Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Siya Makuzeni JHB 20/07/16
Music is a universal language that can bring people together. Back then culture and activism was a social tool, but I think times have changed, but it doesn't really work anymore.
Where is jazz fitting in?
It is natural that if we listen to what is coming out now, the influence has changed over time. What we have is a new surge of very young blood. There has been that transition and is evident with the styles that have come out with Benjamin Jephta and Thandi as well as Tumi Mogorisi where there is a lot they draw from tradition stylistically and you can hear the elements of jazz but what is coming out is someone's voice. For the first time I am looking at composers and seeing people who write music and have something to contribute that is so typically their own sound, I like that. It is cool to have a new freshness. If you try to interrogate exactly what they are trying to put together stylistically, I would say there is a lot of influence there. They are not traditional jazz. I think that is one of those things that have helped. They style is fresh, new and quite distinct and I like the fact that nobody sounds like anyone else. And for me if I check that music out, this is proper South African jazz because of what I hear and at the same time, these guys are not mixing supposed folk styles but it is still distinct in terms of its feel and it is fresh and new?
I like everything. For a few years, it was me trying to follow through with Ippy Fuze and try and bring all these styles together, to have a holistic approach about what I like about music and composition and where I am at. I am influenced by so many things. Because I have always collaborated and always found it important to keep my mind open, to keep my level of interaction with different musicians and styles very open it has seeked through and influenced the way I hear music as well. For I long time I have not wanted to sound like just a jazz singer or just a trombone player or so on. I have always wanted to find the middle ground and that is when I started fusing and mixing sounds. I wanted to be in a space where I could be happy with my sound although that sound has many different influences coming from all over the place. For me as a musician I needed to have something that I am not sitting there questioning. If I write the song and it has got rock, electro, drum and base and all this other stuff it is simply because I hear it. It is the way that I write. I made peace with that and because I understand it I am happy writing from that space and will probably continue.
Why do you get pulled into the jazz genre?
Mostly because of the people I worked with. And when I perform it is very apparent that I am a jazz scatter if anything. People want to call me a vocalist an instrumentalist, you get a lot of different titles, but I do express myself a lot within that realm of jazz-scatting. I am free in that space. For me that is where I reference jazz a lot. I don't see myself as just a jazz musician. I have never seen myself as just one particular style of musician.
I see bands like Brother Moves On breaking this mould?
I think it is its own thing and that is why I always impress on people that cross-over is a term. I use it because it is a way for me to explain to people what I do, but the more and more we look at it, it is not just one style. We have got to a point where cross-over is a genre. Because there are so many different elements you can throw in there within that space. For me it has moved from being a little word that we use to describe something to its own entity. There are a lot of artists that we can look at and I can say that is where they are. They are in a cross over realm and it is a fusion that happens when those elements meet. And there are so many people that are doing that in South Africa. So maybe we are onto something, so I am happy to be there. I am not just one thing.
That could be a unique thing SA brings to the world?
It is an exciting time and perhaps there will be space for cross-over artists in the near future. Cross-over to what? Because people always have an element of boxing you back to something that they can understand. And maybe it is time that that changed. I haven't been doing that intentionally and I don't know if I was necessarily aware that that is where I was going when I was trying things out in terms of wanting to figure out my own style and my own sound, but it is a happy space and a happy medium to be in. It forces you to be a lot more open minded. And forces you to try and gauge your knowledge when it comes to other styles. The more and more I go into trying to have these exercises, the more I realise there is so much music and there is so much stuff we still don't know which can become an influence. And the more it comes out with the person, ‘this is what I like,' where people are less scared to be themselves. People are really expressing themselves as musicians and artists and composers these days. Perhaps this is where we are supposed to be.
There is the economic element where groups that are breaking ground are doing well … so there is a benefit to breaking out of the mould?
Personally I am not quite sure. Ippy Fuze has been around but I don't believe I have had enough time to try and do proper tours and that kind of thing, all though in the last three years things have changed. I found in the beginning it was very difficult to sell this idea to people because then what I would get is what do I call you, are you rock, jazz, electronic? I said it is all of them and then you can try and figure out where you would slot us. But all of those elements are there. Three years ago it was certainly not easy to get a billing because there were not enough exposure for the bands. I do believe that has changed quite a bit. Even with the example of Brother Moves On, I know they have worked extremely hard. So you have to spend the time getting the fan base, doing as many gigs as possible, doing everything you can to get your music out there in front of people, but I do believe it pays off in the long run?
What about the dance element?
I don't know if I have paid attention to that. I think in terms of what I use it is very electro driven, drum and base and hip hop a lot of the two references I always hear come out of my music. That happened on its own as a purely compositional aspect of things. I wasn't looking at it as trying to incorporate dance into my style, it was just like I hear that and try and imagine what the beat sounds like and that is tuff that comes out, where the song leads itself, purely driven by the compositional elements. The fact that people can dance to it is great. There is a number of references. There is the hip hop, there is even pop with Ippy Fuze. And even with the Siya Makhuzeni sextet there is quite a lot of that. My only mission is that I am one of those musos where even in Grahamstown they said when we watch you you don't stop moving, and that is how I have always been and so even if it is jazz or experimental as in the days of Prisoners of Strange that if there is a groove and a beat, I will probably connect with it. It fuels everything that I do. To a great extent it is part and parcel of the music that I write, but it was never with the intention that I want to create a style for people to listen to. It is just a compositional process.
Hip Hop performers move a lot. But the American influence is sad…
When it comes to who influences me, even within that realm. It is not necessarily that I have been listening to hip hop artists. Maybe I have been listening to Robert Glasper who uses quite a lot of hip hop within his own element. He certainly doesn't try to be a hip hop pianist. He inspires me enough to go wow I really love how he did that song Yasimbe. It was super R & B and at the same time very hip hop. It is an organic thing which is okay sometimes. I am also still learning as I go. Sometimes these songs write themselves. And sometimes I can look back once it is finished and say I guess I was influenced by this person or that person or that might be where I wanted to be or there is a brand new idea. I don't have a cut-throat process. I think I try and use that element in terms of what I listen to. I try and discover the artists as I go along but I think a lot of them are not in the mainstream. There are a lot of people do their own things?
What is the hip hop you are doing?
I think it is more the rhythmic elements. It is driven by the groove and still lends itself to jazz quite a bit. Even though it is hip hop and the groove is there, it is still jazz or soul or any of these different genres. I write a lot of the time I start with a bassline, or groove. I find those to be extremely important. If I don't have those set out most of the time it is extremely difficult for me to finish the composition because there is the grounding. This is where you get your earthiness, and the crux of where the song is supposed to be. When it comes to the grooves and the beats it all resides around there. And I can work out whether it is in 6 or 12 or 4 and if this pulse is 3 or however there is. And then I write on top of that. And somedays it is the melody that comes first and I work the other way round.
What do you mean by mainstream?
By mainstream I mean the top 40, what people are normally hearing on Metro FM is not a true indication of what is going on with the industry. I don't listen to radio but when I hear it I don't know any of it because there is so much music out there. And these days you can get to find out about people you like on youtube, CD baby, bandcamp, soundcloud. That is where I go to try and find inspiration. I go to the net. Personally I believe radio is completely obsolete because it doesn't indicate anything. It is all fine to be a recorded artist and be on top 40 but that is not an indication or a gauge of how good you are. The structures are still there and they try to fool us into thinking how that works.
What about venues?
We have had this in SA for a while where we make the venues. We make the venues. There is not enough people who are stalwarts …
The influence of traditional music?
A lot of what I am doing with the sextet at least is extremely influenced by Xhosa music. It is everything from my loops and how I set those loops up harmonically as well, so they are very rhythmic and distinctly Xhosa harmonies. How the harmony moves in terms of chord I and chord 2. The typical progression in Xhosa music is very simplistic but it is very tough to stay with it and it is also polyrhythmic like mad. I use those influences quite a lot within my own stuff. For me I have always had that influence but it might have taken some time to be so strong to become a feature in my music. I use it a lot and the language is part and parcel of that. I have become comfortable over the years because it is a language that I understand. After a while in terms of how it influences how I write, I am happy writing from that angle because it draws us back to home. It is one of those things that defines the music and makes it extremely South African.
For instance when you deal with a lot of Xhosa music you are only dealing with two chords, your 1 and your flat 7. But sometimes it will be 1 and goes up to 2 and between the two of those you have got your flat 7 that brings you back to jazz and then what you have when you move up the progression that is when you go into the more choral side of things. As simplistic as it is there is a lot of things you can draw from. Even having that and dealing with two chords, there is so much you can do linearly you can add all the sharp 4's and all that stuff because you have got that from the singers in the Eastern Cape. Those are the things that really create that distinct harmony. I try to draw a lot from that and because I am also coming from the angle of being a jazz musician I try and embellish on what is going on there, so that for me becomes this new space and it is the same realm for the rhythms that when I put the loops together that is when you can start hearing all the poly rhythm influences. There is a lot of complex movement that happens. I find it fascinating that my brain has to operate on so many different levels, rhythmically as well as harmonically.