Ziza Muftic’s Shining Hour: singing in tongues

Shining hour cover 2019 for social media.jpgMost of the lyrics on vocalist/composer Ziza Muftic’s second album, Shining Hour (http://www.zizamuftic.com/albums) are in English. But English isn’t her first – or by any means her only – language, and the sound as well as the meaning of words is a key aspect of how she conceives songs.

“When you write a song it’s all about texture and sound,” she reflects. “When I started in jazz, there was a period when I was singing Brazilian standards. For a while I sang them in English – but no, the sound is just too hard. Brazilian Portuguese has a certain softness that’s important to the songs and it was getting lost. So I tried to pick it up phonetically, used online language lessons, and it just fits the music, and you fly!”

That self-taught Portuguese joined many other languages she can call on. Her parents arrived in South Africa in 1992 from Croatia, so she’s familiar with the closely-related Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian language family. You can add to that the French, German and Italian lyrical understanding required for her classical singing studies at Wits – and the isiZulu spoken by many of her fellow-students and the other African languages she heard around town.

“I always knew that opera wasn’t for me. My ears kept leading me to some other musics. I used to watch the SABC traditional music shows, and isiZulu somehow felt warm, round and deep – a bit like Italian: it’s again about textures. My former husband and his father were Zulu-speakers too – all that together made me feel like I must just learn it.”

English is, says Muftic “my first language of expression,” but she has written and continues to write lyrics in both Bosnian and IsiZulu. And now – when she not only teaches, but has embarked on further studies of her own, this time in piano – the idiomatic ‘languages’ of musical instruments also contribute to what she writes. Her track Blue, for example, acknowledges inspiration from the flow and phrasing of the guitar.

The 9 tracks of Shining Hour comprise three Ziza originals, one by saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, and the rest arrangements, from sources as diverse as Bheki Mseleku, the Beatles, Bryan Ferry and Antonio Carlos Jobim. After listening, her descriptions of these as mere “arrangements” feels a bit too self-effacing. While Mseleku’s Homeboyz (see the original at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1blnL-lWG2M ) merely gets lyrics and the spaces to express them, Lennon & McCartney’s Norwegian Wood, for example, is transformed by new left-hand ostinato rhythms – “I was looking to improve my left hand freedom…the new rhythm gave the phrasing a very different feel [so] I also changed the harmony to complement this dreamy mood.” Muftic’s blend of the Jobim Chega de Saudade and Chick Corea’s Got a Match?, where the songs, in her words, “swim out of one another”, produces something completely new.

Bassist Peter Sklair

Shining Hour is very much a family affair. The personnel – saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, pianist Roland Moses, bassist Peter Sklair and drummer Peter Auret – are Muftic’s regular gigging band, with whom she plays at the Ascot Hotel among other venues. Her piano teacher, Theodora Drummond – “She’s given me lots of wonderful ‘Aha!’ moments” – produced, and Muftic’s student, Aveshan Govender, took the atmospheric cover photo.

Narrative matters for Muftic’s songs and that comes out most clearly in her original The Colour of My Heart. “What is the colour of my heart, dear? /You said you’d like to know/ Yet to know is not the same as to grow/And understand all the colours that we are/The beautiful the sad/at times mad/easy, hard, even bad…” It’s a classic torch song: a term first used in the 1930s for a singer alone under a spotlight singing love and loss and reminding us that those individual sorrows reflect shared lives.

Because just as listening to such songs is a communal experience, so is playing them. Muftic values and builds on the closeness of her quintet. “Roland and Peter [Sklair] have great synergy, and Sydney and Roland discuss harmonies all the time – and of course I‘m around those conversations.” The singer interprets Mnisi’s composition Kwela/Gontsana (written for the late guitarist and drummer) and adds with her lyrics another layer of homage perfectly in the same mood: homage to the evocative scenery of Vranduk in Bosnia and the heroic and tragic community histories it embodies.

Saxophonist Sydney Mnisi

That empathy emerges in every arrangement: the solos from Mnisi and Moses and the sensitivity of Auret’s drumming and Sklair’s bass. If there’s such a thing as a torch saxophonist, it’s probably Mnisi: in conversation, he’s an understated, sensible chap; under the spotlight, so much emotion pours out that an audience must be moved. And it’s a tribute to Sklair that his bass-lines never intrude – though he does take a tasty solo on Blue – but you’re always conscious of that strong, flexible thread holding the music together.

As I noted when I reviewed Muftic’s debut (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/community-of-song-tutu-puoane-nicky-schrire-and-ziza-muftic-are-all-crafting-a-contemporary-idiom-for-the-sa-jazz-song/), she’s a storyteller /chanteuse rather than a predictable, by-the-numbers “jazz” singer. When she employs a jazz technique, such as the scatting on Love is the Drug, it’s done deliberately and judiciously, to complement what she calls Ferry’s “cheeky” lyrics, rather than as a default device. Shining Hour takes that character forward with repertoire that’s both diverse and accessible – and an increasingly distinctive approach as both composer and arranger.


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