Categories
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.

 

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