Where are the flowers for Gilbert?

Sometimes, you wait and wait for DSAC – and nothing happens. No, for once I’m not talking about the still-problematic artists’ relief fund, but about the failure of the Department yet, after more than two weeks, to acknowledge the passing of a titan of South African drums, Gilbert Matthews.

Since then, stage artist Mary Twala and director/actor Welcome Msomi have both passed, and DAC has been prompt – quite rightly – to mark their passing.

But for Bra’ Gil, who brought credit to South Africa from a host of international jazz stages, the official silence remains deafening

Maybe the Department doesn’t know who he was? In that case, it’s time to tell them.

Gilbert Matthews was born in Graaf-Reinet in the Cape in 1943. Veteran trumpeter John Ntshibilikwana, his relative, recalled:

“Because of the poverty there, it was virtually impossible for people to acquire instruments. If you wished to play guitar, you had to take an oil tin and make a guitar out of it. That is how Gilbert started – with a paraffin-tin guitar!”

Despite these straitened circumstances, Matthews’ guitar-playing was good enough for him to begin gigging professionally, eventually securing work at the first (there have been several successors) Tiffany’s Club in Cape Town, where he taught himself to play drums and switched instruments.  His playing caught the ear of the city’s jazz elite, and in the late 1960s he featured on Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (Chris Schilder’s) Spring https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiF-ibx7Xls.

In the Spring era

After those sessions, he travelled to the US via London.  He was mentored by both Max Roach and Elvin Jones, secured an 18-month engagement as Ray Charles’ regular drummer, and also worked with Sarah Vaughan.

But home called. By the mid-1970s he was back in Johannesburg, gigging with the then-Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi and more. He worked in the house band of the Black Mikado musical staged at Diepkloof Hall, and as a session musician on various tours, including what he found a particularly dispiriting series of hotel gigs in Swaziland.

SPIRITS REJOICE: Back row, l to r: Thabo Mashishi, Sipho Gumede, Gilbert Matthews, George Tjefumani, Front row: Mervyn Afrika, Robbie Jansen, Paul Petersen, Duku Makasi.

On his return, he began making South African jazz history, calling his Black Mikado band-mates and others together to form Spirits Rejoice, named in honour of an Albert Ayler recordng. Spirits aimed to create the kind of imaginative, exploratory jazz and fusion music that Earth Wind and Fire, Weather Report and others were pioneering in the USA.

Spirits Rejoice was not only a band, but a symposium and university for a whole generation of South African modern jazz players. Its first incarnation included Bheki Mseleku, Robbie Jansen, Duku Makasi, George Tjefumani, Thabo Mashishi, Sipho Gumede and Russell Herman; later incarnations included Mervyn Afrika, Khaya Mahlangu, Paul Petersen, Themba Mehlomakhulu, singer Felicia Marion and later the whole vocal lineup of Joy. For the much younger Mahlangu, it was the innovative approach of Spirits that inspired him – “It was a beautiful learning experience” –  with Gumede, to want “to do stuff like that – but in a more African context.”

The band released two albums, African Spaces in 1977 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TuhQ9nfZOUand the self-titled Spirits Rejoice in 1978 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_yEAhRhnSA and won, according to pianist Mervyn Afrika, nine Sarie Awards: the highest honours open to South African popular musicians.  According to the late Ezra Ngcukana, “They were a very high-powered band. They made history.”

But despite these accolades, and some residencies – including at Cape Town’s Sherwood Hotel, Beverly Lounge and Landrost Hotel, as well as legendary jazz spot, Manenberg’s Club Montreal –respect and the freedom to innovate further were scarce as the 1970s came to a close.

In 1979, Matthews left for Sweden. There, he married and established an extremely distinguished career that let him stretch his innovative vision out further. He worked regularly with the group of  saxophonist Christer Boustedt, and, after the reedman’s death, re-established it as The Contemporary Bebop Quintet. Additionally, he worked with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNhMHnPfRvo, regularly with Archie Shepp, and with Mischa Mengelberg, Roscoe Mitchell, John Tchicai https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJimdUq8COE, Albert Mangelsdorff and Charlie Mariano, among others.

He was the drummer on the SA Exiles Thunderbolt recording, and on bassist Johnny Dyani’s revolutionary Born Under The Heathttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJzFFIITao4.

Matthews was playing and recording in Europe, always in distinguished company, well into the 21st Century. But in recent years ill-health gradually imprisoned him away from the stage.

There can be no better way to end than with Matthews’ own description of the soaring improvisatory fusions that Spirits Rejoice pioneered:

“It’s like a game…we play anything that is in our heads and later rearrange it into a meaningful tune. At first, it sounds like some mad musicians just making noise with their instruments. The, later, we remove the noise, and all we are left with is music.”

For the South African cultural landscape, Matthews and Spirits Rejoice did indeed make history. Now, indeed, all we are left with is the music. Hamba Kahle to a visionary of our jazz scene: may his spirit rest in peace and rhythm.


As I go to press , I learn also, and with great sadness of the death on July 1 of one of our finest music (and political) photographers, George Hallett, at the age of 78 in Cape Town. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the official tributes to his brilliant and liberatory work. 

Jazz at Makhanda 3: a place called home

The more I think about it, the more the Makhanda Festival description of Standard Bank Young Artist, saxophonist and composer Sisonke Xonti, as the “new face of South African jazz – urban, erudite, skilled but rooted in his culture”, disturbs me. He is all those things, for sure, as his second festival performance ably demonstrated.

Sisonke Xonti

But so are Tete Mbambisa and Louis Moholo-Moholo, at least a generation earlier. So were the late Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Mekoa and many more. Perhaps “erudite” is code for “he went to university” (so did Mekoa, but plenty of other brilliant players didn’t). I’m not sure what “urban” might be code for, and “skilled but …” carries a most unfortunate implication that we might expect others rooted in their culture to be unskilled. It’s a tough life, writing PR blurbs. There are, after all, only so many words in the dictionary. These need a re-think.

Happily, Xonti is in truth the next generation of our long-established, distinctive jazz tradition: born in the cities, intensely schooled – whether the university was UCT or Monde’s Place – and always with a keen ear for intriguing sounds, from grandmother’s knee or the outer constellations.

Xonti’s 4-movement Migration Suite served as a beautiful sonic riposte. In it, he’s “trying to make sense,”, he says “of the different sounds I hear around the country.” What the music spoke of was made all the more poignant by our current situation, which hits migrants hardest of all, and that was underlined by Xonti’s fluid, characterful playing – from roots abstraction to compelling swing – as well as by Tebo Moleko’s words; “Should I go home or continue?.. [facing] permanent impermanent residencies in the cities of their birth…” All four movements sing journeys and identity, from the galloping rhythms of the Eastern Cape to the rolling bluesiness of the final movement: the kind of classic melody that might have found a welcome at The Pelican or on the As-Shams label in the 1970s. But all fresh, all original.

Yonela Mnana

Xonti was in good company, from the august presence of percussion master Tlale Makhene, through trumpeter Sakhile Simani and pianist Yonela Mnana to bassist Benjamin Jephta and drummer S’phelelo Mazibuko. As he showed in his own set, Simani can be sharp-edged and adventurous, or bate the blades of his notes into gentleness. Mnana’s performance throughout was quite remarkable, whether in the twisty arpeggios of the Suite, or when his voice dropped us into territory just south of the Jazz Ministers in the closer, a beautifully extended Nomalungelo. Everything we heard should form the core of a next, must-have album.

Mzwandile Buthelezi

Though the Cara Stacey/Keenan Ahrends/Mzwandile Buthelezi project The Texture of Silence was very different, it was also seeking home: a place where image and sound could both live. Stacey describes its goal as “to create fixed compositions, structured improvisations and free improvisations that help us to explore together”, exploring “the potential and limitations around the terms ‘improvisation’ and ‘composition’ and the grey area sometimes between these.” I’d love to see this project a few months down the line, because there was a sense the three are still learning one another and there’s much more yet to unfold. A wonderful sense of shared and shifting leadership characterised the sounds, as Stacey moved from the metal keys of the nyungwe-nyungwe (thumb piano) to the ivories of the piano, to umtshingo pipe, to umhrube bow, and Ahrends from weaving textures to crafting interlocked pulses and drawing out melodies. Close your eyes and it was still lovely to hear. On the other side of the stage, a small shower of raindrop-notes on Buthelezi’s paper resolved into the journeys of sound and the face of a creator. At the 40-minute conclusion, I wanted to see more of where it would all go and how the more explicit images emerging on the paper might further provoke the sounds. As they say, watch this space…  

Tsepang Ramoba

Tshepang Ramoba (whom you may know as the BlkJks drummer) explicitly called his project ‘home’: Mošate in SePedi. Inspired by that tradition, but employing very contemporary vocal effects and the synthesiser of “Dejot” (Danial Jockob) in Berne, the music again challenged the ‘roots’ box some festival publicity seems to assume. The guitar of Sibusile Xaba (though communities, years and miles distant from the American) as usual played the Sun Ra role. It was often he who provoked the rest of the team (sensitive bassist Xola Kulati, trumpeter Tebogo Seitei and percussionist Machume Zango, playing from his Mozambique base, but melding seamlessly into the collective) into space travel. There’s a wonderful moment of collective abstraction about 15 minutes in that, alone, is worth the ticket. Ramoba has an impressive vocal range, up into an eerie falsetto. Although it was Xaba’s name that had drawn me to the show in the first place, I ended up appreciating the whole ensemble and concept for its strength and imagination. (But the trumpet was under-miked.)

For musicians improvising together on stage, there’s always another home too: the home found in familiar and empathetic colleagues. In 2019, Dutch reedman Mete Erker and pianist Jeroen van Vliet marked 20 years of working together, and their live set, almost the last of the Makhanda jazz events, enacted that almost without the need for words (although, never fear, the Dutch announcements are helpfully subtitled). Much of the material was from the album, Pluis, which the duo released to mark their anniversary. The title track conveyed the quality of that kind of musical home: each player can take risks because the other has his back. Still, the tune that really caught my ears was Erker’s bright, inventive Dandelion. The Dutch audience was warm but far too polite  – if van Vliet and Erker had actually been in Makhanda, we’d have been stamping.

And now I – and you – have another 11 days to catch up on the many shows we’ve missed. So this may not be the final instalment…

Jazz at Makhanda Two: the power of the righteous shout

I’m catching far less music than I’d hoped. Having said how nice it is to enjoy Makhanda jazz from the warmth and comfort of home, the counterweight is that the demands of my teaching and editing work continue relentlessly, eroding time for both watching and reviewing. Still, I – and you – have until July 16 to catch up. There’s a lot worth catching up on.

From left: Ramon Alexander, Valentino Europa, Byron Abrahams, Annemie Nel

I’m always surprised, when I see him perform, how little pianist Ramon Alexander is known here in Joburg. Technically he’s an impressively fluent, original player; he always brings new material or arrangements; and he has a gift for assembling sympatico ensembles, often introducing fresh musicians. His Makhanda set was no exception. Alongside Alexander’s regular drummer Annemie Nel, we met reedman Byron Abrahams and bassist Valentino Europa for a masterclass in what “asserting a tradition” means – in this case, the jazz tradition of the Cape.

The best of that tradition has always worked inside a highly accessible frame – catchy melodies, danceable rhythms and emotional warmth – to make music that’s far from conservative. Think of the late Robbie Jansen, one of the fathers to whom Alexander pays tribute. When you went to one of Robbie’s gigs, you knew you’d dance – but you’d also be bowled over by the musical intellects of all involved.

Abrahams demonstrates a sharp ear for the kind of acid heat Jansen used to generate, alongside command of a heartfelt lyricism that well matches Alexander’s own. Europa – although he’s a generation and a coast apart – reminds me of the late Sipho Gumede: he has his own voice, but his feel radiates the same kind of gentle glow as the Durbanite’s. As for Nel, she’s my favourite kind of ensemble drummer: crisp and no-nonsense precise; but constantly attentive to where the music needs to go. No grandstanding here from anybody, just highly accomplished collaborative work on music that feels straight from the heart.

Guitarist Vuma Levin’s Antique Spoons set presents material familiar to those of us who own the albums. Levin is a very good guitarist indeed, and neither that, nor the entrancing skill and imagination of Sisonke Xonti, Romy Brauteseth, Bokani Dyer and Peter Auret need repeated praise songs.  But it’s compositional strength that keeps familiar music alive, not only a great band. Levin’s material, despite its deliberate thematic minimalism, offers something fresh to the ear whenever it comes on stage. Maybe it’s these Covid times, but the sprightly pathos of End of the Rainbow has never struck me so hard as it did on Sunday night. Even if you think you know Levin, listen again.

Vuma Levin

Less familiar  – we need more albums, and more airplay – is reedman Linda Sikhakhane’s material with the Isambulo (Revelation) project. Again, his company no longer needs lavish praise. Any show featuring Sikhakhane alongside trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, pianist Afrika Mkhize, bassist Benjamin Jephta, drummer Siphelelo Mazibuko and percussionist Gontse Makhene will always be worth more than the price of admission. (Even so, Jephta’s heart-stopping bass soloing on Ziyakala…must be mentioned.)

Benjamin Jephta

Self-effacing (it took him 45 minutes to announce the numbers) un-showy and fiercely spiritual, Sikhakhane is a saxophonist who says just about everything through his horn, not his words. In that, he’s part of a clear line of inspirational descent among South African reedmen: the one that runs from John Coltrane (breathing over the opener, Chords of Light) through Winston Mankunku (almost walking the stage in the closer, Ecako/Home; it’s uncanny) to Sikhakhane and his generation. A new album, Open Dialogue, is promised soon; look out for it.

We don’t have an album yet from the Gabisile Motuba/Tumi Mogorosi/Andrei van Wyk project The Wretched – but perhaps what we should rather have is this performance on DVD. UPDATE JULY 5: The Wretched Vinyl is out today.: https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/pillars/savvy-records/the-wretched/T aking its texts from Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and in visual dialogue with paintings from trombonist Malcolm Jiyane, the power of The Wretched is in the complete performance, not just the music.

Gabisile Motuba

The show merits far more publicity than the festival gave it. Like Neo Muyanga’s Making Grace Amazing (which I’ll be reviewing shortly at www.newframe.com) it’s sharply relevant to what’s happening on the world’s streets today as hegemonic empires and systems struggle to reassert their grip even as their people die.

The set opens with Fanon’s account of the calumnies loaded on “the unemployed man…the starving native…vile women …monstrous men. (…) We are…” the objects of those calumnies, Motuba declaims,  “We live in the background.”

Relentless drums and van Wyk’s effects-distorted guitar build the pain and anger. But this isn’t a generic narrative, it’s a specifically South African one. Archive recordings link that pain to the betrayals of the settlement reached with apartheid, when fighters in community self-defence units were ordered to lay down their arms, go home, and just stop their struggle for freedom.

Though I’ve made it literal here for the demands of text, much of that narrative is detailed wordlessly, though the textures of the sound and the segues and tensions between melody and dissonance, quiet and noise, pulse and irregularity. The musicianship from everybody is impressive: intense and totally focused. Motuba sounds more like Skin than a lyrical jazz singer – though she’s using the same vocal skillset, just to tell a different kind of story.

As well as its visceral political impact, The Wretched is an object lesson in the power of sound. In it, in Making Grace Amazing, and in other Makhanda events, an important but un-billed festival theme is emerging: that this is a time for active dissent and antiphony. The best way to shatter the fourth wall of a dangerously cosy virtual world – like the festival, viewed in a comfortable, digital-privileged living room – is to make noise. 2020 must be the year of the righteous shout.

30 June: Dudu Pukwana In My Mind

Thirty years ago today, on 30 June 1990, Walmer Township-born reedman and composer Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana died in London. He was only 51 years old.

Mtutuzeli Dudu Pukwana 100 Club

I was fortunate to know Dudu in the late 1960s and 1970s, in Oxford, where he and the late trumpeter Mongezi Feza were regular and loved guests of our university jazz society, and later in London. There, South African friends in music, and neighbours, formed a supportive and welcoming community, making massive contributions to the city’s cultural landscape –  and creating some of the most memorable music nights at the 100 Club on Oxford Street.

Too few of Dudu’s own words about his life and music in exile survive. He wasn’t a big talker: when asked – even in relaxed social situations – “What do you think about…?” he would often respond “It’s in my music…just listen to my music.”

Into that absence and silence intrude the interpretations of others. One example is the liner notes for a just-released album from Matsuli Music: Dudu Phukwana and the ‘Spears’ https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/dudu-phukwana-and-the-spears, a welcome reissue of rare tracks laid down in the late 1960s.  Meticulously compiled by collector and music journalist Richard Haslop, those notes reconstruct, from interview reminiscences, producer Joe Boyd’s narrative of the recording sessions.  (For more on the album, see https://www.newframe.com/review-dudu-pukwana-and-the-spears/ )

That narrative is necessary background, and the recordings are unarguably essential (and often beautiful) listening. But when it’s about somebody you knew, you get pulled up short by what isn’t in the story: the missing context some listeners may need to make sense of the lives of exiled South African musicians in London.

Diamond Express: artwork by Dambudzo Mdledle

What pulled me up short was a passage where Boyd expresses his recurring regret about being unable “to get some decent solos out of Dudu” to complete one session, because of the saxophonist’s heavy drinking. It wasn’t meant maliciously; that’s how the industry talks. But that relentless logic of extractive capitalism, applied casually to a dead man’s creativity, stopped me cold.

“Exile”, observes drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, “is a fucker.” Let’s unpack that a bit.

Even in London, which at least under Harold Wilson’s Labour government paid lip service to accepting anti-apartheid refugees, their status was always precarious. Seeking a place to stay, a Black South African would pass house after house advertising ‘Room to Rent’, with the postscript “No Dogs, No Blacks.”  The fascists of the National Front marched regularly; racist individuals freely made themselves obnoxious in public spaces such as pubs. (Watch and hear last week’s brilliant Windrush Suite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHkLvRbPLZM for a vivid evocation of that experience from London’s Caribbean community.)

Dudu and Barbara Pukwana in London in the early days

Frustrating bureaucracy rendered state assistance (which did exist) complex to access, although the African National Congress in exile provided some – very modest – support.  The mythology of exiles living high on the hog is just that.

The late guitarist Lucky Ranku recalled “In exile, I had no family. We used to walk around with plastic bags collecting beer bottles to make a few pennies for food.”

Lucky was our closest South African neighbour, living a few streets away in Streatham in a flat shared for a time with artist Dumile Feni. Lucky and Dumile often walked round to do their ironing, share a meal, and watch football. And when Dudu sometimes visited Lucky, he’d walk along to visit us too. Or we’d all end up, after the 100 Club, at the home of lawyer Eddie Tatane and his partner, American violinist Gaby Forrell, for a beer or a few, and sometimes an impromptu jam. It was at one such jam that I learned what a tricky construction Dudu’s apparently straightforward Sonia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5prnBpWN6E was – until he sensibly took my congas away.

Musicians and artists didn’t waste too much time discussing racism or poverty. That, like the cold grey weather, was simply a fact to be shrugged off with a sigh; it was what it was. They talked about home (with longing); about struggle (with conviction); about music (with passion).

White imaginings of Africa

And they talked about their own working lives. A recurring refrain was the corrosive stress of white paymasters demanding they enact a South Africa  – or, worse, a whole “Africa” – conjured up from the outside. It might be the Africa of upbeat “good-time”dance music, feeding into all the over-sexualised caricatures, or the Africa of “wild” free jazz, or something else. But none of those straitjackets represented how these musicians knew South African jazz. It gave no scope to their autonomy, intellect or skill, and that hurt. They relished improvising out to the spheres, mastering harmonic complexity, and coming home to the defiant joy of a danceable groove, all in the space of a single number. Doing that in a decent studio was a freedom they yearned for. As for the other stuff, they bitterly agreed, sometimes you had to be drunk to survive it.

Assegai 1971: I recall nobody much liked the cover

Dudu despised those constraints, and it cost him, financially and emotionally. The closest he came to commercialism was the band Assegai, with future Osibisa bassist Fred Coker: the UK Vertigo label’s one foray into Afro-rock. On their 1971 album, the track Telephone Girl’s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYhHbPG97bM dynamic groove carries double-entendre lyrics that might allude to sex work. It was briefly banned by the BBC after a complaint – but got the outfit airtime too. No publicity is bad publicity, they say.

But the reedman did enjoy a lot about Assegai: he met new audiences and lived his pan-Africanism working with West Africans like Coker.  Getting inside as much African/ diasporic music as possible mattered deeply for his composer’s imagination; he also participated in Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ivk0x1vThY.

If Dudu discussed Telephone Girl at all, though, he swiftly dismissed the lyrics and offered instead forensic dissection of the groove and rhythms (listen to Louis Moholo-Moholo’s superb drum break). He could be at his most expansive and fluent with the sound turned up, educating: “Listen…do you hear how ..?”

When Dudu was bandleader and life had thrown something to make him despair, times backstage – and onstage – could be chaotic. Yet despite the volatile blow-ups (often resolved with interval hugs all round), he genuinely cared about decent treatment for fellow-musicians.

Pukwana’s creative haven: his studio

I once helped organise a college gig where Dudu was sideman and discovered the leader had lied about payment. “Show us the cash,” he demanded. The other players joined in; reluctantly, the leader complied. Pukwana shook out the bag and ostentatiously counted band members and then money, creating five equally small piles of notes. He took his own, and stood up. “To me,” he said, “that seems fair. And as for you, you lying mofo, I will never, ever, work with you again – not because the money is little, but because you lied to us.”

Eloquent and poetic

That’s all background. As Dudu himself said, if you really want to know him, listen to the music. One collaborator, the late UK drummer John Stevens (who collaborated on the Johnny Dyani tribute Mbizo Radebe/ They Shoot to Kill), observed: “When you listened to Dudu, he would actually be saying something very eloquent and poetic. When somebody else is playing a load of arpeggios, what are they actually saying? It may sound like a lot of skills – but what are they saying?”

Stevens and Pukwana in session for Mbizo Radebe

So remember Dudu today by listening to him. Listen to Mra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZsGoO0DJCQ, to Bambelela https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnFTma3Gezg, to Sondela https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1GJb88It0k,  Tete and Barbs In My Mind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThhGpdwD2Lc, B My Dear https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o40vC1gf9LM , Flute Music https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z7W3KlcYiM, Radebe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAFNLSYfeqU, more – so many songs that you could (and should) create a university course from his work alone. 

In his too-short span of years, Dudu gave us not just “some decent solos,” but his soul. I wish I had the isiXhosa to offer adequate praises.

Makhanda jazz: the story so far…

Jacques Courcil

First, sad, non-festival news. Two deaths have left the jazz world poorer over the past few days. Trumpeter and composer Jacques Coursil – also a distinguished semiotician, linguist and mathematician – died on Friday June 26 at the age of 82 in Paris.  To jazz listeners he may be best known as the horn on adventurous 1970s New York work with Sonny Murray and Marion Brown among others, such as the Black Suite. His scholarly pursuits eventually left little room for live music, but his intellectual contributions across all areas were towering. 

Gilbert Matthews

Much closer to home, master drummer, Gilbert Matthews, architect of  Spirits Rejoice, which he formed in 1974 with reedman Duku Makasi, has died in Sweden at the age of 77. Matthews’ leading role in the growth of South African modern jazz merits a far more extensive tribute than these few lines, so expect more in coming weeks. He was also the drummer on the Ibrahim Khalil Shihab/Winston Mankunku Spring, soon to be re-released. Predictably, the South African media haven’t noticed his passing yet.

May both these great spirits rest in peace. Hambani Kahle.


As for Makhanda, the first three jazz days have been a mixed experience. The music has been good; but problems with upload speed mean it hasn’t been possible to stick to viewing plans. The Festival knows about the problems and promises a fix soon; you do get five views per ticket, so it should be possible to catch up fully later. But it means I can only discuss what I could access.

Spha Mdlalose’s opening show underlined the importance of rhythm players in a vocal performance. She’s always an accomplished singer, skilled at using her honeyed voice to convey the embodied emotions of a song. But particularly on that slightly cold set, it’s the conversations between the singer and the creative imaginations of the ensemble that really make a concert live. Every musician in the sextet added insight and beauty to the interpretations, building a big, warm emsemble sound and offering what were often breathtaking solos. Bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela and keyboard player Thandi Ntuli in particular will make me use up most of my replays.

Thembinkosi Mavimbela

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Urban Sessions, but the visual style of these Makhanda concerts has been occasionally intrusive. The quality of both sound and vision is excellent. However, a fondness for overhead helicopter shots keeps shoving interruptive awareness of the filming process into your concentration on the stage-level interactive music process. A matter of taste, I guess… 

It was another superb bassist, Nhlanhla Radebe, who shone in trumpeter Sakhile Simani’s concert, People of My Community. From the opening notes of the opening number, A Very First Thought, his restrained, empathetic support and plangent solo voice commanded attention. That’s less easy when your peers on stage are Simani, pianist Bokani Dyer and drummer Tumi Mogorosi. Simani can be both a quiet, lyrical player and a spiky, awe-inspiring speed-merchant. He let us see both sides, travelling furthest out on the closer, Song for Bra Zim, and piercing the heart on the duet It Always Comes Back to You.  Dyer is wonderful whatever context you hear him in (and able to intuit perfectly what each different ensemble he plays with needs), while Mogorosi had a surprise in store. The drummer’s hallmark is often building subtle, nuanced textures: wholly compelling, but a million miles from the loud  ‘jazz drummer’ stereotype. But just before segueing into Feya Faku’s composition, Ilizwe, he pulled out an intense, clever, complex, old-style solo ( hear it at around 28 minutes). It was the way the late Lulu Gontsana used to wake up a quiet crowd, and demanded that we all be in the room, whooping and hollering along. It was magnificent – but a poignant reminder of what we lose in lockdown by not being together. 

Sakhile Simani. Pic:Gary Horlor

Very different from those set-piece concerts was the Ponte Maputo Durban project of pianist “Mash’ Mashiloane and multi-instrumentalist Matchume Zango. Part- documentary, part-archival footage, part-live performance, the two musicians discussed and enacted upbringing, identity and music, beautifully underlining in words and sounds how much unites the African continent that colonialists carved up with barbed-wire borderlines called ‘South Africa’ and ‘Mozambique’. This is the kind of video schools should be showing: great music, with a sharp decolonising discourse running through.

Song to the power of three

Then, last night, singer/composer Gloria Bosman presented her Beyond Talent Ensemble, and songs old and new, in the company of vocalist/bassist Aus Tebza Sedumedi and vocalist Titi Luzipo. (Drummer Bernice Boikanyo and pianist Pebble Mambane provided perfectly judged support, but mostly discreetly: the three women owned the stage.)

The show was even better than I’d been hoping .

Moving easily between languages and genres, Bosman delivered the kind of performance some of us have been missing for a while. Wholly at ease in her own skin (and the most accomplished so far at breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of online video) she presented a programme of new songs, old favourites – yes, Love’s Gonna Get You/Mbombela was there – and classic material like a Sophiatown-worthy version of S’thandwa Sam’. The programme and format thankfully gave Aus Tebza’s deft bass-playing more room to stretch out than she finds in her other role as an in-demand support artist. Meanwhile, the younger Luzipo fits right alongside Bosman as a characterful singer with lots to say.

Aus Tebza (Tebogo Sedumedi)

We heard three voices expressing awesome power without bullying our ears, swinging without retreating into American formulae, and making classics sound fresh again. That last was most apparent on the strikingly original closer, re-visioning Ntyilo Ntyilo. Each voice told its own story alone and then the three came together for an inspiring, churchy shout.  On Ntyilo, Mambane gave us an intriguing piano introduction; when he’s not offering empathetic support, he also has things to say.

I kept writing ‘diction’ down. All three vocalists understand that the words of a song must be heard to make an impact, and, without artificiality, made sure you caught every syllable. That mattered throughout, but especially in Lerato – an implicit call to African solidarity as well as love – and Luzipo’s interpretation of (How Long Must it be This Way…) Being Woman Ain’t No Shame. That song wasn’t the routine sympathy against GBV that every corporate event includes these days. Instead, it told us how urgently we need to smash patriarchy.

So, it’s back to the screen for me, with hopes that the ever-revolving buffering circle has gone and I can catch another gig. More soon…     

Music at Makhanda – virtually vibrant National Arts Festival

In case you haven’t noticed, this year’s National Arts Festival launches on Thursday. As usual, the lamestream media hasn’t given it detailed attention so far beyond a few thinly disguised rewrites of press releases. But the good news, as far as jazz is concerned, is that it’s an excellent programme, and somewhat more accessible than usual.

This year’s SBYA for jazz, Sisonke Xonti

(Only somewhat. The data and connectivity gaps will still keep too many people out.)

Still, there are many advantages to a virtual NAF. No airfares. No butt-freezing, barely adequate bn’b or student res accommodation. No queues for overpriced food, loos, dodgy (if flowing at all) tap water, or delayed festival transport. (Although none of the audience solidarity and serendipitous friendships either that those discomforts usually grow.)

And tickets at R600 for the whole curated programme, or R500 for just the jazz. Fringe events are extra and singly ticketed, but we are promised that 90% of those proceeds will go to the artists.

If it’s at all affordable, I’d recommend the bigger ticket, because there are innovative, intriguing musical events outside the strict jazz envelope, as well as bridges your ears might like to build between what’s labelled jazz, and what isn’t.

Here’s a brief preview: the dates in brackets are when each online event launches, but all remain online and accessible to ticket-holders for several days and a few repeat views after.

Sounds from jazz’s Xhosa-speaking foremothers (and fathers)

Entirely appropriately for its setting, there’s a powerful focus on isiXhosa music, historic and contemporary. For listeners to South African jazz, that theme carries an important story, since many of our most innovative jazz players – Dudu Pukwana, Eric Nomvete, Tete Mbambisa, Todd Matshikiza and more, as well as their many successors today – grew up in communities infused with IsiXhosa sonic culture. The late jazz trumpeter Dennis Mpale used to tell a story about the first time he ever really heard and thought about music. It wasn’t through jazz at all, but the late-night traditional singing of an elderly Queenstown relative who, for a time, stayed in the back-rooms of his mother’s shebeen in Orlando, when he was a small child.

Thandiswa Mazwai

The isiXhosa journey of song starts (Thursday 25 June) with a documentary on legendary bow master and composer Madosini, Songs are Like the Grass. On the same day, vocalist Joliza Magayiyana’s Bhaca Soul project goes live; preview his music here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdXirIGRPpQ. On June 27, Standard Bank Ovation Award-winner Andy Ndlazilwana – grand-daughter of the Jazz Ministers’ leader, the late Victor Ndlazilwana – presents her Emanzini concert, with musicians from her home town of Motherwell. Hear her interpreting Nomalanga here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fj4iFkDBXAE. On the following day (June 28), Liso The Musician launches Zaf’ingane Ancestral Jazz (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q07iYlNRW1c). On July 4, King Tha, Thandiswa Mazwai, presents one of the final big jazz concerts of the festival, although no details of her performance are yet posted online.

Gloria Bosman

Women speak the many tongues of jazz

Madosini, Mazwai and the others are not the only powerful female voices on the programme, however. Another strong emphasis is on women’s jazz song more broadly, with concerts from Spha Mdlalose (with a high-powered backing band featuring pianist Thandi Ntuli), Ami Faku (whom I could also have mentioned above), Ziza Muftic and Lana Crowster. I’m particularly excited by the promised premiere of new material from Gloria Bosman. Opportunities to hear her current compositions live are scarce, yet from her earliest albums she has been as interesting a composer as a singer.  She’s working with a strong team: singer/bass-player Aus Tebza “Groove Queen” Sedumedi, vocalist Titi Luzipo, drummer Bernice Boikanyo and gospel pianist Pebble Mambane.

Tracing more roots and building more bridges

Those intersections between South African jazz and the other musics deeply embedded in their communities crop up agan in KZN-based jazz pianist Sibusiso ‘Mash’Mashiloane’s project with Mozambican bass and timbila player Matchume Zango (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGeUlW9whmc), Ponte Maputo Durban (26 June). Zango sees himself as”continuing the same stories” as Chopi timbila masters such as the late timbila orchestra leaderVenancio Mbande.

Matchume Zango

The instrumental constellation

For the rest, the instrumental jazz programme presents almost – it’s always ‘almost’ – everybody you could wish for from South Africa’s new generation. It’s led by two shows from this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz, Sisonke Xonti. The first teams him with guitarist Keenan Ahrends, pianist Bokani Dyer and vocalist Keorapetse Kolwane (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rPIiASD7VA). Both employ one of this generation’s drummers of choice, Siphelelo Mazibuko, but the second brings in pianist Yonela Mnana, bassist Benjamin Jephta, and one of the fathers of southern African percussion, Tlale Makhene. Those two very different line-ups should allow Xonti to display the multiple facets of his musical vision.  

On 25 June, Linda Sikhakhane presents a sextet performance (with trumpeter S’thembiso Bhengu); on 30 June he presents his Isambulo project with a sextet including trumpeter Ndabo Zulu and pianist Afrika Mkhize.. The next day, trumpeter Sakhile Simani plays in a quartet project, People of my Community, with innovative drummer Tumi Mogorosi. On June 28, pianist Ramon Alexander brings highly original jazz inspired by communities in the Western Cape, while for retro fans, singer Loyiso Bala leads Swing City, a contemporary re-visioning of the vocal jazz of the Swing era. Watch out, in that show, for the infinitely flexible creativity of bassist Amaeshi Ikechi. On June 29, Vuma Levin presents music from his album Antique Spoons, evoking history, memory and the boxes in which we place our memories.

Digital guests from afar

Finally, on 5 July, longtime Dutch festival visitors, pianist Jeroen van Vliet and reedman Mette Erker pay us a digital visit; their duo work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k21Xw1vaZpo is always characterised by thoughtful intensity alongside consummate skill and is well worth hearing.

The festival sounds many fanfares about another European guest, youthful multi-Grammy winner, the UK’s Jacob Collier. The press release compares him to Mozart at least twice, indicating, if nothing else, the writer’s fondness for a good cliché. Collier is welcome: he is indeed a wonderfully creative songwriter and musician, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPBirt1YhuM,  and fully deserves all the accolates he has received. But in a year with all this rich, distinctive South African talent, I can’t get quite as excited as the publicists do.

Cara Stacey

And two to really make you think

Even if you’ve decided to opt for the jazz-only ticket, there are two other music events for which you should consider extra tickets. One, The Texture of Silence (4 July), unites guitarist Ahrends with composer, bow-player and multi-instrumentalist Cara Stacey, as well as (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZqhW-H2MAg )

with visual artist Mzwandile Buthelezi to interrogate what sound might look like and how images might sound. 

The other is Neo Muyanga’s new work Making Grace Amazing (29 June) with activist Brazilian theatre group Legitima Defesa. This explores the context, history and meanings of the anthem Amazing Grace. It continues Muyanga’s longstanding engagement with the connotations and possibilities of struggle music, and, in the year of the murders by state forces of George Floyd and Collin Khoza (among far too many others), it sounds like the most on-point concert of the entire festival.

Legitima Defesa

RIP Keith Tippett, pianist and friend of South African jazz 1947-2020

UK pianist and composer Keith Tippett died yesterday at the age of 72. Tippett was a longtime ally of South African jazz musicians, in the UK and, in 1996, in South Africa, where he created a special edition of his big ensemble, Mujician to encompass South African voices from veterans to youngsters. South African jazz players have always spoken of Tippett with affection; “just an ordinary West Country bloke” was the phrase he used often about himself, and that word eventually found its way into one-time playing partner Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Cape Town Jazz Festival ensemble “Four Blokes and a Doll.”

Keith Tippet in duo with Louis Moholo-Moholo

The obituary in the UK Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/15/keith-tippett-british-jazz-pianist-dies-age-72 credits his South African collaborations; he himself saw much more than collaboration there: he spoke often of how – and how much – he had learned from South African players in London, about both music and creative fellowship.

This is how he described it when I spoke to him in Johannesburg in that year for the Mail&Guardian https://mg.co.za/article/1996-04-19-weaving-the-tapestry-of-jazz/

 ‘SERIOUS musicians have to make a choice. Are they going to be curators or creators?”

The question is typical of the man, whose own three-decade career has spanned jazz, jazz- rock, improvised and contemporary serious music. Tippett is in South Africa with his current ensemble Mujician for a two-week concert and workshop tour in collaboration with Zim Ngqawana and Ingoma. The tour is designed, in part, to pay homage to the jazz legacy of South Africans Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes (Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Ronnie Beer, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo) who left South Africa in the early 1960s and who became highly influential players in the transformation of the European modern jazz scene.

Tippett remembers the impact of the Blue Notes with affection and respect. “I’d just come up to London from Bristol to try and enter the professional music scene. I had a day job folding cardboard boxes and stayed in a tiny bedsit with no piano. I’d carved notches into the edge of a wooden table so that I could practise. I was lonely and I was broke. One night I went into Ronnie Scott’s old place on Gerard Street and the Blue Notes were playing.

“I’d heard John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus — but I was bowled over by these guys. There was an inherent freedom and flexibility in the playing, coupled with impressive technique and with a robust muscularity that I’d never heard live before. To a young Englishman like me, they sounded very African.”

Tippett went on to secure a music scholarship and later to form the Sextet, which laid the foundations of his own musical success. During a residency in Oxford Street’s 100 Club, “we really became friends with the South Africans. There was a lot of cross-fertilisation on the scene, and we played with everybody, but the Blue Notes — sometimes more than other British musicians — enfolded us and encouraged us. Socially too. They were the people we hung out with.”

Tippett was an “ordinary bloke” in the best sense: he had no pretensions and no desire to cramp other musicians’ freedom. But there was nothing ordinary about his playing or his vision. Listen to his 1971 album Septober Energy here, with a massive ensemble including South Africans trumpeter Mongezi Feza and bassist Harry Miller: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgrDxr4EbaI

Hamba Kahle to an extraordinary musician, a good friend to South African jazz, and a genuinely decent bloke.

Remember the Majek of African reggae

The last few weeks have seen the deaths of two important African music stars. Both should be marked. The May 22 passing of Mory Kante has been well covered by both the music and mainstream presses (see, for example,  https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/may/25/mory-kante-obituary ).

Less noted was the death from oesophagal cancer, in New York on June 1, of one of the early titans of African reggae, Nigeria-born Majek Fashek: “ The Rainmaker”. He was 57.

Majek Fashek

Majek Fashek was born Majekodunmi Fasheke in Benin City; his surname alludes to ties with the spirit world. He started music in his local church choir, where he sang, began composing and learned to play trumpet and guitar. He first caught the public eye as part of the house band of a popular Nigerian TV show, but it was his 1987 first album as leader, Prisoner of Conscience, that made him an award-winning star, with the track Send Down the Rain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwoOzGqjxDI, becoming Nigeria’s top-selling track of the year and winning multiple awards. 

He called his distinctive African reggae style, which blended influences from both his musical heroes, Fela  and Bob Marley with his own distinctive vocal approach, kpangolo

For many, though, he was one voice of a triumvirate of early African reggae stars to feature internationally, alongside Ivoirien Alpha Blondy and South African Lucky Dube.

Alpha Blondy

It was the 1980 independence performance of Bob Marley in Harare that inspired the expansion and international outreach of African reggae. However, both the sound and the Rastafarian religion had drawn the interest of African fans and musicians for many years prior – and, of course, Rastafarianism, founded from the teachings of Marcus Garvey, traced its own roots to Ethiopia.  (In South Africa, for example, Kori Moraba – better-known for an extensive gospel opus – had recorded Sotho Reggae in 1977. )

But as the 1980s ended, and even more markedly in the 1990s, mainstream Jamaican dancehall music was becoming increasingly formulaic, its politically righteous toasting gradually displaced by slack (obscene) lyrics or more Americanised rap ragga sounds. African reggae artists, by contrast, brought fresh textures and inspirations from their music communities at home, and still preached a radical gospel of Pan-Africanism and social solidarity.

The music posed problems for South African censors, who found it hard to pin down its broad spiritual invocation of Africa as ‘revolutionary’ – although they knew it was. In the end, they resorted to banning Bob Marley songs for their invocations of “Jah”: blasphemy and idolatry in Dutch Reformed Church terms.

Lucky Dube

Interest from international fans took Fashek to New York and beyond; he worked with stars including Michael Jackson, Tracey Chapman and even a much younger Beyonce Knowles. In total, he released eight albums as leader. All remain highly listenable.

His later years, however, were troubled; he alternately denied and claimed to have overcome, substance addiction. Some of his old Nigerian bandmates, now wedded to fundamentalist Christianity, ostracised him, claiming his problems originated in ‘spiritism’, after, for a time, he developed an interest in Eastern spirituality. Just under a decade ago, his health began to decline.

Whatever the truth of the rumours and gossip (and there may have been none), this father of African reggae on the world stage was a hypnotic performer, and a crafter of genuinely compelling songs. Let’s remember him for the one he wrote for us, the 1989 Free Afrika, Free Mandela https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stNhWllxA2U. Hamba Kahle.

From Mali to Minneapolis: a jazz history of I can’t breathe

Is it really six years since Eric Garner was murdered on 17 July 2014 by the forces of the American state, and the phrase “I can’t breathe” entered the lexicon of protest?

It seems far shorter a time, punctuated as it has been at terrifyingly short intervals by more such racist murders. Now those words – already bearing the stifling weight of historical race and class oppression – have assumed added power, not only through the murder by choking last week of George Floyd, but because of the disproportionately heavy death-toll among African-Americans from Covid-19. May all those departed spirits rest in peace: hambani kahle.

A mural honouring the late Mr George Floyd

In respectful memory of Mr Floyd, it seems right this week to listen again to the music of three 2015 jazz tributes to Mr Garner and all those struggling against and slaughtered by America’s racist regime: bassist Marcus Miller’s track I Can’t Breathe from Afrodeezia; Robert Glasper’s version of the Kendrick Lamarr Help Me, I’m Dying of Thirst from Covered https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqJwk7GpYys ; and hornman Terence Blanchard’s E Collective album Breathless.

Olaudah Equiano

Miller https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8Ae3o94T8o takes the story back to Africa, opening his song with shakers and gimbri, the three-stringed Gnawa bass born in Mali, whose percussive notes also evoke memories of the picked banjo of African-American folk music.  I can’t breathe, he’s saying with that sound, goes back a long, long way. It extends to the suffocating prison cells of West African slave forts such as Cape Coast Castle and the holds of the slave ships. Writer and anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano wrote in 1789 about his own experience: “I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I … wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me”. Then Miller’s tune time-travels into righteous uptempo funk, as Chuck D’s lyrics explain: “Can’t breathe/got my hands in the air/(…)/see the bear/way up there/be aware.” D could be pointing at the searchlight helicopters menacing demonstrators in cities across America yesterday. 

Can’t breathe: the floor-plan of a slave ship

Glasper https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-o9mBpMQo_8 pares back his Help Me from Lamarr’s beautifully worded Sing About Me…I’m Dying of Thirst on Good Kid m.A.A.d City https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3CnfFQENkw. Here it’s a piano returning to its kalimba roots,  providing, alongside drums, a simple, plainspoken melodic underpinning. Above that, children’s voices proudly declare “I am…” and speak the names of those fallen in that period to police brutality. The list is too long, and ends on an ominous “and…”  Then one child goes on to declare, equally proudly: “I enjoy being brown…you have to be happy with who you are.” The track is powerfully moving, and, replayed in 2020, forces the listener to ask a very uncomfortable question: what’s happening to those children today?

Terence Blanchard’s whole Breathless album https://music.apple.com/us/album/breathless-feat-the-e-collective/1442942572 is shaped to, as he told Medium.com (https://medium.com/cuepoint/terence-blanchard-using-music-to-underscore-three-words-i-can-t-breathe-e956fca85731 ) “underscore three words: I. Can’t. Breathe.” For the trumpeter, “an audience of like minds getting high on the beauty of the music, the message of the words, that to me is the power of this art. Music has to be so much more than a booty call…while you’re celebrating and kicking it, what’s going on after the music stops?”

In response, Breathless does begin by kicking it, with a defiantly joyful (and certainly not apolitical – just think about that title) version of the Les McCann Compared to What?  It moves through contemplative spoken words, including from Dr Cornel West on “the issues that will haunt the American Empire”, and music that seamlessly encompasses contemplative spirituality and hard-driving-groove. The title track lays uncompromising lyrics – “this land is my land – or so they say” over a slow, elegiac melody, concluding “we…can’t…breathe.”

The second track, See Me As I Am, has about the same duration as that jackbooted leg crushing Mr Floyd’s throat.

But Breathless cares, too, that we don’t forget the other aspect of that state. By remembering redemptive beauty alongside its deliberate confrontation of racist cruelty, Blanchard’s mission is also to “leave them, in all senses of the word — mindful, spiritual, and physical — Breathless.”

Working with the musically rather different E Collective underlines the shared collaboration without ego that makes good jazz happen: “I knew we could make stronger music creating with these guys, not by throwing preconceived music at them.”

Can’t breathe: protesters face the threat of teargas outside the White House as Trump cowers in his bunker

In the same way, it is the shared soul and purpose of today’s #I Can’t Breathe demonstrators that gives their efforts strength. Deny oxygen to the shadowy Third Force on the fringes – we know all about those here – trying to turn the protests into Trump’s Reichstag Fire. Hail the collective voices offering alternatives to the chokehold of American capitalism right now. And listen to this music.