Keyboards to rule at Grahamstown and Joy of Jazz


The wealth of keyboard talent South Africa can now draw on is underlined by the announcements just out for both the the year’s remaining mega jazz festivals: The Standard Bank Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, 28 June-7 July ( ) and the 21st edition of the Joy of Jazz in Johannesburg, 27-29 September ( ). At both, it’s pianists who dominate the line-ups.



Thandi Ntuli SBYA for Jazz 2018

Grahamstown as usual, offers a perfectly judged soundscape of what’s happening in South Africa now, leavened with enough interesting overseas acts to add novelty. Thandi Ntuli’s Rebirth of the Cool, the McCoy Mrubata/Paul Hanmer partnership, Marcus Wyatt’s Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra, the UCT Big Band under Mike Campbell and Nduduzo Makhathini together offer a broad sweep through the history of the past 30-odd years, right up to tomorrow. Andile Yenana brings out the wonderful but far too infrequently heard Umnqgonqgo Wabantu, this time with Swiss guests – part of a celebration of 12 years support for Grahamstown jazz from Pro Helvetia. Afrika Mkhize launches a new project with vocalists Amanda Tiffin and Zenzi Lee Makeba. Given his work with the late Miriam Makeba, and the family gift  (father Themba too) for superb vocal arrangements, that set could be very interesting.

Afrika Mkhize



Jazz history is further underlined by a project helmed by writer Percy Mabandu – a multimedia celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Winston Mankunku’s Yakhal’inkomo ( ) with music crafted by Yenana, Shane Cooper, Linda Sikhakhane, Sisonke Xonti and Ayanda Sikade. (Why, incidentally, is Grahamstown the only prominent place that truly historic anniversary is being noted?)

The away team this year features Norwegian saxophonist Petter Wettre’s tribute to the music of Michael Brecker, and a trio led by US pianist Aaron Goldberg, who is perhaps best known here as the pianist accompanying Ravi Coltrane on his South African visits. Goldberg brings with him bassist Matt Penman (SF Jazz Collective) and veteran drummer/percussionist Leon Parker, whose renaissance in live jazz after a decade and a half in France immersed in other types of improvised projects is as much cause for celebration as Goldberg’s visit (see ).

Joy of Jazz promises some great names, including saxophonist David Sanborn , pianist Diane Schuur (in duo with Thandi Ntuli), and singer Cassandra Wilson reprising the Coming Forth By Day material she presented so movingly in Cape Town three years ago. Some acts are certain to please. Keyboardist, singer (and Miles Davis and John McLaughlin alumnus) Joey de Francesco appears in the company of Japan’s top bass player Kengo Nakamura. There are tributes to two trumpeters: Louis Armstrong (with an ensemble including Wycliffe Gordon, Nicholas Payton and more); and Hugh Masekela (with Feya Faku, Sydney Mavundla, Mandla Mlangeni, Spha Bhembe and others including Barney Rachabane and Khaya Mahlangu). Given enough rehearsal time for the collaboration to gel, the  Masekela tribute could be quite remarkable, given such a line-up.

Amina Figarova

For three South African pianists, there’s challenging new company. In a set titled Piano Play, Bokani Dyer and Kyle Shepherd work with improviser Amina Figarova, last at Joy of Jazz in 2014. The two South Africans have previously created stage magic together; Figarova will bring something different to the mix. Nduduzo Makhatini, meanwhile, teams up with Americans bassist Michael Bowie and saxophonist Azar Lawrence: that one offers potential fireworks – though coming from a different musical place, Lawrence’s Trane-ish voice ( could offer similar power and passion to that Makhathini found with the late Zim Ngqawana.

An idiosyncratic choice is the New York Round Midnight Orchestra: a Dutch ensemble paying affectionate tribute to the sounds of Harlem in the 1940s. The show has been a massive hit on stages in the Netherlands – but it could also open interesting conversations about the place of such nostalgic revivals ( ).

There’s an excellent selection of music from around the African continent: master percussionist Tlale Makhene with Swazi Gold; vocalists Buika (heard on Simphiwe Dana’s latest album), Mbuso Khoza and Oliver Mtukudzi. Yet while all these will no doubt be brilliant, they’re a taster course in the presence of somebody we should have heard long ago: Humberto Carlos Benfica (“Wazimbo”): the father of Mozambique’s marrabenta music.

Born in Gaza province in 1948, Wazimbo sang for and later led the Orchestra Marrabenta Star, and his 1988 song Nahulwana (night bird) ( ) even found its way to Hollywood. He’s probably going to be the surprise hit of the festival.





Dr Philip Nchipi Tabane 1934 – 2018



Dr Philip Tabane hated being labelled. How he’d feel about the all official obituaries that confine him inside the jazz envelope is clear: “ The jazz label – or any other label – has never worked in my case. Once, I went to play at a competition in Durban and in the end I was given a special prize because I could not be categorised. To this day, they still cannot categorise my music.”

indig afrojazz.jpgThat was at my second interview with the artist, in 1997 at the old Kippies jazz club in Newtown. The first had been almost a decade earlier, sitting close to the riverbank outside the Woodpecker club in Gaborone. Clouds of smoke from the log fire he’d made them light kept the mozzies away, and began the slow, careful process of drying out his malombo drums, whose skins, he felt, were a bit damp and stretchy for tonight’s gig. There was other smoke too, grey-green and herbally aromatic.

coldcastleThe rumour was that Tabane was a difficult interviewee. Sometimes he’d refuse to speak at all; often – as was his constitutional right – he refused to speak in English. I never found him anything but gravely courteous, so long as you listened. He tolerated my linguistc inadequacies, called in other band members to help out – but sometimes there was a flow of ideas that simply couldn’t be pinned down in English like a dead butterfly to a display card. Because his music couldn’t easily be be discussed in such a tight-assed, pragmatic language. It was intimately woven into his cosmology and spirituality; he needed to talk about them all together and the English language was too culturally bounded to provide him with the right words. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini is currently working to develop a terminology that better captures the spiritual dimensions of African improvisation, and Tabane’s music needs that.


So I’m reluctant to attempt any kind of evaluative obituary. You really need to be an insider to do that. But there are two fine pieces of writing that do get there. The first is Lucas Ledwaba’s work-in-progress biography, from which you can read an extract here: For my money, Ledwaba touches the soul of malombo music and its origins in a way that few other writers have. The second is Bongani Madondo’s account of his expansive week-long interview for Rolling Stone SA in 2013, reprinted in his book Sigh, the Beloved Country ( )

ke a berekaTabane was born in 1934 (though some biographies give other dates) in rural Ga Ramotshegoa, into a family of guitarists: his elder brother, he told journalists, was “better than Wes Montgomery” and the adulation radio stations gave to American players mystified him. His mother Matjale was a spiritual healer, and from her he absorbed the music of her calling; his father, a devout Christian who fostered hymn-singing at family services. He heard Ndebele and Sepedi traditional tunes from his local village band, and despite being chased away from social functions because he was too young, he did what many young South Africans did: he covertly improvised an instrument from an oilcan and a broomstick, and tried to learn. He also sneaked in to attempt his brother’s guitar while Mmaloki was out. By his teens, his parents had relented and he acquired a real guitar.

early pic.jpg

Uprooted in 1953 by brutal government clearances, the family settled in urban Mamelodi and by 1959, Tabane had formed his first band, the Lullaby-Landers. But as the 1960s progressed, he became more interested in exploring how traditional sounds could be interpreted and extended via a blend of modern and traditional instruments. He formed Malombo, which won first prize at the 1964 Cold Castle Festival.

Malombo went through multiple personnel changes as participants sought other musical directions or chose exile, but retained its percussionist rock: Gabriel “Mabi” Thobejane.


In the 1970s, Malombo spent time in the US, including an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, of which Jet magazine said: “”One of the most pleasurable finds of the Newport Jazz Festival this year was Malombo from South Africa, Malombo create some weird and haunting music on a variety of African instruments.” The time in America convinced him of the necessity of holding fast to roots inspiration, which he saw as a springboard for limitless imagination and innovation in technique. Tabane worked with players such as Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, and even in his later days, he relished Miles’ music. But – “he plays to make money, and I play for the spirit,” he often told interviewers. When it was suggested he played “like” Davis, he responded: “No, I don’t play like Miles. Miles plays like me.”


He always resisted the hybridizing marketing label “malombo jazz”.

But during the 1970s and 1980s, when recordings of Tabane gained overseas status with afficionados as astounding music, it was hardly heard at home. Many Tabane albums were not even available here. It was only after 1994, that the re-releases started happening, and fresh recording and performance opportunities began – too slowly – to emerge.

Tabane was not “like” any other player, and his various honorary doctorates were less than his status as an original creator of unique sounds merited. To hear him live was miraculous. Dressed in a blend of cowboy-guitarist suit and traditional adornments, he’d proceed to travel from delicate, poignant melodies (often recalling his first rural home and its ways of life) to fast, mercurial runs of astounding technical virtuosity and harsh, minatory chords that seemed to rip the guts out of the instrument.Live Mkt His music took you to the spheres and back: he was our Sun Ra, our Ali Farka Toure, and a great deal more.

You’ll still hunt for a complete discography anywhere. Below is my attempt at one. It indicates the rest of his career, but it misses many of the multiple compilations on which his tracks – sometimes stolen or unacknowledged – crop up.


Tabane’s death underlines the urgency of getting Ledwaba’s book out. But nothing can make up for his loss. Just listen to the music and you’ll hear why. Hamba Kahle.




1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival ( )

1969 The Indigenous Afro-jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and Malombo ( )

1976 Pele Pele

1976 Malombo

1978 Sangoma ( )

1986 Man Phily (compilation)

1989 Unh! ( )

1989 Silent Beauty (

1976 Malombo ( )

1996 Ke a Bereka

1998 Muvhango

2010 Live at The Market Theatre ( )

2013 Bajove Dokotela (SABC documentary by Khalo Matabane)


All the things we don’t know about South African jazz

Ideas come together in interesting ways. Recent events have combined to raise important questions about the historiography of South African jazz: what is known about our jazz past, how that information is known, and how it is interpreted.

First, back in late April, the Sophiatown In Conversation with Mam’ Dorothy Masuka gave us access to the singer/composer’s sharp, clear-thinking mind and articulate, no-nonsense ideas (and an enduringly knockout stage presence). And her memories challenged us, as co-panellist Dr Lindelwa Dalamba pointed out, to confront a huge gap in our knowledge of the world of the female singers who dominated the early African Jazz scene.

Dorothy Masuka

It’s become a commonplace in writing about the history of men in jazz that in the Eastern Cape, players who went on to form bands had often bonded during initiation – and if they didn’t play music, they often formed a rugby squad, or some other professional grouping, instead.

We don’t, however, know anything about the solidarities and socialities built among women performers.

Then, as now, the media’s interest focused on rivalries, and on women’s behaviour in relation to men: the jealous mistress dousing her faithless lover in petrol and setting him alight as he slept.


Masuka told an entirely other story: one of solidarity and protective sisterhood. When she starred in Alf Herbert’s African Jazz & Varieties, Herbert’s mother, Madame Sarah Sylvia, shared her intellectual capital – the songs and their interpretations that had won her own earlier fame on the Yiddish theatre circuit – with Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klassen. On the road, older women singers and dancers clustered protectively around the still-schoolgirl Masuka, giving the evil eye to any would-be Lothario: “You will not touch this child!” Because “of course those things happened,” Masuka reminisced, “just like they do today. But they shielded me from a lot of it because I was so young.”

Those solidarities and connections were underlined by the contribution of another panellist, singer Titi Luzipo, whose own mother had been vocalist with the Soul Jazzmen a decade or so later. Warm greetings were passed between the two backstage – and it emerged that Masuka’s father, a chef originally from Zambia, had stayed for a while mere streets away from the Luzipo household in the Eastern Cape.

Titi Luzipo

These are all corners of a hidden history revealed: hidden, because many researchers don’t seem even to have asked the questions. (One important exception is Lara Allen, whose foreword to A Common Hunger to Sing ( ) provides an invaluable map of the rich landscape of female performance, management, journalism and entrepreneurship in early South African vaudeville and jazz.)

When we focus only on studying the stars, we forget the music communities, networks and relationships that shaped them. When we ignore backstage and home lives, we submit to the paradigm of a deeply gendered historiography that backgrounds and diminishes what are seen as female spheres of activity. Yet information about those spheres contributes to a 360-degree understanding of cultural milieus and all their protagonists, female and male; without it, we simply know and understand less. And musicology is the poorer for that.

And the current jazz scene is too. Because such shoddy musicology masks the continuity of strong female participation in jazz throughout South African music history. And that, as the Gender and Jazz Panel at last weekend’s South African Jazz Educators’ Conference made clear, makes it harder for young women to assert their voice, presence and right to be on the bandstand.

Because what we believe about the past often shapes what we do and how we behave in the present. There are few protagonists of colour in much fantasy literature because ignorant white authors believe there were no people of colour around in the West during the vaguely Mediaeval period their stories invoke. In truth, people of colour have been around all over the world ever since humankind could travel. There were black scribes and scientists in Ancient Greece, African Roman soldiers and administrators, black shopkeepers, sailors and craftspeople in Mediaeval London, and more. And, as historians are now beginning to help us discover, women have been making music and art (and, indeed, war: see Kameron Hurley ) as long as – and as capably as – their male counterparts for a very long time too. There’s just been a social choice not to count them, because maleness has often been naturalised as the default for ‘composer’, ‘painter’ or ‘saxophonist’.

The Lady Day Big Band

Before the SAJE gender panel convened, we heard a set from the 20-piece Lady Day Big Band ( ). The programme proudly announced this as an “all female” big band. There was reason for pride in the quality of the playing (see ) – but we never refer to the Glenn Miller Band as “all-male”, do we?

Founded by vocalists Lana Crowster and Amanda Tiffin, and trombonist Kelly Bell – all music educators as well as performers – already, LDBB is a tight-knit outfit with impressive soloists. (Since she has no recording out yet, if you’re not a Capetonian Bell may be one of the best trombonists you’ve never heard.)

Kelly Bell

But, like many South African big bands, the LDBB’s set was dominated by American standards. Yet there are interesting composers in the band too, as evidenced by drummer Teryll Bell’s composition The Forgotten. Hopefully, they’ll start crafting a repertoire that showcases more works like that. As Crowster and Bell pointed out on the subsequent panel, it’s demeaning to be offered gigs simply because an event “needs more women” – and with the playing already at an impressive level, it’s fresh repertoire that can give the band a musically unique profile.

• Catch the Lady Day Big Band in Cape Town next weekend – their Facebook page above gives details