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The New Thing

Out of the silence, the crevices, cracks and forgotten places of Cape Town, comes the thing that is jazz. Lindokuhle Nkosi listens to the language of traditions, improvisation and healing, as channelled by some gifted young South African protégés in the realm of sound. Audio accompaniment by Boeta Gee.

Here is this sound, this thing coming out of the most provincial of cities. This thing, as fierce as the Cape Doctor itself, in the unlikeliest of places. The milieu is important because we have to understand how and why it happens. Why the clashing symbols, the languid stroke of the bone? Why the stifling whale bellows? The incessant boom-boom-bang? Does this happen in spite of the city? In spite of the aggression of its administrators and its looming mountain, the segregated geography and temperamental winds and citizens? Or does this groove ooze out from the gaps and the fissures? Does it boil and bubble – magma in the underground tunnels and subways, escaping like a whisper because of the pretentious façades and not despite them?

Typically, writers who approach this thing speak of frustration. Where does one start to quantify it, what language exists to speak about it? What story is there to tell, that hasn’t already been sketched in the music? The writers speak also of silence. Of an absence on the airwaves, a cold shoulder at the award shows. In “A Silent Way”, his essay on the music, Julian Jonker mentions “silence” 15 times in the opening paragraphs. A dull throbbing. White noise. The thing, however, is a buzzing black streaked with bolts of electricity. We think of it as silence because we can’t see a space for it in the city’s framework. We think of it as silence because we’re still deciding how to sound it out. Like toddlers, we’re still forming the words. Working them out on our lips and tongues, rubbing them against our palates. We know it exists in the gaps, and yet we try to define it in tangibles and absolutes. So this will not be an excursion into silences, nor will it attempt to work within a structure that does not allow for it to be. Read this as a primer. Read this as an uncomprehensive digest of cracks and crevices, and holes and caves; a glossary of forgotten places, unscheduled dates and defunct bars, dysfunctional economies and names bandied about with abandon. This is where the music is.

Main Road, Rondebosch. Deviate slightly off the path and up the gradual incline of the mountain. Brick building. Yellows, oranges and browns. The dissimilarities of the wood, the roughened texture; the painted metal, coats peeling off in layers. The other building, unnoticeable but for its almost-pink, a salmon hue so light it seems unwilling to be. White, gabled pillars pretend to hold it up, to give it structure. Mahogany shutters lean against its walls. Something is happening inside. It bounces off the panelled walling, spills out into the jazz bars and clubs.

Tagore’s Jazz Bar. Two stories, one stacked on the other like a lego structure constructed by a distracted five-year-old. Red walls. Ox-blood red. Tapestry swathing off the ceiling. But for the stage and the music, you could have just walked into a brothel of sorts, but here, at 42 Trill Road, in ‘bohemian’ Observatory, they peddle the sex of music. “Trill”, a quavering or vibratory sound, especially a rapid alternation of sung or played notes.

Swinger’s Jazz Club, 1 Wetwyn Road, Lansdowne. Unlike the late, waterfront-located Green Dolphin, Swinger’s is still open, but few people seem to be aware of its endurance. They figure it went the way of most jazz clubs, dying only to be revived in anecdotes and nostalgia. Illuminated orbs hang from the ceiling. Admittedly, it isn’t what it used to be, but it persists. On Mondays, musicians earn their name here.

This dedication appears in the Chronic, August 2013.

Those who make it end up at the Mahogany Room  Straight No Chaser, an intimate space blacked out from the rest of the city, wedged in between two monstrous apartment blocks. Unlike the homes mentioned before, this one is not for dancing. It is for head bops and toe-taps, warm red wine and whispers. Bassist Shane Cooper enters the salmon-blush building as a student of the University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music (SACM). The year is 2005: Ma-Brr is dead, just 20 days before her “Vulindlela” wins a South African Music Award (Sama) for song of the decade; Thandiswa Mazwai has just debuted as a standalone force; Brown Dash’s “Phantsi konthunz’ welanga” takes the Sama for record of the year, just months before whispers of the death of kwaito surface; author K Sello Duiker is dead; and musician and composer, Zim Ngqawana, has just released Vadzimu in four suites: Satire, Diaspora, Liberation and Nocturnes.

The businessman Schabir Shaik, a confidant and close advisor of Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of South Africa, is sentenced to 18 years at Westville’s Medium B Prison in Durban. The presiding justice, Judge Hillary Squires, finds “overwhelming” evidence of a generally corrupt relationship between Zuma and Shaik. Zuma is dismissed from his post. Julius Malema, the leader of the ANC Youth League, announces that he “will kill for Zuma”. Before the end of the year, Zuma will face rape charges. He’ll be acquitted. The corruption and fraud case will be struck off the roll. Fezeka Kuzwayo, who brought the rape charges against Zuma, will flee her country and seek asylum in the Netherlands.

But back to 2005. Trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana’s first year at SACM. A year ahead of him are Bokani Dyer and Sakhile Moleshe.

Back then, Zak (as Moleshe is known among musicians) is a diminutive young man from the backwater town of Alice in the Eastern Cape. Even then, we know we have to watch him, perhaps even watch out for him. Outside of the panelled walls of the music college, on the main “upper campus” you find him in the dank studios of UCT radio or on the grey block erected in homage of General Jan Smuts. On this stone, we have chance conversations on the true origins of jazz (everything comes from Africa), Nelson Mandela’s flawed legacy and Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger. Even then, every word is a chant. A rage. A channelling. Even then, the voice, is not as gravelly as it is now, is ancestral. Tied to something bigger than the now. And the thing sat deep in his voice, like the jazz that Amiri Baraka spoke of. The divine communication: “My time at the South African College of Music was a bittersweet experience. Coming from eDikeni and having studied at St Andrews College in Grahamstown, I had come from a background of serious contradictions. Private schooling versus my strong rural background. White minority domination in school versus the plight of the black unemployed, the disempowered of Grahamstown from which I had a number of relatives. Scottish traditions versus Xhosa traditions. Privilege and under-privilege. All this made me bitter and often conflicted. Music and theatre were my escape from everything.”

“We were a peer group trying to survive a very challenging subject of study. We spent hours in the listening rooms, practice rooms and lecture halls, trying to make sure that we were never seen as students who took this opportunity for granted. Practice rooms were barely ever available in my first year. Many pianos were often out of tune, and the practice rooms were always prioritised for the older and more accomplished students. This created a form of positive competition and tension. If you were able to get into a practice room first, you had to be sure that you held on to it for as long as possible and also make sure that you were never caught playing shit. Many students would patiently wait in the hallways of A-level (where all the practice rooms are) and thus spent hours listening to the students already occupying [them]. We listened to each other grow musically and spiritually. As composers, instrumentalists, brothers and sisters in music. We were dedicated to improving our self-image in the realm of sound.”

Lwanda Gogwana attempts to explain it further: “We were breaking borders. It was a time of individuality. A time of band leaders. That was the vibe. Of taking charge. Of innovation. The nice thing about it was that it was strongly rooted [in] traditional jazz methodologies that are still taught at UCT. We saw value in those traditions. We took that 40s, 50s, 60s jazz that they taught us. The bebop, the hard bop, the swing. A little bit of cool jazz. It was about recognising the relevance of it and taking things from there, but mixing it up.” I meet Gogwana on the corner of Juta and De Beer in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. He carries his horn in a case, swinging it in his right hand. He carries too, a little weariness on his face. It’s the job that’s tiring him out – admin at some music and events company. He’s spent the day printing sheet after sheet of stanzas and notes. A car drives past, bass blaring through its frame.

“That guy is playing some heavy jazz. Can you hear that bass?” Gogwana has just moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Story has it he was playing a gig, at a club he won’t mention, with musicians he won’t name. So he’s at this gig, playing 1940s jazz in the exact same manner he was taught it in school. “I got off that stage, sent an SMS to my friend: ‘That’s it. I can’t be in Cape Town anymore. I can’t be playing jazz like this. From my head, like a recital.’ I just needed a new sound.”

A new sound. In the process of navigating the newness, of figuring out who they want to be, what they want to sound like, what they are doing is creating a new vocabulary. They are exploring, dissecting and distilling, and then finding a way to translate it. To transfer what they have inside them into music. They are composing and improvising their own experiences in the same manner they would the music.

“I think writing music is a way for you to form and create your own environment, and through jazz you can reinterpret those scenes that happen in that environment.” Shane Cooper is talking composition. He’s talking about learning how to construct form and pattern, so you can know how to break it apart; so you can demolish it and puzzle it together again. As a bassist, he plays mostly a support role. This means he has to observe and listen. Hold the pattern. Watch the scene. “So you create the backdrop and everything that happens with the characters within is something that happens differently every time. You don’t have to be a composer to be a good improviser, but it frees you up because you can then create new worlds to launch into. And you start to discover things about your own playing and directions you might want to go into.”

Mandla Mlangeni directs rehearsals of the Native Groove Collective, March 2013. Photo by Steve Gordon

Mandla Mlangeni directs rehearsals of the Native Groove Collective, March 2013. Photo by Steve Gordon

“Composition is improvisation,” adds trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, “Essentially, it’s just improvisation. But it’s slowed down improvisation.”

He refines the thought as he goes along: “Composition allows you to erase your improvisation. To arrange, to re-arrange and to erase, so if you don’t like a part of your improvisation you can go back and erase that. That’s the part that they can teach, the technical skill. The rest comes from the individual.”

The thing, then, is a spontaneous composition. Had any of the variables been different – the players, the timing, the setting – it would not have been the same thing. It is improvised. Immediate. Urgent. Improvisation is a prompt and a response, but one needs to know how to react to the prods. How to hear the music, the opportunities and the gaps. This perhaps is where some kind of musical literacy comes into play.

Gogwana elaborates: “Let me first paint for you how it is at UCT: you are seated in rows, or a semi-circle and the lecturer is in front you. And the lecturer stands up in front of you and says: ‘Here is the jazz standard, it has these chords, I want you to play this idea when you get to this chord.’ In Norway [where both Gogwana and Mlangeni studied through an exchange programme], we’re all seated in a circle and the lecturer is sitting with us, sometimes right next you. And she says: ‘Let’s start.’ Some people will start making funny sounds, some will start drumming on their chairs, or playing on their horns. It was about producing any sound you could produce. Through that I discovered all kinds of sound, that music is everywhere. And from that I discovered the music, the complexity and the intelligence of the music from back home.”

For Gogwana, the music back home was that of Xhosa folklore and mythology. The string-pluck of spirituality. The trumpet of intwaso and the beat of imbongi: “I studied a four-year degree, neh? My first year, for a semester, was a course called ‘South African Music’. In my four-year degree in jazz composition in a major institution in South Africa, I only studied South African music for six months. So now the fact that it’s in first year means it’s something that they are not taking seriously. They are just getting it out of the way so they can avoid criticism. And in that six-month course, we’re learning the history of South African jazz, the history of mbaqanga, maskandi, classical music in South Africa, isicathamiya. All of those styles in six months! They even threw in a little bit of Afrikaans music. So they are teaching the history of your own damn country, in six months.”

He sounds upset. Incredulous. As if he’s only seeing now the absurdity of it all: “I only realised how fucked up it all was somewhere in my third year. When I did, that was it. And there is no course in South African music at UCT now. They were experimenting back then, and now it’s gone. So I’m trying to go back. With The Lwanda Gogwana Songbook project, I was forcing the Xhosa sound. Be it harmonically, with traditional Xhosa harmonies. Or with the voice or traditional instruments. I understand that it seems taboo to force things. But we were forced to do things a certain way and they became a norm. To correct this, we need to force our own music. Through forcing it, forcing yourself to study it, you learn how it works. I had to thumb-suck a lot of it, but through working it out, you get to understand why things are the way they are. And to build on them. How to grow them, and how to grow yourself.”

Pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd, too, speaks the language of identity and belonging; of looking back and exposing the roots. His third album, South African History !X, is a channelling of spirits and ancestors, and pushing them into the now. It has the brassiness of goema, a heavy clash-clash-clashing that fluidly moves and segues from one idea to the other. It’s a carefully curated exhibition, displaying a history that few dare to tell, let alone investigate. The bones of this country are laid bare: fragile and broken, dusted cautiously under the watchful eye of Shepherd. In an interview with Atiyyah Khan, he explains his desire for discovery: “Malcolm X said that x in mathematics represents the unknown and I really feel, as South Africans, especially young South Africans, a large part of our history remains unknown. I’ve been on this mission, trying to uncover these things and it’s proven to be quite difficult. In certain languages, like Nama, the !x is a click sound, so it’s also speaking to that part of my interest in the history and how that sound later filters into the Nguni languages.”

For most of these young cats, the desire to look back can be pinpointed to a single location: a small farm in the Vaal, an hour east of Johannesburg. The Zimology Institute is more than an alternative to formal music training. It is the institutionalisation of a philosophy centred on knowledge of self, on self-attainment, the fulfilment of living a life with purpose, and with care and dignity. Its founder, the late saxophonist, composer and bandleader Zim Ngqawana, spoke in such terms: “Too many of the young generation know nothing about intensity and compassion. It’s all in the interpretation. Drummers must stop bashing the kit with sticks; they must learn to stroke the drum with brushes for a change. Don’t just play the music, understand it. You have to lock into the music and know the purpose of playing it.”

Zak Moleshe expounds: “Zim was my everything. Having lost my father at 12 years old, he was the perfect person to mould me back into the revolutionary mindset of my younger years. We stayed at his farm in Elandsfontein for 18 days playing music, cooking, listening to amazing jazz records. We discussed time, distance and space. The inner self. The higher and the lower self. We shared our ideas on all these topics, while Zim helped us weed out and embrace our immature inclinations. Zim told me I am! He taught me to embrace who I am. To never fear myself or neglect myself. He told me to elevate myself to the highest levels of my being through facing, head on, the greatest vision of myself in the music. Zim was a self-realised master who gave us his blueprint [of] self-mastery. I never cried when he died ’cause he taught us that life is a life-death-death-life cycle. Once you complete the cycle, divine eternity becomes your domain.”

Though Ngqawana often said Zimology was his own journey and everyone had to find their own path, his philosophy became the ontology of this thing. The framing of self, through and within the music, by looking inwards.

Where Moleshe discovers himself, Shane Cooper finds Zimology and the freedom of discipline: “At that time Zim was doing a lot of free flowing and free playing; seguing between different songs and different themes. We all got influenced by that, we were quite young. I had done some free-improv gigs with some Norwegian guys before, but this was a different way. It would be improvised and then we’d bring in his songs. I don’t know what it is, but I think we all learnt a lot from Zim’s approach to music and to playing, and the energy he brought into his music. He had this kind of abandon. He’d just completely let go when he played. That kind of abandon comes from knowing your instrument. The rules are important to know because you have freedom from knowing what possibilities are there through learning. It informs how far you can stretch things and how you can navigate between the obstacles or how to morph those obstacles. I think the less you know about that, the less potential you have for really being free with the music and how you use it.”

In January 2010, the Zimology Institute is vandalised. Copper is pulled from the walls. Legs are sawn off grand pianos. The physical embodiment of philosophy is reduced to mangled brokenness, rubble and dust.

Ngqawana says: “This was an attempt to break us. I was demoralised to see the grand pianos worth half-a-million lying flat on the ground. The souls of the people have been vandalised. What kind of criminal doesn’t know the value of a piano?”

Standing in the shell of the building that once housed the passions and ambitions of a future generation of musicians, Ngqawana and some Zimology Institute alumni – including Shepherd and Cooper – cleanse the site in the manner they know best, through music. This comes to be known as the “Exhibition of Vandalizim”, but then it is just healing. Using the shattered instruments, the flotsam and jetsam of their passion and desires, they purge and purify, restoring the farm to its spiritual significance.

Shepherd explains: “Zim was – it sounds like a paradox, but he was a warrior of healing. Everything he did was in line with that. A jazz musician who is dedicated to true creativity and to depth in music, and to spirituality in music, finds it very hard to function in this world of ours. So whenever we play, it is an attempt at healing, for ourselves firstly. If that is achieved in the self, then for the people listening as well. So the ‘Exhibition of Vandalizim’, although it was a very painful experience – I mean, I spent some months at this institute that they vandalised, and it was so painful to see the place in tatters – I credit Zim’s creative genius that he came up with the performance art piece that we did, and used what happened to create something. He could have sat back and done quite a few interviews on TV; he could have spoken about the problems in South Africa, complained and attacked people. But instead he understood the process and he created something.”

That was then. The backdrop has changed significantly since 2005. New players, sanitised settings. Clubs shut down, lost glory. Rent is due, and ‘jazz festivals’ book out big stages to big-name brands. The City of Cape Town is turning into an independent nanny state. Curfews and entertainment laws regulate where the culture can exist and during what times. Nostalgia has set in. And generational paranoia. We keep looking over our shoulders, wondering when the past will catch up with us.

Moleshe thinks that the city is trying to silence the music: “When I was a student, the greater Cape Town music scene was not yet held in this new, firm chokehold of draconian curfew laws and continued police harassment of creative people. The difference is that then, venues in the inner city were daring enough to house all forms of music till the early hours in the city. There was a very relaxed, cosmopolitan atmosphere as to how long a show or jam session or a party could go on. Many people from across the city stayed in the inner city till the early hours of the morning, even though, as we all know, ghetto children have always lived under unwritten apartheid-style curfew laws in Cape Town, by virtue of the city’s design. I feel that we have taken 50 steps back in the wrong direction. It makes me sad at times but the music always lives on.”

How? We turn to these cats, watching to see if they will pick up the baton, but if they’re scurrying, looking for ways to exist, still working out how to survive, what will happen to the music? Moleshe sings with Goldfish, a white electronica band with a residency in Ibiza; Mlangeni tours with opera companies; Gogwana calls himself a session musician; and Dyer and Cooper gig about with more established artists.

Says Cooper: “In jazz, there’s always this thing about being a young artist if you’re in your mid-twenties. And I understand that because often with jazz, the artist keeps growing and the audience keeps growing with them. Right to old age. It’s not a matter of passing the baton. There may be a generation gap, the music may be different. But the thing is we’re making the music now. We are actually writing stuff and producing music. It’s not like we’re waiting to enter into some arena that is the big arena or the real world. We’re making the music now and pushing to be as good as we can so when those guys are gone, it doesn’t matter how old the next group is. As long the music keeps going, and as long as they’re making strong and relevant music. Music that carries weight.”




Bokani Dyer, Kyle Shepherd, Sibusiso ‘PhD’ Dlamini, Tebogo Mokoena, Spha Mdlalose, Linda Tshabalala, Jonno Sweetman, Lwanda Gogwana, Mandla Mlangeni, Darren English, Sisonke Xonti, Ethan Smith, Siya Charles, Claude Cozens, Texito Langa, Andre Swartz, Benjamin Jephta, Shane Cooper, Reza Khota, Keenan Chas Ahrends, Sakhile Moleshe, Bronwen Clacherty, Nicholas Williams, Thandi Ntuli, Lana Crowster, Wandile Molefe, Vuyo Sotashe, Marlon Clive Witbooi, James McClure, Joe Bolton, Mandisi Dyantyis, Shaun Johannes, Ronan Skillen, Emily Bruce…

*The New Thing is an ongoing series exploring new spaces for radical culture in South Africa. Read Part I here.

CHRONIC ISSUE 2This dedication features in the August 2013 edition of the Chronic. 

The issue also features reportage, creative non-fiction, autobiography, satire, analysis, photography and illustration to offer a richly textured engagement with everyday life. In its pages artists and writers from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states.

Buy the Chronic

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