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Lex Futshane

Lex was born as part of the golden generation of New Brighton music, as he walked alongside Zim, Lulu and Feya from knee height. When this golden generation took their education at UKZN in the late 80's, Lex was there and lived fifteen years in Durban before moving to Johannesburg where he is making his experience felt in the hurly burly of the new jazz movement.

Lex is well known as a composer, arranger, educator, performer and bass player. He has played albums, festivals and collaborations including the Melt2000 little known work, Counterculture. He has presented arrangements, collaborations, initiatives and his own compositions.
His band has recently comprises of: Zola Futshane- voice, Mthunzi Mvubu- saxes, Yonela Mnana- Piano, Siphiwe Shiburi- drums, Samora Ntsebeza- percussion and Lex Futshane- bass ...

Interview Lex Futshane
09/09/15

Where did you start ... ?

My dad told me he was a trumpeter. When I was growing up. He was playing at home. I would hear him playing some songs. He wasn't playing anymore. And my mum was a big family. She and her sisters and her brothers used to have church choir practice at my garndmothers place so I used to hear all this music when they come and practice. Now, the thing that intrigued me in this. When they were practicing at home, they were practicing songs by South African composers. Not church hymns and stuff. No, they were checking music by all these choral composers. I grew up with these sounds and my mum and my aunt would sing some of these songs to me and tell me stories.

I have known for a long time that I have wanted to be a musician and do music and stuff like that, but I couldn't tell my parents that I want to play music because at the time musicians was associated with being a womaniser and a drunkard, a loafer and that kind of thing. I couldn't tell my parents that I wanted to do music. So, I came to music via B Comm. The best thing that ever happened in my life whilst I was doing that B Comm was I was expelled from University, Unitra, University of Transkei. So I came back home. Whilst I was loitering around at home, there was a house next to my place, actually a friend of mine, Madoda 'Dopla' Kapi, may his soul rest in piece. His father was an all rounder. He played drums, he played table tennis, drafts. He does all those things, those in door games. He was called Friend. There were guys rehearsing at Dopla's house, so when these guys were at work, we fiddled with those instruments. I wasn't playing there. The only thing that was available was electric bass, and I just fell in love with the bass and the rest is history.

Then when I decided I wanted to play, Dopla gave me this lesson. He used Satin Doll to teach me the bass. This lesson; Dopla plays the bass and then he says you hold here and you hold here and you sing the thing. So, I played whatever he said. That is what Suzuki was doing. That was Dopla's Suzuki method. He didn't have any other way of explaining the thing to me. We ended up singing. And we would do that a lot. Zim, Dopla, myself. We would be walking around or whatever and I would be singing the basslines and we would improvise. Scat singing. We could have had a band without instruments, just singing. That was my first lesson. That was the first tune I ever learnt on the bass.
During that time, I was doing standard 8. Form 3. We were talking forms that time and not the grades they are talking about. A friend of mine was a trumpet player at the salvation church, he invited me to go to church. He said I will teach you. I said great. They gave me a trombone. I was coming nice, playng the book. People know that when you play the marches then it means you are getting somewhere. I was playing the marches. Unfortunately for me, the pastor realised that I wasn't there because I was saved or a Christian or something. I was there because I wanted to play the instrument. So, he expelled me. I always say that I am the only person that I know who was expelled from church. Then I left so I concentrated on the bass. Just listened to records and played along with the records until I met up with a guy, Larry Glover. That was my first teacher. He was an American, a tuba player, a very nice tuba player, and he happened to play bass as well. He gave me some lessons on bass and then of course the other problem is where do you get the bass? We heard there was another guy Ndabi Charles, a great bass player in New Brighton. We went to his place. I went with Zim. I explained to Charles that I am learning to play bass. Charles said okay. He went to fetch the thing and said look, so that you value the thing I will sell it to you for some ridiculous money R75. I just want you to attach value to it. I played on that bass forever. On that recording (on tour in Europe) I am playing that bass.

His name was Ndabi. His surname was Charles. He used to play with all the bands that were playing. He was one of the great bass players from PE. The Soul Jazz Men had another great bass player Big T Psyche Ntsele. Those are the people I grew up looking up to. Duke Makasi was part of Soul Jazz Men. Tete Mbambisa from East London. Winston Mankunku Ngozi from Cape Town used to come to PE. Stompie Mavi from Queenstown. PE was a hub. When they descended on PE, Soul Jazz Men was there default host.
New Brigton has developed a whole lot of artists. Not just musicians. There has been a lot happening in New Brighton artistically. You have your Winston Jona's, your John Kani's. Guys who are from New Brighton. When we grew up, we grew up having all these role models. All these guys doing their things. I can't put a finger and say that this is what makes New Brighton do what it does. New Brighton has produced a whole lot of musicians...

Zims father was a retired mechanic. He was very supportive of what we were doing. Feya is a few years younger than us. Zim and I are the same age. He was born in December and I was born in October. I am actually older than him by a couple of months. Say we were going to have a gig or practicing, Zim's father used to call me Futshane. He would say Futshane "Hey Ingathi nazikhethela into enzima nina," which means it looks like you chose a difficult thing for your guys. He was right. It is not easy. It is a jungle. It is difficult. But we persisted. And he would say 'shame', refering to Feya, 'the poor boy, blowing this thing. It seemed like you guys are very brave.' We laughed it off...

And then Zim had a teacher who was teaching flute and the teacher organised for him to go to Rhodes. Whilst at Rhodes he saw that that was not what he wanted. So, he went to Natal University in 1987. We went in 1988 after him and joined them in 1988. Lulu and Johnny Mekoa and the other guys were there. Of course to be able to be accepted at Natal, we had to have grade 5 theory and practical and Feya and I were taking lessons. Larry Glover was teaching me practical and theory and this guy he took both me and Feya for theory and Feya had another guy for the trumpet. We did that programme Royal School for grade one to grade five in one year because the following year we wanted to start at Natal University. We did that and we got good marks.

When we went to Natal University, we were playing already because we had people that were teaching us. All of us directly or indirectly we came via the Soul Jazz Men. The Soul Jazz Men is one of the longest surviving bands in South Africa. It is still there. It is in its fourth or third generation. At some point PE was your Joburg or your New York. It was a melting pot. All these guys would come all the way and converge in PE and the host was usually The Soul Jazz Men. To me it is an institution.

The guy who really held my hand and taught me was Buggs Gongco, a piano player from Cape Town but he was lving in PE. He taught me some standards, how to interpret chords and stuff like that. My first theory lesson I got fro George Tyefumani. He was a trumpet player. I remember, we were standing in the street. We used to meet whenever he would visit PE from Joburg. I had this little red book of theory and he explained it. And then there is a guy by the name of Pat Pasha. He formed a modern jazz group. In that group was Pat Phasha, Wela Matomela, Peter Jackson, Buggs Gongco, Feya Faku, Lex Futshane. We would play. That is the band that first made me know that you get paid when you play. That is when I got my first check as a bass player. It was a nice check, because there was this company that was doing a jazz programme for tv, so they were touring all over the place and then they were in PE. We played there with the modern jazz group that was lead by bra Pat. I was playing electric bass there. And I got paid. It was a lot of money and that kind of encouraged me. Otherwise we were doing workshops whenever bra George was in PE. We would play.

What makes it jazz or South African Jazz ?

I grew up listening to jazz. I grew up playing jazz, so obviously that is my reference point. There is the swing that jazz is, there is the improvisation that jazz is but it is rooted in African or Xhosa folk music. It is the path, they style, the rhythm. It is all those things, but the melodies are very South African or Xhosa orientated.

NATAL UNIVERSITY JAZZ DEPARTMENT 1988

From there we went to Natal University. When we got there we were playing already. We brought in a whole lot of the songs that we were playing. In our jazz workshop, one group were mostly playing the songs we brought and we were taught by these guys. We were ready when we got there. Natal had its own things. At the time the jazz programme was pretty much jazz workshop, otherwise we were doing Western classical music theory, Western classical music history... We thought we were coming to do jazz and nothing else and then we discovered that they have got a very good libary there. It is one of the best music libaries in Africa. Whatever record you could think of they had there. So we ran a parallel programme. We did what we had to do for school and then we taught ourselves the jazz programme. It was exciting. We were there for about a year, we just played in workshops and we didn't play until we formed a band with Melvin Pieters. And then we started playing. Our first gig we played at the Rainbow in Pinetown. The Thursday was for the up and coming and if you did well on a Thursday then Ben Pretorious the owner would put you on the Sunday afternoon. We played there that Thursday and Ben said you guys shouldn't have played here. You should have played on a Sunday. Just after that gig we played on, we went to the IAJE in Miami. And we did a recording called African Tributes where we were playing all South African songs. We were playing tribute to South African composers. We had our own band ourselvs. Feya, and Melvin and Chris Metz, a saxophone player from Iowa in the US. He was from South Africa, and Vince Pavitt. We had a band called the Counter Culture. We recorded an album titled Art Deco with Melt2000. It was a beautiful album.

Our band with; Melvin we didn't have a name for this band. We were just playing. Of course we were contributing most of the music, bringing the standards and songs. There, it was Feya, Zim, myself, Melvin and George Ellis on drums. We had this gig at the Moon Hotel and Ramole didn't ask what the name of the band was. It was a jazz jol, they still have that at Natal University. We saw a poster, Melvin Pieters Quintet. We thought what happened. But Melvin was a beautiful guy, so we thought okay lets keep it that way. And that is how the Melvin Pieters quintet became. We played alot together. We won the Carling Black Label cycle of jazz. And then I finished studying at Natal University. And after I finished studying I stayed in Durban and taught at UDW and Natal Technikon. I stayed in Durban for about 15 years, teaching there, playing there, doing everything in Durban, until I got married and then I saw myself in Joburg because my wife is from Joburg.

Which repertoire did you take to Durban?

It was a mix of South African Jazz Standards and American Jazz Standards, but mostly American Jazz standards because we had access to the reel book. I remember bra Pat brought a whole lot of charts of Benny Golsen music and Benny Golsen music is not easy. Buggs was analysing this thing and showing us how to go around that. When we got to Natal, whatever standard that were called we played because we were playing all your popular jazz standards. And we went on and played the standards we liked. In our repertoire we had a McCoy Tyner. We tried to play your not so common standards. We knew everybody plays Green Dolphin Street. Everybody plays Girl from Ipanema. Everybody plays Autumn Leaves and all those songs. They are great songs. There is nothing wrong them. But we wanted to check other composers too.

Zim said in Durban it was almost like you were teaching the teachers?

Well I would rather say, in Durban we paid a lot of money to go and teach ourselves there because of the information that we had. We fought for things to happen. By the time we left Natal University it was a nice place. It was a sort after place. People wanted to go to Natal. Victor Masondo is from Natal. Zim, Feya, Lulu, Rick, Melvin Pieters. There wre many; Neil Gonsalves, Roland Moses, Mageshan Naidoo. Durban was really producing good musicians. A whole lot of it we were figguring things out for ourselves. The only teacher there was Darius Brubeck and he couldn't teach everything. We always say that the piano students were fortunate because they had a piano teacher. I studied classical bass because that was the ony guy that was available. There was no jazz bass teacher. Feya studied classical trumpet. But then I am happy that happened. I wasn't happy at the moment but that sort of opened me up in terms of the facility on the instrument and stuff like that.

LEX'S COLLABORATION WITH ZIM

I approached Lex after hearing a live recording with Zim. It is such a natural piece of music. I asked Lex, what is that recording ?

We went on a tour with Zim. Before the tour we went to the Bath Internationla fedstival where everybody who is evreybody was there. Sonny Rollins was there. A great band from France that did a tribute album to Johnny Dyani. It was a very nice festival. After the festival we stayed on and did a toutr of the UK. We did London, Liverpool, Manchester. There were four or five places. It was beautiful.

In Liverpool, Zim was playing the flute. We were playing "Kukud'ebhofolo indawo yamageza". He started singing and there were some ladies from the Eastern Cape. They started ululating and shouting. And then Zim started doing some things on the flute. Now the joke is at the end of the gig, Andile is facing Zim and says, 'Ah bra why did you do that, how can you play avant-garde on flute, I have never heard that.' But it was a big joke as Zim was trying to get attention. But, it was nice. Just that Andile wil find humour in anything. We were laughing at Zim, 'ah you are playing avant-garde on the flute because those ladies are shouting your name.' We had some good times together.

One of the astounding things about this live recording is the traditional singing at the end of the session. I asked Lex, who is the female vocalist?

That is Valerie. she is actually a percussion player, she plays percussion and she plays what I would loosely call marimba. It is some instrument. It is like marimba with gourds and it sits on the floor. The guy who played trombone is her husband. We met overseas. From here it was myself, Zim, Andile, Kevin Gibson and Themba Mata Makulu on trumpet. We met the two there and put in a quick rehearsal and that was it.

Valerie Naranjo, a native American Indian. She also performed on two unreleased recordings MELT did - one live in London and the second one at Downtown Studios in 1995 with Changuito & Mayito. produced by Kholoi ... confirms Robert Trunz


Zim returned to UKZN to teach, but it didn't seem to work out ?

I would guess, there is always a struggle for some people between academics and just doing things the way you want to do them. There has to be some order and the academia wanted to push and promote their line as well. This is how we want to do that. It is comfortable because you can always refer to that book and say check page 25. That is comfortable as opposed to okay look guys. Lets do this. We are going to play it by ear and see what happens. And create great music. That can happen. But, there is no control. It scares the shit out of academics not to have that safety net to know that this is what you have to do. Music was first payed before it was written down and reading music and stuff like that is a means of communication. If we are putting a band together and you bring a guy from Thailand and a guy from China and a guy from Singapore and we get together, we make music now becuase we can communicate but then if you can't read it doesn't mean you can't play and if you can't read it doesn't mean you can play better. It is just a means of communication. It is a privalege. Like now we are speaking English so we are able to hear each other. And if I am to speak Xhosa then we probably wouldn't have gone past the first greetings. Communication just makes thing easier when you get together and work...

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LEX FUTSHANE'S CURRENT BAND

I am in Joburg now and still playing. I have had a whole lot of projects. I do a lot of corporate functions. I have my own band and of course I play with whoever else. My band is kind of very flexible or elastic. It can be a duo, a trio, quartet, quintet, whatever. It depends on how I feel. I recorded my debut album last year titled Innocent Victims and Perpetrators where I am using some young cats. They are nice to keep you young and on your toes. On piano I have Thandi Ntuli and Yonela Mnana. They play on different tunes. I got both of them because I was looking for specific characters from each of them. And then Mthunzi Mvubu on saxophone. He did a great job. Zola Futshane on voice and then Simphiwe Shiburi on drums and Samora Ntsebeza on percussion. Some of these guys when I got them they were just keeping the time but we workshopped the whole thing. We grew together and now they are doing some wonderful things. That is the teacher in me. I always want to impart knowledge, spread the word as much as I can. And one thing that I vowed to do, is I don't want any musician who comes after me to have to go through the hardship I went through to be able to get to an institution and do that. So, wherever I can, I try and help as much as I can.

Who is Zola Futshane?

Zola Futshane is my son. He is a singer. And he played a little bit of guitar. When I was starting out at home. My home used to be a small three roomed house. It had the childrens room and the parents room. I used to practice in the childrens room. Whenevr I would start practicing, Zola would come in, sit on the bed. I would carry on practicing, going through the tutor, using the bow, pizzicato and all those things. And by the time I look up in a couple of minutes, Zola is fast asleep. He would come in there and this bass would put him to sleep. Then they called my mum and my mum was very good at giving things names. She called my bass Mthuthuzeli mama. Mthuthuzeli Mama literally is the thing that sings lullaby to the child so that the child could sleep.

At what point did the South Afrian compositions come into your repertoire?

On my album I had a song that was titled Umakazi. It is Xhosa for aunt. Umakazi told me this story that there is a need that Xhosa man when they engage in witchcraft they use a baboon as a mode of transport. When you ride on this baboon at night, you don't ride facing the same direction as the baboon. If the baboon faces this way, you must sit and face the other way. And the baboon has a chain to keep it tied up. So, she was telling me this story that there was this man who was going to have a traditional ceremony. One of the guests arrived at his place too early, before he sorted out his things and put his baboon up there. And he said to this guy, please don't say anything. The guy said no, no it is safe with me. And he put the baboon in the ceiling and tied it there. So, the ceremony started and people were having their traditional beer and going up. And this guy who had a deal with the owner started singing. "Ndakuyixela lanto." It means I will tell. This guy thought oh shit he is in trouble so he responded "Ungabisandenzi njalo mhlobam." Please don't do that my friend, don't do that to me. People started joining in thinking it was a song. So I arranged that song. My compositions are all from my experiences. Whatever it is that happened in my life. And then I have got a song called Up and Down. The same aunt didn't have kids. I was her kid. I was staying with her. I would go visit home but she wanted me to stay with her. I was starting with this bass. It was in the 80's. She and her husband bought a house in another area. Her husband went to check something before they moved in and I was playing. I saw my aunt pacing up and down the passage and put her head in the room and said are you still practicing. And then I took a break and went outside for a cup of tea and then she said you know what? Uncle forgot the keys of the house where he is going. Would you mind taking the keys to him. I took the car and drove to there. Meanwhile my uncle realised he doesn't have the keys. There were no cellphones. He drove back and we missed each. So I was there and I was here and my aunt told him, no I sent the key with Lex. He turned the car thinking he would find me there and when I didn't find him I came back and we missed each other again. So, the song I called Up and Down. And there is a part in that song that says we missed each other all the time. And there is a joke.

The show on the 25th & 27th September ?

I am playing with Yonela Mnana. He is a blind guy, a beautiful player and Nono Nkoane. She is a singer. I heard her singing, a couple of times and I like her energy. I thought I want to explore whatever she can do to the fullest. I just want piano, bass and voice. That is it. We will be playing my music. There will be some rearranging so that it suits this set up. Nono will be bringing her stuff too. Yonela has no choice. Whenever I play with Yonela he must play that one song. It is his song. It is titled, 'You Got Me,' beautiful music. It will depend on how we feel each other and that rapport we get. It wil be the first time I play with Nono. I like her energy and attitude.

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