Stop press: Nicole Mitchell will be in Cape Town next year

A while back I wrote urging that flautist, composer, teacher and social activist Nicole Mitchell should be a candidate for the jazz roster at the 2019 Cape Town International Jazz Festival  ( ). Well, she and the Black Earth Ensemble will be there. Also part of the latest announcement is UK reed player and composer Nubya Garcia. After two earlier artist announcements dominated by reliably enjoyable but hardly radical musical names, it looks as if the festival is at last getting its innovative jazz chops in order…See the Festival website for full details.

Vuma Levin and Theo Duboule mine the past to interrogate the present

Recordar:  To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart”. So runs the opening epigraph to Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces ( ).

That’s the kind of memory guitarist Vuma Levin deals in too. Both his previous albums, the 2015 Spectacle of An-Other ( ) and the 2017 Life and Death on The Other Side of a Dream ( ) drew from South African sonic history – there were spoken texts as well as music – to unpick the complexities and over-determinations of both his own, and the nation’s, identity.

Levin’s third album, In Motion, continues that exploration, but with some intriguing differences from those two. For a start, it’s predominantly a duo album with Swiss guitarist Théo Duboule, though with contributions from trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and Swiss reedman Benedikt Reising (who along with Enoch Marutha will accompany the duo on their SA launch tour, starting on November 8).

Vuma Levin (l) and Theo Duboule (r)

Second – and unsurprisingly, given that – it stars the guitar as, in Levin’s words ( ), “a textural instrument” whose strings may be mediated through digital effects. The duo format, says Levin, permits him “a more intense focus” on sound and texture in both composition and realisation. He’s spoken previously of the influence of Radiohead, and of how Thom Yorke’s approach let him consider “foregrounding the studio as an instrument” ( ).

Neither musician has worked in a duo format before. Levin regularly leads a quintet in the Netherlands, and sometimes here; Lausanne-based Duboule has worked with various groups including the award-winning OGGY and the Phonics. He was also a semi-finalist at the 2016 Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition.

The album comprises seven tracks, two by Duboule and the rest by Levin. The connecting thread is Levin’s three Antique Spoons tracks. Two rest on sampled speech reflections: the first on the politics of memory; the second, in French, on love. The third old spoon is a dense, immersive instrumental construct: guitar lines drawn across thickly textured sound samples like runes incised in clay.

For those who enjoyed Levin’s first two outings (which is most of us who heard them, although the first especially remains difficult to find), the track His Imagined History is a clear bridge between this new work and that, especially the tracks ZAR History Volumes 1&2. We revisit the syncopated handclaps and leg-rattles of historic Khoisan music and the guitar riffs evoking more recent SA styles, but in fragmentary, compressed and allusive forms: this is history rigorously edited and the concision leaves more space for thought. For me, the sonic signifiers posed their questions far more sharply here than on previous outings.

Other tracks range across moods, though if there’s a dominant texture it’s echo – something that itself enacts what the album is about. Duboule’s Lennie’s Cottage starts out meandering and bluesy, then slams us with a harsh overlay somewhere between bottleneck and scratch; Levin’s second Spoon offers gentle melancholy; his Airport Terminal a soaring modernist space. But it’s not just titles like that which reflect the album title of In Motion.

We’re all, as Levin often discusses, moving through time – and since that word has more than one meaning, musicians more than most. Historic music such as that of the Khoisan has travelled through time too: it’s not an antique artefact, but contemporary for those who play it today. The sounds themselves move, as they are modulated and looped by effects. Finally, the two guitarists are in conversation, and that entails a great deal of dynamic movement, as the foreground of the soundscape passes between them.

Those guitar conversations convey warm empathy between In Motion’s principals. Not only are the two both exercising a dazzling level of skill, but it feels like Levin and Duboule relish working together. And it’s impossible for a listener not to be captured by that mood. In Motion is a genuinely enjoyable outing, but not one that softens the intellectual punch of Levin’s sonic bricolage. It’s still sound as incisive post-modern analysis – but then, as film-maker Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”

Orbit poster.jpg

  • The Levin/Duboule duo launch In Motion (with guests Benedikt Reising and Enoch Marutha) at the Orbit on Nov 8 ( ); Sophiatown Mix on November 9 (011-673-1271); the Roving Bantu Kitchen on Nov 10 ( ), with a Nov 11 concert venue t.b.c.


RIP Ntozake Shange 1948-2018


Activist and wordsmith Ntozake Shange, best known as the creator of the choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, died in Maryland yesterday, aged 70. Shange belonged to that generation of poets for whom the barrier between words and music (especially jazz) was fluid and gloriously permeable. Read this NYT interview with her here .

Hamba kahle


Salim Washington and Kyle Shepherd remind us why live music rules

We live in the middle of some frustrating jazz contrasts. More startlingly fresh South African jazz is being made every year. Much is finding its way on to records that, when the international critics hear them, blow even their jaded minds away. But look at the bills for big jazz festivals (the recent Joy of Jazz, and the first announcements for next year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival) and you’ll see them dominated – apart from a handful of names – by conservatism and no apparent sense of what’s really happening.

And yet festival appearances do matter, even in a socio-economic context where most jazz fans increasingly can’t afford them. They offer a different stage, atmosphere and audience, and opportunities for national and international musical networking for both fans and players. Every live jazz performance is unique, and festival shows introduce artists to new listeners, and present them in a fresh frame even for their regulars.

SALIM posterTake Salim Washington, for example. His SA outfit, Sankofa, hasn’t yet featured at any major national festival, despite packing out club shows whenever it appears. We seem unappreciative of having a reed player who’s billed in his home country as a “jazz legend” performing and teaching in our midst. The paucity of club gigs outside Johannesburg (and the near-death of serious music journalism) means many people don’t know his work. Despite that, Washington is a diligent and energetic musician – he composes prolifically and plays wherever he can find a stage, and you can hear him at Johannesburg’s Orbit next weekend, on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October in another of the multiple South African outfits he works with, Mandla Mlangeni’s inspiring Born to be Black (bookings: ).

I was fortunate enough to access a live recording of Washington’s 25 January concert at the Jazz Gallery in New York, in a quintet in partnership with a US reedman we should also probably know more about, the richly soulful, adventurous altoist Darius Jones ( ).

Salim Darius
Darius Jones (l) and Salim Washington

That was a revelation. Although some of Washington’s original material (Elder Washington, The Light Within, and Uh Oh! (hear a 2012 version at was familiar from his Sankofa concerts, it assumed fresh colours and flavours with these US collaborators. Yayoi Ikawa’s piano solo on Elder Washington, for example, took us to a different church from the one you’ve heard Ndududzu Makathini visit during the tune. What’s always impressive is Washington’s facility on a range of reeds – oboe, bass clarinet and flute as well as tenor – and the first set contains a tribute to fellow poly-instrumentalist the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk’s tune A Stritch in Time ( ) is deceptively pretty and fiendishly difficult; Washington’s interpretation revels in both characteristics. What was also impressive about the gig was the way the New York audience and his fellow musicians embraced the South African material Washington introduced: his own new Afrika Love (shaped around a traditional isizulu music scale taught to him by Afrika Mkhize) and Mongezi Feza’s You Think You Know Me (But You’ll Never Know Me) – which sometimes crops up in the Born to Be Black playlist too. Maybe we can persuade Jones and Washington to release the gig recording as an album, so that more people can hear it?

Pianist Kyle Shepherd has been more fortunate with festival appearances (he was at Joy of Jazz in a triple-header with Bokani Dyer and Amina Figarova) but we still don’t hear as much of him as we should. And his music, these days, is taking some compelling directions. Last Thursday (18 October), he used the second half of the Centre for the Less Good Idea’s Collapsed Concert to present Voices : a work that encompassed the Centre’s magnificent Steinway grand piano, pre-recorded voices, and synthesised sounds.

It was a profoundly moving work, referencing, as Shepherd always does, history, community and memory: sewing together Khoisan heritage, the rolling left-hand of classic Cape jazz piano and the pianist’s own current lean modernism. This time there were some more poignant, personal memories too, through the recorded voice of Shepherd’s mentor the late Zim Ngqawana offering quiet reflections on jazz and freedom. Ngqawana’s voice became a choir of many sibilant voices asserting and retreating – the musical text enacting what the verbal text expressed – then flowing back into the syncopated Khoisan steps, which have themselves infused the jazz legacy of all the Cape’s communities.

Kyle & Zim
Kyle Shepherd and the late Zim Ngqawana (r)

The Boulez Second Piano Sonata that, in Jill Richards’ powerful, mercurial interpretation had formed the first half of the concert, had as one starting-point the alienated, industrialised, all-erasing violence of the Second World War: the sonata was completed in 1948. Boulez wasn’t writing programme music to “sound like” that, but mirroring it in his erasure of sonata form. Shepherd took another road, commandeering mass industrialised products – synthesised and recorded sounds dispersed via digital technology and metal machines – and giving them souls again.

Even if Shepherd plays the piece again, it won’t sound exactly the same. That’s why live music rules, and why our festivals need to be a lot more hip to the live innovations that South African jazz musicians are creating every day.

Fayard Nicholas: born 104 years ago today

The late Fayard Nicholas, elder and leading choregraphic imagination of the Nicholas Brothers, was born 104 years ago today. The Nicholas Brothers were the most brilliantly accomplished dancers ever to feature in American movies. They originated many of the dance moves later credited to white stars such as Donald O’Connor, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But their meticulously conceived dance interludes were often treated by directors as dispensable asides,  or, most egregiously, supplied to cinemas in the US South with cut-tabs so that racist audiences would not be offended by displays of black excellence. When your oupa reminisces about watching movies like Stormy Weather at the bioscope, this is what he saw:

Take five minutes out of your day today to watch it, remember the genius hidden from history by racism, and offer tribute. Oh, and be amazed…

Thabang Tabane’s Matjale takes malombo across all kinds of borders

Thabang front.jpg
Thabang Tabane

Grandmothers are powerful. It was the late Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile’s grandmother, Madikeledi, who planted in her grandchild the love for deep SeTswana tradition and language which became the root of his work. And it was Thabang Tabane’s grandmother, Matjale, who endowed her son, the late Philip Nchipi Tabane, with a rich legacy of traditional healing sounds, and her grandson with the spirit he brings to his drumming. “She used to call me that I must be with her at all times,” Thabang told Afropop Worldwide music writer Banning Eyre ( ) “So I think that’s where my father saw this, that I am a boy who can take this thing further. Because no-one taught me how to play drums…music was in me. So I think that’s the calling I had with her.”

If you know malombo music, your image of Thabang is probably of a very young man, enriching with all manner of percussion his father’s dazzling, flamboyant, guitar and song. But Thabang Thabane has not been that youngster for a long time. He’s 39, and over the dozen years before Philip’s death in May this year he took an increasingly front-of stage role, when first the death of the elder Tabane’s wife, and then his father’s declining health, made performing increasingly difficult. Thabang began working on his first album as leader two years ago, recording it in the family’s Mamelodi home. But the stresses of his father’s final time meant that it wasn’t ready for release until September. Now it’s out ( ), and named for Matjale.Matjale.jpg

There have been many attempts to define and ‘own’ Malombo music, from the highly reductive labels ‘music accompanying Venda exorcism rites’ and ‘sound of the malombo drum’, to the various sonic concepts resulting from the break-up and re-formation of popular malombo groups under different leaders. The music cannot be confined by any of these.

For a start, it can’t be reduced to the word ‘music’ – at its origin, malombo represents not simply the sounds accompanying certain ceremonies, but the entire philosophy that those ceremonies embody. Tabane the elder rejected any attempt to call his work ‘music’ (never mind ‘jazz’), and his son continues that line of argument: “Malombo is spirit…healing…The stage is the platform for me to heal people [because] my grandmother is with me all the time.”

The most detailed study of the malombo sound so far was undertaken by Dr Sello Galane in his 2010 doctoral thesis ( ). If you’re interested, and have not yet done so, read it. Galane acknowledges the syncretism that performing malombo in modern social settings and overseas brought. He also traces a dozen phases in the development of the malombo sound, with Phillip Tabane as its undisputed architect.

Matjale brings us what’s probably a thirteenth phase in the music’s development. The album comprises 10 tracks, mostly Thabang’s own compositions or developments of ancestral themes, with some drawn from his father’s work (Father and Mother and Ke Mmone, the latter based on Ke Utlwile) and one Venda song taught to Thabang by veteran percussionist Mabi Thobejane (Nyanda Yeni; see the video at   )

So what does this new malombo bring? There’s much that feels faithful to the music’s roots: the prominence of rich percussion textures and the focus of lyrics on important social themes, for example. Nyanda Yeni talks of drought; Babatshwenya attacks xenophobia in his home town: “We are all one; we should not do this…” There is still dazzling guitar work, this time from Sibusile Xaba. He’s clearly been influenced by Philip Tabane, but equally clearly is a voice in his own right. Xaba’s guitar work is edgier: less

Sibusile & Thabang
Guitarist Sibusile Xaba (centre) with Thabang Tabane

flamboyant, but quietly subversive of any expectations your ears might bring. And then there’s the stuff that’s new. As my colleague Kwanele Sosibo ( , and who also wrote the album’s thoughtful liner text) has noted, the sounds of Thulani Ntuli’s electric bass feature in a way you’d not have heard in historic malombo, even in its most popular incarnations.

The bass does two things. It provides the groove that younger ears crave. “I know that mdala’s music could be difficult for people…I want [this] to be simple on people’s ears,” he told Sosibo. Ntuli, though, is a sensitive enough player not to shove in front of rhythm or lyrics.

Additionally, the bass reaches outwards, underlining a shared sonic space with pan-African and diasporic sounds. That’s most explicit on the opener, Richard, a dedication to the highly influential Camerounian bassist Richard Bona. Tabane says Bona’s onstage discipline reminds him of his father’s stern approach, and his innovation has constantly impressed. Another track, Freedom Station – that surely has to be named for Steve Mokoena’s sorely missed music spot? – even flirts briefly with soul. The final novel element is Thabang’s voice. He has told interviewers he never thought of himself as a vocalist until a Xhosa healer from Amampondo (with whom he was working in the combined ensemble PedXulu) urged him to release the “inner voice” with which his mind accompanied his drumming.

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Album art for the track Richard

Thabang sings nothing like his father. Where Philip bent his voice around phrases with a rounded sound that was almost a yodel, Thabang’s singing declares him a drummer. His declamations, growls, whispers and breaths don’t only convey compelling messages, they also enrich and embellish the rhythms.

Thabang Thabane wants his music to heal, and that it surely does – including providing balm for the ache of emptiness his father’s bereft audiences feel. Because this is, unmistakeably, malombo that genre fans can embrace with joy. But it’s malombo for today – malombo crossing borders: generational, musical and geographic. It would never have worked for this album to simply ‘cover’ the malombo tradition. Philip Tabane was an impossible act to follow because he wasn’t any kind of ‘act’; he was 100% authentic. With Matjale, Thabang Tabane has shown us that he is, too.Thabang back

Ariel Zamonsky, Juana Pires Rafael and the spaces between genres

Do genre categories help us to find music we’d like, or hide music we might love? A new album from the bass/voice duo helps us interrogate the labels.


Thobekile Mbanda

Why can’t we just let a song be a song? The Women’s Music Collective concert in Melville last Sunday (30 September) presented a mind-opening diversity of music, from Joyce Moholoagae’s dramatic, moving rendition of Purcell’s baroque When I am Laid in Earth, to Clare Loveday’s Cycles (originally written in synergy with a Nandipha Mntambo dance performance), Thobekile Mbanda’s original,  tradition-inspired, iLobola, and Nongoma Ndlovu’s neo-soul-flavoured Hot Mess.

“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.” Don Cherry

See the problem there? If I want to give you some indication of what certain songs sounded like, I usually have to paste on some label or other relating it to a genre you might know …But genre labels can easily blur what makes a particular piece of music distinctive. The academic concept of music genre has multiple resonances: about the listening communities that coalesce around genres, the social power hierarchies they can embody, and more. But mostly, in the world of modern music-making, ‘genre’ is crudely equated with ‘marketing category’. And if you don’t fit one, the shops, websites and venues may literally have nowhere to put you.

(The Francophone musical world doesn’t have quite the same problem. As obituaries following the death of Charles Aznavour last week, eg explained, the French have a whole genre called chanson: secular songs embodying elements of storytelling, either emotional or social. The French word literally means ‘song’, and both Ndlovu’s and Mbanda’s works would have sat quite comfortably there, without any need to cram them into some marketing category. Chanson lets a song just be a song.)

juana Pires Rafael

Another of the performers last Sunday was vocalist Juana Pires Rafael who, with partner bassist Ariel Zamonsky, has just released the album Entre dos Mundos (between two worlds) . Zamonsky is a familiar sight on bandstands, working with everybody including Nduduzo Makathini and Mandla Mlangeni (who get a shout-out in a track title). With Rafael, he’s begun touring as a duo, and their track Vidala Para Mi Sombra also features on the soundtrack of the recent South African movie Catching Feelings

Ariel Zamonsky

The sleeve notes give us the broad outlines of the story in the songs: people seeking their identity while in another country (Zamonsky, like Rafael, was born in Argentina, but he has been in South Africa since 2005; she joined him in 2016.) “The music’, says the sleeve notes, “can transmit most of our interrogations and findings in a way words would never be able to, by stripping the ideas of their grammatical sphere, and giving them an ethereal, spiritual and energetic level beyond our comprehension.”

“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.” Miles Davis

Ariel album cover
Entre Dos Mundos

All 11 tracks – six, co-compositions; five, by Zamonsky – feature gorgeous improvisation from voice and instruments, and I could quite happily hang an unapologetic ‘jazz’ label on it for that reason. The quality of the imagining and playing certainly merits it: the rhythm section features three of South Africa’s most empathetic co-players: Yonela Mnana on piano and Tumi Mogorosi or Siphiwe Shiburi on drums. But I’m hesitant to pin down Entre dos Mundos like that, because I think it could also speak powerfully to audiences who might not find ‘jazz’ a persuasive designation.

Zamonsky’s bass displays the sensitivity and range we’ve come to know well, from the solid, steady underpinning he gives to a multitracked Rafael on Sunny Day, to his intricate exchanges with Mnana and Mogorosi on Mi Alma. Rafael’s voice holds both a breathy delicacy (something that gives Mnana the opportunity for matching, fragile, light-handed excursions) and a capacity for melancholic darkness. She uses both, intelligently and to moving effect, interpreting lyrics and soaring in wordless vocalese.

Mnana, Zamonsky, Rafael

If you like Latin American music, the Zamba Del Inmigrante offers that rhythmic flavour most strongly – with a beautifully strong, contained, solo from Zamonsky. If you’re seeking a more South African jazz feel, Transkei has the chords. But this is essentially liminal music, quite deliberately pushing at the borders of genres and origins: that’s what it’s about. As listening, it’s compelling: sensual in the richness of its textures, without compromising the thoughtfulness of its guiding ideas. And worth adding to your collection based not on any preconceptions about what genre it fits, but rather based on Ellington’s aphorism that there are really only two kinds of music: good, and the other sort. This is definitely the former.