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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

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.