In terms of sound, music and hard work, there’s no doubt that Sisonke Xonti’s Standard Bank Young Artist 2020 award for jazz is more than richly deserved. Listen, for example, to this live set from the Downtown Jazz series https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHbk8ZZFuP0 But it’s also a significant choice in terms of Xonti’s career trajectory and what it means for the Awards going forward.
For a long time, the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards have been playing catch-up: awarding ‘young’ artists who are already well advanced in their careers by the time they are noticed. Pianist Afrika Mikhize, for example, had already toured the world with Miriam Makeba more than once before his arrived in 2012. Last year’s winner, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, already had an armful of albums out as leader, with multiple different outfits.
But Xonti is, genuinely, a young artist in terms of where his career is. (That’s true of the rest of this year’s cohort of winners too.) He graduated only in 2012, and so far has just one album to his name as leader, the luminous, thoughtful, 2017 Iyonde (https://music.apple.com/za/album/iyonde/1357307552 ). That means he’s far better known by many jazz listeners as an ensemble player rather than a leader (and in a dazzlingly diverse range of contexts – but we’ll get to that later).
That bodes well for the future of the awards. The only possible criticism of Xonti’s win might be that the SB accolade has gone to a male player. Again. (Shockingly, we’ve seen only five female jazz winners in the entire history of the category.) One response is often that because of entrenched music industry sexism, there just aren’t that many women instrumentalists around yet with multiple albums and a substantial record as ensemble leaders. Xonti’s award, going exactly where it should – to a player beginning to establish an exciting career – should remind the judges that more women players are now reaching a similar career point. So it shouldn’t be too hard for the Awards to identify more women winners. Soon.
Meanwhile, let’s celebrate Xonti’s win. The Khayelisha-born tenor saxophonist started on recorder at 10, hankered after a trombone (but his school didn’t have any going spare) so moved on to clarinet and then sax by the time he was in his early teens. When his school band played before Nelson Mandela “and there was he, doing his Madiba Jive – that was the first time I really felt like an artist.”
He was scouted by the late Ezra Ngcukana for the Little Giants band, and then successfully auditioned for the Standard Bank Schools Big Band in Grahamstown.
But his passion for jazz, he has told SAFM “came and went.” At UCT in 2007, he enrolled for law, but had also begun composing. In 2008, he jammed at the Winston Mankunku Memorial, where he was heard by Jimmy Dludlu. An invitation to tour internationally with the guitarist followed. “It was important for me to travel,” he has commented. “It let me hear things I’d never heard – for example, in a jazz club in Kenya I’d hear those musicians bringing their traditional sounds to jazz.”
That exposure – in person, and through the crowded musical supermarket of the web – means that although Sisonke’s sound has been compared to that of the late Mankunku, it draws colours from a very different palette of influences. (Listen to his highly personal take on the classic Yakhal’Inkomo, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LuD8bYD23Q ).
And Sisonke’s big, warm reed sound is everywhere. As well as Dludlu’s outfit he’s worked with pop outfit Freshlyground, with reggae artists Bunny Wailer and local outfit Azania, with South African masters such as Abdullah Ibrahim and the Hugh Masekela, as co-founder of experimental outfit Deluge with pianist Thandi Ntuli, in the Siya Makuzeni Sextet https://siyamakuzenisextet.bandcamp.com/album/out-of-this-world, and with all the Cape Town modern jazz usual suspects (of whom he is certainly one) in bands such as Shane Cooper’s Mabuta https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0UF797Mh_8 , and with Kyle Shepherd. That’s not a comprehensive list of credits by any means.
When he graduated with a law degree in late 2012 (he also has a classical saxophone qualification) “I didn’t want to work in an office.” That’s the point at which jazz became not only a passion but a career choice. Carrying demanding law studies alongside sometimes punishing playing and touring schedules prepared him well for the hard slog of running a music career in the current impoverished work context of South African jazz. A combination of hard work and versatility, has supported Xonti in putting together a career that has given him both exposure and some really interesting playing opportunities. And all these fed into the compositions comprising Iyonde, which I reviewed when it appeared https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2017/07/10/sisonke-xontis-iyonde-and-the-death-of-the-south-african-music-press/ .
The award will likely offer the opportunity for a second album – something everybody who heard the first is looking forward to. What Xonti has inherited from the masters like Mankunku, Ngcukana, Duke Makasi and more – and carries forward in his own way – is a warmth, passion and attack in his sound. That’s something he deliberately cultivates. His compositions, he says, are “mostly inspired by emotions…I try and take [those feelings] out and onto the instrument.” In that context, real success lies not in the external accolades, welcome though they are, but in “achieving the sound that was in my head.”
It’s not just Xonti, though. Cape Town continues to host exciting players. My listen of the week this week is this incandescent musical conversation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRxynvOPz_I between drummer (and prolific, engaged writer) Asher Gamedze and Chicago free-jazz clarinettist, vocalist and composer Angel Bat Dawid, recorded in the Mother City for Bat Dawid’s debut album, The Oracle, making significant international waves right now. Check it out.