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Kesivan Naidoo Interview
Cape Town October 2014

We need to know about Straight no Chaser, and also the album, the launch, the Joburg launch and the revolution.

Kesevan says,

That was from the first record. Where do you want me to start.

Do you want to start with Straight No Chaser.

As you know before it used to be the Mahogany room. That kind of partnership is no longer so we had to come up with another way to move forward. Lee and I are still obviously partners and we had to come up with another name. Straight no Chaser, Miles Keylock gave us that idea, keep it simple, keep is straight, no chaser and of course it has got the Thelonius Monk reference. Otherwise it is pretty much the same thin, the idea of musicians trying to make it work for themselves and also musicians making it work for each other. The idea of Straight no Chaser is for the artist by the artist, we have that kind of byline. The vision is still about promoting original music. And making sure the local cats have a platform to play their original material. That is basically where we are. We had to regroup from the previous split. There was no music in that space for about a month and by March we were up and running again. It has been great ever since. People have supported the place again. There is a band playing and it is business as usual.

Is it a jazz club?

Even previously I was always about it being music. Jazz has got its own what is jazz kind of thing. Once you go to traditional specific you kind of limit many possibilities. For me it is more about the music that fits in the space. I am not really genre specific. Obviously the place does cater for jazz. As best it can, but it is a music space. It works better that way. Obviously we are all into jazz, and people who are into jazz will get a great experience. If an artist has a great following and is a singer, songwriter and is into electronic music, and they need that kind of space, for me, it works perfectly.

Is the jazz scene changing in Cape Town?

Definitely, you know the time we were playing with Tribe back at the Armchair in 2000, the scene has grown and the quality of musicians have increased and even the quantity of musicians has increased so there are a lot more guys you can call on that can play to a higher level and also work music very quickly. I think from when I started with Tribe in 2000 we decided then that we were going to play original music and we were not going to do background music, because at that point, that was the only kind of gig around. There were not really concert settings. Most of the gigs were in restaurants or that kind of thing. Ever since then the audience and the interest and the musicians themselves are realising they don't need to be relegated to the background. They are actually important. People are a lot more conscious of original real music now. The jazz scene as a whole has improved and it is great to be a part of it.

Your original music, at what point did you become a lead?

I have been doing a lot of collaborative work in the beginning part of my career with Tribe and Closet Snare, Babu, they were all collaborative projects really. We would all like write the music together. And I think also I needed time to get experience even though I had been playing with some great South African jazz musicians like Zim Ngqawana, Bheki and all of those guys. Definitely I was a side-man and then I moved onto those collaborative things. And then I thought I can really front my own band and see what it is like to be a band leader. Compose and arrange the music as I am hearing it. Not just calling the rhythmic shots but also calling the tunes and all of that. And that was important to me as a goal, growing as a musician. In about 2009 I was awarded the Standard Bank Young artist of the year and that then obviously afforded me the platform to really start my own group. That was when the Lights started in 2009 with my own arrangements and own compositions for that. And in 2010 we released Instigators of the Revolution and now 2014 October we released the second record called Brotherhood which is different to the instigators of the revolution because that album I did a lot of tribute tracks, some of Bheki's tunes, Winston Mankunku, I did re-arrangements of Bjork, Beyonce, almost like a modern approach to standards. This record is definitely more original, more improvised and everybody in the band is South African. This is a very special new step in my musical evolution.

What is the root of your composition?

Obviously jazz improvisation, it is jazz music in some ways. I love John Coltrane and I think my love for Coltrane increased my curiosity for Indian classical music and African music. And being a South African, we can all call ourselves African and being a person of Indian heritage it was kind of definitely influenced by Trane in that way. And then I went to India and really got into the depth of that music and I think this music I am doing with the Lights is definitely an Indo-African-Jazz-Experience!

Where did the Lights come from?

It was obviously multi-layered. The idea if you are in the darkness and want some clarity, you must put the lights on. The light is also your inner light, trying to tap into your inner being to figure out your direction and a lot of the time the direction of the people in the band sways the music more so than my compositions would so myself and the Lights, the people I choose to play with really bring a whole another idea to my music. In fact they play things I would never hear which is better than what I would ever come up with as an individual. Also there was one day when I was doing this photo shoot and this photographer was photographing me and everywhere I walked in the room, there was this light following me. And he said you have some relationship with the light. Yeah yeah yeah and that was the name of the band!

Do you have an educational aspect to sharing the light?

I have some private students that I teach and every year I get invited to Grahamstown festival where I lecture and perform at the National Youth Jazz festival and when I have a spare moment and anybody who wants to know stuff, I give freely but I do charge for the lessons. Definitely it is important and I do have a young composer in my group where I know that they are also benefiting from being part of the experience with more experienced artists. In the case with this band, Justin is the guy who came through. He is obviously a very talented individual. I have watched him improving leaps and bounds playing with Shane Coopers' band and my band and he is really holding his own now. He is a saxophone player, obviously I get back to the drummers. But for me it is about music. The lessons that I give could be not just for drummers but for musicians.

How did you get to play the drums?

I was always interested in playing the drums since I was about ten years old. In the beginning it was all drum focused. Getting into an instrument and all that stuff. I think I only really got into jazz style of drumming when I was about twelve. For the first two years I just tried to bash the skins and see what sounds these things make. Try and play beats you know and I used to play whatever was on the radio, pretty much. On Sunday I would wait for Top 40 and then play along to Digable Planets or whatever was going on at the time. At 12 I got into American jazz, guys like Philly Joe Jones. He was playing on Coltranes' album Blue Trane which was the first jazz record I ever got and then I listened to a lot of Dizzy Gillespie Big Band stuff. And then I got introduced to Lulu Gontsana when I was in about Standard 9. He was from that school. That same swinging style and hard bop style. He showed me how to swing like a South African in a way with our grooves. I learnt a lot from him. And then in Matric I met Kevin Gibson and learnt a lot from him. Another drummer I was hanging out at high school with was Louis Moholo. I was his drum kick for when he was on tour when I was also in Matric. I got all these different approaches, modern approach, the old school approach from Lulu and the free jazz approach from Louis Moholo. That kind of influenced me when I was in my teen years. And then by the time I got to University, the internet was everywhere and we could access things. Information was a lot easier and readily available. You could tap into all kinds of stuff, even traditional African music to traditional Indonesian music. You could find anything you wanted to and bring that into the jazz. My personal influences are obviously South African great jazz musicians, Kevin, Lulu, Louis, Ian Herman, I was listening to a lot of that music. All of these cats. So I thought if these are South African jazz musicians, I might as well give it a shot myself.

What about the launch of this album?

Two weeks ago we launched in Johannesburg at the Orbit and last week I launched it in Cape Town. That Orbit thing wasn't just for the launch. The launch was two days at the end of the week. But, what we did was an artist in residency program where I would play with different groups throughout the week. We started off with the jam session on Tuesday, on Wednesday, myself and Kyle and Shane did a collaborative trio and then on Thursday I played with Feya Faku and his quintet and then Friday we did Carlo Mombelli quartet and then Saturday and Sunday was my album launch and then I came back here did two nights at the club, Straight no Chaser, one night at the Nasau, last night and then on Thursday we are launching at Carnegie Hall. Ha Ha !

What about the Eastern Cape, what school were you at there?

I was at Hudson Park High school. Well initially I was at St Johns Road Primary school in Sub A and then for Sub B I went to St Annes primary school and then Standard 6 to matric I was at Hudson Park. It had a good music school. It had a good music department, a concert band and a big band. Music was readily available I was very lucky and it was also the turn of apartheid. We were kind of the x generation so I got to go to those schools we would have previously not been allowed to go to. I think also they were looking for medium to smart non-white people to get into the schools. Maybe I wouldn't have got in there if I was white! Ha Ha!

Do you need to take the music back to the Eastern Cape?

I go through the Grahamstown festival. It is a difficult thing I find touring in South Africa very challenging because of the expense of it all. In Europe you have great transport systems, trains and bands are touring all the time. In South Africa touring as a jazz project is a real mission. Transport is expensive and to get a whole band to the Eastern Cape, whether it is economically viable is a whole different movie. I would love too and whenever there is an opportunity to play and people want to hear the music I will be there in a heartbeat. Particularly going home is a special occasion. Every time every year I go to Grahamstown and I am in that area I have a very special, not even nostalgic, just a special vibe every time I am there. It is important for me every time I get back home to see what the people think of my music. Maybe after all these years of traveling too much they might find I am a bit too strange! I might be banned from the Eastern Cape after this… Ha Ha

Feya talks about moving to Europe.


It is a struggle. It is a miracle that you can be a jazz musician in South Africa because of the lack of structure that we have particularly for art music. Everything I think has a positive and a negative. There is stuff, the securities and all that, so if you can manage to be a European citizen and in that circuit, whatever, or teach at a University… There is also a beauty and inspiration that is amazing and that we have here at home which I love. So, I think really what environment is it that brings the best in you, out? If it happens to be another place in the world for a period that will be cool. I do know for the endgame I am probably going to have to be back home because you grow up here, there is so much roots here and this place is not as bad as the press give it. It is actually one of the most beautiful places in the world, so I wouldn't give it up in a heartbeat because I am struggling to find gigs. Eventually there comes a time in your career as a jazz musician where you have to be on the road for a long time and we have to be in other places. Hopefully we don't lose Feya because of something silly like economics. But at the same time if he is going to become world famous and his music gets out to much more people then everybody must go and experience as many places as they can. A lot of musicians, who have travelled to Australia and London or whatever and made a home for themselves, I find a lot of the time, five or ten years and they are back again. The grass is always greener on the other side. There is a definite problem that we have here is the undervaluing of our artists in general. Art in general gets the back seat most of the time in terms of funding. We are still growing those sectors.

Louis Moholo says that SA artists have a tendency of undervaluing themselves?

It is kind of like a cycle that happens. You never really get as much recognition in your own country obviously with everybody talking about the big well recognised guys from overseas and eventually you leave South Africa and you get people who really enjoy what you are doing and they are telling you that it is at the same level. And that is confusing because you get undermined here anyway with people always telling you to play softer, or not to play at all. You have to make a living by selling things. If you think about it, John Coltrane and all those guys would play jazz all the time. They would never get up and do a session for some advert the next day and play in a production show in the theatre. Those guys were playing jazz all the time. Yesterday they played jazz, tomorrow they play jazz and tonight they play jazz. And every time they play they play with that kind of intensity. And that shows for me the life experience, they live that music. I want to play music that I live, not necessarily music that I am told to play.

Is there a link with the Brotherhood of Breath?

You can't call your album Brotherhood and not think about Brotherhood of Breath in some ways. They were besides a great avant-garde group of South Africa, they were also politically involved. There are also political angles, your responsibilities of being a South African and also an earthling. I have a similar thing but mine is more what does it mean now in the New South Africa to be Brothers? A lot of us have kind of said well the country has changed we can do what we want and a lot of people have gone their separate ways and informed other kinds of conditionings. And there is still this undercurrent of racism and lack of distribution of wealth and all of these funny things still going on. And if we realise that we are all in this together as brothers and sisters we can make this place really cool for everybody.

What about sisters in jazz did that cross your mind?

I do have a female, actually Romy plays bass in my band when Shane can't make it. Shane is first call. I don't really see things as genders to be honest with you. If it happens that there are only men in the band, but it also helps to call it Brotherhood than Brother and Sisterhood which would have been a bit more complicated. But is all encompassing. Brotherhood is not gender specific. It encompasses everyone who wants to be together in union more so than anybody else. I could have said Fellowship but there is another great drummer Brian Blade who has a band called Fellowship, so I couldn't go down that road. I was talking to Feya about how we were recording the album and he said he loved the way this combination of musicians worked together. We are brothers. We get the job done and take care of one another like a family in terms of our experience. So, that is where it came from. Women in jazz, for me if you want to play jazz no matter what your gender is you must play it. The idea of the sentence, she plays great for a girl, I am more like does she play great, yes or no? Okay cool yes, then let's play! I think those gender ideas are restricting the way we are conditioned. I saw an advert the other idea with someone saying, ‘do this like a girl', and they would do it in a very girly way, very much like not properly, eee. Run like a girl, throw like a girl and inevitably it would be not really happening. And then they asked little girls to do those things like run and all of a sudden they would be running their asses off and then throw that thing and they would really throw it like it's supposed to be thrown. So, I think we have just been conditioned to think that girls are inferior in the way they approach doing things. It is a conditioning from the past and my attitude is I don't care if you are a boy or a girl, or gay or straight. It doesn't matter. If you play and bring a good positive energy to the music, even as a listener, then you must partake and be there.

On the New York schedule what collaborations?

Kyle and I are probably going to do a duo recording while we are in New York. There are a couple of other gigs besides the Carnegie Hall gig. That is on Thursday. Then we have Flushing Town Mall in Queens on November 1 st , on the 7 th we at Delaware University and Washington inbetween. Trying to see where the doors are and who the key makers are. That is my mission, to expose that audience to the Lights, we are given this great opportunity to do this, life changing hopefully and also to see how we can broaden the network and have a much healthier cross Atlantic relationship with the cats that side.

 

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“Brotherhood.” Album review

On the beautiful album liner notes prepared by Miles Keylock Kesivan says, “Groove is quintessential to the way we write, feel and experience music. We have this groove here that even when we're angry we're dancing. The harmonies may change but underneath we're still dancing, we're still moving, the groove stays the same, you know? It is very simple but as you develop it the complexities come through. I just let the music flow. I try to keep my compositions as simple as possible because I love the way these guys play. There are long solos on the record because I wanted to hear them really kicking ass. Individuality is so important for me. I think everybody is looking for beauty. Life is art. If you're an artist twenty four hours a day. And if you're always in the present you can find the beauty there. For the last four years I've been working on this material, searching for the right configuration of musicians to give voice to this beauty. I know when I listen to this record who is playing on it. My idea of leadership is to bring out the voice of each individual.”

Brotherhood starts with a straight hand clap like Indian ragga style and then the sound of a mouthbow played fast. Then the keys dance in from a high register, there is a single note trumpet blast, a move on the sax and the brothers are tuning in, in a traditional way. The album gets underway with the famous Kesivan composition, Eclipse. There are two versions.

Eclipse is a strong compositional statement. Of it Kesevan says, “I didn't realise it was a raga until I went to India. When I wrote it there was an Eclipse outside. I came down to the piano and wrote it in D flat. That's apparently the key that the sitar plays in. That's the key which the raga is in and that's the key that the earth moves around the sun in – the frequency is D flat. It was the first time I really got into the idea of working on a strange chord and going ‘okay', how am I going to expand on this, see what the essence of this thing is?”

Eclipse has created a compositional ground, a platform around with artists can gather and record. It was at the Wondergigs in 2001, that I first heard this composition played with Tribe. http://afribeat.bandcamp.com/track/eclipse-by-tribe where Charles Lazaar stood out on base alongside Kesevan on drums and Buddy and Mark and all artists shining.

Again on the 2014 “Brotherhood,” release we hear Feya shining on the composition with some dream like playing and the young saxophonist Justin coming through with a busy but very personal showing. In Episode 1 of Eclipse Feya leads on the horn. The song closes it with the continuation of a series of strong lines Episode 2 is the typical rhythmical approach with the rhythm section leading the melody. The composition takes on the sound of a standard, playable even without meaning. It is a composition whose melody line can be played easily in both octaves. Saxophone jumps on the octave second time round. Feya comes in and the melody line is clear. Played in a sombre way … and then up an octave.

On the liner notes Kesevan speaks of his experience with Bheki Mseleku. He says, “When I played with him first I was 19 years old. When you are spending time with the master you have to deal with yourself and your limitations. I didn't know half the things I know about music now, yet he still treated me like an equal. He was always checking out the spiritual aspects of himself through the Hindu tradition. He loved ragas and playing modal music.”

There is a track on the album about this, called ‘Time with the Master'. It starts in a laid back Cape way. “The song is almost a reflection on him saying: ‘be yourself,' Kesevan said of Mseleku.

On ‘Time with the Masters', Kes is letting rip in a mighty style and Kyle is just sitting on it, laying the carpet with Shane for drums to shine. When Kes shines out we hear what we need to hear, rhythm and drama; the passion. And Kyle is steady. Feya must just be watching and then he is in with a lick and a kick, a compositional mainframe and Kes is banging steady and ready. I like it when the horn lines are restrained somewhat, tickling the semi tones in an Eastern manner before marrying with the crashing cymbals.

In commenting on the composition ‘Contact' Kesevan says on the liner notes, “I was listening to a lot of Scriabn at the time. I wanted the idea – and this is probably a drummers joke – of getting things from a lower intensity harmonically and rhythmically to a high intensity harmonically and rhythmically. The piece speeds up and speeds up and gets more intense harmonically.”

On the song written for Feya called Breathe, Kesivan says, “It was late at night and I wanted to play something beautiful. I just needed to breathe a little and play this simple C pentatonic CDFGA. Then I moved it to D in the bass. It sounded lovely and I thought ‘oh my goodness, this is for Feya. I'd been listening to a lot of Kind of Blue where Miles really came out with that modal sound. When you hear that last track, ‘Flamenco Sketches' you just sink into it.”

This review is compiled from a first listening of the double CD. Am looking forward to a second listening.

 


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