It is always a joy to hear an old and familiar instrument given new wings. This is how I felt when I first heard Victor Ntoni play the double bass in the mid eighties. The sound was warm, insistent, perhaps even disturbingly elegant. Over the years I’ve listened to Ntoni play in small ensemble as well as big bands. In later years I heard more and more of his beautiful singing. So when news of his death struck with the usual cruelty, I called up a few of the people who I know care deeply for the man and his music. I wanted to hear their sense of his role as an arranger, teacher, composer and double bass player and singer.
First I spoke to Lex Futshane, the double bass player and teacher and this is what he told me about Ntoni.
” When I was at the University of Natal, Victor used to visit Durban to play in the city. At that time he was playing in the band Afro Cool Concept with Darius Brubeck. During his visits Victor would offer us workshops on harmony and improvisation.”
“For me I used to look forward to his visits because I used to get masterclass bass lessons from him” At this point Futshane is caught between his sense of loss and his powerful memories of Ntoni. He continues:
“Sometimes Victor would arrive without his bass, and would use my bass. For me this was an incredible honor. On top of that I would drive him around and it was wonderful to be chauffeur to such a great musician” Futshane then turns his attention to the music.
“At that time, in the late 80’s and early 90’s there weren’t many double bass players in the country and he was one of those that mastered the balance between jazz and what we call traditional or folk music. He reinforced my belief that jazz is African music” Futshane says with obvious warmth.
“Man, for me these lessons were an eye opener, he answered a lot of questions I had as far as bass playing is concerned. Some of these include the role of the bass in ensemble playing and his ideas gave me fuller appreciation of my role as a bassist” enthuses Futshane.
“His place in music was unique because I considered him a musician who happened to pay the bass. When he taught music he taught holistically and didn’t just think bass. I think this is exemplified in His album, Heritage. Which crystallized his entire philosophy and practice of music and there is nothing in the album that limits it to the sound of the bass” Futshane continues
Jazz must always swing, we are told, and Futshane reminds us that Ntoni was a master of swing. “One of the most distinctive features of the album is how he swings in his playing. His playing is in line with his peers including Tete Mbambisa, Duke Makasi, Big T and others who all came from the vocal tradition. Before they were instrument players they were vocalists. This explains why Victor could do elaborate and beautiful musical arrangements for musical plays such as Meropa”
Next I spoke to the trumpeter and composer Feya Faku who received news of the death of Ntoni on the day he returned from the funeral of the double bass player Big T Ntsele in Port Elizabeth. And so it turns out that we have not one but two gifted double bassists to mourn in the space of one week. Big T and Ntoni knew each other and had worked together in the Radio Xhosa big band to arrangements by Ntoni.
It turns out that Faku’s memory of Ntoni is very personal and deeply moving
“For me Victor Ntoni is one of the people who inspired me to study music at university. I was at Dudley’s of the Soul Jazzmen’s place in PE and there was a jam session. Duke Makasi liked my playing and he then introduced me to Ntoni. At that time Ntoni had a big band project with the SABC called Izandi zasekhaya. Through Duke’s recommendation I was invited to join this project and that’s when I decided to further my studies because I was so inspired by Ntoni’s genius”
Faku continues in his quiet, measured way.
“After my encounter with Ntoni, watching him work, improvise, I decided to read as much as possible, take private lessons and I eventually took up studies at the university of Natal. Ntoni’s understanding of harmony is unparalleled and he could write his arrangements without going to the piano. It was as if he had transcended the instrument and had reached the stage where he could hear all the notes in his head”
Faku revels in what he picked up from Ntoni “It was through Victor Ntoni and Duke Makasi that I discovered the concept of silent practice in which you practice in your head and heart and afterwards go to the instrument to play what you’ve been practicing”
As a musician Faku is known for his warm, deeply lyrical sound and his dedication to the art of composition. His assessment of Ntoni’s sound is not just some glib remark, but something deeply considered.
“His sound was very personal, he sounded like no one else and he had something to play for, as Abdullah Ibrahim always reminds us. You have to play for something. He played with a purpose, the music has a message and meaning and went beyond playing for money”
Having spoken to these two musicians, I picked up the phone and dialed Bongani Madondo, the critic and music aficionado who brings a refreshing candor to his assessment of artists. My first call went unanswered. A few hours later I called again, and this time Madondo sent a text telling me that he couldn’t take calls as he was in a meeting. But I wasn’t going to be deterred soI replied via text that I wanted to hear his reflections on Victor Ntoni the musician and the man. Unsurprisingly for the scribe that he is, Madondo interrupted his meeting to write something for me . An hour later here is what I received from the author of Hot Type:
“Victor Ntoni’s departure from this world, once again puts microscopic attention on the state of South African music and its cultural capital worth to both country and the universe. You are bound to hear all the correct and even, lyrical, elegiacal platitudes even,
from those claiming to have been touched by the man’s music or his personality, and whatnot, when how.
And that’s all right by me: nobody does mourning and the rituals of public performances of mourning than Africans. It’s in us, in our veins, topography, landscape, joy and pain. We mourn like no other. We are the Blues People. Be it contrite or heartfelt,
we cry rivers of tears and rivers of shame, shame inversely pointed to ourselves for not doing enough when the object recipient of our pain needed us most.
Bra Vic was a talented, visionary and certainly subversive composer, alright. Specific instances are to be located in his work ‘pon his return from the USA, where, after experiencing the deeper depths of his beloved jazz first hand, and music composition overall, he returned a changed and elevated spirit.
His Xhosa roots of choral music, Aftro-Jazz, amahubo secular spirituals and so on were now enjoined by the rigorous of jazz’s classicisms, and the rigorous challenges bass instrument demands of anyone foolish enough to want to own its unbending beauty.
Victor Ntoni created a new music language, as both a teacher (he was one of the greatest music teachers), performer and composer. Unfortunately, like many others Ntoni was a victim of capitalism and greed’s slash-up and slash-down of organic music, and the belittling of jazz as outmoded museum music.
He was also, at some point, a huge victim of his own attitude: no one will tell you this but Bra Victor was, for long, and understandably so, an ANGRY man. And with anger came years of non-productivity. Alas, by the time of his departure, his soul and jovial nature had revisited him and as he was getting gigs and getting recognized again, such as the
recognition given to him in Cape Town (Baxter Theatre). The man’s bass started singing and riffing up on its own, virtually conducted, through osmosis–a love between man and his machine, by its master: the conductor.
But he was also a funny man, reserving his best put downs for clowns usually celebrated by the media.
Other than Johny Dyani, I can’t recall any South African bassist with the same wide expanse of texture, colour and groove than Bra Vic’s. May he kick-up a storm in heaven. Of course pass our love to The Underdog…Mingus, Parker, Dyani and ’em”
I would like to thank Lex Futshane, Feya Faku and Bongani Madondo for their deeply thoughtful reflections on the great Victor Ntoni. I love the intimacy of their memories and the intelligence of their observations.
As we mourn Ntoni, we should be comforted by the knowledge that he lives on through his incredible music, and though his bass may now be silenced forever, his compositions, arrangements will remind us that amongst us once lived a gentle giant of this great art form we love so much. His music has inspired generations of musicians and his recent work with Black Coffee is proof of his wide appeal.
As I ponder the impossibly beautiful sounds that my namesake used to coax out of his double bass, the words that come to mind are from Breyten Breytenbach’s A Veil Of Footsteps: “This is the part I like best. Traveling alone. Anonymous in a crowd of strangers” for they are a perfect reminder that some journeys we have to take on our own.