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Culture

Bheki Khoza’s Sound Of Surprise

When it comes to music, South Africa often likes to keep its greatest talent unheralded. Bheki Khoza, the guitarist, composer, arranger and music teacher should be a national treasure, but he is known only to a handful of music lovers. Khoza has one of the most distinctive sounds on the guitar, with lightning speed and unmatched musical intelligence. But he is not the first to have a prodigious talent, but suffer relative obscurity. The guitarist Madala Kunene and the pianist Tete Mbambisa should be household names, but they mostly play to small audiences.

A few years ago I watched him play at the Jazz Orbit in Braamfontein, and at The Chairman in Durban. Both performances were full of the kind of musical intelligence that comes from years of study, practice and passion. But there’s something else in the notes that pour out from his guitar. Like Philip Tabane, the founder of the band Malombo, and the inventor of a new sound that blends Jazz with Mbaqanga. Khoza’s playing stretches one’s aural sensibilities. Khoza rarely sings, but when he does, the influence of the church is unmistakable. Like Duke Ellington whose arrangements were drenched in the soul music of the church, Khoza’s vocal arrangements take one directly to the church choir.

It’s as if he’s found a way of creating a cornucopia that blends his native ene McClean, Larry Ridley, Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, Charles Davis, Steve Davis, and our own Hugh Masekela, Wiston Mankunku Ngozi, Victor Ntoni, and Barney Rachabane. with Soul and Jazz. This is music at its most irresistible. Even when he plays a ballad, there’s an urgency to his attack that revitalizes even the most clichéd of the Jazz Standards.
Playing to an appreative audience at the Orbit, Khoza opened with the tune Qhwayilahle and then went on to play Remember You Don’t Have To Die, The Sacred Ones and Asambe . One of Khoza’s great influences is the now largely forgotten guitar genius, Allen Kwela, and Khoza stunned the audience with his rendition of Kwela’s Black Beauty.

No Khoza performance is complete without at least one Maskandi tune, and on this chilly night in Johannesburg, he warmed the Orbit up with the song, Dumazile. Accompanying Khoza on this performance was the bassist Mandla Zikalala, whose tiny frame does not quite prepare you for his big sound. The ever-inventive Denzil Weale sat at the Piano and the hugely promising Siphiwe Shiburi was on drums.
The key to understanding Khoza’s musical roots is to revisit the sound of the first Maskandi artist, Phuzushukela. If today it is common practice for Maskandi artists to thrown in their own refrains at the end of each tune, it was Phuzushukela who introduced this, together with a wholly original rap style singing accompanied by guitar.

Moses Bhengu and Katelimnyama were some of the early pioneers of Maskandi. Khoza says he once had all the recordings of , who were fierce rivals in their heyday. “Philip Tabane is forever be whispering in my ears too” says Khoza, who clearly draws inspiration from some of the most illustrious South African musicians.

If Khoza’s power is derived from his guitar, then his legacy is likely to come from his role as an arranger. When he won a scholarship and spent four years in the United States of America between 1991 and 1994, he studied piano. Let me explain, if you listen to South Africa’s most famous Jazz tune, Mannenberg, with Abdullah Ibrahim and Basil Coetzee, it is the arrangement that made this one of Jazz’s seminal performances.
“As an arranger, the piano is my most important tool. One can actually hear sound of a band from the piano. Around 1985 when I started to compose for a band I realized how difficult it was to pass information to a pianist using a guitar and it was then that I decided to fiddle with the piano for communication purposes. So when I got to America I took lessons on piano with classical teachers for technical reasons and it has come in handy when studying harmony, since every note is in front of you” explains Khoza.

Bheki Khoza 2Bheki Khoza at The Chairman 10
Khoza adds that his earliest experience as an arranger was with the African Jazz Pioneers, a big band that also featured singers such as Dorothy Masuku, Thandi Klassen, Abigail Kubheka, Dolly Rathebe and Sophie Mgcina. He says that it was this experience that prepared him for his role as Musical Director on the Documentary Film, Sophiatown. His other film credits include the movies Drum, directed by Zola Maseko.
“It was my grasp of the sound that defined Sophiatown that allowed me to distill the musical identity for the film” What is noteworthy about the soundtrack is that Khoza called on the talent of many of the musicians who had played in Sophiatown before it was bulldozed to make way for Triomf.

If Khoza has internalized many of the lessons from South Africa’s best musicians, if you listen closely to his playing, there’s an unmistakable nod to the straight-ahead jazz associated with the United States. This reflects the gigs he played with musicians like Rene McClean, Larry Ridley, Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, Charles Davis, Steve Davis, and our own Hugh Masekela, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Victor Ntoni, and Barney Rachabane.
Those who are lucky enough to own a Bheki Khoza album, or to catch him at a Jazz Club, should treasure the experience because he brings to music one of the most unique talents. Little wonder he has brought pleasure to those who have watched him at storied venues like Kippies in Johannesburg, Blue Note in New York and The Schomburg Center in Harlem.

Bheki Khoza's musical colours
Bheki Khoza’s musical colours

Like Jimi Hendrix who brought rock’n’roll into jazz, Bheki Khoza is quietly rewriting the sound of South African music. Perhaps it is the fate of left-handed guitar players to change everything in their wake.

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Culture

Thandiswa Mazwai’s wisdom

The music that Thandiswa Mazwai is making right now, invoking the spirits of Miriam Makeba & Busi Mhlongo & Abbey Lincoln is some of the most important new music anywhere. She chooses to sing songs that say something of the world we live in, songs whose lyrics are charged with urgency, be they about love, about social justice or simply about the fragile humans. When she sings her love songs, there’s a range of emotion that is sorely missing in so many of the sentimental songs about love we hear these days.

Mazwai is unafraid to speak her mind, and whether through the lyrics of her songs, or on stage, or on social networks, she speaks openly and strongly about the things she cares for. Social justice is code to her heart, and she speaks frequently against gender violence. When she sings Nina Simone, you get the same sense of a real and not ‘performed rage’ that Nina Simone used to capture in songs such as Mississippi Goddam.

The joy of Thandiswa Mazwai
The joy of Thandiswa Mazwai

On songs like Nizalwa Ngobani she is the griot of her generation, invoking the names of the political and personal forebears of the young generation and letting them know that they’re heirs of a powerful struggle. On Ingoma, she is the love poet, singing with such a erotic force the stage almost sizzle with the heat of sexuality. Zabalaza is her anthem of rebellion, those who talk of a lost generation as Mazwai connected through this song her generation of youth with the most urgent issues of the day. On these songs she’s never an ideologue, but a consummate artist, wielding her magic on spellbound music lovers.

Thandiswa Mazwai at the Soweto Theatre
Thandiswa Mazwai at the Soweto Theatre

She was a young star and even in her Bongo Maffin days, her lyrics were already haunting, older than her years in their depth of wisdom. On songs like Kura Uone, she captures the longing for home that so many who migrate know only too well.

In a recent performance at the Market Theatre, Mazwai played one of Busi Mhlongo’s most moving songs, Wahazulwa, conveying its delicate beauty and capturing the spirit of Busi Mhlongo’s powerful stage presence. It was a rare moment in South African music when an artist covers a song and makes it theirs but the spirit of the original seems ever present in the new interpretation. In between the notes and her singing, you could catch moments when Mazwai’s pain was real, palpable, though too brief to ruin the song.

The artist Moonchild
The artist Moonchild

At a theatre where so much music has been made and where so many plays have been performed, there are those nights when the emotions seem new again, not hackneyed. Mazwai was able to channel something deeply spiritual as she took on the songs of her heroes and made them her own. There was a hush over the Market Theatre stage as she sang Busi Mhlongo’s songs and you could tell even without Mazwai saying it that Busi Mhlongo is the musician who most affected her.

This explains why after Busi Mhlongo, Mazwai took time off from music and could not find the heart to perform her own music. The hiatus from the music business may have seemed overdone at the time, but Mazwai used her time in the UK to mourn Busi Mhlongo and find her voice again. Today she is clearly able to sing new music and sing the musicians that she loves, like Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, the melancholic Abbey Lincoln and of course her beloved Busi Mhlongo.

It would be a lie to suggest that Mazwai is only influenced by the women whose musical spirit she channels with such artistic integrity. In the past two years she has performed with Hugh Masekela both in South Africa and abroad. She was also invited by Paul Simon to join him on the Graceland Anniversary Tour, and she is clearly picking some fine lessons from these giants of music. Her collaborations with Hugh Masekela are deeply beautiful and they suggest that the elder statesman of SA music admires the huge talent that Mazwai possesses. He is not alone in recognizing Mazwai as a musician who is set to make a significant mark in music.

Those who mourn the passing of a golden age in SA music with the departure of the likes of Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Busi Mhlongo need to listen to Thandiswa Mazwai. Perhaps then they will know that our music is in safe hands still and we need not mourn.

When she performed at Bassline, on the occasion of her 40th birthday, it was as if she wanted to underline just how much music she has given us in the 20 years that she’s been in the industry. There she was on stage, her friends dropping by to join her as she sang for us. There was Ringo with whom she sang from the Donny Hathaway songbook. And there was Moonchild. And Mazwai’s own sister, Nomsa Mazwai who knows how to command the stage.

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Culture

Africa’s Songbird

In Jazz there are those singers who are unafraid to do something truly different. They will sing against the grain, or play in a new way that often shocks the establishment at first. Where so many others can’t resist the temptation to imitate the latest style, to sound like some already famous singer, these singers bravely trust their own voice. Sathima Bea Benjamin was one of these singers, her voice pared down to the last timbre. Like Billie Holiday, she turned her limited range into her greatest strength.

Like all the most outstanding jazz singers her art was as beautiful as it was political. She traced her roots to St Helena, and believed that Jazz was the cry of a woman. You hear this pain, and the beauty in her haunting tribute Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine. If ever a song could be at once poignantly beautiful but also palpably defiant, Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine does so. On this song Sathima is accompanied by Larry Willis, Ricky Ford, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

This piece was initially supposed to be a celebration of the reissue of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s African Songbird on vinyl. When word got out that African Songbird would be reissued on vinyl, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy. Jazz is full of albums that quickly become fabled, and African Songbird had become one of these albums.

For those who may wonder why she goes under the name Bea Benjamin on the album, the name Sathima was given to her by the South African bassist Johnny Dyani. But over a course of six weeks of following the musician and her music, the piece also became a note of her death. Thankfully the truly great artists do not die, they live on through their music.

Sathima

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her  singing
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her singing

Amongst lovers of high jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin belongs in that very small circle of singers who sing with little adornment. Nat King Cole with his clean lines and perfect pitch was an influence. But it was Billie Holiday with her limited range who gave her the confidence to tell her story through song. In her records, Sathima Bea Benjamin chose only the best accompanists. Miriam Makeba was known as Mama Africa, but it is easy to see why Sathima Bea Benjamin can lay claim to the title of African Songbird.

In July of 2013 a limited edition of this famed 1976 recording that has become a truly rare collector’s piece was reissued. In the UK, copies of the original vinyl fetch as much as £600. On the record Sathima Bea Benjamin is accompanied by South African jazz royalty, Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Mannenberg Coetzee and Monty Weber with an impressive list of American sidemen.

After years of hunting for a copy of this record, I walked into a record store in Soho, London and as I was browsing the vinyl section, I stumbled onto African Songbird, in mint condition. When I went to pay for it, the storeowner Wayne told me of the story of the album’s reissue. Little did he realise that I had been on a quest to find this album.

Sathima Bea Benjamin’s story should be told widely, for she is unique in the world of jazz in that her debut album, A Morning In Paris, had not only Duke Ellington at the piano, but also Billy Strayhorn and her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand. She enchanted the great Ellington with her interpretation of his compositions. It was with Duke Ellington’s help that she relocated to New York together with her husband.

For those who hear platitudes from our arts officials that South African artists need to conquer the global market, it is worth reminding them that in the 60’s Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Caiphus Semenya, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and of course Sathima Bea Benjamin had already won the world over.

One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin
One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin

When you put the album on the vinyl, side one has only the one song, Africa, a deeply moving tribute to the continent that Sathima Bea Benjamin credits with the birth of jazz. It begins with a lush, even orchestral interplay between the percussions and the basses, the drummer eliciting a richly polyphonic sound out of his instrument. About 9 minutes into the track, Abdullah Ibrahim is incredibly inventive on the Fender Rhodes. Basil Mannenberg Coetzee’s tenor sax is truly irresistible. This is quite possibly the most elegant musical tribute to the continent.

But it is on African Songbird in which Sathima Bea Benjamin sings without accompaniment that you grasp the depth of her musical power. Little wonder those who know this album treasure it as one of Jazz music’s greatest moments. Perhaps it is also the reason why she was not known to the bigger market as her style was devoid of the vocal theatrics that delight pleasure seekers.

In the second week of August 2013, Sathima Bea Benjamin was honoured by the Joy of Jazz for her contribution to the music. On a beautifully lit stage at The SABC, she sang an impromptu song from the Duke Ellington Songbook. As it turned out, it was to be her last performance. It was fitting that she should honour Duke Ellington, the man who had set her musical trajectory on the path towards mastery. A week after receiving this rare honour in the country of her birth, Sathima Bea Benjamin died in Cape Town.

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin

Perhaps in death Sathima Bea Benjamin will gain the kind of following that her music deserved. On each of her albums, she poured her heart out, singing with the warmth of a storyteller and at the grace of a minimalist. Luckily for us African Songbird, her masterpiece, has been reissued on CD and the music sounds as if it was produced just yesterday.

 

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Culture

Pitika Ntuli is a man whose mission seems to be to defy convention and straddle as many categories as possible. He is a sculptor, art collector, poet, linguist, historian, teacher, writer, and academic. His studio in the Wynberg Industrial areas seems to be a bridge that connects Alex to Sandton.

 

It was no surprise then to find Ntuli on stage at the increasingly important Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein bringing together several generations through poetry and jazz. In less than two years since it was opened, The Orbit has established itself as the leading venue for live Jazz in South Africa. The vision of the founder, Aymeric Peguillan to create a venue that brings live jazz performances most days of the week seemed impossible, but it appears as if the plan is working.

Pitika Ntuli's cry
Pitika Ntuli’s cry

 

Ntuli opened with his poem, Who Am I.

 

Who am I?

I am an African

Caressed by African winds

Trade and anti trade…..

 

Dressed in a simple but regal striped Ghanaian robe, his voice rose and fell with the inflection of a gentle wave. Then gathered pace as his lines moved from English to SiSwati, SeTswana and Afrikaans. Band leader Siphiwe Shiburi was painting a complex percussive tapestry with his drums. Yonela Mnana’s deft touches at the piano were almost like a whisper. The bassist, Amaeshi Ikechi played with a permanent smile etched on his face, his black and gold Dashiki a striking counterpoint to the complex notes he was teasing from his imposing instrument.

 

If Ntuli’s costume suggested a Pan African sensibility, it would come as no surprise to those who know his travels across the African continent during his 32 years in exile. He has also lived and studied in the United Kingdom and the United States. His poetry and art draw from this eclectic experience.

 

Then Ntuli walked off the stage and Nova Masango, nearly five decades younger than Ntuli jumped to the stage to join the Siphiwe Shiburi Trio. Dressed in an elegant two-piece Olive Green suit, Masango’s voice soared with the quiet rage of a poet who seethes at the ugliness of politics but revels in the beauty of love. Introducing her earlier, co-host for the evening, Myesha Jenkins said of Masango, “Nova is not a poet but an anthropologist”

 

Masango was born in exile in Sweden and her poetry is deeply infused with feminist readings as well as the politics of colonialism. Her poetry lines reveal a love for John Coltrane as well as for Nina Simone. There is a striking autobiographical urgency in the lines that explore sexuality, but they show a poet revelling in the beauty of language and feminist agency.

 

Magic of poetry binds Natalia Molebatsi, Myesha Jenkins & Pitika Ntuli
Magic of poetry binds Natalia Molebatsi, Myesha Jenkins & Pitika Ntuli

Co-host for the evening, Natalia Molebatsi, like Jenkins and Ntuli was dressed in Ghanaian garb. Her Kente cloth dress was a vibrant combination of yellow, green and red, reminiscent of the richly coloured food found in West African cuisine. Like Jenkins, Molebatsi did not limit herself to the role of traditional MC, but interspersed her delivery with performances of her own half-poems-half-announcements

 

Where De Korte Street in Braamfontein would have been deserted a few years ago on most Tuesday nights, this time there was no free space to park in the precinct surrounding The Orbit. The performance was sold out, and even the owner of the Orbit expressed his surprise that this still experimental fusion of jazz and poetry had attracted such a vibrant audience. But it was easy to understand why. For so long starved of quality live music, Joburgers once again know that there is a place that possibly exceeds even the standard set by the famous Kippies in Newtown.

 

On this beautiful autumn evening in Braamfontein, Pitika Ntuli and Nova Masango were not just carving their names onto the musical and artistic consciousness of this city, but they were also signaling the artistic rebirth of downtown Joburg. In the audience was a mixture of students from nearby Wits University, tourists from Europe, hipsters from residential apartments converted from disused office buildings as well as the middle class set from the Northern Suburbs. On the table next to mine were two couples from Tanzania, and they seemed to be having the night of their lives.

 

The poetry of jazz leaps out of Nova's mouth
The poetry of jazz leaps out of Nova’s mouth

 

If there was a sense of experimentation across forms and language, the musicians held on to their nerves, able to rise or go low as the poets mined the entire range of their poetic register. Pianist Yonela Mnana and drummer Siphiwe Shiburi have played in some of the most exciting new groups and appear on the important album by Lex Futshane, Innocent Victims And Perpetrators. These are musicians who know how to play within the traditional Jazz idiom, but are also able to play the new kinds of jazz sounds.

 

Perhaps the lines from Ntuli’s Conversations with Alberto Giacometti, Ernst Neizvestny and Amedeo Modigliani reflect the merging of traditions into one seamless new artistic experience:

 

I choose to converse with you in the language of form

Wrestle the octopus of memories of fire

Memories of death foretold and witnessed

Like you I reject the unlinear progression of time

From birth to death

 

Poet and sometime organizer Natalia Molebatsi leading a cultural revival in the Joburg CBD
Poet and sometime organizer Natalia Molebatsi leading a cultural revival in the Joburg CBD

Pitika Ntuli has seen the world for more than seven decades, but his zest for life infuses his poetry with a power that connects in a compelling manner with the more urgent voice of Nova Masango who is yet to make thirty. On this evening in Braamfontein the performance across the generations was a reminder that art knows no boundaries.  It may also just be the elusive ingredient that will make gentrification be no more than a property developer’s dream and become instead a holistic process.

 

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Culture

Madonna cannot tell me what to do

 

In the year Design Indaba celebrates 21 years, perhaps it is time to reflect on how Ravi Naidoo has turned the platform into the most significant annual gathering in global design. Perhaps one of the most striking things about Design Indaba is that it has managed to belong to creatives, rather than the suits who fund the creative industries. Crucially, it has not become simply a showcase of success, but has consistently featured speakers who critique both design and society. At a time when global corporations are both more powerful and everywhere, it is important that forums like Design Indaba remain not just independent, but substantively critical of corporate shortcomings.

 

In a country that spends vast fortunes on spectacular launches of initiatives that soon fizzle out, what’s remarkable about Design Indaba is how quietly and patiently Ravi built it. You only need glance at the Design Indaba alumni to see that it has attracted the very best names from across the creative industries since its founding.

 

The 2015 edition of Design Indaba will have the likes of Dan Wieden, co-founder of the agency Widen-Kennedy which created Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. Shubhankar Ray, the brand pioneer will also be at the conference. Previous speakers have included Joy McKinney, DJ Stout, Marcello Serpa, Ije Nwokorie, William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, David Adjaye, Porky Hefer, Koto Bolofo, Brian Eno, and Lindsay Kinkade. The roster of MCs includes the likes of Designer Michael Bierut, who is both incredibly funny and deeply knowledgeable.

“It’s our job to get out there and fight for great ideas; it’s creative people that will make the change,” says Sir John Hegarty, one of the major voices that have insisted on challenging the status quo during memorable presentations at Design Indaba. In other words, Koto Bolofo’s  “Madonna cannot tell me what to do” is more than a statement of defiance, but a reminder that creatives should stand their ground.  It is fitting that Koto Bolofo’s words at Design Indaba should help us reimagine the role of the creative at a time when it is clients who call the shots. It also reinforces thae role that creativity is playing in changing the world.

Naidoo Ravi

There’s a reason why it’s worth celebrating Design Indaba’s philosophy of highlighting the significant socio-economic problems the world faces. Design does not occur in a vaccum, and Design Indaba alumni Alfredo Brillembourg reminds us that great design begins with solving social problems. “If you want to solve housing problems, don’t build housing, build services” says Brillembourg, the founder of Urban Think Tank.

 

In his book There’s A Tsotsi In The Board Room, Muzi Kuzwayo writes, “Obsession with success has led many organisations into trouble. This is because it encourages people to only talk about the good news. The bad news will not be known until it is too late” Design Indaba’s mission, “A better world through creativity” reflects a grasp of the problems our world faces, and the potential for creativity to fix what’s broken. Muzi has spoken at Design Indaba, and like Ravi, he trained as a scientist before finding his calling in the creative industry. In a world of catchy slogans, Design Indaba has been careful to use its tagline as a call to action. Throughout its literature and pages, both online and offline, Design Indaba insists on linking its mission to tangible action. “We can all use creativity to make the world a better place” sounds all the more credible because Design Indaba is involved in concrete action to improve housing, energy, the environment, recycling and other sustainable campaigns that go beyond the cliches of Corporate Social Responsibility.

 

If Design Indaba was simply about showcasing what’s pretty, sexy and even popular, it would long ago have lost its power to consistently pull in the hottest minds in design and creativity from across the globe. Global competition is fierce, what with events such as TED and others luring the best speakers to their platforms. Ravi and his core team have managed to keep Design Indaba fresh each year by knowing exactly what is pushing design and creative boundaries at any one moment. But perhaps the key success of Design Indaba lies in its ability to draw creative leaders from across the globe and use them to ignite deep conversations that influence the trajectory of global creative work.

 

It has been a real joy to watch Design Indaba grow from a small event in South Africa to become one of the key events on the global creative calender. It is thanks to Ravi’s vision that each year Cape Town receives thousands of visitors who know that they will connect with sharp thinkers in the world of design, film, music, architecture, and the other creative industries. The Design Indaba has contributed a staggering amount to the economy, and through projects like the Design Indaba Expo has created jobs and launched some of the hottest talent in global design. Both the film festival and the musical performances during Design Indaba add to the layers of authenticity associated with Design Indaba.

 

I have always marveled at Ravi’s insistence to travel across the world to invite personally each of the speakers that come to Cape Town to take part in Design Indaba. Now that the debacle of Cape Town’s designation as World Design Capital is behind us, it’s time to consider the parasite nature of so many bureaucrats. Cape Town’s stint as World Design Capital shows how carpetbaggers will always ride on the infrastructure that’s been built by the likes of Ravi through Design Indaba.

 

Design Indaba has clearly found the elusive formula for success. But it is its sense of itself as more than just a conference, but a multifaceted platform intent on using creativity to improve the world that lifts it above the event category. It is this broader mission that has turned Design indaba into a veritable institution within the global creative landscape. From the Africa is Now exhibition, to the Design Indaba Do Tank platform, as well as the online Designindaba.com the platforms available to the creative community remain fresh, relevant and compelling each year.

 

One of the noticeable trends is the number of designers that insist on having fun even as they solve the most serious social problems. As the designer John Bielenberg notes “If changing the world isn’t fun then nobody is going to do it”

Ravi

Ours has become a world of deep orthodoxy and that is why it is worth repeating Canadian designer Rahim Bhimani’s quote of his professor “Question everything generally thought to be obvious.”

 

Ravi Naidoo says it best when he says ” Since 1995 Design Indaba has bet the farm on SA’s creative future. All of our projects since 1994 have been about re-imagining Africa, about giving Africa new stretch. We are optimists, we aren’t apologetic about our circumstances or South Africa. We’re not part of the crew that sits about having a whinge over a cappuccino. We have an outstanding opportunity here with the means and the ideas to make a difference.”

Ayanda

 

It’s time that South Africa took serious notice of this great ambassador of our country and his catalytic role in placing both design and the creative industries at the centre of making a better world. Ravi Naidoo would surely repeat with the great photographer Koto Bolofo in saying that “Madonna cannot tell me what to do” and with good reason

A View of Nelson Mandela Bridge

 

 

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Culture

Language is a meeting place, a point of confrontation, between the individual and the social. André Brink

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” Milan Kundera as quoted by André Brink in Writing In A State Of Siege .

 

There is something indescribably attractive about those individuals who take great delight in the pleasures of language. For them language is palpably alive, laden with a beauty so raw that each word is charged with this essence. Such was Andre Brink’s relationship with language, whether it was the English in which he wrote so many of his novels, or the Afrikaans he was born to, or the French he acquired during his time in Paris.

The author, Andre Brink

Brink reminds us in an essay titled, Censorship And Literature that “Language is a meeting place, a point of confrontation, between the individual and the social”. This is a point worth reinforcing at a time when language is often presented as something neutral, even innocent.

 

Brink was a towering figure, lean and tall, with chiseled features, and a deliberate manner that did not fully prepare you for his quick wit. His deeply furrowed face hinted at his intellectual occupation. But when he broke into a smile, you knew that here was a man who has tasted fully life’s sweetness. When he walked into a room you knew immediately that here was a man of substance. His range of references was vast and you could tell that he had spent as much time living life fully as had reading from texts on philosophy, poetry, history and of course literature.

 

But how do you make sense of someone who was at once a traveler, a teacher, a man of letters, poet, essayist and perhaps, most importantly, a dissident. The truth is you can’t. Such a life is impossible to sum up, because it defies the limiting categories that we use to place individuals in certain boxes. For me Brink was the quintessential homme des lettres and his life was a manifestation of how those who succumb to the lure of letters live their lives.

 

As a dissident Brink had his books banned. His novel, A Dry White Season, was banned because it threatened the safety of the state, according to the censors. In one of his last works of fiction, the novel Philida, Brink turned to South Africa’s complex and uncomfortable past and he rummages through the dustbin of the history to tell the story of the slave Philida.

 

One of the books that comes closest to giving us some sense of the complexity of Brink’s life is his Writing In A State Of Siege. This is one of the finest introductions to Brink’s own sense of how history has shaped Afrikaner discourse. But these essays also establish his own concern with history and its effect on identity.

 

If Andre was once lithe, athletic even, in later years he had been slowed down by the ravages of age, and where his walk was once a swift and graceful stroll, it had now become slow, deliberate, even labored. But his mind remained as keen as ever, and the spark in his eyes remained a measure of his vitality.

 

He has left us a rich oeuvre and those who wish to acquaint themselves with his considerable body of work can choose from works such as Before I Forget, A Fork In The Road, An Instant In The Wind, The Wall Of The Plague, The Other Side Of Silence, A Dry White Season and his other writings. When you read his memoir, A Fork In The Road, it is clear that for Brink, the confluence between distance and historic events in Paris led to his own social awakening. After this he had no doubt that Apartheid was a very dark evil, and one that he would write against in both his fiction and essays.

 

Brink’s books, such as An Instant in the WindA Dry White SeasonRumours of Rain and The Other side of Silence, established his ability to tackle head-on Africa’s “big” subjects in fiction, colonialism, Apartheid, and a rapidly changing world. It is worth comparing his fiction with his more personal views as reflected in his memoir, A Fork in the Road.

Throughout his life and career, language and culture were very important concerns for Brink. For a writer who did not stay with one language, the idea of “translation as rewriting” loomed large in his own work. Once he was banned by the Apartheid bosses, Brink was forced to adopt English as a co-first language. But even though he drew from a very wide circle of influence, it was quite clear that Brink regarded himself first and foremost as a South African writer – one who had experienced both the exilharating discovery of new worlds and the claustrophobic boxing-in of Apartheid, which sought, at its most basic level, to deny experiences other than those dictated by its segregated, racialised norm.

Andre Brink, a portrait

 

Brink received France’s highest honour when he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government; and in 1992 he was awarded the Monismanien Human Rights Award from Sweden’s University of Uppsala, for making known the injustice of apartheid to the wider world.

 

It was always such a pleasure to see Brink’s name in a literary programme for his presence at today’s ubiquitous literary events was a guarantee of a certain old fashioned literary seriousness that is fast disappearing under the pressure of literary celebrity. Brink’s works will serve as a reminder of how the past invariably imposes itself on the present. But they will also sharpen our sense of the pleasures of language that he felt so acutely.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Culture

Let The Bass Mourn

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.”

 

Victor Ntoni, Double Bass player, composer, arranger and teacher

“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”

 

Bassist Lex Futshane
Double Bass player, Lex Futshane


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”

Trumpeter Feya Faku
Trumpeter and composer, Feya Faku

 

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.

Writer and critic, Bongani Madondo
Portrait of a critic, Bongani Madondo

 

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.

Categories
Culture

Jazz Is The Highest Art Form, says Abdullah Ibrahim

“Jazz is the highest art form and the Symphony Orchestra is stuck in the industrial era, with each musician only knowing how to play his part and not the whole piece” Abdullah Ibrahim said at the weekend. He recounted an incident when he gave a score to a conductor for a performance he was to do with an orchestra. “They did not bother to practice, and I knew exactly what was going to go down” Ibrahim said with a smile. Ibrahim says the day before the performance the conductor asked him if he did not have a CD of the music. The hapless conductor was out of luck and Ibrahim says he had to stop the performance and ask the musicians to try again. It was perhaps telling that Ibrahim warned against the dangers of mistaking information for knowledge.

Ibrahim singles out the ability to improvise as what truly sets jazz musicians apart from their counterparts who play classical music. In his gentle but wise voice he wonders why classical musicians are revered so much if they can only play what is written for them and are unable to improvise.  Even as he ponders some of the most enduring contradictions in music, it is clear that Ibrahim remains fascinated by mastery of the simple. Where some musicians bet their careers on virtuosity and playing at impossibly high speeds Ibrahim’s style is often spare. Like Duke Ellington before him, his greatest instrument is the band that he plays with.

His own music is a study in paring down so that each note is heard with a purity that is startling. A key to his practice as a musician, as a composer and a pianist may lie in his life long study of martial arts. Ibrahim reveals that he can spend several years to master one simple movement. Similarly in his playing, he plays the same song over and over again till he discovers to borrow from him, he discovers the 99% that lies hidden beyond the obvious.”

Ibrahim told a story of a young man who found Art Tatum playing and he walked over to him and said he knew all of Tatum’s music and he could play it perfectly. To demonstrate his point, the young man went over to a piano and began playing like the great pianist. But Tatum was oblivious of the young man and he focused on his drink till a friend sitting next to him, said, “Listen, this young man is playing your music”, whereupon Tatum responded, “He knows what I play, not why I play it”.

In his two shows at the Linder Auditorium and at the ZK Matthews Hall in Pretoria, Ibrahim played some of the most wondrous, most irresistibly memorable jazz, and his band Ekaya was able to go to places where only the bravest and most skilled improvisers dare go. On songs like Mindif and Calypso Minor, the band played with a joy that sent palpable electricity across the hallowed halls.  Both the Linder and the ZK Matthews halls have some of the best acoustics in the country and this allowed Ibrahim and the band to play with as little amplification as possible. The sound was rich, pure, and intimate, full of a raw intelligence that comes from hearing men like Ibrahim whisper their secrets through their music.

 

The great composer, pianist and bandleader, Abdullah Ibrahim

Whether he was eliciting the bluest notes from the minor keys of his Steinway, or coaxing the brightest, warmest notes that convey his love for this art form, it is clear that Ibrahim’s music is made from a place that is deep and beautiful and ultimately unknowable. As he came to play for Joburg and Pretoria, we were lucky to hear Ibrahim take an unprecedented number of solos in a performance with a band. Such is his generosity that when he is on stage, Ibrahim prefers to let the spotlight shine on the musicians that accompany him. In his last performance at The Linder, he gave up his seat at the piano to Andile Yenana.

It is worth noting that in both his performances at the Linder and at the ZK Mathews Hall, Abdullah Ibrahim did not once utter a word. Not a single word. He came onto the stage and only spoke through the music. He only gestured acknowledgement of applause and he and his band members were one in speaking to us through the language of their music. His refusal to speak was perhaps a necessary reminder that at its zenith, it is perhaps unnecessary to paraphrase music. If we remain truly curious, and we listen with clarity and sincerity, perhaps we earn the right to hear the notes that would otherwise remain hidden from those that only hear the obvious.

The music that Abdullah Ibrahim has composed in a career that’s well over 60 years is some of the most beautiful, some of the most daring, but also some of the most radically African. Once he gave us Mannenberg, Abdullah Ibrahim reminded us that Africa’s music has a beauty that eclipses much of what we’ve previously elevated to the apex of culture. But it is when he plays an extended set of just under three hours that you begin to grasp the incredible magic of this pianist and composer who has always painted in the most unusual colors with the sound of his piano.

Jazz music is the African diaspora’s greatest gift to the world, and we should listen to it knowing that we are in an encounter with the highest of the art forms. Abdullah Ibrahim belongs in a line of our greatest griots that includes Duke Ellington, Madala Kunene, Kippie Moeketsi, Johnny Dyani, Marks Mankwane, Miriam Makeba, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Princess Magogo, Philip Tabane, Ali Farka Toure and Bheki Mseleku. We should count ourselves lucky that Abdullah Ibrahim is playing for us when his quest for perfection has been realized.

 

A portrait of Abdullah Ibrahim next to his piano
Categories
Culture

Some thoughts on why I started The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

By Victor Dlamini

It is the age we live in that gives one that rush of blood to the head – and you suddenly feel as if you were a David of sorts, ready to slay your Goliath. I mean only in this new millennium would one be so foolhardy as to dare to dream of starting a new show on a completely new media platform. But then there is all around us a keenness to try out new ideas, and the young generation, the ‘digital natives’ have shown us just how big the ‘information age’ is destined to become. It is nearly a year now since I left traditional broadcasting and embarked on what may have seemed at first like a perilous plunge into the unknown, and in this piece I would like to share some of my own thoughts that led me, perhaps even compelled me to start the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

Much is made of what is called ‘New Media’ but since we all know that nothing stays new forever, and that certainly ‘New Media’ is no longer new, this convenient term seems destined for the dustbin. Whatever the term that will come to define this shift from the ‘traditional’ media such as Radio, Television and Print to a web based digital platform, it seems clear that it presents new and exciting possibilities to democratize mass communication without recourse to expensive financing of ‘broadcasting’ infrastructure.

The rise of ‘citizen journalism’ has been one of the most fascinating effects of new technology on our society, and I believe that in a few years some of the old-school broadcasters will be totally out of touch, chasing a dwindling and ageing audience. Once I’d grasped this idea that one no longer needed to be tethered to the inflexible edifice of the corporate media to reach readers and listeners, I knew that I had to break free, become independent and start the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast.

Citizen journalism is a symptom: a deeper social reality is reflected by the phenomenal rise of Podcasting and Blogging, probably two of the most important developments in our recent history as social beings. Podcasting and Blogging bring with them a promise of democratizing speech in an age when ‘big media’ wields more power than most countries. All around us we can see that the interests of the powerful, be they vested in big corporations, big countries, big individuals, or big institutions, are stifling the voice of the independently minded.

One of the things that I found quite frustrating about South Africa’s public broadcaster was that there one had to try and deliver a high-quality programme whilst working with so many ill prepared, inexperienced individuals that had been given jobs that are well beyond their means. It is not just a question of training, but also of simple common sense, and if you have members of the team who think it is their birth-right to pitch up at the last minute, without any preparation, then the institution is doomed to deliver content of substandard quality. If there ever was a recipe for failure this is it, and I weep for this potentially World Class institution. It is of course heartening to see that many of the so-called big players have since followed my lead, right down to emulating or copying my technical solution to deliver high-quality Podcasts. That is one of the joys of possessing a pioneering spirit, but the benefit is for the larger community that loves the arts and now has more choice.

The poet, publisher and activist, James Matthews

It is one of the great ironies of our age that at a time when newspapers and magazines are getting bigger by the day there is actually less to read. Radio and television are much the same – with the possible exception of a few hours here and there on talk radio. This is because publishers and media owners, with the tacit agreement of editors, reserve more and more space to satisfy the demands of commerce. Little wonder that in so many parts of South Africa the consumer culture has become the primary impulse of most workers, who spend what little time they ‘have to themselves’ rushing to the nearest shopping mall.

One of the truly outstanding features of Podcasting is that it offers ‘content on demand’. Those who wish to tune in can do so at any time and no longer do they have to sit around waiting for their favourite programme to go on air. After my first ten shows I was struck by how quickly the Podcast had established a truly international audience. Clearly, the availability of the content 24/7 is one of the features that suits such an audience: time differences and geographical or even political barriers that still plague traditional media do not affect it in the same way.

Independence is one of the most cherished words in any language, and there was once a time when freedom and independence were used almost interchangeably. But nowadays the terms seem on the verge of divorce, and there has been a sense of the retreat of the latter – especially when it comes to individual freedom in public spaces. Since it was founded, The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast has given writers, social critics, cultural activists and other creative voices a unique platform to express their ideas freely on this independent show.

I have always been attracted by the purity of ideas, not their popularity: that is why I love the deep conversations that I have with those who come on to the show. It is a truly great delight to listen to someone who has the gift of language and imagination express his or her ideas without any limitation. So far, since starting the podcast, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down to have at least two such conversations each week with remarkable individuals.

The writer and language activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I suppose, finally, that on a personal level I have also always loved the notion of turning what at first seems like an impossibly small or remote idea into something substantial. I think that Podcasting is still in its infancy today, but the success of the iPod shows that its growth as a legitimate medium is assured. No longer do individuals care to have someone else choose for them the things they listen to and watch. Part of what is truly exciting about working in this field, using these tools is that power and choice are returning to listener. To me Podcasting is a fascinating confluence of content, technology and freedom – the freedom to create choice on an untold scale for audiences across the globe, and the corresponding freedom to decide when you want to tune in.

I have no doubt that through my conversations with so many outstanding writers, thinkers and other creative individuals on The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast, I have an opportunity to add to our ability to imagine beyond the confines of our circumstances. In these conversations those I speak to have never ceased to surprise me by how much they are prepared to open up to me, and I think that all of us can glean something from their answers. In the final analysis I do believe that the import of all this is that through the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast we may once again realize that an untethered, unfettered imagination, as found in our various literatures, fictions and other narratives, may provide us the greatest freedom of all.

It has been a pleasure to post my conversations with artists such as Andre Brink, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Dennis Brutus, Kgebetli Moele, Emmanuel Dongala, Gabeba Baderoon,Shailja Patel, Maestro, Ben Zander  Breyten Breytenbach, Lewis Nkosi, Vusi Mchunu,Eben Venter, Sandile Ngidi, Mbulelo Mzamane, Nawal El Saadawi, Anne Landsman, Njabulo Ndebele, Gcina Mhlophe, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Napo Masheane, Sello Maake Ka Ncube, Ben Williams, Antjie Krog, Kevin Bloom, Rosamund Zander, Zapiro, Sindiwe Magona, Ravi Naidoo and many others

 

A view of city Johannesburg, one of the world’s greatest cities
Categories
Culture

Authors that you should add to your must read list

 

It used to be that authors only lived through their books & as a reader you could only rely on your imagination to imagine how they actually looked like beyond the grainy photo on the back cover of books. But in recent times there has been a boom in book festivals and some of these festivals are able to secure the presence of top authors: The following is my pick of six authors that you should try and hear in your lifetime.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is easily the most important author to emerge from Africa in the last twenty years. In football they talk of the ‘complete player’ and if Adichie were a footballer, she would fit this bill as she has it all; exquisite prose, remarkable characters & as a speaker she is in total command of her narrative. Her powers as a storyteller were already remarkable in her debut novel Purple Hibiscus, but no one could have predicted the extraordinary achievement of her second novel, Half Of A Yellow Sun. Little wonder she was awarded the ‘genius’ award, the MacArthur Foundation Prize. She may have been born in Nigeria, but Adichie is proudly claimed by the global literary family.

There is something of a phenomenal revival in the genre of Crime Fiction globally, and South Africa’s Deon Meyer belongs in the first rank of these writers. Meyer has what is almost an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world inhabited by the unsavoury characters he writes so compellingly about. Even as he describes a truly sordid member of the murderous underworld,  Meyer retains a twinkle in his eye and is liable to respond with a very warm and generous laugh that booms across a room. He began life as a journalist in the Free State, but his books now rank amongst the most sought after in Crime Fiction. Widely translated, Meyer has sold the film rights to many of his books including Dead Before Dying & Thirteen Hours.

The novelist Deon Meyer

Some authors need to write just one book that captures so richly what’s been missing in a sterile but enduring entire debate. Dambisa Moyo’s great power lies in her courage to go against deeply held beliefs and debunks the cherished myth that aid has benefited Africa.  It is her unshakeable belief in Africa’s ability to grow its economy that has given Moyo almost evangelical zeal as she takes on the charity sector as well as some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and rock stars who champion the aid industry. Zambian born Moyo’s Dead Aid, has dared ask the tough question, Why has so much money not made a dent in the fight against poverty?

In his writing, Kwame Dawes’ simplicity, elegance and meaning stand out as the hallmarks of his style. Deceptively simple, Dawes achieves his power as a writer by paring down his words so that the meaning of what he has to say is startlingly clear.  It is his dedication to his craft that makes him extraordinarily prolific writer, with over 30 titles to his name. A founder of Cave Canem, a kind of boot camp for writers, many of whose alumni have won top literary prizes. Add to that his status as the world’s leading scholar on Bob Marley, then you understand why this son of Ghanaian and Jamaica is a literary treasure.

Nawal El Saadawi is one of the most passionate writers this continent has ever produced. It is her courage to write about those subjects that were considered taboo, dangerous even that make her one of the world’s most significant writers. She speaks with a palpable sense of commitment to the cause of freedom to which her books are so indebted.  El Saadawi has a deeply analytical style of writing that reflects a deep understanding of not just society but also the way individuals negotiate their way past some of the obstacles they find.  It is her training as a physician and her work as a researcher on neurosis that have made her writing unique. She was born in Egypt but her work has made her one of the most authentic voices on women’s issues across the globe.

The fearless writer and activist, Nawal El Saadawi
The powerful gaze of the writer and activist, Nawal El Saadawi

If there is one African writer whose work straddles all known genres, it is Chris Abani who finds the language to capture the most exquisite beauty in even the most desolate situations. He is a big man with an incredible sensitivity that finds nuance where many would not stop long enough to capture the nuanced lives that Abani imagines and portrays in his novels, poems, songs, and screenplays. Where many find history in the political, Abani’s magic is to find it in the family, even in love and he weaves the larger social issues with the tenderness of a lyric poet. Abani’s path took him from Nigeria to Los Angeles via London but he has written his way into the heart of all three societies.

 

Novelist, poet and teacher, Chris Abani

The best book festivals in SA are the The Time Of The Writer which takes place in March in Durban, The Franschhoek Literary Festival takes place in one of the most beautiful villages in SA. The Cape Town Book Fair gives book lovers a chance to walk the historic Cape Town CBD . Poetry Africa has to be the most important poetry event in SA and it attracts major poets from SA & the globe and takes place in Durban.