Interview Elias ‘S’dumo Ngidi’
“The tap puts the heart into the song.” S'dumo Ngidi.
The multi instrumentalist Elias Ngidi has a rich history in the Story of South African music. Before I met Elias, I had always wondered about the marvellously mysterious story of the jazz musicians that stayed behind in South Africa (during apartheid) and anchored the scene! How did they do it? When I asked Elias if he would write a book, he said, “Who am I, but a drop in the ocean.”
“We were exiled in our land, we were seen as terrorists. In Umdloti, I was taken in by AWB (the biggest racists), however being a musician I played for them Saarie Mare and as a result I was treated as a hero. Music can tame a lion. If a lion comes here roaring and upset, and you play your horn, it will be tamed.”
S'dumo is from the penny whistle generation and plays both penny whistle and guitar professionally to this day. He has an extraordinary lived experience through his music. He toured with Winston Mankunku Ngozi as a trumpeter in his band. He just loved the way S’dumo plays trumpet. This was in the 1960's in South Africa. S'dumo is a great music educator and his children are musicians. One day when I sat alone at practice wondering how to master the trumpet. He said, “It is about you and your instrument, nothing else matters.”
‘Jazz is about improvisation,’ ‘S’dumo says to me at the moment he reaches into a rubbish dump and pulls out a polystyrene cup. This he places at the end of the straight mute that sat in my trumpet bag for three years, unused and broken as the cap had popped out and it was hollow. The polystyrene cup closed the hollow and when S’dumo started playing with the cup mute the sound was eerie, airy and floatingly fresh.
S’dumo started at 14 as a singer. He sang with the Shange Brothers. They gave him a trumpet and said take it you know what to do with it. S’dumo put 12 hours a day of practice into that instrument. He says after the first day the second day is easier and by the third day you have got it.
When S’dumo takes my trumpet and plays he plays phrase after phrase inside out and all over the place fingering each one of the three valves with the familiarity of a great friend. His sounding of the horn is relentless. The melodies arise as bubbling brooks of sound. And that is the sound of the horn. It is a constant flow of improvisation and ideas expressed eloquently in phrases that float up and down the register on fingers that are like beings of their own, expressing themselves in combinations of vigour and whimsicality. He says he doesn’t play scales much because that makes you predictable.
S'dumo is a very down to earth man who is a teacher of great personal and musical wisdom. All his children are musicians, he brought them up with music. S'dumo's son Philani has risen to prominence as a bass player. Philani performed recently at the Durban beach jazz festival. He teamed up with Ronny Jordan in the Quiet Storm collaboration. It was wonderful to see how the rain that had gently fallen all afternoon, stopped for the duration of their performance, and then continued to fall for the rest of the evening. This added to the intensity with which the music could be listened to. Their performance was captivating and the music spoke beautifully.
In the interview he said:
I am on the only musician in the family. My father was not a musician but he liked to listen to music a lot. My mother was a Christian. She didn’t like me to play music. Until one day I decided that I would never stop no matter what. Some days I used to get punished to play music. And then one day my father told my mother, ‘Hey stop punishing him, this man will never stop playing music.’ My father was uneducated but he was naturally intelligent. Because of that he could focus. .
After they stopped punishing me then I started playing pennywhistle quite a lot and guitar until I was discovered by the Shange brothers. They recruited me. But, my intention was not to be recruited, but taught. They asked me where did you learn your theory. I didn’t even know about the theory and harmony and things. I said no, I haven’t been to any school of music, I have only been to ordinary schools. And at our schools, they don’t take music seriously. At school they couldn’t believe it and they told me that my hearing ability, to play music by ear was a wonderful thing. They had never seen someone play music just from the ear. Until one day they could not believe it and they wanted to see where I stay and if I have recording equipment, like radio-grammes we used in those days. And they came to my place and discovered that what I was saying was true. They recruited me from there. From there they gave me songs. That is where I started to play a little more seriously because I had to sing. I was only a singer.
Sandile Shange and I were the two younger musicians in the band, ‘The Shange brothers’. I was a singer and Sandile was playing guitar. I didn’t even try to play guitar after listening to Sandile when he was playing up a storm. He was dynamic. Until up to now I don’t think there is someone who has gone that far with guitaring. He was the best guitar player. Darius Brubeck at Sandile’s funeral after he died said that Sandile was the best not only here in Africa but probably in the whole wide world. He said something I knew all the time. With the Shange brothers, I was a singer until one day Sandile had to leave to Joburg to join Gibson Kents play ‘iSkalo’ or something. He went to Joburg for quite a long time and I decided that I can’t wait for Sandile. He was the only one playing guitar that way so I started trying to play guitar. I got some recordings of Wes Montgomery because Sandile had the same style of playing. I didn’t specifically use my thumb to play guitar because I saw it as very unorthodox. It was very heavy because when you use your thumb it is not as fast as the other fingers, that’s when I developed the style of using this, you see this … fingernail
Ya, this is a plectrum too. I see people using plectrums, I thought no. I remember one day I used to like to listen to this guy by the name of Dloni. He was the best guitarist, quite older than me and Sandile. He had that beautiful technique of using just the fingernail as a plectrum and then I developed that. Now you can see my fingers. I never cut it because I cut my money! I never cut it, I always shape it, shave it but leave this portion to play my guitar. In addition to that I use fingering; all the five fingers as I add a little bit of the thumb when I play. I struggled to learn to play but eventually when Sandile came back I was called a guitarist. Not the best but just a guitarist and that is where eventually I carried on as a guitarist.
These guys, the Shange brothers, because I was a singer, gave me a trumpet. These guys realised I was being doubtful. What was I going to do with a trumpet? They said, ‘We know that you will play it, judging from the way you sing. If you can sing like this, you can make trumpet sound like the way you sing. Cyril Shange was a saxophone player. He was playing like Mankunku. We used to call him Leney. What a musician, but a very soft spoken guy. He never liked to boast and things like that. When I asked him about Mankunku he said, ‘Ah that young man, he played his saxophone like he made it himself.”
And then I taught myself to play trumpet with scales starting from C. And with Cyril we formed a band: It was me on trumpet, the other guy Bob on alto sax, on tenor saxophone it was Cyril, and we had to go to Lamontville to practice there at Bobby Hlakanyani, the jazz piano player. At one stage we had a nice big show at the Durban varsity. It was so nice and those days were the days of apartheid. This guy came to me and said, ‘You are my golden boy. He used to call me his golden boy.” He trusted me. He pushed me into solo-ing. It was history to see black men entertaining white audiences. We were an all black jazz band. He came to me and said ‘Look my golden boy, we are the only blacks, these are whites. If I play like John Coltrane, or play like Harold Land, those are all blacks they won’t appreciate it because they know that these guys are blacks, but what I am going to play, I am going to sound like Stan Getz’. Stan Getz is a white guy but a beautiful saxophone player. At the end of the show the whole audience said this is ‘South Africa’s Stan Getz.’ He came to me and said, ‘I told you.’ This is how good he was. He could make himself sound like someone else. He had a lot of sound just like Mankunku. It was a beautiful day.
I carried on playing my trumpet. We went on and on. Sandile came to me and demanded me to co-lead the band. It was me on trumpet and we used the same concept with Bobby on alto sax. The other guy was not as good, but he could play. His name was Hippo from Kwa Mashu. We formed this band, we called it ‘Black Jazz.’ It was sounding so nice. We carried on and carried on and I could make myself more acquainted with playing trumpet. You know with trumpet you have to build your embouchure. You can’t build it without practicing and I had a lot of things to practice, pushing these on trumpet. With Sandile and the band, we did some few shows and then unfortunately the bass player in the band died. We were shocked. He got sick for just a short period of time. And then he died. It was a downfall. We didn’t have any other energy for playing. That was how that band collapsed.
These guys the Shange brothers were getting older and also there were no jobs for playing music so they had to go and work and it was very heavy for them. I carried on and carried until one day I got a job. It was offered to me. I didn’t look for a non musical job. It was a musical instrument job that they were offering me just to demonstrate guitars so customers could check. That is where I got my own time to practice. It was like practicing and I was getting a salary. It was not decent but anyway what was more to me was to shape up my playing. I got more time to practice because from 8 o clock I would see to it that every guitar was tuned up and then I would play. I used to sell guitars like hot cakes in that shop in Mashie’s passage in town. They did not call me a salesman, they called me a super salesman because every guitar I touched it did not last. It would sell just like that. Somebody heard it and then said tomorrow I am going to buy that guitar. Overlooking that it is not the guitar, it is the man behind the instrument. Remember I used to tell you that. YA !
That is basically how I went on working in that shop. I had to do some little bit of teaching the guitar because in those days guitar was talk of the town. Everyone wanted to play guitar in the 70’s. My very first guitar was given to me. It was a very beautiful classical guitar that was given to me by a young girl and I don’t even know her name. She said I bought this Christmas present for you. That was the guitar I used up to now and I am keeping it.
I had this baby boy. Philani and I used it a lot to teach Philani. I taught him some songs at first only Christmas carols because I wanted to my mothers interest because I knew she is a Christian and she would love that. One day working in the same shop, my mother saw me play guitar there and there were chairs but people weren’t sitting on the chairs, they were sitting down on the floor. You know when people prefer to sit on the floor. I don’t know what they do that for. I didn’t even know, anyway this shop is a big shop with windows, you could see through what is happening in the shop while you are walking down the passage. Eventually I saw my mother was waiting for me and I made a signal to call her to come in. I had to leave for a while to quickly go up the stairs and fetch her and she was in tears, she cried and said my son please forgive me for what I said I did not know you wanted to play music to do such things. I only thought you wanted to mess around and do bad things like most of the musicians. They hang around, they can’t buy a house, they don’t go to church and I was eventually crying because she was crying and I could see. So I said, ‘No I am forgiving you, you didn’t know, you did it ignorantly, how can I punish you. I have no power to punish you. You are my mother and you were doing it trying to save me but I knew that what I was doing, there was nothing wrong with it.’ She also admired the way I was teaching Phiani because every Christmas season we would go out onto the beach with this young boy aged five or six and play Christmas carols. I was teaching Philani and telling him all about music. Music if you can not do it is dangerous, don’t waste time because every person is talented. People can focus and love something but at the end of the day if you are not talented to do that, what is the use of carrying on? Music is something that you do it or you don’t because even if you sit and listen to it, it is nice so why mess with it. If you can’t do, it is going to get messed up and then the beauty of music disappears. Those are the few things I used to tell Philani. He was playing recorder, playing all the beautiful songs and Christmas carols. Then I switched to teaching him to play jazz on the recorder. There is this famous song that was rearranged by Chick Corea titled ‘Spain’. I taught him that. It was magical. He could play it note for note. As he grew up I said that I am only teaching you recorder so that when you play saxophone it will be easier because the fingering is almost identical. Then I could see that he was growing up and was thinking of getting himself a saxophone. He used to listen to David Sanborn. There was this Maputo song, everyone was crazy with this song. I said look before you involve yourself with the saxophone I will get you a recording of the king of the saxophone players, Charlie Parker. I bought the recording. That was the day he stopped listening to all the other saxophone players and eventually he came back to me and said, ‘hey dad I am not going to play saxophone because if I play saxophone I am going to measure myself with this Charlie Parker and he is so magical to me. That thing is almost impossible so I don’t want to do something like that.’ Charlie Parker made him to change his mind. I said you don’t have to tell me you are retiring from music? He said no, I will switch onto something else. I said, ‘ya I am just getting you into the cycle of music to see what is happening this side and what is not happening this side, what are you going to play?’ He said ‘I am going to play bass.’ I said ‘very good.’ Even bass players apply these techniques. You can listen to some of the bass players like Jaco Pastorius, Ray Brown and there was this young man who died at a very early age and he played with Bill Evans, Scott Lafaro, a young man a brilliant bass player. I said listen to this man and apply your own technique because improvisation comes from you. If you are going to copy that one who is playing even the same instrument that you play, then you are wasting your time because that thing was played many years ago. Try something new. When you play bass think you are playing like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker but on bass. He realised because even myself when I am playing guitar I don’t think I am playing guitar, sometimes I think I am playing piano like Oscar Peterson. I used to think about that. Even with my one man band that I sometimes play, one guy told me that when I walk in here, I think this is a piano player. I use bass, chords and melody. All simultaneously on the guitar. That’s how I have been going on. In my spare time I go and touch my little penny whistle. Even with the recorder I didn’t even know to play, I had to teach myself. I am very much used to teaching myself. Starting from trumpet playing to guitar, I play the wrong way. I don’t even look at the people when they are playing because mostly they play right handed. Why must I look, so I listen. I think that helped me to develop my hearing ability. It is a waste of time if I look. I listen and try and interpret what he is doing with his right and I am playing that with my left hand. Look at these hands, my right hand is playing notes, my left hand is just strumming. Eventually you have to see that my right hand is really playing. If you amputate my five fingers on my left hand and put something to make it to hold the plectrum, then I can use the plectrum. I still play because my right hand is playing, my left hand is just brushing the guitar.
Music is something that goes a longer way when it comes from inside. When you play don’t look. Why do you think guys like Stevie Wonder play better than us? We can see, but they can’t see. Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles... George Sherry was a master of jazz piano player. He was a blind guy. He was used by Wes Montgomery in one of his recordings because everybody liked him. That guy could improvise with all his improvisation and play chords. You can’t hear one single note, all the notes are there with the chords which is very difficult to do. Here he is doing it, but he is blind. I learnt a lot from blind people. I toured the country and that is where I met Mankunku. I toured with Babsy Mlangeni, a blind singer. In those days he was a superstar. That guy was magical he was very clever. He was playing not jazz, but his own pop thing. He said, ‘I am hiring you guys to play jazz in my shows. The first set. You play your own thing, I wont even be there. Just to show that blind people are highly intelligent. When people are doing things in their category of music, they don’t want to mix it with anything else because they think you are spoiling their show or over-shadowing them, but Babsy didn’t. He employed us. Bheki was in the some concert where we started the show with jazz and then Babsi would come in the second half of the show. Most people as much as they liked Babsy, were jazz fans. There are jazz fans because at one stage when the tour was in Cape Town we did that first show, me Mankunku and Bheki Mseleku on piano. At that time Bheki was only privately learning to teach himself to play saxophone. After we finished the first half of the show, they announced that Babsy was coming. The audience cried and made a big noise that they wanted the jazz. Babsy as clever as he was said, ‘this is what I like. As much as people like my shows and my music; it doesn’t mean they don’t like jazz, they like it, they demanded it.’ We finished the tour. I left Babsy.