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Interview Ezra Ngcukana

Ezra Ngcukana was the youngest son of Christopher Columbus. He was a saxophone player. This is what he said in an interview conducted before his performance at the Green Dolphin in Cape Town in 2000.

I came out of a musical home my father was a musician and all my brother's musicians. I was the last to be expected to be a musician cos of not being a strong person physically. My first saxophone was not meant for me. It was meant for my elder brother. I put it up and fitted it myself using rubber hands and I played it. They never expected me to be a musician cos I grew up in church. As a child they used to take me to church a lot. They expected me to be a priest.

We come from a family grounded in mathematics. We are able to calculate our way through some jazz obstacles. You know jazz is full of obstacles. Maybe you are able to calculate all these things and play without cracking your hands. Once you open up your calculation then you can open up and play freely. Some people get stuck in playing because jazz is about improvising. Scientifically it can be 20% (improvising) and that 20% can free you to the other 80% like 80-20.

I was born in '54 but I started playing music in the late '60's, I played with Dollar Brand when I was about 14 years old in this big band. My first encounter was avant-garde.

The record companies, they don't have a vision they are not innovative, and the government of yesteryear did not give much dedication to the people of the day. Then they killed it. In fact, because jazz and freedom go hand in hand if you are jazz orientated you are free from apartheid you know what I mean. In Europe there is an audience. From a marketing point of view, before you launch a product you do a market research. But, Jazz is not a marketing product. Its music and it's all about truth. It's quality. You have to come on to me to listen to Jazz. I am more like a doctor. You go to a doctor for an injection. In other words we are doctors to the spiritual world.

You know what's a joker? I was doing my standard 10 biology. I was interested in cells, the unicells in an animal: how it moves is it pushes itself through fluids going that way and it moves and that movement is called an amoeboid movement. Victor Ntoni the base player was still at high school. He had a chill and he did not have a title. I told him to call it 'amoeboid movement.' He loved the title and he recorded the song about a few years later with Allan Kwela through SABC. By virtue of the word movement that tune was never played on air. Just like that. I was fired from there. In ‘73 it was a mass expulsion so instead of going home I went on tour with DASKI, playing percussion and reciting. We were playing Molobo Music. At the same time from Pretoria they were raising funds for Steve Biko's movement so the special branch used to capture us.

“ Between 1948 and 1960 what killed jazz in South Africa was that the blacks could not play with whites. Understand it was the white musicians who wanted protection from the black guys. And that was a brain drain. All the musicians that survived went back to 8-5 jobs and they never played again. Cups and Saucer was the musician of the year in 1962 he has not played since.

Mankunku comes from those hands and he comes from my fathers' hands. There were big bands. They were playing Jazz Pioneers. That music was dead because of the market overseas. When you go overseas, they say: “No man.” Hugh Masekela was taught by Miles Davis: 'Just play your country music, you can't play Jazz.'

For myself, jazz is universal, it comes from myself, it comes from Africa, Europe it comes from America and it has been fused. Why can't it be a part of that Global sound? I can play it. Those other monkeys can't play it, that's why they play African Music! I believe that African music is folk music and it should be played by people on the ground. Me I am an artist. I am not a person on the ground, who just sings like you know what I mean. I create, I calculate. When I am on stage I improvise. Not the person on the ground who relies on the background which is rhythmic. The harmonic part is where the improvising part is. So, we are global, we are universal, we are musicians, I can play that music, what's the big deal.

There is South African Jazz, although the architect player, what's his name? He does not believe in township jazz. He says jazz is American. I remember a guy teaching at Natal University from the States. I played my fathers' song 'Chill Bra.' He played two chords and then he asked me to show him how to play that. You play within those two chords and create a massive sound. Like Canonball use to tell them, 'African music is not the same thing as you say, but it comes out of the same thing.' It revolves around the blues. I was teaching it in Natal. I was teaching there last year. It revolved around the blues, especially with us, the Cape Jazz. I don't mean coloureds, I am talking about Xhosa Africa Cape Jazz. OK! They are people of the South. The jazz here is more like the blues.

We play well. It is more like the blues and that's it, that's the similarity. And that is why some say jazz is American. They may have refined it there, but our Cape Town Mbaqanga is something else. It needs to be documented. Blacks don't explore, they don't even write, they don't even document things. If they had the government years ago they could have documented. There are lots of documentations. Even arts and culture is still not moving forward enough for me. I have retired into English, forgotten Xhosa. It has not even been developed. No government has put enough money into our languages. They have all been suppressed. I can tell you, it is very rich. It is unique, Cape town jazz. It is a Mecca of jazz.

 

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You know Jimmy Adams, he used to play with my father. He was telling Mac of Namaqua that these guys were playing langarm. Do you know what's langarm? It's ballroom. They decide to go to Langa. Do you know where Langa is? That is my home town, and that's were Dollar learnt his music too? That is where Jimmy Adams says he learnt his music. That's where the guys were grooving, during my father's time, you know what I mean. When I call Jimmy Adams, I call him the last of the minstrels, because there is a lot of that here.

Unfortunately there was an economic element in those days. I was young and knew nothing about money. You would pay 20 cents to go to a jam session. There used to be jam sessions every Sunday in Gugulethu. They had community centres. Most people are missing that. Before the apartheid laws, people used to play at the city hall. I was not part of that era that happened in the 60's. In the late 60's, that is when the people where developing themselves within the townships. So it was really happening, the jazz in its purest form, not this rock and roll of George Benson.

I developed my playing without the influence of my parents because I did not even know I could play jazz. I was a sissy you know what I mean. Now when I play the jazz, I talk to my father. Sometimes when we are together and just chatting he gives me shit advise: he said that I must not read the newspaper because I will be a politician and he said that I must not play sport I would break my fingers and he said I must not play the blues. That's what my father told me, because the blues was just like folk music, African music as you would put it today. Although Cannonball says it repeats itself, it does not repeat itself. It comes out as the same thing. Basically it's improvising, to improvise as the tune is going, think about ideas, as I told you the 20%. That's what jazz is all about.

Also the thing we are getting from people as we talk is that jazz is an ideology in the music world. This is not just musicians saying this but on the radio too. Jazz is very advanced. It absorbs other music genres. It seems to be more of an ideology of how music is formed.

Jazz is all about freedom I remember a giant, Cecil Taylor. Not Cecil Taylor. Monk, the late, he said, ‘We got people who are defining this jazz. That is total shit man, freedom and jazz go hand in hand. If you can explain it, beyond that, then you are confusing yourselves. You just have to dig it or don't dig it, that's all. That's the bottom line about jazz. You as a jazz musician, Cecil Taylor said, you are your own academy that's it what more do you want.

 

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