Without any of the usual razzmatazz, the first artist – and other – announcements came out a couple of weeks ago for next year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival (27/28 March 2020). Such discretion is hard to understand. Normally, the first announcement blares out pop names that are barely even yawn-worthy for jazz fans – but this year, the ‘first 19’ is dominated by jazz names respected at home and abroad. Those who usually, at this stage, cry “Not enough jazz!” may this year instead cry “Not enough internationals!” (The snarking has already begun on Facebook.) That, however, is an argument much harder to sustain when so much innovative, improvised music created by South Africans is winning respect worldwide and needs to be showcased at home. Even for familiar names, a festival stage can offer the chance to present something different from what’s possible in a club setting. The question is only whether this selection of names is the right one to both wow newbies to our music and satisfy fans who know it well. The answer’s probably yes.
The Usual Suspects
It’s no surprise, but always welcome, when Abdullah Ibrahim and Jonathan Butler play Cape Town: it’s their home city and audiences love them. There’s no information yet on Ibrahim’s ensemble, but it will probably be his regular and impeccable touring band. Butler, however, teams up with Dutch reed player Candy Dulfer, a stalwart of her own scene and an accomplished and winning instrumentalist.
Also predictable – because his international recording debut on Blue Note, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Yqq-jIxmLw, is due out next year (a fact surprisingly omitted from his festival profile) – is pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.
We also know, because superb networking and curation is regularly facilitated by Pro Helvetia, that there will likely be Swiss/South African collaborations on the bill. This year’s are as intriguing as ever. The first teams reedman Benedikt Reising with pianist Thandi Ntuli, bassist Shane Cooper and drummer Rico Baumann. The second, the Birdsong Ensemble, comprises South African trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Andile Yenana and guitarist Vuma Levin (with a new album, Antique Spoons, out early next year) with Swiss bassist Oz Yehiely and Germans, reedman Max Treutner and drummer Felix Wolf. Finally, given its name and history (they met at the much-missed Tagore’s), how could vocalist Palesa (Zoe) Modiga’s inventive, groove-oriented outfit Seba Kaapstad, with bassist Sebastian Schuster, Ndumisa Manana, and Philip Scheibel not be invited – especially with a new album out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Idy1NvJXhGk?
The surprise of the new
On the strength of its bass player’s record, the Kwetu Trio probably belongs under ‘usual suspects’. Herbie Tsoaeli is increasingly being described as one of the fathers of our current contemporary jazz. Though slightly younger, his drum partner in Kwetu, Ayanda Sikade, probably belongs up there too. What will make the outfit new to many ears is the presence of superb Kenyan pianist Aaron Rimbui. Starting out as music director for singer Eric Wainana, Rimbui released East Africa’s first contemporary jazz album, Keys of Life, in 2005. In Joburg in 2016 when I heard him, he teamed up with Tsoaeli and Sikade to form Kwetu. He’s now spending professional time in New York, and with big ears that create from everything he’s ever heard – traditional, edgy, mainstream and popular – he has a truly original sound and vision.
That’s also true of vocalist/composer Gabisile Motuba, whose powerful debut as leader, Tefiti Goddess of Creation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmtDCWlbHik (also inexplicably omitted from her festival bio in favour of “worked with prominent jazzmen” – why do we so often do that to women musicians?) explored the concept and role of voice in an ensemble. (See my interview at https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2018/08/31/a-voice-is-a-voice-because-of-other-voices-gabisile-motuba-and-the-collectivity-of-sound/ ) The last time she sang on stage in Cape Town (with life and musical partner Tumi Mogorosi) there was a standing ovation; it could happen again…
Bassist and vocalist Aus Tebza Sedumedi is no newcomer to the jazz scene, but, based as she is in Mafikeng, she may be relatively new to Cape Town. Last time she featured there was with The Liberation Project; she wowed audiences then. New, too, will be her repertoire, because she’s launching a new album, Motheo.
So well regarded is pianist Kyle Shepherd that he, too, might be classed a ‘usual suspect’. But in the group Elementaal, we’ll hear him in unusual company, with Indian musicians including Ranjit Barot and Taufik Qureshi. There’s no predicting what the creatively inventive Shepherd will do in this company, but it’ll certainly be worth hearing.
Finally, PE-born, Capetown-based trumpeter, composer and singer Mandisi Dyantis re-visions the heritage sounds of the Xhosa jazz of the Capes (Eastern and Western) with compelling stage presence and a voice as rich and warming as umsila wenkomo. (See my review of his album Somandla at https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/mandisi-dyantyis-somandla-almighty-moving-music/ and hear the music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViWj8TmyHrw ).
If wishes were horses…
There are additional names still to be announced, and as usual those (although probably already booked) are being kept under tight wraps. So here’s the dream of who I’d like to see added to the bill. The South Africa-plus theme is a good one to sustain, so how about US-based SA trumpeter Darren English in one of his more interesting current combos, with vocalist/trombonist Siya Makuzeni, for starters? Pianist Bokani Dyer has a new – and somewhat different – album out early in the year, Radio Sechaba, (advance single at https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/bokanidyer3 ) and he always brings something fresh. So does reedman Muhammad Dawjee, who’s also due to launch an album in the first quarter, Otherness (advance single at https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/muhammaddawjee1). For Cape Town, his thoughtful intensity would be a new sound, although it’s starting to pack venues in Joburg. Vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu was on Nubiya Garcia’s stage at the festival last year – but isn’t it about time he was invited to helm a programme of his own? His work with Shabaka Hutchings (and more recently Garcia) is attracting critical attention worldwide. So, too is Cape Town drummer Asher Gamedze as part of Chicago vocal improviser and clarinettist Angel bat Dawid’s band, Brothahood (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRxynvOPz_I ). Bat Dawid is certainly somebody we should hear soon. However inept labels like “the next Kamasi Washington” really are (hello? she’s a woman; she plays clarinet; she’s nobody’s “next”), they do signal recognition of a new voice that’s going to be important to jazz. Finally, looking towards the rest of the continent, an invitation is long overdue for Niger-based composer and guitarist Mdou Moctar, after the release this year of his superb fifth album, Ilana (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFwEIwc561A).
For once, prices go down
But even if none of those names do turn up in future announcements, an already solid jazz bill is not the only good news. The festival still takes place in the metropolitan fortress of the CTICC, but ticket prices are down: R999 for the weekend; R649 for a day. That remains a punitive amount for most working people, but more than last year may be able to stretch to it – and that can’t ever be a bad thing.
The elephant in the room
Un-discussed by any press release so far are any demands the Public Investment Corporation might make early next year of two of the three main sponsors, AYO Technologies and Independent Newspapers, and how the PIC asking for what it believes is its money back might relate to the health of the festival. (Another element of the Survé commercial and media empire, AEEI, seems to have slipped quietly off the sponsorship livery; it did feature in 2019, and in earlier years as Sekunjalo). There has already been cost-cutting: trainers have been notified the arts journalism and photojournalism programmes, for example, will not run in 2020. It’s to be hoped no erosion of the festival’s customary great community outreach, decent artist treatment and high staging standards ensues.