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Pianist, multi-instrumentalist & composer Kyle Shepherd

Cape Tonian pianist Kyle Shepherd is a born musician. His mother was a violinist in a string quartet that toured with Abdullah Ibrahim in the early 90's. Kyle plays the piano with a heart-touching mix of joy and intensity. His compositions are a sincere eclecticism of ancient musical ideas, gentle rhythms and soft words expressed in a jazz idiom. He says: “I grew up with amazing music around me, goemalietdties and nagtroepe , church choirs, Malay choirs and the Adhan [muslim call to prayer] in the morning… Allah Akbar. Our people made fun of slavery even though they were living in this situation they found a way to medicate themselves with this humour and this music." Kyle's Cape jazz picks up on the many diverse influences of Cape Town, such as the Khoi, Malay, Afrikaans and carnival and they are incorporated with the subtle poignancy of a master Cape composer. He incorporates traditional instruments such as the mouth-bow and poetry and singing into his musical performances. For this reason his playing is likened to the prolific Cape composer Abdullah Ibrahim, however the connection goes much deeper. His mother is a violinist and she was in a string quartet that toured with Abdullah Ibrahim in the early 90s. “I relate to Abdullah on a personal level from knowing his music from a young age, and from growing up with the same sounds... although Abdullah's mastery is in how he assimilated those sounds into a deeply personal and artistic piano playing style,” says Kyle. Kyle has recently released his fourth album, a double album, Dream State. His third album, South African History X was released on the Sheer label. His first two albums came out on his own label, fineART music. www.kyleshepherd.co.za

Kyle Shepherd Interview

The defining factor for contemporary music making is technology. The advances in synthesizers and synthesis right to where we are now with kids making hits with laptops that is wonderful. Technology has opened up a whole new world in my career. Being able to score films has been made possible through technology.

The global method of composing films now has changed from the mode of the 60s – 80s. Now we create everything in the computer and at the end of the process you record the orchestra. I finished a composing project where the film makers were in Los Angeles and we worked on line. Technology is an integral part of my every day.

You see the African influence in fashion the traditional clothes and blanket. And the style of dancing in Africa. The music of Mali is the origin of the blues and the influence has been there and is still there. If you think of rhymes and story telling you can bring that back to Africa with the story telling around the fire and the praise singers. The influence of Africa has always been there it just has not been acknowledged.

The sound is definitely getting out there. The areas where we sell the most albums and are invited back to the most – We are touring to Switzerland and Germany every year. Japan I have toured every year for the last 5 or 6 years. Those are the places that I go most frequently back to. I have played in 18 countries around the world.

My latest album features guitarist from Benin, Lionel Loueke. We did an album in Germany called SWR New Jazz meeting which is annual programme set up in Germany. I was invited to curate the SWR New jazz meeting in Germany. I invited Lionel, Shane Cooper, Jonno Sweetman and Mtunzi Mvubu. Engineered and produced in Germany.

Great in our continent to keep the engine going we need to seek out these collaborations which is great because it is really difficult to make a life out of being a composer. Seeking out collaborations, crossing boundaries is almost something we have to do out of necessity which turns out to be a wonderful advantage.

I know that I have always found it quite important to address the music from the place within your immediate environment, even more apt if it is the place you grew up in and the music you grew up with. In my case the music I grew up hearing was South African Jazz, Cape Jazz, and also classical music and also traditional Cape Music.

So it is quite natural to use some of these elements in my music. The element is always there, especially as a composer it is important for me to keep a finger on that button and be aware of rootedness no matter how far I go in explorations outside of South Africa in terms of picking up different influences and studying different music. Aesthetically I always keep a sense of rootedness.

Is CT culture readily available?

It is not as easy to access as perhaps it was before with the remodelling and gentrification of the city centre where most tourists go. The real Cape Town isn't always on display, in fact a Swiss friend of mine a trombone player on artistic residency in Cape Town made this comment that he felt that the culture and what is uniquely Cape Town when he visited people's homes outside of the city. Inside of the city he thought it was a little bit like Europe. I would advise anyone visiting CT to try and meet CTonian people and speak to them because that is where the culture is alive.

Does your music carry the culture?

Ya, by virtue of what I said about the music, that element, that footprint is always with us wherever we go, from Tokyo to NY to Paris or wherever.

What about comparisons to Abdullah Ibrahim?

Ya, Abdullah is such an important figure head or pillar in SA jazz, so of course as a young pianist I studied his music. He has a very clever way of using all these elements from CT and South Africa and Africa at large. There is an influence. I have studied his music and know him personally. I don't deny it and I don't shy away from it because he is such a big pillar in our music.

Traditional modern cross-over … ?

You do hear it all the time, maybe not on a large scale popular level, there are young hip hop artists even back in the 80's and 90's like Prophets of the City. Mostly hip hop groups use traditional elements and specifically CT themes in their music. It still happens today. Unfortunately a lot of contemporary music from CT doesn't always spread to the rest of SA, partly because of the language, the topics. It definitely is happening.

Are you involved in any cross-overs?

Not at the moment but I have been before. I worked with hip hop artists in a multi-media theatre production called Afrikaaps that we performed in CT 6 or 7 years ago. We also toured Holland with it. It is specifically Cape, using a theatre piece where we used the Cape Afrikaans dialect and vernacular. That was a multi-media electronica and acoustic, basically a Hip Hopera. I have done a lot of cross over work?

Where are things now?

I am always open to new and interesting projects. I am in a fortunate position, besides the work I do in jazz to choose what I feel are interesting projects. I created a score for a wonderful feature film that was written and filmed in CT coming out on September 2 nd called Noer My SKollie written by John Fredericks and directed by Darren Joshua, all Cape Tonian writers and directors and most of the actors were CTonian. A great piece of writing and wonderful performances by the actors. I found it a great process. We recorded the score eventually with a string orchestra as well. That is something I realised is something I will definitely do again. These type of big projects were I do a lot of composing and be quite heavily invested in a project in terms of time and emotionally, it takes a lot out of the year. I choose them wisely.

The integration of traditional and classical music, CT seems to be prime for that?

These types of things are experimented with and have been before. Classical music is not a foreign sound. CT musicians, singers and so on, a lot of people grew up with a little bit of a grasp of classical music. It makes sense that there would be experimentation.

CT carnival … split ?

I find it very strange, after hundreds of years of tradition to now suddenly pass by-laws make it illegal for minstrel troupes to walk the same route they have been walking for all these years preventing them from marching on the same routes, it is a great tragedy. The fact that the people stood up against it but their voice was not strong enough. I find it quite a tragedy that such a strong tradition, and such a tradition that is so strong in our communities. The communities we are talking about is not the communities that inhabit the city centre, but come 2 nd of January as they have for so many years, they march down the streets of CT. And now they have had to change their routes. I find that sad. And I find this new Rio style carnival to be once again South African going down an overly international globalised route that is probably spurred on by big business. Honestly I don't quite get it.

What is the future sound of CT music?

The traditional music is alive and well in the communities. It is a great community unifying force. For months these troupes of hundreds of people and mostly young people come together ad rehears e and make costumes and this is a great thing on the Cape Flats. That is there and that is self-sustaining and just looking at the numbers of people involved that is self-sustaining. In terms of contemporary music and modern music as far as composition is concerned I also feel that that is in a perfectly okay, electronic and jazz musicians are very active bringing out new work. People are still moving ahead which can only be good for the future. There is nothing static. Young people are doing things, even though in terms of jazz we basically have no venues where we can play regularly now in CT, which means we can take initiative and put on our own concerts and events. And that is what people are doing. The movement is still there. Wherever you have musicians that are trying to be creative there is always going to be forward moving. And that is what I have seen, so I think we are in a good place.

How do visitors connect?

This is what is difficult, because at the moment it is insider knowledge. But, I would encourage people to try and connect with locals and speak to someone at CD stores that sell SA Cape Jazz. There are different ways to connect to people who are on the inside of the scene. The two jazz venues that we had in Cape Town have recently closed in March. When we had the clubs that made access for people much easier. People would have to be committed to wanting to hear Cape Jazz or SA Jazz and of you do look you will find.


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The Kyle Shepherd trio presents Dream State :

Kyle Shepherd, Jonno Sweetman, Shane Cooper, featuring Buddy Wells.

Recorded live in studio, sponsored by Standard Bank in way of an award for best young jazz artist of the year 2014. Excellent choice. In fact a game changer. This artist really pushed hard to get a double CD out on this budget and of this quality. Well done. Kyle Shepherd has now set the bar for this prestigious competition. The future of the young artist award has never looked so bright.

On the liner notes, Percy Mabandu writes, "Dream State marks this trio's 5th anniversary. This resilience is evidence of the sincerity of the music and the fire that keeps it alight. There's a palpable connectedness they share as players, a connection that also touches attuned audiences at their live performances too. This band is on a search for more than beautiful notes. They asking more of the music. Its corporeal and ethereal aspects are invoked into the simultaneous sound ritual. Each performance takes on the nature of a meditation and as Zim Ngqawana said, "The music must lead us towards ourselves."

A selective review

The album opens supremely. Buddy Wells plays an earthy Cape lead on the second song Family Love. Re-invention Johannesburg is a powerful composition and a Cape Town pilgrimage. Drums and base sit in the background and the piano keeps going, furious at times with the melody line played out on the left hand, relentlessly. Funny that the base is walking behind and not playing out that melody straight out like Carlo Mombelli. That would really free up the pianist to play more freely. But this is Kyle Shepherd's style and reminiscent of the recordings of Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) with Johnny Dyani.

The Kyle Shepherd trio is masterful in its approach to sound. They are understated, yet rich in sonic colour. The Shepherd piano is so warm and inviting. His sound is typically Cape Tonian; warm beaches, long sunsets and dancing from evening till late. The title track Dream State begins with a visual soundscape that is soft and reflective and themes throughout the song. Drums are heavy as they enter first. Base is understated. There is a tasteful melodic composition that rides the winds of the soundscapes in an evocative prayer signifying the truth that lies in sonic resonance. And then the piano takes the listener into the glorious realm of dreams where anything and everything is possible. It remains grounded all the time through the vamp. And eventually retires into silence. By track 5, Xamissa, the musicians are celebrating with a simple Cape jive. The song is lead so sweetly on the saxophone with Buddy Wells's buoyant and sensitive tone. This song is one for the students of music; a memorable composition with a relaxed, generous and welcoming approach.

Disk Two runs into deeper territory. It opens in musical meditation, piano mantra. Track 2 rises into recognizable phrases to fit the title Black Star, Unsung Hero … Track 6 Doekom has a strong improvisational quality with rolling melody lines. It travels through a few phases exposing Kyle Shepherd's marvelously rhythmical and lyrical approach to solo-ing. The left hand keeps a rhythmical passage going whilst the right hand explores delicate riffs and phrases before settling into a stirring series of scales to close the song. Close attention can be paid to this passage. Fatherless is meditative and reflective but delightful in the classic Cape sound. What makes this classic sound; the trills, the changes, the dynamics, the repetition of a simple melody, the building into an uplifting and anthemic climax? This composition will lend itself to lyrics and many more versions. The composition Senegal is immediately busy, like the capital city Dakar. You feel the energy of this musical African city through the frivolous and fancy free dancing of the fingers on the piano. You sense the pure enjoyment of the virtuoso at work. Drums and base nearly disappear in the wake of the expressive magic portrayed in this song as it dances in harmonic minors and other terrific passages of divine musical geometry. The drum solo! And the break in theme sends the song straight back into the jazz genre. Track 9 Rock Art (in memory of the indigenous people of Southern Africa) is sad with the R & B drum kick in the background and sparse base notes appearing as soundscapes. This song is an eternal sunrise. The memory he presents here of the indigenous people of Southern Africa is very generous and not at all stereotyped. But, it is boring. The Sun at Dusk begins to illustrate how the extensive repertoire on this session has begun to go beyond the preparation of the other instrumentalists. They follow the leader, who obliges by incorporating them and the song begins to merge into a cat and mouse avant garde of the 60's. When Shepherd breaks into un unaccompanied playing but for the occasional cymbal crash we begin to hear the composition. It is understated and difficult to follow. The delicate high pitched piano tinkle to conclude the song reminds the listener that dusk in Cape Town is a dramatic time of heavenly colours and prayers. On the closing track Ahimsa we begin to hear the deep spirituality of the composer. He dedicates the song to Ghandi and Mandela and encapsulates a musical embodiment of compassion with his stirring mystical composition of repetition and reflection, uplifting as the rhythm played by the left hand picks out the basic colours of our Western existence and the right hand rises in Eastern chords into a sound of spiritual unity, creating a bridge between all worlds. He is basically playing solo with an occasional well placed soundscape from the other instrumentalists. The gratitude shown in this song is bright and seemingly endless.


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