Why Sisonke Xonti’s Standard Bank Young Artist award matters

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.

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This year’s SBYA winners; Xonti second-left

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.”playing.jpg

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.

album.jpgWhen 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.

 

Congratulations to Sisonke Xonti, SBYA for jazz 2020!

A full comment will follow — but reedman Xonti is a fabulous choice, with a record of compelling playing that stretches across all the byways, corners and mainstreams of the current young jazz scene. Hopefully, it’ll get the gorgeous Iyonde album re-distributed more widely.

Decadence: when bankers select our best artists

When did we decide that ‘decadent’ was a word of praise?

It started, predictably if not innocuously, with the advertising industry back in the 1970s hawking desserts, (Magnum, for example, describes itself as coming “in 11 decadent flavours” and even its vegan version in “two decadent flavours”).

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Eleven decadent flavours

The Collins dictionary defines decadent as “characterized by decay or decline, as in being self-indulgent or morally corrupt… synonyms: degenerate, abandoned, corrupt, degraded, immoral, depraved, debased, debauched, dissolute, self-indulgent.” The marketing shills are playing on that last, minor, connotation. And even then, it’s a bloody pejorative!

The use of decadent as a praise-word reflects the schizophrenic relationship of late-stage capitalism with food – excess is good/ certain foods are “bad” – by recalling the elite banquets held during the decline of the Roman Empire. Banqueters gobbled as many

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Roman banquet: “Pass the sick-bag, Atticus”

jellied larks’ tongues and dormice stewed in honey as they could before bolting to a dark corner to shove their fingers down their throats, hurled the semi-digested muck up for a slave to clean, and tripped over their togas racing back to their couches to start stuffing all over again. Hold that image in your mind as you ponder choosing between those “decadent” flavours of ice-cream.

Philosopher Seneca noted: “They vomit so they may eat and eat so they may vomit”: eating disorder as political metaphor.

Today, the word “decadent” is employed to describe everything from paint colours to music. A month ago I received an invitation to “a decadent experience for your musical palette (sic).” I won’t name the poor jazzman concerned; suffice to say his music is thoughtful, thought-provoking and fresh – the complete opposite of what decadent means.

This weekend, I received another invitation, to the announcement of the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Awards.

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Fur chairs and fine cognac

The event is being held at Alice & Fifth, a supper-club in Sandton. One review describes it as follows: “it oozes decadence…a bottle of Louis XIII cognac is displayed in a cabinet…the bottle is valued at R240 000 and a shot costs R8 000…real fur from Iceland covers various chairs…the menu is meat-heavy, clearly catering to male patrons…There’s a members-only section and to play in this part of the club it will set you back R50,000 worth of alcohol for the year. Some of this – with your name engraved on it – will be kept in a beautiful cabinet.”

No doubt (er…male) members of our elites, eager to sit on dead, previously tortured animals with an absurdly high carbon cost, slurping R8K brandy shots, are queuing up to pay. Invitees to the Awards won’t have to. This once.

But, guys, these are the Young Artist Awards! One key aim is certainly not decadent; to give exposure and creative financial support to deserving artists. The awards have helped jazz players find time to compose and assemble major original music projects. Associated music education initiatives have genuinely improved access for multiple young jazz learners. None of that is decadent.

(Other aims perhaps merit closer scrutiny – for example, associating a finance brand with ‘culture’, thus wokewashing its image to make it more attractive to upwardly mobile customers and investors; and contributing to the commodification of cultural creations as lucrative investment objects for gallerists and collectors. And all major banks, not just this one, do things of this sort.)

The patronage system behind such initiatives is decadent, though: it’s as old and regressive as the Roman Empire itself, however benign its current administrators are. Artists should be able to survive decently in society and create without waiting for an accolade from a finance house. That was one plank of the struggle and the Freedom Charter: decent survival for all who live here. Handing the arts to the marketplace as official policy did here in the early 1990s, was literally decadent: a clear decline from the people-directed cultural initiatives with access for all of the struggle era –”The doors of culture shall be opened!”

So maybe siting the awards at Alice&Fifth tells us more than it intends to? “Opening the doors of culture? That’ll be R50 000 membership and R8 000 for your first shot, sir. Oh, and do try not to get paint on our Icelandic fur chairs.”

Back to the future as Pops Mohamed’s Kalamazoo is re-released

In the beginning was the music – and the music was Sheer. Or, to put it another way, the political change of 1990 unleashed much original new South African music, but it wasn’t until 1994 and the advent of the Sheer Sound label that a coherent archive and a consistent catalogue gained wide public attention.

That’s tended to overshadow the great quantity of pre-1994 releases, from multiple labels –including occasionally the majors, but more importantly some we don’t credit enough for their role in the SA jazz renaissance. One of those was Shifty, which received a 30th birthday accolade at the Alliance Francaise in 2014.

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Pops Mohamed

But far more venerable was the As-Shams/Sun stable of Johannesburg music industry veteran Rashid Vally, which for nearly half a century before and after liberation, under various imprints (in 1973, for the then-Dollar Brand, the label was ‘Mandla’), gave a voice to South African modern jazz. The label’s releases of the music of Abdullah Ibrahim are well known, but there were all kinds of other jazz and pop experiments taking place in those Sun studios and around the downtown Kohinoor record store.

Now, thanks to multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, who composed, produced and played on many, we have the chance to hear a rare gem again.

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In September, Mohamed re-released the eponymous first volume of his Kalamazoo series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXKJOfKHc94&feature=youtu.be&utm_source=My+new+joburg+list&utm_campaign=46f87ae136-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_09_12_09_35_; 

Kalamazoo Music – africandreamtime@gmail.com ) These six tracks from 1990 feature not only himself as composer, arranger and keyboard programmer, but the late tenorist Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee and bassist Sipho Gumede – the release honours them both – with drummers Monty Weber and Ian Herman too. On the closer, Happy Feeling, reedman Robbie Jansen also puts in an appearance on alto.

If you like Manenberg, you’ll love Kalamazoo. The shape of the music is classic, but updated, bump jive (one track is actually called Kort Street Bump Jive). But the sound is carried far beyond that by the imaginations of the saxmen (the other altoist is Mzi Khumalo) and the impeccable rhythms of Gumede. Some of the tracks are frustratingly short – you’ll long for more than the three minutes-plus of Gumede’s groove-driven solo excursion Spring Fever – but those were sometimes the constraints of that era’s recordings.

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Sipho Gumede

Kalamazoo was named for the close-knit, defiant informal settlement that abutted Mohamed’s home area of Reiger Park. It was another of those pockets of multi-ethnic resistance apartheid had tried and failed to erase (neoliberalism has been more successful); reminders that Johannesburg is a migrant city and ‘tribe’ ain’t nothing but a number.

Mohamed and Gumede’s own partnership had been forged in fire: enacting defiance all through the apartheid years when the regime was insisting on the scale and importance of the differences between the Zulu-speaking bassist and the so-called ‘coloured’, Afrikaans-speaking keyboardist.

“It was always very important for us not to stay inside the classification,” says Mohamed. “The regime divided us – people classified ‘coloured’ had identity documents; black people had the dompas. We didn’t accept that separation.  Sipho, although he was born in KZN, could play any feel. Sometime he’d joke and ask me: ‘Does [my bass line] feel coloured enough?’”

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Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee

There’s more intriguing music where that came from. Next, Mohamed plans to release the ground-breaking 1975 Black Disco (also with Gumede & Coetzee), a sound inspired in equal parts by Soweto Soul, African Jazz and American R&B. Both that and Kalamazoo remind us how vast (and often unexplored) is the black South African popular music legacy of even the past few decades. This raises again the question of why radio doesn’t play it, music courses don’t teach it and public archives don’t collect, display and treasure it. International search engines such as Google can only access what we ourselves have first researched and published. If we delay, and such cultural traces disappear – as they too easily can – all Google will be able to show our grandchildren is a big, fat emptiness.

(NOTE: The quote from Pops Mohamed comes from a 2016 interview he granted me during the creation of liner notes for another re-release: the second ‘Black Disco’ album, Night Express, re-released by Matsuli Music. https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/track/night-express-2)

 

Remembering Jurgen Brauninger

Next Sunday 20 October a memorial concert for New Music composer Jurgen Brauninger (who died in May) will be held at the Kerksaal, Hoofstraat Conceptual, 52 Hoofstraat, Reibeck Kasteel (http://www.hoofstraatconceptual.co.za/), as part of the Sterkfontein Composers Meeting, which is being held this year in Malmesbury. The concert will feature the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet playing music by Brauninger, Michael Blake, Clare Loveday and Matthew Peterson. For an appreciation of Brauninger’s work, follow this link: https://robynsassenmyview.com/2019/05/17/rip-durban-noise-guru-jurgen-brauninger/

 

Vatiswa Ndara, the SABC bailout, and showbiz exploitation

Vatiswa Ndara’s open letter to the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture https://www.iol.co.za/entertainment/tv/local/vatiswa-ndaras-open-letter-to-nathi-mthethwa-stop-exploiting-actors-34292050 was long overdue. Set aside the specifics of the actor’s beef with Ferguson Films, and the general picture she describes resonates across all the creative industries, including music.

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Vatiswa Ndara

No doubt some fresh idiot at the next funeral will repeat the question, “Why do artists die in poverty?” (The person to whom she addressed her letter is very fond of asking it.) The answer is twofold.

First, artists are part of the people, and most South Africans still live and die in poverty. That’s a much bigger discussion, and one we have postponed for far too long.

Second, artists are also workers, and the labour, contract, and conditions of production issues Ndara raised make the situation even worse.

People outside the industry are often fooled by headlines on the showbiz pages about an artist’s fee for a single event. Events such as arts festivals or stadium concerts happen only a few times in a year. In between, that fee has to cover all living and family expenses, rehearsal and development time on the artist’s craft, the purchase and maintenance of equipment such as musical instruments (at top VAT rate) or attire and other work expenses. Try dividing that figure by the number of weeks in the year when artists go without paid work.

Actors – and sometimes session musicians tied to a studio or label – often work on something close to zero-hours contracts: they have to be instantly on call, so cannot accept other work – but whether and how often they will be called is not guaranteed.

Artists – and especially beginners – are constantly enticed to work for minute (and sometimes no) fees for the sake of ‘exposure’. Conditions on stage and on-set are often squalid, sometimes dangerous, and too often infused with a toxic atmosphere of bullying and harassment (see, for example, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-07-18-mbongeni-ngema-removed-from-sarafina-set-after-more-allegations-of-sexual-harassment/ ).

As inner cities gentrify, very often the spots, big and small, that stage live performances are squeezed out by zoning and noise regulations, or demolished to make way for residential property that helps rentiers get rich. There are still very few multi-purpose arts spaces for communities outside the cities in townships and rural areas. Research tells us that live performance remains the lifeblood of the arts.

What performers need is a militant trade union, well-informed about the practicalities and nuances of the labour issues in different arts disciplines, to take on these struggles. The Minister to whom Ndara addressed the letter is the current patron of a government-sponsored artists’ organisation whose existence stands in the way of forming one. CWUSA (the Creative Workers Union of South Africa) may have all the best intentions. However, it is relatively unknown outside its small membership; its mandating processes remain opaque, and its public pronouncements have been, at best, bland and generic. A social security fund for artists – CWUSA’s current main platform plank – would be useful. Attacks on recorded music ‘piracy’ – still its patron’s obsession – are increasingly irrelevant to the current industry value chain in Africa (see https://theconversation.com/its-wrong-to-cut-and-paste-global-north-policies-onto-africas-music-industries-123388 ). Neither of these policy points even gets close to addressing the kinds of structural exploitation Ndara has raised. Indeed, foregrounding them actually de-links artists and their labour issues from the ongoing struggles of all South Africans for a living wage, when in fact it’s the same struggle.

Ndara’s letter rather overshadowed the week’s other big cultural industry story, although the two share common ground: the SABC has been bailed out, but the corporation still owes massive monies to working musicians.

SABC currently owes R250 million in unpaid royalties – a fraction of its bailout bonanza. When Hlaudi Motsoeneng ran the organisation, he promised that playing 90% local music would make South African artists rich. He omitted the condition for fulfilling that promise: “if we actually pay them what we owe”.

Now the Hlauds have cleared and we can see what colour the sky is. Any chance of achieving a useful, realistic local content quota – such as the ICASA-proposed 60-70% – in the forseeable future has been sabotaged by his arrogant bungling; knowledgeable specialist DJs who actually played good South African music have lost their jobs; and the debt to artists remains.

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David Scott

The SABC owes R125.8M to Samro; R104.2M to Sampra; R8.8M to Airco; R3.3M to Risa; and R6M to Capasso. The effectiveness and probity of these collecting societies is in some cases disputed (again, a different issue) – but they can’t pay out what they don’t receive. Musician David Scott of The Kiffness has started a petition to collect on this debt. You can find it here: https://www.change.org/p/sabc-the-sabc-must-pay-r250-million-royalty-debt-to-musicians Signing it would make a start.

 

 

Marcus Wyatt’s ZAR Jazz Orchestra Into Dust: situation normal, all fired up

“What could be more mysterious than a work of music?” writes US jazz critic Ted Gioia. “When the aliens arrive from their distant galaxy, they won’t have much trouble understanding our food, sex and politics – those all make perfect sense. But they will scratch their green scaly heads at why people plug music into their ears or get up and dance when the band starts to play. ‘Captain, we are unable to decipher the messages hidden in these three-minute bursts of sound and the earthlings refuse to give us the code.’ (…) And jazz performance may puzzle them most of all. What could be stranger than a band playing the identical song, night after night, but making it sound different each time?” (https://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Jazz-Ted-Gioia/dp/0465060897 )

Gioia has it right, of course. The shock of jazz’s new happens in process, in the moment, in the playing, whatever the repertoire and players. That often makes it hard for music writers – constantly pressured for news only of fads and ephemera to keep their platform ahead of FOMO – to place stories about a collection of known players working brilliantly in a known format.

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cover artwork by Romy Brauteseth

Which may explain why the second, double-album release from Marcus Wyatt’s ZAR Jazz Orchestra, Into Dust/Waltz for Jozi (https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/marcuswyattthezarjazzorchestra ), released back in July, has barely been mentioned by most South African media, while the same outfit’s “Battle of the Bands” with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra at Joy of Jazz last weekend has been name-checked almost everywhere. (It was not any kind of ‘battle’: that’s a zero-sum game, which good music never is. Two very different bands simply alternated. Unsurprisingly, each sounded different from the other. But, hey, novelty!)

So let’s start with a declaration. The ZAR Jazz Orchestra does, across two CDs, pretty well what you’d expect from 20 skilled and experienced jazz players using the conventional array of instruments and working in a live club setting. (The album was recorded at the Orbit). Of the 11 tracks, a handful have already been heard on Wyatt’s earlier albums while one, Feya Faku’s Peddie’s Place, is a much-played part of that latter hornman’s repertoire.Waltzf Joz.jpg

Nothing to see here, then: move along, please. Except that new things hit you …oh, about every couple of minutes.

First, Wyatt doesn’t run his big-band like a regiment. You’ll hear the expected gorgeous textural contrasts of massed instruments against solo sounds – but there’s no predictable order for who solos when, or which sections’ sound is foregrounded. Rather it’s whose voice and spirit suits which number, and so we have the lyricism of Bokani Dyer on the opener, Connected; Sydney Mavundla’s horn rather than Wyatt’s on Klipdrift Cinderella, and reedman Linda Sikhakhane bringing his fire to Peddie’s Place. (Sikhakhane is also a surprise in his own right, because, studying overseas, he’s recently been heard far too rarely on South African albums.)

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Wyatt & bassist Romy Brauteseth

Second, numbers initially recorded with smaller ensembles sound completely different using all the colours a big-band puts at the arranger’s disposal. The dynamics of Into Dust, for example, in its first outing on the 2013 One Life in the Sun create a lean, sinewy camel-race of a sound, with Domenic Egli’s clattering drums way out front. On the ZAR recording, by contrast, the number becomes a travelling conversation between drum and horns towards a more mysterious end-point .

That’s one aspect of the important work ZAR is doing: affirming and building the South African standard repertoire. New tunes enter the canon when a big-band arrangement demonstrates their robustness – Wyatt’s own Mali is probably a strong contender here. More established numbers, such as Peddie’s Place, have their position in the canon strengthened every time they are made to sound fresh again in a new context.

No big-band can survive without something perfectly imperfect going on between bass and drums, and the teamwork of Romy Brauteseth and Marlon Witbooi more than fills the bill. It’s hard to explain: you don’t want drum and bass marching in perfect lock-step – that takes us back to big-band as regiment again. What you need is a minute, perfectly-judged tension between the rhythm patterns of the two instruments. Brauteseth and Witbooi create that and never lose it. Your ears might not detect it under the volume of other instrumental sounds, but it’s that springy musical tension that holds the whole shebang together and moves it along. Getting that so superbly right makes Into Dust/Waltz for Jozi an energetic and energising listen, despite its coming from 20 players largely sitting down.

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Drummer Marlon Witbooi

I’m still in awe of Wyatt’s ability as leader to hold such an expensive, unwieldy beast as a big-band together, and even marshal the resources to record it – twice, now. I also hope he doesn’t desert the smaller formats, because, as this release demonstrates, those more spontaneous outfits can be where great new tunes and ideas are first born. But Into Dust, like its ZAR Jazz Orchestra predecessor, has to be a strong contender for the next SAMA, for delivering exactly what admirers of jazz big bands hope for.