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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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City blog

A Cat Called Bongani Madondo

He should have been a Sophiatown heavy. With his two-tone brogues, tweed jackets, and occasional bowtie, he looks like something straight out of Sophiatown. Or from the Harlem of the Renaissance in the 20’s. All of which would make sense because Bongani Madondo’s literary soul mates include James Baldwin, E’skia Mphahlele and Miriam Makeba. He is a fast talking dandy armed with an encyclopedic grasp of all things Pop drawn to noire movies.  He devours long reads in Esquire, Vanity Fair or the Paris Review Of Books.

At a time when so many writers peddle words mostly to pay the rent, Madondo is that rare cat who still answers to a higher cause; the art of it all. It would be incorrect to call Madondo a reporter even though he has a nose for the news. Little wonder he calls himself a storyteller. But the stories he goes in search of stay with him for a long time. As he says in his Note to the Reader in I’m Not Your Weekend Special, “Way before I’d even seen her, let alone met her in person, the story of Brenda Fassie fascinated and perplexed me on many levels”

But then again Madondo should perhaps have been a rock ‘n’ roller. A quick glance at the musicians he loves brings up the baddest rock artists of all time. Busi Mhlongo. Philip Tabane, Joni Mitchel. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Brenda Fassie, Ali Farka Toure. If this list seems confusing, it’s because Madondo has an expansive sense of what qualifies as rock. Not for him the narrow definition of rock that bizarrely disqualifies its founders and acknowledges those who borrowed the music.

For Madondo, the ultimate rock’n roll star of them all was Busi Mhlongo. What with her ability to bring to Maskandi a devil-may-care attitude, matched by a hoarse voice that announced Maskandi as the ultimate rebel party music. And if you ever saw Busi Mhlongo in performance, dressed in a punk-meets-goddess style, then you know Madondo says she is or rock ‘n’ roll royalty. What she did to Maskandi, recognising its urban roots that harked backed to rural stories and minibus taxi gossip is the stuff of genius. If universities are teaching courses on modern day Divas, it is Busi Mhlongo who should be enjoying the bulk of the attention.

And when Busi Mhlongo sings Ebathenjini, she brings to Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song a certain wistfulness to it, but one that rests on the pillars of life’s hardest lessons. Where Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song has a boundless joy, there’s a dark blues tinged edge to Busi Mhlongo’s. And one can imagine Madondo bobbing to its hypnotic rhythm even as he clutches a dog-eared copy of Rolling Stone. When he dances, he moves to the music with the joy of a practiced hedonist. It is as if when the music gets him, it gets all of him or not at all. Then it is easy to make sense of Madondo’s close reading of these wizened artists. For like them the music reaches into the deepest parts of his being.

Madondo is good at slicing through the of minutiae of celebrity. In Hot Type we find him philosophizing on Bob Mabena in Hi I’m the new bob Mabena

“here the name Bob Mabena is not used as a third person display on an ego , tripping off the runway again, but playful metaphor, for a blind but adventurous thrill seeker and urban hedonist of days gone by ”

Where others worship at the altar of religion, it is safe to say that if Madondo has any faith that moves him at all, it is the connection with the ancient souls that walk this earth disguised as musicians. As he writes in Hot Type on hearing Magwaza by Johnny Dyani;
“Yep , it was a religious experience . Hallucinatory even. The sort of ‘ high’ thousands of rock ‘n roll and jazz fanatics are prone to evoke in their countless ‘I saw Elvis’ or ‘ It rained horizontally the day Miles Davis died.” Here is Madondo implicating himself in the observations that he delights in pinpointing in fellow converts to the faith of music.

Writer and critic, Bongani Madondo
Portrait of the culture critic, Bongani Madondo

If it comes as a shock to the reader that Madondo knows his way around rock’n ‘roll as much as around Kwaito or Maskandi, it will probably shock jazz purists that this cat knows his Charles Mingus from his Winston Mankunku Ngozi. When he drops in for a visit, he will pick that rare vinyl that no one else even recognizes, and he will proceed to school me on its importance in the discography of that artist. Such passion is a joy to behold, and it explains why when Madondo writes on art, it is a deadly serious matter.

For Madondo this isn’t just music. It is something else altogether, something tinged with the numinous. It will come as little surprise to learn that Madondo has been known to go on a pilgrimage to Dr Malombo, Philip Tabane’s home in Mamelodi. When Busi Mhlongo was still amongst us, Madondo also went on regular, extended pilgrimages to her home north of Durban in KwaZulu Natal. Where others just want to get the story and file it, it is obvious that for Madondo the story goes way, way beyond what the artist wants to be written about them. And perhaps that’s why he connected so deeply with artists of the highest order, such as Busi Mhlongo.

Like Busi Mhlongo, Madondo makes it his business to turn convention on its head. He speaks a language that is wholly his own. One that borrows from his hometown of Hammanskraal but embellishes with bits from his adopted Joburg and that also picks up from his spiritual homes of New York. Even in his writing, you sense that he has a fine ear and listens very closely not just to what is said, but how it is said. Interviewing Rita Marley, his essay is filled with what Madondo picks up of her diction, her Jamaican voice booming unmistakably across the page. It is a remarkable skill at a time when reading through interviews you would think linguistic nuance was a thing of the past. In Hot Type in his essay on Rita Marley he writes “Boojah! So ’tis you? Mah dear , Afreeka feels good to me. The sun, the energy, the love, shoo , I feel blessed mon. Blessed! Discussion? Oh , go get the rest in the book my brethren.”

Bongani Madondo has an insider's knowledge of Miriam Makeba's music

Perhaps Madondo’s fine ear for language explains the confidence with which he delivers his musical judgements. They may sometimes be written languidly, developed with the patience of an artist painting on a delicate surface, but when he delivers them, they are sharp, direct and unforgettable. As Njabulo Ndebele remarks of Madondo’s Hot Type “Bongani Madondo’s portraits made me gasp and sigh and shake in my seat. Long after I have experienced them, I’ll be saying: ‘life is beautiful after all.’

When you catch him in a sit down with Hugh Masekela, you can tell that the connection goes way deeper than the ask-question-answer-question that is today’s sound-byte journalism. Where others might be quite content to meet their deadline, to turn in the story they promised at conference, Madondo seems to be interested only in the backstory. Not for him the glib quick shallow answers that satisfies the curiosity of a generation ever on the move. It is when the stage lights have long been switched off, the fans gone home, the stage dismantled, that Madondo moves in for the kill. He has the instincts of a hunter, patient when necessary, but well aware when it is time to ask the burning question.

He is a critic who does not fear offending the biggest names in music or the arts. If his book, Hot Type, introduced him to a wider audience, those who follow him across the various magazines, newspapers and websites for which he writes know he is bold with his opinions. But he is also insanely funny, and has trained himself to resist the performance that many artists use to shield their real selves from those who chase them for stories. He is wise enough to know that patience and persistence can wear out even the most difficult superstar.

Style is Bongani Madondo's vernacular
Style is Bongani Madondo’s vernacular

Throughout Hot Type you see Madondo chasing after an interview. It is as if he doesn’t know when to give up. In his new book, I’m Not Your Weekend Special, Madondo tells of how long it took him to get Brenda Fassie to agree and sit down to an interview. He is a cat who is not only curious, but knows when to bide his time till the rock stars yield to his combination of charm and stubborn persuasion.

When Madondo has a new book to read, or a new record to listen to, or even an art exhibition to attend and review, he retreats into a kind of sanctuary. It is fascinating to watch him go through his rituals of coming to terms with a new piece of work. Then he will disappear, he wrestles with the demon of writing late into the night and into the wee hours of the morning. Not unlike an animal responding to nature’s call to hibernate. One senses that it is not the deadline that makes him switch off his phone and not even respond to emails, but a need to withdraw into some primeval space in which he is alone with the literary gods.

Even though politics is not his subject of choice, every now and again Madondo will tell us how the politics impedes or subverts the artists whose lives he dissects with such thoroughness. But then again perhaps it is by looking through the lens of pop culture that we may see politics for what it is, modern day theatre, complete with props. As Madondo writes in Hot Type: “Why is it that we despise self-promotion by leaders who are all sheen and no substance, yet we are inherently opposed to those hard-working types we tag as ‘lacking charisma’? But he also makes the larger point that maybe we already live in the post politics era. How else do you explain, he wants to know, why “in New York City, Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls’ funeral was attended by close to a million people, blocking the streets of Brooklyn”

In the essay Pop Among The Believers, Madondo lays bare some of the contradictions of modern day life. He is at his sharpest when asking questions. “Why is the majority of populations in democracies voice out their disdain about the cult of personality, especially as it pertains to a popular leader – say Bill Clinton – and yet go ahead to venerate another leader, Nelson Mandela?”

When he brings his sharp eye to what may seem like banal pop videos or lyrics, Madondo often draws startling conclusions. On Makhendlas he writes, again in Hot Type;

“The notion that black men are buffalo soldiers blessed with a natural gift for toughing it out on the rough edges of life has sent young black males into a cyclone of confusion , fear and unending challenges to legitimise their status in this depoliticised, insensitive, indifferent era , where the fruits of the revolution feed on their offspring.”

It is why Nathan McCall says that Madondo has “a wicked wit and a keen sense of the complex ways that pop culture intersects with politics”

Bongani Madondo
A man with a sharp eye and a keen ear

There’s a special place in Madondo’s universe for Miriam Makeba. His pursuit of an interview with Miriam Makeba reads like a courtship of sorts. Here was the scribe as convert, seeking an audience with one of the deities of the music. Where others may have wanted confirmation of what they has read elsewhere, Madondo wanted to get to the core of what set Miriam Makeba apart. Not what was familiar and rehashed over and over till it became bland. But something that would explain the Songbird who had sung Soweto Blues, Sophiatown Is Gone, Ask The Rising Sun and of course the hypnotic Pata Pata.  He got his story all right, but he was after something else. He wanted to reach into the inner secrets that had compelled Miriam Makeba to take on the might of Apartheid and even Uncle Sam so she could sing the songs of freedom.

Which makes you understand why Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground says of Madondo “I found Madondo slightly unsettling, not least of all least because this was not a journalist asking the usual superficial questions”

If Madondo writes with an urgency about artists, there’s perhaps another side to him that comes through Social Media. On Twitter he is not only deeply informal, but he displays a comfort with the short prose format that a 140-character limit imposes. His posts are often pithy, irreverent, but still deeply conversational Below are a few posts that show a vintage Madondo

‘Some kinda time out. Road tripping with filmmakers Deon Maas&Keith Jones to Giyani in search of the soul of Shangaan Futurism. What holiday?’

‘Great day hanging out with Mr. Rose Phaahle talking about Nat Nakasa.Later with homegal Trudi Makhaya talking new ways of Business Journalism’

And when he uses his allocation of 140 characters by Twitter Inc. to ask;

‘Sorry, but what is the National Democratic Revolution? Also can a “revolution” truly be democratic?’

You know that Madondo would make a rebel reporter in politics, one who questions even as he chastises.

He can also be wickedly funny even as he is dead serious. Here is a post to Twitter Headquarters, written in a moment of exasperation; ‘Letter to Twitter HQs: How many times should I change my password? How come I get hacked everyweek, does my machine have an incurable virus?”

At times he is just plain out to have fun. And what’s wrong with that. Pop was founded on the principle of hedonism.

‘I’m Nelson Mandela’s long lost grandson. Mother is Orphelia Madiba Madondo frm Qunu.I got meself some accent. Some1 gimme a TV talkshow now!’

And again

‘Surely thanking any1 on Tweeter’s like peeing into the Atlantic but hey.Mad Love to YALL supporting ‘Im Not Yr Wknd Special book.’ Touching.’

Here is a man having the time of his life, chasing his dreams and stopping every now and again to peer into the abyss that separates the normal from those who suffer from artistic greatness. Bongani Madondo will read their books, listen to their music, and even get lost in their shows. But he is the cat who always gets to the bottom of their story. Little wonder that he follows so closely the work of those other mercurial readers of their culture, like Greg Tate, Deborah Willis and Binyavanga Wainana. Like them he doesn’t just want to report on his society, he wants to explode some of the myths that have turned culture into mere commodity.

Madondo has no doubt that if we look closely at pop culture, we will get to the kernel of what drives our societies. As he says in Hot Type

“If pop culture as well as political personalities bizarrely evoke God and Christ for their own crass ends, how come then, society and the media accord those ‘stars’ reverence befitting early prophets, sages, shamans, the true social conduits to higher forces, huh?”

But he is aware that many of those revered in pop culture as ‘icons’ are often reckless self promoters. As he writes in Hot Type, “Like the wickedest pop image-makers, self publicists, artists, con-artists and manipulators of the age – Don King, Muhammad Ali, Mobuto Sese Seko, Prince, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti and others (Kanye) West has a cunning internal compass wired to the root of his brain”

Naturally the last word should go to Madondo via his musings on his beloved Miriam Makeba. “Whether performing for European lefties in Paris or singing Black Power songs for guinea’s peasants, Makeba – eternally stylish and perennially edgy – knew how to carve a niche between counterculture and couture culture. For her, it was, I imagine, a matter of saying: ‘I am an artist, but if I have to speak for my people, honey, let me do it in style.’

 

 

 

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Beyoncé is the wrong award

Beyoncé is a wonderful performer, a true phenomenon, one of the seven wonders of global music. But Big Concerts or Morris Rhoda can bring her to SA, not the Ministry of Sports. It defies logic that an event that is called the SA Sports Awards should be headlined by one of the most expensive global superstars.

If the Minister of Sports wants to dazzle his guests at the event, he can call on so many of South Africa’s superstars. Just imagine Hugh Masekela, Thandiswa Mazwai, Letta Mbulu, Die Antwoord, Simphiwe Dana, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Black Coffee, Bakithi Khumalo & Jonathan Butler performing for rapt audiences at the Sports Awards. That would be more than all the awesome that Beyoncé can bring to any event.

Our country is blessed with some of the world’s most original artists and our government has no reason to import US pop stars to an event that celebrates SA excellence. At a time when we go out to the world to convince it of our global stature, it is self defeating not to use our own platforms to showcase the cream of our talent. What’s even more galling is that for Beyoncé, the amount she would be paid would be little more than a drop in the ocean. For many South African artists, such an amount would be a significant and responsible investment. On top of that they would give the audience an unforgettable, world class experience.

It’s not even a question of where the money is coming from. Even if there’s a private sector sponsor, or a wealthy billionaire that wants to rub shoulders with Beyoncé, it would still be irresponsible for Minister Mbalula to allow so much money to be squandered under his watch. There is simply no compelling rationale that links importing a high priced pop star with the SA Sports Awards.

As journalist Gus Silber said, with appropriate sarcasm, “It’s fine for Beyoncé to sing at the SA Sports Awards, as long as Bafana get to play at the Grammys.”

Tshepo Mashile admonishes the Minister “Poor form Fikile, poor form. There’s no connection between Beyonce and sport. She should rather perform as part of her tour. What a waste”

Perhaps the Minister need look no further than South Africa’s own sports stars to find someone that can dazzle and inspire a sports audience. We have so many stars from golf, rugby, swimming, football, athletics and boxing. Many of them are global role models and they can inspire and motivate those at the awards. The problem with a big pop star is that it turns the awards evening into just another music gig, albeit an expensive one. But hardly anyone remembers the winners on the night.

As Thabo Ndabula “the same international artists that come here for the awards, know nothing about the nominee’s. Its just another gig for them”

Actor and musician Clint Brink takes it further when he says “ When they brought out Vivica A Fox & Brandy I was really pissed off, its a slap in the face of our own people”

Expensive events like the SA Sports Awards show the extent to which SA has become a country in which spectacle holds sway. For a little bit of glamour, many speeches and many millions later, the attention of SA sports lovers is fixed on a single event that diverts funds away from much needed development. These glitzy events, where so many awards are dished out do absolutely nothing for sports that is sustainable.

It is also interesting that the culture of awards ceremonies is taking place at precisely that moment when SA sport is going through one of its most barren spells. Bafana Bafana have not qualified for the African Nations Cup, the Springboks, Proteas and Banyana Banyana have not lifted a trophy in a longtime. Only at the individual level have you had success. So there is really very little achievement to be rewarded. Like many of these award ceremonies, the dishing out of many awards in one evening reduces the very value they may have if there were few, highly deserved ones.

To complicate matters even more,  you have the Provincial Sports Awards, such as the Gauteng Sports Awards. You have to ask why is there no co-ordination so that there is one event at which awards are handed out. This would be a much more effective and costly way of satisfying those with an urge to dish out awards.

To reiterate, the trouble really is not Beyoncé, but the idea that she can be invited to perform when SA has so many world class performers that would grab the opportunity to headline such an event. Even if they are added to the lineup, it galls that they should be support acts in their own country.

Enough with these US pop stars at SA Sports Awards. The reported R50m price tag for the event is truly scandalous. of this a staggering R17m would be for less than an hour of Beyoncé’s time.  In a country where the social calendars of the elite are crammed with invitations to endless events, the Sports Awards is simply yet another evening out for the pampered classes. But with a little imagination and less razzmatzz, such monies could be put to better use elsewhere.

The last word belongs to Zuzi Seoka who says “Instead of funding sports development, Mbalula would rather spend millions bringing Beyonce to the sports awards! Priorities? Nonexistent”