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.

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