg): Unlearning with bassist Ariel Zamonsky and drummer Bonolo Nkoane; Open Letter…with percussionists Dennis Magagula and Thabang Tabane (whose father, Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane, remains the most audaciously traditionalist of guitar avant-gardists – or vice-versa!).

Sibusile Xaba

Reviewers have called it ‘folk’ music, and simultaneously attributed to Xaba’s vocalese that most conventional of jazz arts: ‘scatting’. In truth, neither of those labels is adequate or accurate, and Xaba has, quite rightly, dismissed attempts to situate his music in relation to ‘jazz’ as irrelevant.

Open Letter… will certainly speak to malombo music fans with its dream-inspired vocal narratives, open, minimalist melodic lines and rich mesh of rhythm textures and patterns. New Music listeners will find a great deal there to intrigue them too. But it fits neatly in neither of those envelopes. The guitar sound on Unlearning is more contemporary, a sonic positioning reinforced by the presence of conventional bass and drums. What Xaba does with those sounds, however, belongs in all genres and none, shifting seamlessly from abstraction to melody to groove and back to abstraction again. Unlearning also demonstrates an impressive mastery of guitar technique that no reviewer has so far mentioned.

Xaba situates his music not in genre, but in spirituality. As he told website Dandalo (( ) : “…for me/us it’s just another way of everyday life (in the past, present and the future, spirituality is always there). My lineage has always embraced and acknowledged the existence / importance of the spirit hence we talk to the spirit consistently (we feed the spirit). So for me we share these messages (lyrics) to engage the spirit, to heal the spirits of mankind (or to simply give it its food)…”

Xaba album cover
Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah

All of which means that any attempt to review Xaba’s two albums becomes a complete “dancing about architecture” moment: they work brilliantly, providing two hours of spellbinding listening – but entirely on their own terms. They should certainly be a release of the year, except that the way the capitalist music industry works, there’s no category to award them in.


Despite his relative youth (he’s in his ‘30s) guitarist Billy Monama is already hugely respected by his peers and the audience that has heard him. But he doesn’t (yet) have a prominent public profile, something this release may well change. And on first appearance, Billy Monama’s Rebounce is easier to categorise.

Rebounce coverThe music has easy, catchy hooks, delineated solos and other recognisable features of jazz, and a line-up featuring familiar and admired jazz names: Tlale Makhene, Lwanda Gogwana, Sisonke Xonti, Siphiwe Shiburi and more, including Joyous Celebration’s Nthabiseng Motsepe on voice. The dozen mainly self-composed tracks map the guitarist’s life experiences and the sounds that have shaped him, from hymns and memories to the cacophonous traffic noises of Soweto Highway, the bruised heart of Confused Love and the rousing West Nkosi mbaqanga of Makaza.

But listen to the guitarist’s own solos, and the distance between him and Xaba – despite all those meaningless identifiers – actually isn’t so great. One track – Beyond Colour – clearly acknowledges parallel spiritual and musical roots. With fast, unerring fingers and an equally fast brain, Monama, too, is guided by his spirit in the musical choices he makes, and shares an equal disdain for being predictable. You’ll hear innovative spaces in his dance rhythms and unexpected clashes and modal runs in his easy listening fusion. Monama can bring Allen Kwela, Pat Metheny, Tal Farlow and even Jimi Hendrix to the mbaqanga party with him, with none of them sounding out of place. “You are,” he told Kaya-FM’s Brenda Sisane at the album launch on Sunday, “what you’ve listened to, and there’s no changing that.”

We heard some different musicians at the live launch, including the robust tenor of Thami Mahlangu and the speed-merchant trumpet of Lebogang Madi. (That’s another side of Monama: music educator and campaigner for the opening up of cultural spaces and opportunities to new players.) On the album, the ensemble is often bigger, with a greater diversity of horn textures, showcasing Monama’s approach to arranging as well as playing.

So, two different players who aren’t so different after all, and a bunch of musical ‘modernisms’ that take their inspiration from African tradition – and all thanks to the guitar: an instrument that can say anything you could possibly want it to. To think it all started with those ramkies and krars…


RIP Muhal Richard Abrams

Muhal Richard Abrams in action at the piano.See here

for an appreciation of a very great man who was not only a peerless musician but a pioneer of progressive social movement, community music education and development and black artistic self-reliance. May his great spirit rest in peace — and may we all continue to learn from his life and music.

Must genius be ‘mad’? A response to the Mail&Guardian

In a thoughtful reflection on the life and work of writer K. Sello Duiker ( ) M&G writer Rofhiwa Maneta alluded to – but did not fully interrogate – a trope frequently encountered in writings about talented artists: that ‘genius is akin to madness’. Several studies have claimed a connection (physiological, or even genetic) between creativity and ‘madness’. Creative artists “are more likely to have mental illness in their families (…) share certain features of brain chemistry [with people with schizophrenia]”. ( More addictions, mood disorders and suicidal behaviours have been documented in the creative professions. Sensationalist biographers have played up these connections; the yellow press – and now online skinner – has gleefully reinforced the stereotype. And finally, a (very) few opportunistic artists have played the public role of mad genius to win a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behaviour such as ‘sex addiction’ (rape), or to exaggerate their marketing profile.

Jazz musicians  – Kippie Moeketsi here, for example, or Billie Holiday in the US – have often been written about in these terms. And many jazz musicians including those two have indeed experienced addiction, and received treatment for mental illness. (However,  the figures show it’s still only a minority of creatives who suffer these problems, and an even tinier minority of schizophrenics who exhibit signs of artistic creativity. Coincidences in brain physiology alone don’t explain much.)

Kippie Moeketsi: not ‘mad’

Yet there’s a massive contradiction here, because an even more overwhelming weight of studies suggests that involvement in creative activities is good for mental health, works effectively to fight depression, and can even mitigate some aspects of dementia. (see a general overview at ) So what’s going on here? It’s probably time to interrogate the ‘mad genius’ trope – and, along the way, also interrogate what a racist/colonialist/patriarchal society might mean by ‘madness’.

Mental illness is real, and is encountered everywhere – the World Health Organisation has estimated that one in four people worldwide may be affected by it ( ) – and so it is not surprising that it occurs among artists as well as among accountants: artists are simply people doing a certain type of (creative) work. Accountants, however – at least, in the pre-Zupta era – have not been so much in the public eye, so the ‘madness’ of artists inevitably appears more prominent.

But given that mental illness and the vulnerability to it exists among all populations, are there some special features of artists’ lives that might make them more likely to be battling mood disorders, addictions and despair?

Certainly – and those features infest the society around them, not the artists themselves.

Creative work is often isolated (frequently not by choice) and – except for a few ‘stars’ – poorly remunerated. That in turn creates enormous stresses around finding accommodation, travelling, buying instruments or raw materials, paying for healthcare or supporting a family. Find a ‘straight’ job to take care of those, and the time and mental energy for painting, writing or playing are eroded, setting up yet another destructive set of tensions.

In the music industry in particular, a shameful variant of the dop system often operated here, paying performers with “a case of the product”: many jazz musicians of the Cold Castle Festival era say they drank heavily to stave off exhaustion and hunger. Too many became alcoholics. That legacy persists in some dark corners of the industry worldwide, not just here: performers who remain ‘medicated’ into docility when not required to perform are far easier to manage and exploit. Even their eccentricities are often designed and policed: the clothing, hairstyles and stunts concocted by a publicist as marketing devices.

One of those veteran South African musicians was once upbraided that “Bra’ So & so, why do you drink so much? It doesn’t help your playing, you know.” And I heard him reply: “Do you really think I drink to help me play? No! Playing heals me. I drink because of what I have to deal with off the stage, not on it.”

Billie Holiday: not ‘mad’

What had to be dealt with was not only apartheid, savage though that was. Artists strive to express truths and create beauty freely: forming counter-waves of resistance by their very existence in societies that are hypocritical, philistine and interested only in commoditising and ‘branding’ creativity. (Think about that term ‘branding’ and what it meant in slave-owning societies before you embrace it.) For artists of colour and women artists (think of Billie Holiday: raped for the first time when still a child; often denied creative autonomy by the musical men around her) racism and patriarchy add more layers of othering. Artists often employ alternative epistemologies: constructing knowledge systems from dreams, ethics and spiritualities alongside experience. That’s one of the key reasons we need them.

Franz Fanon: analysed colonialist epistemology

All conformist cultures – from the police-state of apartheid to the mass-consuming sheep-herds of America – favour discourses that mark out the creative as ‘Other’, and conflate nonconformity with mental disorder. That way, artists can be corralled and contained. Colonialist societies have historically defined the epistemologies of those they invaded and enslaved as irrational and mentally disordered, something the revolutionary psychiatrist Franz Fanon began to explore in Black Skin White Masks ( ). “Sometimes” wrote Fanon, about this racist denial, “people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

So let us acknowledge that the conditions of capitalist society certainly can and do drive some creative artists towards despair and mental illness – but equally reject much of what capitalism dismisses as ‘madness’. That ‘madness’ actually represents an important contradiction: between hegemonic ideas and innovative creativity.  Unconventional behaviour more often represents the artist’s rejection of  exploitative ways of thinking. And those should make all of us mad as hell!

SBYA Thandi Ntuli: messenger of cosmic light

Waves of cosmic light are likely to be beaming across Grahamstown next year after the selection of pianist, composer and vocalist Thandi Ntuli as the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz. Cosmic Light is, of course, the title of the breakout single recently released by Ntuli ( ; ) as a teaser for her upcoming second album, Exiled. Cosmic Light signals movement from her 2014 debut, The Offering. There, the arrangements (based on compositions from her time at UCT studying for a B. Mus in jazz composition) were horn-led, with spaces for jazz piano solos that were recognisably ‘in the tradition’. Now, Ntuli is working more with the Fender keyboard, and using her voice more – not only, she has pointed out, in the classic sense of jazz singing – although there are lyrics – but “playing around with using the voice” ( ) as an additional sonic texture.


When I first reviewed The Offering, I described it as announcing “a very distinctive vision. If there is a point of reference, it has to be the late Bheki Mseleku in the way it employs minimal, almost meditative themes that spiral outwards, gaining ever more lush and ornate harmonic underpinnings as they progress. There’s a lyrical joy in the development of the arrangements (for example, on Love Remembers) that Mseleku would also have recognized and appreciated. Ntuli’s music, like his – and with the root reference point for both, traditional African music – swirls around richly-textured repeating motifs.” (Business Day, 12/11/2014; now pay-walled)

The memory of Mseleku is still hovering over Ntuli on Cosmic Light – not, now, so much in musical echoes as in spiritual ones. The lyric runs as follows: “Oh Cosmic Light, You shine so brightly, Yet your night is darker than these eyes can see/ Release your peace, and bring us Homeward, I can taste your freedom though I’m never free” – and that’s a set of sentiments that the pan-religious vision of Mseleku (like that of Coltrane before him) would certainly have appreciated. And, like Ntuli, he too believed that musician were vessels for larger cosmic forces.

Ntuli puts it like this: “[I was] put on this earth to be an expression of God’s excellence…[I try to stay] out of the way of the music, and allow it to do what it came to do through me.”

That calling came early. Born into a musical family – her uncle was Selby Ntuli of Harari/The Beaters; her parents were deeply involved in choral music, as well as making sure that family prayers at home always involved a lot of singing – Ntuli started piano lessons at four, with classical teacher Ada Lefkowitz. By 16, she had decided that music was her future, and began “losing track” while practising to write her own songs. But it was when she discovered jazz impro, at UCT, that her own compositional impulses were fully liberated: “improvising made it seem possible to compose.”

In 2008, Ntuli turned down the offer of a scholarship to Berklee, preferring the more personally connected learning environment of South Africa. After graduating, in 2013, she came to Johannesburg, worked for a time in Thandiswa Mazwai’s all-female ensemble and started building her own outfits, repertoire and projects.

Ntuli has described her composing as a highly variable activity: sometimes a song comes complete; sometimes it takes a long time to gel. Meditation and prayer often guide the process. She has told interviewer and fellow musician Spha Mdlalose ( ) that when there are lyrics, she likes them to be oblique and multilayered, so that although the music on Exiled will be united by a theme of ‘love’, that love might be read as personal, socio-political, or (as on The Offering) familial. Ntuli has never shied away from issues, as those who saw her work at this year’s Orbit Marikana Concert will have noted. Now “I’ve been asking myself what my voice is on social issues…I’d like to incorporate that going forward.”(

Given the limited – and often deeply gendered – attention paid to female instrumentalists in this country, it’s inevitable that gender has become one of the issues she is regularly asked about. Ntuli concedes that there “are a lot of limiting beliefs” about the abilities of female instrumentalists, and has been scathing about the comment that “ ‘You play so well for a girl’ – perhaps if people thought about saying ‘You play so well for a black person’, they’d realise what the problem is, even if they intend it as a compliment.”

Yet she also finds the – albeit sympathetic – focus on her gender, limiting. “I have had quite a bit of write-ups done on me but not necessarily on the music I make. I can probably count a handful of articles over the past 3 years since the release of my album that have actually spoken about my album or artistic contribution. Ironically, as much as being female has attracted a very welcomed interest in what I do, it has also somehow silenced me on the art.

“It is not sufficient to constantly ask an artist: ‘What made you decide to become a musician?’ or ‘What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry?’ but for writers to really display an interest in what they write about on a deeper level than just the artist’s personality and general background. Such questions are not unimportant, but … some questions have already been asked.”

Like all good musicians, Ntuli is also still seeking those questions that have not already been asked in her music. Her journey from The Offering to Exiled and beyond is being shaped by many inputs. The first voice that really caught her ears was Malian Oumou Sangare ( ), not as a model, but “for the rhythms”. Recently, she says ( ) she’s been listening to Sun Ra, and the Herbie Hancock fusion exploration Mwandishi ( ). But she’s also been collaborating with DJ Kenzhero on the Rebirth of Cool project, and co-producing a house album with Sit LSG.

So the music on Exiled, and what we will hear in Grahamstown and beyond, is not easily predictable. Those diverse ingredients, melded with and transformed by Ntuli’s own unique vision, could take her sound in multiple directions. Her time as SBYA award-winner is welcome, and richly deserved – but above all, it’s likely to create a very interesting SB jazz year indeed.