But you had to be there… David Coplan’s intensely personal memoir of Melville’s Bassline tells only one of the untold stories

“Don’t it always seem to go” queried Joni Mitchell, “That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Big Yellow Taxi could, in fact, be the leitmotif of David Coplan’s memoir Last Night at the Bassline (Jacana) and he said as much at the book’s Rosebank launch: that there was a kind of hopeful innocence in the crafting of a new socio-musical world on Melville’s Seventh Street that would probably be impossible in these Guptarised days.

Pianist Andile Yenana takes five outside the old Bassline on the book cover

The book isn’t Coplan’s usual kind of scholarly tome. The 168-page narrative unfolds in a deliberately looser, more personal, easy-reading voice, although it’s clearly underpinned by research as well as Coplan’s personal experience and conversations, and is helpfully indexed and footnoted. And it’s certainly as important, in its own way, as books like In Township Tonight. Given how thinly documented the most recent eras of South African music history are, books such as this, full of the experiences and voices of key role-players, are vital to the record. It’s a unique document of what was certainly a very special slice of urban, musical and social history. As important as the words are the photographs: Oscar Gutierrez’s love for the music has always guided his eye, and he has curated from his vast archive 60-odd pictures so evocative you can almost hear them.

David Coplan

Anybody involved in publishing knows how expensive it is to produce books – with pictures at all, nogal! But it’s still a pity most of the images were used so small. The story that’s told cries out for a larger format, to let the pictures sing louder. And there are points, too, when the book itself feels too small, because there are at least two other potential volumes hiding inside it.

One is a scholarly history of the place and its era. That’s deliberately dealt with here through the lens of highly personal, quite often quirky, reflections; Coplan spoke at the launch of wanting to exercise a different set of writing muscles in this work. Because he’s both a keen observer and a knowledgeable scholar, those reflections are always worthwhile. But they are also sometimes arguable, as any personal reflections are. They form part of a landscape of multiple alternative analyses this book has no space for. As one example, the demise of the ‘old’ Bassline is discussed in the personal frame of disagreements with a landlord. But it happened at a time when other discourses were equally relevant: changing patterns of urbanism, transport, settlement and sociality; the changing operations and business models of both live and recorded music industries; the changing nature of the genre; the impact of generational taste shifts; issues of race; and more. That’s not this book – the nostalgic, often rose-tinted spectacles would have to come off for that – but it’s also a book we need.


Oscar Gutierrez

The other book hiding inside Last Night at the Bassline is the autobiography Coplan now clearly must write. He’s had a fascinating life, from playing with Philip Tabane to authoring the first study of South African performance that smashed the lens of externally imposed ethnomusicological difference and let performers and creators speak for themselves. When, in Chapter Two, we meet the Bassline’s owner/managers Brad and Paige, and Coplan interrogates his own role in creating words about music, something quite remarkable and exciting happens in the text. The human-ness of the book works powerfully when Coplan is explicitly present in narration, actually recalling memories of performances and encounters with club denizens and offering his wry asides not as omniscient analysis but as idiosyncratic opinion that tells the reader who he is. Sadly, in many places that voice recedes, displaced by an ‘invisible’ narrator.

There are also ways in which Last Night at the Bassline speaks to In Township Tonight. In the latter book, the rather compressed (and later) update chapter alludes to many stories that demand to be told more fully. One is about the growing Pan-African nature of the Joburg music scene, and that gets a better unfolding here through discussion of the changing guest acts at a single club.

One omission puzzles. One of the things the Bassline needs to be remembered for is an initiative that probably contributed more to the Joburg jazz scene than any other at that time: hosting the long-running residency of a quintet called Voice (Marcus Wyatt, Sydney Mnisi, Andile Yenana, Herbie Tsoaeli and Morabo Morojele). Think of where those musicians have gone since then, and the influence they’ve had. Think of the original repertoire created, and the band and solo recordings. Only a long-running residency can achieve that kind of thing. Yet while individuals from the ensemble get deserved mentions, the outfit Voice gets mentioned just once, in an interview with bassist Carlo Mombelli.


The rose-coloured glasses and nostalgia occasionally cloy. Pace George Benson, hindsight is not always 20:20 vision. In that era, even Seventh Street in Melville was not the warm bohemian utopia memory may paint it. I’ve stood outside and heard racist epithets (often in Afrikans) directed at the place and its music and musicians by the passing citizens of what was a historically ‘white’ and Nat-voting suburb. In that sense, the early Bassline was often just a little red base in enemy space, even as it struggled to be an advance guard of social change. Sometimes, it wasn’t even that: the gulf between club patrons and near-destitute car-guards and others on the street always jarred: a weathervane for what was continuing to go wrong even as the club’s warm interior cosied our dreams of things going right. The Bassline wasn’t the first place where exciting, original, liberated jazz was made in the city – Kippies and Sof’town share that honour – and it will not be the last, as the Afrikan Freedom Station and the Orbit among others demonstrate.


The book’s ‘main characters’ are clearly owner/managers Brad and Paige. Coplan paints them in romantic colours, his affection and admiration for their efforts very apparent. But the book’s implicit message is that shifting the parameters of what could happen in that kind of suburb, and what could happen in the music, wouldn’t have been possible without others too: all the musicians, and audiences, and the club staff, and those car guards, and multiple people who don’t ever appear on the pages. Yet the owners’ achievement – keeping a more than decent jazz stage going for a remarkable nine years – is notable in international, not only in Joburg, terms. And given that, most music fans might not be concerned if they were actually ogres who chopped up noisy patrons and baked them into pies. Come to think of it, the food sometimes did taste a bit funny…


Win a free CD and capture some steelpan and kora magic

“You should never just keep on delivering a product that’s working,” steelpan player Dave Reynolds asserts. But the problem with audiences is we often want to keep musicians in little boxes shaped by familiarity.

Dave image
Dave Reynolds

Probably South Africa’s worst example was Sakhile. The group had created a substantial fan-base, which was wonderful for gigs and record sales, but eventually came to be a straitjacket on the imaginations of principals Khaya Mahlangu and the late Sipho Gumede. Every time one of them tried to break free to pursue a new musical direction, commentators (and many fans) would present this as an issue of “fault” or “ego” – instead of acknowledging that it’s the player him or herself who is best-placed to decide when a new path or new partners are needed, and that isn’t a matter of ego, but of creativity.

But it should be refreshing – good news not bad – when musicians grasp the freedom to bring something new to what we know them best for. The results often surpass expectations.

Take multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, for example. For a long time, the CD-buying public has known him best for explorations of Khoisan sounds, often with infusions of digital mixing. But Mohamed had at least two musical identities before that: first, as an inspired crafter of pop hits (something we were reminded of recently when Matsuli Music reissued Night Express on vinyl: https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/night-express-2 ); second, as a spiritual kora improviser in the company of jazzmen such as Bruce Cassidy in many live performances and on the astoundingly beautiful 1997 duo album, Timeless. That was a decade ago, and we have not heard anything quite like it from him since.


Or take Reynolds. Before he moved to Cape Town, Reynolds’ gigs in Johannesburg were often convivial affairs, memorable for infectiously danceable African rhythms, in the company of players such as guitarist Louis Mhlanga. Then, in 2014, he released The Light of Day, which still had some of that character but was also richly infused with what he called “ambient, meditational moments.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that musical fate has brought Reynolds and Mohamed together over the past five years; a partnership they have benchmarked with this year’s SAMA-nominated album Live in Grahamstown (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davereynolds1 ). “We’re both committed to a South African musical identity,” Reynolds says, “but we also both have ears and souls that search other African sounds – and we both play instruments that we weren’t born to – Trinidadian pans and Senegambian kora – but were rather called to.”

Tony Cedras

They are joined by other musical travelers and explorers, Tony Cedras on accordion, drummer Frank Paco, and bassist Sylvain Baloubeta. It’s in no sense a solo project, “ Reynolds explains. “It’s a process of sharing to which we invite other distinctive contributors. We’ve got a particular interest in creative bass players – Sylvain is certainly one of those. And Tony is just super-talented: having him up on stage was a big moment for me.”

The result is an album that both reminds us of the improvising kora master Mohamed of Timeless and the Reynolds of those good-time Joburg jols – and offers several things we haven’t heard before: new tunes, and new sonic textures and synergies, particularly in the way pans and kora play off against that husky-voiced accordion. The playing is skilful and empathetic, and the recording draws listeners into the absorbing atmosphere of a live gig: “We’re taking people on an emotional, stylistic and instrumental journey,” says Reynolds.

The set also reminded me, irresistibly, of the quality that Tananas used to bring to their music: deceptively straightforward, hummable, almost folk-style, melodies that nevertheless serve as vehicles for some very sophisticated, adventurous improvisation. Mohamed is not a ‘classical’ kora player: he’s equally adept at giving the instrument the voice of mbaqanga. Reynolds is explicit about shunning the standard steelpan repertoire of what he calls “ditties” played straight, in favour of jazz improvisation. Cedras makes his accordion literally sing: rhythmic, celebratory and sad by turns.


  • Now Reynolds is offering readers of this column the chance to be ahead of the SAMA curve and win a free copy of Live at Grahamstown. If you think you can sum up what South African music means to you in THREE WORDS ONLY. Don’t write to me: click this link http://eepurl.com/cPvdtf

complete your answer and details on the form there – and keep your fingers crossed.

At the SAMAs 2017, ‘best’ means very little

It’s that time of year again. On May 26, the South African Music Awards will be presented, amid the usual display of conspicuously ugly consumption and conspicuous musical ignorance. There is now only one jazz award, and it receives scant publicity; it’s a sideshow as the latest flash-in-the-pan rapper takes centre stage.

Together with a situation where many jazz ensembles self-release, that’s had a positive impact. Now they are no longer seen by big labels as a springboard for major sales, jazz nominations and awards have been going to artists actually working and respected within the genre, rather than to assiduously promoted but far more nebulous talents.

However, the task for selectors and judges becomes harder – without catalogues, how does even the most enthusiastic appreciator keep up with the multiple small releases appearing across the country?

This year’s nominees are a rather more eclectic selection than those of 2016.

davereynolds1_largeUnsurprisingly, Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede features (as it does in other categories): a thoughtful selection of South African jazz standards, with a sterling jazz rhythm section in the formidable persons of drummer Ayanda Sikade, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. That last artist also appears in his own right, for the album Inner Dimensions with Umgidi and One Voice. Steelpan player Dave Reynolds and veteran multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed are listed for Live in Grahamstown.


Completing the list are trumpeters Sydney Mavundla for Luhambo, and Darren English for Imagine Nation. Luhambo is perhaps the most straight down the middle South African jazz album in the selection in terms of its musical language, and Mavundla is an under-recognised player who honed his now formidable chops playing with every ensemble in town before assembling his own. The album demonstrates strong compositional talents too (and an unexpected singing voice reminiscent of Victor Ntoni) in the company of a committed ensemble including pianist Afrika Mkhize, drummer Peter Auret, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, reedman Sisonke Xonti and Swiss trombonist Andreas Tschopp.


Tschopp’s presence on that album, as well as the all-American ensemble working with English raise another question: how “South African” (and in what sense) does an album have to be to qualify and win? Now that the quality of South African players takes them into all kinds of distinguished playing company across the world, is it not possible to acknowledge that at the SAMAs too?

There are precedents: in 2010 Adam Glasser’s Mzansi took a SAMA with an ensemble featuring both UK and South African players and Glasser himself, while SA-born, is London-based. Given that precedent, it’s surprising, for example, that the stunning (Swiss/South African, but majority SA) Skyjack album has not featured on any lists. The most perfect exposition of South African jazz composing I’ve heard this year came on McCoy Mrubata’s Live at the Bird’s Eye  – an archive recording with majority Swiss players, but an incandescently South African vision. The voices of our younger talents have never spoken more vividly together than on British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ Wisdom of the Ancestors, on which he is the only non-South African player.

There are other albums I’d have liked to have seen on the 2017 list. The omission of Siya Makuzeni’s sextet outing Out of this World is inexplicable – if the reason was the absence of hardcopy product (it’s currently only available as download) that speaks of a dinosaur attitude to the way the recording industry works today. It’s possible Lwanda Gogwana’s Uhadi Synth, and Gabisile Motuba’s Sanctum Sanctorium appeared too late for the entry cut-off, but if not, their absence is equally surprising. And I’d have picked Makathini’s Matunda ya Kwanza over Inner Dimensions – but that’s just an issue of personal taste.

Taste, of course, is why compiling lists is very different from picking “winners”. Playing jazz is not a zero sum game, and both the genre definition itself and the meaning of “best” are moot. Each of the musicians represented has their own story to tell; each story is different from, not better than, the others. If the SAMA list suggests a few new picks to jazz record buyers, it won’t have been in vain, even as it continues to tell us absolutely nothing about which player is “best”, or what in the jazz world that word might mean.

Perfection: Allen, Murray, Carrington

Other news that seems to have gone largely un-noticed recently has been the announcement of the line-up for the Johannesburg Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival at the end of September. This year, it is a significantly more conservative programme than March’s CTIJF offered, packed with reliably bankable names that will certainly (and deservedly) attract audiences, even though we’ve seen them before. Established South African stars include Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Selaelo Selota, Tshepo Tshola and Caiphus Semenya, Thandiswa Mazwai and Tutu Puoane – but also vocalist Zoe Modiga whose recent debut album suggests a very interesting singer/composer on the rise, and Standard Bank Young Artist bassist Benjamin Jephta.  Stalwarts of the European scene include French vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou and Dutch pianist Peter Beets. From America come singer Nnenna Freelon, Ramsay Lewis and Roy Ayers, bassist Christian McBride, reedmen Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis, the Clayton Brothers – and, perhaps most exciting in the wake of their superb recording Perfection, the power trio of David Murray, Geri Allen and Terri-Lyne Carrington.


etuk EP cover

Finally, congratulations to trumpeter Etuk Obong, whose playing takes him between South Africa and Nigeria (as well as outside the African continent) who has just been awarded a place and a scholarship to further his music studies at Berklee!

Conversation and the Uses of Sound – guitarist Vuma Levin’s Life and Death on the Otherside of the Dream

general poster 02a - 18.04.2017“I’m not a jazz musician,” guitarist/composer Vuma Levin asserts, about half way through our interview on his new release, Life and Death on the Otherside of the Dream (launching at the Afrikan Freedom Station on May 4, and featuring multiple South African players as well as his longtime European quartet).

Denials like that crop up fairly regularly these days. Usually, the artist in question puts the emphasis on genre: jazz is too confining a label; jazz carries too much baggage. It’s much less usual to hear almost equal emphasis, as Levin places it, on the word ‘musician.’

Some of this stark self-assessment comes from what he sees as his late start in music and jazz.

“I started music late,” he explains. “Way too late, in fact. I was 20 and I had no natural affinity for playing. I look at some of my peers and see people who, even when they’re not practicing a lot, can pick up a sound, or know just how to use an instrument as a conduit for their music… Maybe because they were exposed to music from an early stage, they have more building-blocks in place than I had.”

Vuma Levin

That may, he concedes, be an idealisation, based on just how much practice-time his peers conceal behind a deliberately laid-back façade. Even so, it’s not how he is: he is frank about having to work relentlessly at his skill. And the work ethic persists. The title suite that occupies half the new album took him eight months to write; a process that entailed rigorously applying classical compositional technique to a gloriously eclectic set of raw materials and influences.

“My first exposure to jazz and playing were at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), through lessons with the late John Fourie, “ Levin recalls. “Earlier, the music I’d heard at home was the singer/songwriters of rock, from my parents’ collection. [Fourie] played me Nights in Tunisia. And I was like: ‘It’s just noise; a random collection of notes. Why do people listen to that? What’s the deal?’ It was only in my second year at TUT that I stated appreciating jazz. And it took me huge hours of practice.

“Then, for the longest time, my goal was to be the best guitarist in the world.” He smiles ruefully back at his own youthful (he’s now 30) hubris. “Well, that’s not going to happen.”

Such self-deprecation might seem like false modesty, especially if you’ve listened to Levin’s playing (see, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xpdp07K4kQ or hear his work on Rebirth, on this new album). He certainly makes good music, and in a jazz milieu emphatically not about popularity contests, “best in the world” was always irrelevant.

But it’s not that. Though Levin’s statements about what he is not do underplay his skill, they also embody an implicit and intriguing set of assertions about what he is. Those assertions are key to understanding album number two.

The word that keeps recurring is “conversation”.

Levin’s debut, The Spectacle of An-Other (http://mp3dlfree.info/track/211575784/kayafm959-vuma-levin-quintet-live-on-taos ), aimed to position him as a voice from a particular space. His landscape was the paradoxes and tensions between stereotypes of African identities and their reality, interwoven with reflections on the journeys and frontiers of his own life, including his responses to academia (Levin currently lectures part-time at Wits).

The music was interesting, but “I never intended it to be popular music, “ he explains, “and it didn’t aspire to earning big bucks.” Levin finds the idea of being in the public eye as a music star as unappealing as the idea of defending theses before panels as a scholar – that’s another aspect of “not being” a jazz musician.

Spectacle offered rich exposition, but it didn’t particularly exhort us to talk back, and that’s where Life & Death… is different. Equally ideas-driven, the sonic discourse is now occupying as much of the foreground as the social and political, and the sounds Levin employs are very consciously marshaled to draw us into the debate.

“I enjoy composing more than playing,” he says. “The music I enjoy listening to does a lot with the efficient use of basic materials. I consciously didn’t want this album to be heavy with solos. Rather, it’s compositionally dense, with recognisable popular music progressions. There’s a huge variety of influences, and I’m using them to negotiate a space in which I can talk to more kinds of people. Hopefully, the track titles contribute to that too. ”

To say that a “basic material” of music is sound itself may seem like stating the obvious. “But sound – call it texture if you like – as a parameter of music, is neglected,” says Levin. “An album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a sound-designed album. Radiohead use that approach. For Carlo Mombelli, sound is an extremely important affective part of his music. Maybe that’s also where my own composition is heading…”

Part of Levin’s focus on the uses of sound emerges in the way Life & Death…weaves sound-clips into the texture of tracks. One, Conversations, employs a digital sample of the sound of San speech.

It could, Levin agrees, be read as appropriation. “It’s meant to be an abstract representation of a conversation in post-apartheid South Africa, with the digital use of ‘clicks’ signifying both Africa and modernity, as a way of unpacking this idea of a ‘national conversation’.”

But, no, Levin did not seek permission from its subjects to use the clip. Even more questionably, it was sourced from YouTube, and he doesn’t actually know what the words mean.

“And I’m willing to be called out on that. In fact, if that happens, the track has served its purpose in starting, and making us listen to, necessary conversations. We need to view those conversations through multiple epistemic lenses. Because, remember” – here he turns my question about appropriation neatly back on me – “’What does it mean?’ is itself a very problematic question.”

That kind of conceptual challenge through sound – what Levin calls “music that makes a tangible connection between theory and practice” – is what he sees as the strength of his work. And if praxis is some of what that’s about, he also acknowledges “provocateur – by deliberately invoking/composing difference.”

Provocation is most likely to be identified by listeners in the title suite, which includes an extract from Thabo Mbeki’s I Am An African speech. Much as it is wonderful to recall the poetry and vision of Mbeki’s words, it’s hard now to hear them untarnished by the memory of, for example, the 300 000-plus Africans who died of AIDS under Mbeki’s folie de grandeur watch.

Levin’s ahead of me again. “In that speech, Mbeki presented an inspiring foundational principle for a post-colonial nation: a space where shared – even if antagonistic – histories, rather than genes, define who we are. It’s an idea you can also find in Homi Babha. Yes, that dream has run out of steam. So in one way the track is a celebration of it; in another, the sense of doom, the dark sonic stuff in the background, reflects mourning the end of it – realizing you’re not a kid any more.”

Levin says he’s not sure what the best conditions of reception for this new album will be, or how audiences will relate to it. He speculates about a different kind of music event, where conversation could be as important as playing and listening – and he might well find the scope to create that at the Afrikan Freedom Station.

But in terms of such goals, does the album work? Well, when I met up with Levin, discussion of the sound-sampled tracks significantly extended and deepened our interview. They certainly are conversation-starters, in exactly the way Levin intends.

But there’s other stuff on Life & Death…that works too: the stuff that new-album reviews more commonly cover. The eclecticism of the album’s sources make it a much quirkier ride than Spectacle.., with piquant sonic contrasts that can startle or make you smile.

Despite Levin’s disavowals, the stories the album tells please the ears as much as they provoke the mind. Those sampled human voices are a very effective tactic for starting literal and musical conversations. While the mood is often regretful (as in the lyrically sad A Necessary Pain) it’s not unvaried. The Maze and Rebirth have genuinely catchy hooks and rhythms interwoven with thoughtful soloing – Levin’s aim of limiting solos creates focus, not austerity. A String Struck, offers a very modernist look at a melodic theme Sipho Gumede and Menyatso Mathole might have enjoyed playing; End of the Rainbow marries wry satire with upbeat African jazz.

If I found myself hitting ‘replay’ quite a lot, it was because some tracks were so crammed with textures and ideas that they disrupted my customary attempts at focused, linear, listening. Levin would almost certainly consider that act of disruption no bad thing.

Growing up in jazz: despite falling sales, kids in cities everywhere still come to the music


For Thandiswa Mazwai, it all started when her uncle came to stay. “He brought this massive sound system with him – and that’s when the house was filled with music.”

Mind you, Mazwai’s uncle was no average fan. He was Fitzroy Ngcukana, scion of the legendary Cape Town jazz dynasty, musician and sometime Culture Secretary of the Pan-Africanist Congress. His collection spanned genres, dominated by jazz and African music. And that, in the context of an already music-loving family, was when Mazwai began to become aware of “the stories carried by these [musicians]”. Later, she wondered why “we don’t have a culture of standards here.” It was the beginning of a journey that culminated in the release last October of Belede, where, with a jazz rhythm section, her voice curates a collection of historic South African songs carrying a powerful message for today.

Thandiswa Mazwai

Mazwai’s not alone in the influences that helped her grow up in jazz. Jazz music sales and legal downloads are declining, and, internationally, audience surveys show a predominantly ageing, male (and often white) demographic. But young people are still coming to the music.

Often, they come by routes the commercial figures can’t track, such as genre-fluid bands, or independent gigs and online releases too small to feature in surveys – or even via illegal downloads. Enrolments in university jazz studies courses are rising. And often, it’s family or community that first spark that jones for jazz.

This year’s youngest stars at last month’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival were the school bands, with players predominantly aged between 14-16. Guitarist Keanan Lewis, for example, in Grade 11 at Wynberg Secondary School, has a father and brother who are both musicians; bassist Lance Pekeur got his opportunity to pick up the bass through church. Both youngsters mirror longstanding South African jazz traditions: dynastic jazz families (like the Ngcukanas) and church music education. That’s now offered by many denominations, but historically provided by missions in the Eastern Cape, and the Salvation Army.

But it wasn’t so different for Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore in the States. Taylor’s father is world-famous vocalist Bobby McFerrin; Gilmore’s grandfather, legendary drummer Roy Haynes. So when the young Taylor, after a period of avidly consuming Wu Tang Clan and Tribe Called Quest, began noticing that much hip-hop “was sampling ‘60s and ‘70s jazz”, he was easily able to enter “a period of stealing all my parents’ vinyl”. And, he concedes, when you’ve been exposed to so many genres “they’re going to come out in your own music some way.” Gilmore went one better: his grandfather gifted him his kit – “He changed my life.”

Marcus Gilmore

For saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the lineage is also direct: his father, Ricky, is a reedman who often tours with him. In his community in South Central LA, he noticed that many of the young players he hung out with were second-generation musicians. “There’s a thing that happens when music is always around. I guess it becomes more natural, more intuitive, because it’s always been there for you.” His father and his friends practiced constantly, and talked about the other artists they’d worked with: “You heard stories about great players you’d never hear anywhere else – but it also made being a musician more normal. These were just people my dad knew.”

Yet Washington’s jazz family stretches much further, back to Africa. He describes the uncanny experience of starting to study ethnomusicology, hearing traditional African sounds and feeling a “direct connection. I’d never heard that music before – but somehow, I had.”

Kamasi Washington

It doesn’t always work that way. Cape Town trumpeter Darren English recalls being “bored” when his father dragged him to music festivals as a child. For English, what started as a whim – buying a harmonica to try and play When the Saints Go Marching In, which he’d enjoyed from the school band – was nurtured into skill and passion by his schoolteacher, Fred Kuit at Muizenberg High. It was Kuit who shaped the school band community within which English grew, followed by other musician/organisers, such as Derek Gripper and Bryden Bolton.

That’s similar to how another LA-born player, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was drawn into the music. His liberal parents gave him and his brother the opportunity for music lessons. But it was the hybridity represented by jazz music and the jazz community, discovered after those lessons, which attracted him as much as the technical challenges. As an American of South Indian heritage, it offered a voice to “the beautiful confusion of knowing who you are, but not yet having the language to tell it.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Those responsible for music education in Cape Town value that same kind of voice and opportunity. For music teacher Celeste Moses-Toefy at Wynberg High, the jazz band offers a creative outlet for intelligent, frustrated youngsters whose other options are often foregrounded by the risky life of gangs and the streets. Donveno Prins, who mentors the jazz festival music programme agrees: “It’s difficult, especially if you are young.”

Music was a buffer against the streets for Washington too. The media, he says, often painted the streets of South Central LA as drugs, gangs and “ ‘you livin’ in hell’. But you’re not.” Because of the area’s arts initiatives, and brilliant and inspiring mentors (Washington cites the late pianist Horace Tapscott), “it can be a paradise of encouragement, beauty and creativity.”

Alongside good tunes, great grooves – and astoundingly audacious ideas that sometimes deal in neither – it’s the music’s humane spirit (rooted in community) that keeps a healthy proportion of kids coming to jazz. Says Mahanthappa: “Music is a community event. We can play it alone – but it’s much more powerful when we do it together.” Both English and Washington call it “a conversation.” Gilmore defines working on music within your community as “a foundational principle” of the enterprise.

And why is that important? Let the last word, as the first, go to Mazwai: “All we can do as artists is create the spaces where people can express their humanity.”


Standard English – trumpeter Darren English talks about playing classics and originals

A decade back, word about a baby-faced brass player suddenly broke on the Cape Town jazz scene. From jam sessions at Swingers in Wetton to solo spots in the ensembles of Mark Fransman and Bryden Bolton, it seemed like teenage trumpeter Darren English was suddenly everywhere. Then, as now, he had well thought-out reasons: “If you take your instrument everywhere, you get to play with everybody – and learn from everybody,” he says.

Darren English: then…

Now 26, English is taller, broader and less diffident, with a set of impressively hipsterish facial hair appropriate for the youngest-ever signing to Atlanta’s cutting-edge Hot Shoe Records, which released his debut abum, Imagine Nation (www.cdbaby.com/cd/darrenenglish) , in 2016.

Listening to him, it’s clear that after a serendipitous, almost accidental, discovery of the trumpet at high school, subsequent steps in his career have been guided by some very deliberate strategy – not to build his ‘brand’, but to grow his music’s skill and integrity.

..and now, at CTIJF 2017

Of those early days, he tells how being dragged to jazz festivals by his father “bored me”. But then he bought a R20 second-hand harmonica on a whim, inspired by a desire to play When the Saints Go Marching In. He used harmonica-playing to busk his way though a Muizenberg High School homework assignment on ‘Something I Like Doing’. That effort caught the eagle eye of legendary music teacher Fred Kuit. “Come to music,” said Kuit. “Here’s a tambourine.” By the Christmas of that year he was allowed to take a cornet home for the holidays, was devouring albums like Hothouse Flowers and Kind of Blue – and the rest (two FMR Awards, trips to Norway, a Samro Overseas Scholarship, the album deal) is, as they say, history.

English is unstinting in his praise of Kuit, a legendary teacher responsible for the genesis of the Western Cape’s music focus schools. “Suddenly, when somebody becomes a mentor, they’re not just ‘that teacher’ any more. You talk; you hang out. My friends used to tell me: ‘Bro’ that’s weird!’’ Teachers like Kuit, he feels, are vital in a sometimes unfeeling education system. “School doesn’t allow you to be who you are. It boxes you in. And many teachers will fail you rather than finding something you can succeed in. [Without mentors like Fred] going to school won’t make you a scholar.”

English went on to study at UCT, and travelled around South Africa (including a two-year stint in one of Cape Town’s best known music finishing schools: the Jimmy Dludlu band) and in Scandinavia, appeared at the Grahamstown Jazz Festival and eventually graduated from Georgia State University with a Masters in Jazz Studies. In 2014, he appeared with Russell Gunn’s Krunk Orchestra at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, a meeting that eventually led to the Hot Shoe signing.


His album’s title track, composed by English as part of a suite incorporating Nelson Mandela’s words, talks to South Africa on several levels. “It’s about the nation Mandela imagined: the end of apartheid, no inequality, justice, all that…” English looks reflective. “Whether it’s actually happened or not, that’s another story, but it’s the nation we still imagine and it wouldn’t even have started happening without him.”

As well as English’s own compositions, there are six standards on the album, including Cherokee, which he calls “the pinnacle song for getting your chops up – it’s the trumpet player’s song!” But the song isn’t there to show off speed. The real challenge, he says, is tackling such well-trodden terrain and “making it sound like you.” Trading phrases with fellow horn-men Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden in the studio (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppUhWAzbGsk ) , the goal was to achieve that.

He dismisses the jazz mythology of such encounters inevitably turning into ‘cutting contests’: “I’m not afraid of working with more experienced players like Russell and Joe. Music isn’t a competition, we’re just having a three-way conversation – even if I’m worse than them, we’ll have fun.”

Originality is something English prizes. For that reason, he says, he takes “my hat off to Mandla Mlangeni, because he’s addressing the trumpet as an instrument, and the social issues of our country. I’m not sure who else here is doing that the way Mandla does right now.”

And yet he admits there’s a paradox in pairing his admiration for originality with an album dominated by standards. “Look, it is my debut album. In America. I feel it’s good to have something out there where people can recognise the tunes, even if they don’t know me. When they buy music, people often go by familiarity – it’s like when you’re travelling you’ll order a hot dog to eat: nobody can mess up a hot dog.”

English hopes, though, to use the familiar foundations of the first album as a stepping-stone to others that are more personal.

“I’m not going to stop making albums,” he says, “even if the world is changing, and even cars don’t have CD players any more. Albums help me to not lose sight of why I do this: making music. It’s personal. I can hold this thing, and say: this is me and where I’ve got to; what I do and how I do things.”

Part of that, is staying rooted in South Africa, despite his current Atlanta base. “It’s not easy to lose sight of your roots, but somehow you can…when you’re living away, something’s gotta give. But I’ve sat myself down and asked myself what defines me as a South African in the States: is it composing or playing? And composing is becoming increasingly important.”

He’s thinking of a suite – “not necessarily my next album, but in the plan” – tentatively titled Sweet Shirl and Gorgeous George.

“My late grandfather, George Liederman – ‘Georgie Blue Eyes’ – passed on Easter Sunday five years ago. He was a modest old guy, always trying to make others happy. My grandmother was Shirley. The suite will have string arrangements, because strings, for me, are literally strings to the soul. You hear them and go: ‘Aah, yesss…’”

That, for English, is the secret to keeping home in his heart, even so far away. “Once you tap into something personal, there are no boundaries, no finishing line.”