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South African Swiss Jazz and the bird's eye jazz venue

There is a deep passion for South African jazz music in Switzerland. Yet, the power of these jazz collaborations goes beyond geographic lines. It is purely about the music. South Africa Jazz in Switzerland has a rich history dating back to the arrival of Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) and Sathima Bea Benjamin in Switzerland in 1962. Johnny Gertze (bass) and Makaya Ntshoko (drums) joined them to make up the quartet and the musicians took a residency at the Africana jazz club in Zurich. The Blue Notes had their first appearance there in 1964. Jam sessions often developed with Swiss musicians including trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti.

By 1968 the Africana was converted into a hotel. Makaya made Basel his hometown. He recorded for Enja records with ‘The Tsotsis,' including Swiss musicians, Heinz Sauer (sax), Bob Degen (piano) and Isla Eckinger (bass) in 1978 and ‘The New Tostsi's including founder of the bird's eye jazz club in Basel, Stephan Kurmann (bass) in 2008.

During the late eighties, the Swiss radio station kept up a strong support for the Anti-Apartheid and other solidarity movements by playing jazz, mbaqanga, soul, reggae, pop and protest music. Artists in exile were invited to perform at rallies.

The Willisau international Jazz festival near Lucerne provides a platform for SA jazz with the Brotherhood of Breath with Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo, Abdullah Ibrahim and Johnny Dyani playing there regularly. In 2009 Zim Ngqawana achieved a life-long dream of performing there .

I n 2004 the Centre for African Studies at the University of Basel and the bird's eye jazz club embarked on a fruitful cooperation to create a long term relationship with South Africa jazz. The stream of music that had gently flowed between the two countries, suddenly become a gushing river of opportunity for jazz musicians.

After initial performances by the Bheki Mseleku Quintet and, the Goema Captains of Cape Town, residency programmes ensued. South African jazz musicians have had the ongoing opportunity to stay in Basel for one or two months at a time, to collaborate with both young and established musicians, develop new ideas, workshop, record live, engage in adult education and teach at the Basel Jazz School. Residents to date have included Feya Faku, Siya Makuzeni, Hilton Schilder, Carlo Mombelli, Marcus Wyatt, Bokani Dyer and Herbie Tsoaeli. The bird's eye has created a musical archive of live recorded gems. The musicians are given exceptionally favourable conditions to publish their works.

Founder of The Orbit jazz restaurant, Aymeric Péguillan consulted with the bird's eye and received the necessary advise, inspiration and in-kind support for the manifestation of his dream. Today, The Orbit is a part of the Braamfontein revival and is a pioneer in bringing jazz back to Jozi. It is a happening place and international space with top quality jazz in a comfortable setting.

Images of the bird's eye jazz club courtesy bird's eye

Interview Vite Artl

I picked up online you were a professor at the University?

First thing I am not a professor, I am executive manager of the Centre for African studies. I am a historian by profession and did my phd on the history of Ghana, accommodation of mission and colonialism. In the course of that research I came across a collection. First of all I was interested in popular music as a side to my research. Then I stumbled across a collection of historic sound recordings from the 30's and 50's which had been done by a Swiss trading company. I set out to digitise that collection and we produced a sampler to highlight what is in the collection and the raising of funds and then eventually we launched the CD and bring the digitised music back to Ghana, then got in touch with Ghanaian musicians. One of them was a musician who recorded with that very company in the 1950's. Did performances in Ghana for the launch and also brought that same outfit to Switzerland. That was my first applied music thing. I did a performance tour with workshops concerts academic presentations and a small conference around West African Pop roots Highlife music origins in Ghana in 2002 and then 2004 I did this project with SA Jazz making use of the expertise I had gained in the first project of Ghana music. From the first show one thing resulted in another so we have had a continuous stream. It was highly successful and for me quite easy to organise because in the jazz idiom you find a ready audience, you find it easy to bring in individual musicians to perform with the Swiss musicians, so you don't necessarily have to bring a whole line up from South Africa which really makes it easy for me to organise.

The musician we brought over was a Ghanaian musician who in the mean time has passed away, Kwami Nyama. He was a very rural musician playing his West African finger picking style of guitar and he had been sticking to the same idiom from the 50's to the 90's which was fantastic.

Who recorded it?

There was a company in the 30's of German engineers from the Parlophone et Audio Label. This is sub labels of EMI. Then in the 50's I met one guy who did the recording for this Basel Trading company called UTC, Union Trade Company of Switzerland. He was actually not a recording specialist just an employee of this trading company and since he was interested in music, his director said why don't you try this recording thing. He gave him totally free hand on what to record.

He took his mobile apparatus to Ghana Nigeria and basically just moved along the trading network of that company. Whatever town he came to, he spread word, yes we can do recordings and they came. Everyone coming in like the church choirs, and the executioners of the king of Ashanti, concert party bands to swing bands, everything. He did his recordings at the premises of the trading companies in store rooms. The acoustics are quite interesting at times. Of course he only had one microphone capturing whatever outfit from trip to 26 piece band, to the police band. There is a quite interesting story he told me how he went about to arrange the musicians, put the claver far away from the guitar and trying to cope with the fact that musicians in Ghana mostly sing falsetto because their voices carry much further. It is really a tough challenge to record a guitarist who is singing falsetto at the same time. Recorded by Kaegi.


I wrote a little piece on that I can send it to you. I actually presented my research at the time of the grounding of Swiss Air 2001 my first research and findings, we had just released a compact disk. I was working on a paper so I went round and presented the paper and also a recording with it. So ILAM is also in the picture but it is also buried somewhere at the archives.


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Makaya Ntshoko I see in 1978 he recorded at the Birds Eye with the New Tsotsi's was that one of the first kind of collaborations between South African Swiss musicians?

I should put you in connection with Stephen Kuruman he is the director of the Birds Eye. The Birds Eye didn't start as early as that, the Birds Eye is celebrating its 20 years anniversary. It is quite young. Makaya was in town from 70's and the people he was performing with there were regular jazz musicians from the scene here. It is indicative of how he was anchored in the network. How he was performing with musicians from the Basel scene and also internationally. At the same time you have Hanniball in Antibes and other recordings that point to his international network. I tried to interview him. I once put together a write up and interview I did with him in 2006. I did a telephone interview with him. There he put quite a bit. I will send you that. It is for sure not complete. He is somebody who is quite difficult to interview. On the one hand he is not so aware how important he is and how important it is to pass on ones story and on the other hand he has been disappointed so many time by other journalists that he doesn't feel like giving out any information. In that interview I tried to move along those things I already knew and tried to get a little closer as to what is in addition to that. I tried to ask him about his time before leaving South Africa, before King Kong, the Jazz Epistles and his own band, the Jazz Giants, hanging out at Dorkay House and his participation in Jazz Fantasia by Gideon Nxumalo. It is really, he was quite illusive but still you have a few things in there that is authorised by him. You have a few references. He also says without indicating a precise time that he was running in those days jazz workshops at the music school in Basel before there was a jazz school, around rhythm, African music. He was not very precise about it, but yes. The workshops were not a structural thing, but the thing he does for a semester, or if it is repeated I don't know.

I have a political question. South African Jazz was related to the struggle in that it brought people together. It is interesting for me to see there is a unity between Swiss and SA jazz?

In terms of the reception of South African jazz that is closely linked to the solidarity movement, the anti apartheid movement and so on. If you look at the big exile names, everybody was performing for rallies, ant apartheid movements, solidarity campaigns and so on. They were inspired by Blue Notes and so on. South African jazz already in the country was this kind of expression, assertion of humanity and urban modernity vis a vis a system that relegated blacks to a rural origin, to being no urbanites, to be traditional. Of course something which was exactly supporting the argument of Swiss members of the solidarity movement. It was a clear expression of exactly that that black South Africans were cosmopolitan and not the way the regime presented them and it didn't stop at rondavels in the Transkei so to speak. There was an urban African culture, people were intellectual and very aware of what was happening in the world as far as they could have access to that information. People from the solidarity movement, people were having all these records at home. I have a list of music, LP collection I got from Swiss radio station that is quite interesting as it shows what is typical. Lets see I check for South Africa. Typically f course Dollar Brand… Bongi Makeba, not so impressive. Dollar Brand again. Kind of 80's 90's Freedom Fire, the Indestructible Beat of Soweto, that is more mbaqanga, pop. Sounds of Soweto, some reggae but also Bishop Desmond Tutu give praises where praise is deserved 1988. Also the soundtrack of Cry Freedom of course and Bayakhaleni , Mzansi Zulu dancers, a little bit more cultural. Big Ears music and Nyazi Palaka , never heard of that name. Ah, Stimela, the other one was a Lesotho band, Soul Brothers 1985, Mahlatini, Mahotella Queens and all these Blue Notes, etc. Those and also the sound of the Moshoeshoe, Sakhile, Malombo brothers, Dudu Pukwana of course was big. Dudu recorded at Willisau at the jazz festival so there is a live recording from the early 80's. Live at Bracknell, Willisau. Wilisau is that stage where free jazz really found a platform. And it is interesting to check out the discography of the Willisau festival. Go to the website Willisau and check with them when they had the first South African artists and so on. And there is this nice story that Willisau was also for Zim, kind of the so to say one of the final steps in Switzerland was making it to the stage in Willisau and that really was possible through those first concerts at the Birds Eye that he got this exposure here. I am a little bit proud of that even though I don't have much to do with getting him there. Things started moving on its own.

In around 2004 when the SA jazz exchange happens in Basel, you moved to become artistic director of the Birds Eye. Was that the start of the exchange?

I didn't become artistic director, I am a partner in the set up. I am at the university and have very good relationships with the Birds Eye and its artistic director and founder of the club Stephen Kuruman the base player. Also with the president of the club and also the patron of the Birds Eye who has a big heart for Southern Africa. This club has this kind of family groove. Why these musicians feel so much at home. The musicians coming from South Africa are always amazed that people concentrate 100% on the music. It is a typical European audience in that sense. Less interaction and clapping at the solos and at the end of the tunes but not this kind of firing on the musicians, or abusing them at times or whatever. It is really respectful, very focused and that is the one thing musicians are very fond of.

For once they are far from being a side thing of an evening they are really in the limelight and have the full freedom to express themselves, they don't have to heed any audience, like in Cape Town I notice musicians are requested to play standards just to prove that they know to play jazz. The original compositions have very little room there. People are not allowed to move on. Here they can do all that they can. Really come with their original compositions. Sometimes it is easy to market or present somebody. I fall into the trap that I say SA jazz and people associate with that mbaqanga, kwela, the flavours of Abdullah and so on. But also Johnny Dyani and Dudu Pukwana. That being said Alex Van Heerden and Hilton Schilder played the Rock Art stuff here and that caught on very well. That was the first shows I did and I was also a little sceptical so we mixed it into two sets. The first set we did was a little bit more Cape Jazzy, Goema Captains stuff and the second set it was Rock Art. The following year from the beginning it was just Rock Art and New stuff from South Africa and Hilton and then Hilton did his residency and recorded his ‘Elements of Surprise,' which was very different from what he has done before.

Regarding the residency project … is there a vision for exchange with the Orbit. The Orbit do week long residency's of artists.

That kind of residency exists in Switzerland as a showcasing of one musician and that is less at the Birds Eye, it would be The Moods Jazz Club in Zurich. What we try to do is give musicians space to develop projects that they want to develop. Some of them make use of it and come for six weeks, eight weeks. Others like Herbie just come for three weeks and what they do. We always want them to perform with different line-ups. We don't make one South African week which. You risk to loose people. It is more in the frame of a monthly programme it is much more interesting to distribute those South African concerts over the length of the month. For instance with Herbie we started with two nights as a duo, then two nights with a quintet and then end will two nights as a quartet.

With Feya it was a similar thing. There was a classic thing we did with Feya, he performed with students from the jazz school. He did 4 rehearsals with the students from the jazz school then two performances with them. Then he performed in a quintet with the established cats here, really top musicians and that then became the Swiss SA Jazz quintet which toured SA in 2007. He also engaged in adult education teaching, workshops that the jazz club does we did this as a collaboration and called this Music as Protest under apartheid and I gave the narrative and Feya was presenting the music that went with it.

That is the format we started and continued. With Hilton it was the same thing, there was a student band, his ‘Elements of Surprise,' quintet with violin and so on. There was the Rock Art duo. He also worked with a Malay choir and the same applied to Carlo Mombelli. He also had 3 different outfits. Marcus Wyatt same thing. With Herbie we didn't do it. On one hand the timing was not so good, the period we brought him was not conducive to working with students from the jazz school. And the jazz school just moved places so they were very absorbed and couldn't do long term planning for the year. Also the challenge was Herbie didn't bring any written music. It would have been fine for the jazz students, they would have appreciated it and got a lot of out of it. It was just too difficult to sell it to the director of the jazz school. Once one knows the musicians then it becomes easier. Next time Herbie comes again in two years time it will be far easier to get him into the jazz school or do a project with students. As it was now we did a three week thing. He arrived did two rehearsals with the duo and already one rehearsal with the quartet he is playing with at the end of the month. Then the two rehearsals with the quintet. He is left with another rehearsal with the quartet and then they will perform. Inbetween, he was very busy last week. This week he had a bit more time. What he is doing right now is looking at the live recordings that were done of the four shows so far and is selecting tunes that might be released. All the stuff is live recorded at the Birds Eye. And if the musicians agree and they are invited to release the stuff there are very good conditions. They don't pay for recordings but once it is released they have to deliver a box of CD's to the club. Which is very nice. And it has to say ‘Live at the Birds Eye,' somewhere at the title. If it is not they pay a bulk fee of 50 Francs for the recording. Which is OK!

What is the name of the jazz school?

Previously it was the jazz school of Basel. Now it's been incorporated for five years or so into the school of music which is comprising the conservatory and then the specialised school, kind of a research unit for performance practice of early music. Basel is a centre for Baroch music. It's a really renowned school so that is also part of the same set up. The Jazz school although everyone refers to it as the Jazz school of Basel, if you do it correctly, it is now within the school for applied sciences in the North West of Switzerland. It's part of the music schools and here it is the department of jazz. You can carry on calling it the Basel jazz school.

You mentioned Zim recorded there. Do you have an archive?

Exactly. I keep all the stuff. I have accept for that one year when Zim was there was actually a hiccup. It was very good that Zim went ahead and just released. He didn't even ask for the multi-track recording. He just went ahead and released the rough mix. He was supposed to finish it and loved the sound so much already that he just released it. The sound engineer was quite shocked. He knew whatever would be missing and he would have wanted to do with it but Zim didn't mind and thought it was the sound he wanted to have. It speaks also for the quality of the rough mix. In that year a thing that must not happen happened. Somebody, probably an artist took away the hard drive, an external hard drive which at one stage had all the recordings of that year. It was completely worthless to the person who took it, they would have taken it just for the hard drive and not the music. There is this one gap we have. I don't know exactly whether it was the full year but there are some recording missing. Otherwise we have most of it. Partly it is with the musicians. They take the material along. On Alex Van Heerden's Notebook are the whole recording sessions they have done in Basel, including a whole album, a new Rock Art album. And so on. I don't know what happened to those recordings.

Did you keep copies of that?

Not of everything, not of the album they recorded. Most of the stuff that has been recorded is at the Birds Eye archives. The hiccup was very fortunate and covers part of the South African gigs but is not impacting on the whole thing/. Musicians walk away always with the rough mix, they since 4 years there has been this live stream so they also get the livestream for download and htat is also what I save on my computer as a routine thing. The recordings I only store in my personal archives if I am implied in it, else it is on the one hand it is property of the musician and Birds Eye, so in the case of Zim I am very sad I didn't take a copy of that.

And Also Alex?

Ya, exactly.

A final question is the Rainmakers collaboration. That will be happening in 2015 at the CTF and Orbit and Birds Eye.

Exactly they have two Swiss touts, one in Spring and one in Summer. The one who has been pushing the thing is Baenz Oester the bassist. He is a teacher at the jazz school Basel. He is one of the very fine jazz musicians of Switzerland and he was involved in one of the exchanges and next thing he went to South Africa and then from there was this cooperation with Ayanda and Afrika which resulted in the Rainmakers. It is emblematic that I do these things. But I see myself as a facilitator. I bring musicians in as a first thing. And then from these encounters, many things start to happen. We have seen a good number of very successful projects resulting with long time friendships and collaborations. This is definitely one of them. The Rainmakers, the first tour, Baenz had already organised, but I advised him how to go about the permits and gave him suggestions how to raise funds and so on. Road support, letters for the embassy and so on and then after that it all started moving on its own and that is the ideal form. You offer first a platform to allow for this exchange and exposure and the thing starts moving on its own. The same applies to Carlo, Marcus, Bokani, Mac Mckenzie of course, although I still had a lot in it. He went about his own thing and by now he is really moving quite independently here.

And the saxophone player Ganesh?

I only met him when he started to play with Baenz. He is a wonderful musician. You will find more info on him on his website.

Thank you

One person you will be able to speak with is Olivia Le Deur . He is a French journalist from Paris. He writes for this magazine Improv. Jazz focusing on improvised music. He really likes South African jazz and he comes to almost all concerts. He comes to Basel from Paris. Luckily you can buy cheap high speed train tickets. He always writes about it. He goes regularly to South Africa to do interviews. He is a bit special. On the one hand there is always this translation thing there are some hiccups in the writing as he doesn't grab all the English and German references, and a few misspellings and when you talk to him he has quite a special attitude which is due to the fact that he once had a brain trauma or a fractured skull. He stopped regular work at the time and he has got back into working. He is sharp but is also on his thing. It explains some of his passion. The South African thing is one of the things that has been carrying him after the trauma. He might be able to send you copies of what he wrote in French. He will come to interview Makaya next weekend. I don't know whether he will succeed. It will be good to hook up with him to have a reciprocal relation.

Thanks Vite he sounds a lot like me. My spelling is very bad, particularly with all these South African names it is hard to get it 100% write.

Well I will gladly assist you with the spelling of the Swiss names. On record sleeves very often the spellings are wrong. I will gladly read through anything you write and assist in editing and cross checking and give indications where you might be over stating your point.

There was something when you said Basel was a Baroch centre. One thing in Abdullah Ibrahim's music is the use of the minor intervals. It is the same in Baroch music. Could it be the minor interval that brings Swiss and SA Jazz together … or am I overstating the point?

The one thing about South African jazz which strikes a chord and makes it successful internationally even in its free-est idioms, you always have illusions to mbaqanga and the kind of the pentatonic stuff to this deep harmonies of the Eastern Cape which strikes a chord. There is rhythm. A lot of the music even if it is free, in places there is reference to this very danceable music. And then there are these churchy harmonies. Even with people who are not into church at all, it makes the music very sacred. It is a very important element for the music of Abdullah. It reaches something. People have these harmonies somewhere deep in their subconscious. They may be complete atheists and counter church and so on but the harmony of this church tunes really reaches everybody. These are three elements, the Baroch thing, ja well maybe, maybe in a sense that people get many of the jazz musicians learn their instruments in the music school early on and during their school days and they build from Mozart, Taylorman, whoever. If you look at Swiss jazz to get a complete overview you will find a lot of very American hard bop bebop whatever, trying to immolate Coltrane, Mingus the big names. People look at Berkeley and that is the hippest thing to go to Berkeley for half a year or a year. And at some times it becomes very intellectual and abstract even among the jazz students. Herbie's assistant asked me to send some indications of Swiss jazz and I sent a very biased selection which in the end are all musicians performing with the South African cats coming here and then in their performances you find references to this encounter. I said you must not take this as the sole thing. Check around what is happening in Switzerland and you will find different stuff.

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