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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

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

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