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.
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.
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.
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
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.